From Repentance to Redemption
By: Yoona Lee

The term “pentimento” may sound like it refers to someone’s sentiments about pimentos (mine happen to range from vague distrust to cautious optimism), but it really describes the presence of an underlying image in a painting. Either buried or visible, pentimenti (the plural of pentimento) are indicators of the inevitable evolution of a painting. They can reveal shifts in anything from composition to color to overall painting style. Because painting can be an arduous process, it’s fitting that the term itself comes from the Italian word for “repentance.”  

My paintings are littered with pentimenti because of the weeks and sometimes years I spend on them. The creative process entails periods of experimentation and problem solving, where forms are added or subtracted, spaces are redefined, and chromatic and tonal modifications can occur. Below are a few examples of how my pieces have changed over time.

During a relatively happy and uneventful period in my life, I began the piece below, applying wet stripes of bright color and letting them drip. It looked attractive but unexciting—and ultimately uninspired—so I set the painting aside to think about how to develop it.

Like many artists, I experience dry spells. During these periods of inactivity, waiting for an impulse to create feels like waiting for the rains to end a drought. Fortunately, life can intervene and bring inspiration or turmoil—or both.

A year after I began the piece, I was laid off from my job of seven years but had to support my husband, who was a full-time university student at the time. With my whole world seemingly upended, it seemed appropriate to turn the canvas upside down and superimpose a whole new structure onto the existing painting.

The result is Terminus. The languid drips from the original painting—the pentimenti—became needle-like protuberances and the black gestural forms created instant drama and tension, like an eruption. Even though it took a year to resolve the painting, it entailed only a few weeks of work to execute its final form.

                                                                                                                                                                                           Yoona Lee,  Terminus,  2011 (acrylic on canvas, 36" x 48")

                                                                                                                                                                                           Yoona Lee, Terminus, 2011 (acrylic on canvas, 36" x 48")

When it comes to representational painting—that is, depicting something or someone from reality—I undergo the same kind of process, with its own specific set of challenges.

When I decided to paint a portrait of Abstract Expressionist Franz Kline, a favorite painter of mine, I had to rely on a photograph of the late artist. At one point, the painting resembled the photo, but something was missing. Kline looked too tidy and polished, like a Hollywood actor playing the artist.

Sometimes a painting “dies” on you like that. In spite of all the hours you’ve invested, it lacks the vitality and je ne sais quoi that defines a successful piece of art. That’s when you have to detach from your piece, go in and break it up—even if that means getting rid of some of your favorite parts—and nearly start over. I’ve found that is the only way to break through.

I realized that to give the portrait some emotional truth, I had to depart from the photograph. I made the strokes rougher, giving Kline’s face a careworn, rumpled look—the forlorn appearance of a man who wrestled with gigantic canvases and passed many lonely nights at the neighborhood bar. The result is Kline. It took nearly two years to finish.

                                                                                                                                                                               Yoona Lee,  Kline , 2011 (acrylic on canvas, 8" x 12")

                                                                                                                                                                               Yoona Lee, Kline, 2011 (acrylic on canvas, 8" x 12")

The most dramatic overhaul I made to a painting is below. I began a still life painting for Art Bash, a charity event organized by the American Advertising Federation Seattle. To symbolize the subterfuge and seduction used in advertising, I arranged a Venetian mask and Spanish fan on a large, diaphanous scarf and began to paint them.

A week through the piece, I became disheartened and uninspired with the subject matter, so I decided to scrap the entire idea. It didn’t help that my husband wanted to know what the mask and fan were doing perched on a rocky cliff with water flowing over it.

The next day I walked by a late ’60s Plymouth Sport Fury in a parking lot and did a double take. The crushed-cigarette-pack look of the car, its matte-black finish, and the awful parking job gave it a badass “devil may care” appeal. Even though I prefer to paint from real life, I shot a few photos and began reworking my painting. Here’s the piece midway through the overhaul.

A few days later, the pentimenti barely revealed the feathers of the mask. The fan, my favorite part of the original painting, was gone. What had begun as an allegorical still life was now just a picture of a sexy car. But somehow that seemed appropriate for an advertising industry event.

Yoona Lee,  Jesus Chrysler, Don't You Know How to Park?,  2013 (acrylic on canvas, 30" x 40"). All images copyright 2014 Yoona Lee

Yoona Lee, Jesus Chrysler, Don't You Know How to Park?, 2013 (acrylic on canvas, 30" x 40"). All images copyright 2014 Yoona Lee

Jesus Chrysler, Don’t You Know How to Park? sold at Art Bash 2013. A few months later, I saw the same car in the parking lot, this time with a “For Sale” sign in the window. I texted a photo of the painting to the phone number listed, and the car owner turned out to be an artist too and liked the piece!

Every artist has his or her own way of developing a piece of art, sometimes in a linear way and other times in a more circuitous route, but there are a few things common to the creative process. These include fits of activity and occasional dry spells, dogged reworking and 180-degree volte-faces, and finally the exhausted but happy realization that the piece is finished, once it can stand on its own and everything in it works. Art making is an infinite puzzle, and the most inspiring thing is there’s more than one way to solve it.

In a painting, the pentimenti are testament to the labor-intensive, exploratory process behind creating a piece. With every brushstroke, more surprises and discoveries await to be unearthed. And in this way, through the artist’s hard work and vigilance, a piece can evolve from repentance to redemption, and ultimately, into something transcendent.


Yoona Lee is a Seattle-based visual artist and writer.