Lillian Hellman popularized the term in the second volume of her memoir. In the opening scene of Julia, taken from Hellman’s book, Jane Fonda explained the meaning of the term: pentimento.
On some canvases oil paint turns transparent over time, and from beneath emerges another figure or a whole painting. A cat has become a vase of flowers; peaches on lace, a little girl. “That is called pentimento,” wrote Hellman, “because the painter ‘repented,’ changed his mind. Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again.”
Beneath a Caravaggio or Rembrandt masterpiece, conservators have often detected many earlier attempts at composition, with the hand positioned here instead, or the head cocked another way, or a character in different costume, all rough drafts leading to the final portrait.
Recently, conservators discovered another pentimento, in Picasso’s “The Blue Room.” Picasso painted it when he was 19 and in his “Blue Period.” The painting is a scene in his Paris studio, a woman standing in a shallow tub, leaning to wash her right thigh, as light streams through the window. She is caught in an innocent, contemplative moment, unaware we are watching. Underneath lies another painting, Pentimento Man, a grumpy, bearded, middle-aged, bowtied guy with a bad comb over. His head slumps on a long index finger, his expression excruciatingly bored.
Picasso had a sense of humor, so maybe he placed the voyeur underneath, as though he’s gazing at the hindquarters of the nude woman. That rascal, Picasso. A more logical explanation: just short of starving, Picasso could hardly afford food, so how could he afford new canvas? When he got a better idea, he painted over an old one.
NPR’s Scott Simon noted that grumpy old Pentimento Man still has not been identified, but “he helped remind us how failure and genius can be revealed in the same frame.”
If great artists can’t get their creations right the first time, what makes the rest of us think we have to? All of our writing – articles and books, reports and briefs, memoranda and proposals – should start as grumpy old Pentimento Men, and as we transform them on the way to our final draft, they will evolve into lovely figures captured in contemplative moments. Every article, book, and tip I write begins as a grumpy old man. Or a cat, or a peach on lace.
I can hear some of you grumping to yourselves, Well now, that’s just fascinating. I am not Picasso, I am not Caravaggio, but I do have a five-page report due by four o’clock. My best work. Four o’clock.
If that is you grumping, remember two things: One, CREATIVITY REQUIRES FAILURE. Every great artist has learned and taught this lesson. So jump in unconcerned that you might fail, because you will. It’s part of the process. [See Tip: “Curse of the Blinking Cursor”].
Two, DON’T STOP WRITING. From memory of all you know about your subject, write a one-page grumpy old Pentimento Man as fast as you can. Then come back, again as fast as you can, and stretch him and mold him and take him from sitting to standing. Then turn him into a woman. Refine her look. Continue until 3:55.
Only your finest words will now cover your earlier attempts: failure and genius revealed in the same report, but no one will see the failures, your pentimenti, because all that shows is your successful final draft.
Knowing that to succeed you must fail will free you to begin swiftly and endure the process. Now vow: NEXT TIME, I WILL FAIL EARLIER.