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Going Wrong

Going Wrong


If you’re an artist, you’ll know the anguish I’m about to describe. You’re well into a painting and you realise it’s going wrong. Sometimes it’s due to a single, disastrous mistake. Or, over time, you become totally dissatisfied with the quality of your handiwork. Either way, the moment of realisation hits you hard. You’ve wasted hours of effort, ruined a painting you wanted so much to succeed, and you’re angry at your own ineptitude. It’s a bitter feeling.

With other media – oils, acrylics, maybe pastels too – you have the option of overpainting and hiding whatever it is you’ve done wrong. With watercolours, unfortunately, that option often isn’t available. Watercolour is transparent. Your mistake will show through.

I’ve lost track of the number of paintings that went badly wrong on me. I’d estimate it happens to one in four paintings I start. But, on a positive note, I think I must be getting better. Years ago, it probably happened to one in two of my paintings, or more.


For the benefit of novice artists out there, here’s some advice I try to follow when it happens to me:

1. It’s not the end of the world. The disappointment is temporary – you’ll get over it soon enough.
2. The problem is yours. Don’t take out your frustration on the people around you.
3. Remember it’s only a piece of paper (or a board or canvas, as the case may be).
4. Take a break.
5. After the break, as objectively as you can, try to figure out how you went wrong. Learn from the experience.
6. Don’t do anything rash. In particular, don’t destroy the painting there and then. Put it away out of sight and do something else you enjoy.
7. Return to the painting much later (days later, even). Examine it with a fresh eye. You may find that the problem isn’t as bad as you thought, or that it’s fixable.
8. If the painting really is a goner, shrug and move on.

The featured pic I’ve used for this post is a painting from several years ago, “Newhaven Moorings”. About halfway through, I decided that it was way too dark and gloomy, and it was going nowhere. However, I wisely chose to apply Bits of Advice 6 and 7. When I looked at it again, weeks later, I realised I’d given up on it too quickly. Then I finished it by painting the boats, whose colours balanced out the gloominess of the painting’s start. By the end, I felt pleasantly satisfied with the result.

Someone must have agreed with me, because they bought “Newhaven Moorings”. So there you go.

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