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  • Jennifer Gillen

When a Painting Fails

Updated: Oct 7, 2021



In painting, failure to create the vision that rests in your mind’s eye can be frustrating and debilitating. Recently, I ripped up a painting in exasperation. It was a complete failure. This hasn’t happened to me in a long while. It seemed like I was on a roll of success for weeks. Then suddenly, my colors were muddy and my subject looked cartoonish, even juvenile. Feeling naïve and amateur, I threw away the painting and left the studio. It took 24 hours of solid introspection about what went wrong before I was ready to start again.


These are the reasons that my painting failed. These reasons might be helpful to others when deciding to restart a painting.


The subject was not inspiring. I usually take a great deal of time and care when researching my subjects. I search for something that speaks to my sense of beauty. This time, my subject was a failure because I found it hastily in my back garden. In my eagerness to paint I neglected finding a subject that truly awed and inspired me. Shortly into the work, I decided that I distinctly disliked the subject. It was boring. I should have taken more time to find something that motivated me.


The composition was awful. I was running low on paper, so I trimmed a sheet of paper to the largest rectangle possible. This particular size didn’t really suit the subject. In order to balance the composition, I found myself adding random leaves and stems to fill in the negative space. When a composition is off, there is really no way to fix it other than starting over. In my case, the central flower was looking straight out of the frame like a mug-shot photo. It looked stark and stiffly posed. I had neglected to sketch and plan a pleasing composition.


The reference photo was terribly lit. Whether painting from a photo or from life, if the lighting is dull, your painting will be even more dull. Light and shadow are important parts of a composition. Without these, the subject becomes flat. I thought the lighting of my subject was pretty good. But it wasn’t dramatic enough to translate into a vibrant painting. This resulted in a lot of frustration when I started to mix colors. There wasn’t enough variation in the color values to keep the painting from looking like a cartoon image. When painting flowers, I like to achieve a little transparency in the leaves or petals. Otherwise, the subject looks plastic. I needed to wait for better lighting.


The pigments didn’t suit the task. Choosing the right paints for a subject is tricky business. It’s important to consider whether a pigment is opaque or transparent, cool or warm, granulating or non-granulating, staining or lifting. And if you make it past all of that, you must decide the correct order for layering the color. My mistake was to take the advice of an artist in a book and use the same pigments she used. They were close to what I was painting, but actually completely wrong. The warm red pigment lifted when I applied a blue wash. This created a mess on the surface of the paper. The best practice is to create a careful color chart before starting. Also, painting a small study is a way to be extra sure about pigment choices.


So many things can go wrong when painting. But take heart, we all have our failures. Many famous artists are known to have thrown out paintings they didn’t like. It's just part of the process. The important thing is to figure out why something failed and to start again. The photo above shows my restart. This time around, I found a better subject, figured out the color mixes and arranged a pleasing composition. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, but feeling much better about the next attempt.


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