It Had to Happen

I knew it was only a matter of time, of course. Despite my initial successes with oil painting, sooner or later disappointment and discouragement would rear their ugly heads, leaving me to wonder why I ever thought I could learn to paint.

Today was that day.

My painting session was an unmitigated disaster. No matter what I did, it didn’t work. After several frustrating hours I finally wiped most of the canvas clean, walked away, and resolved to come back another day to see what — if anything — I could salvage from the wreckage.

It began like any other day. I was excited to think about painting, had already planned out a scene and printed out a reference photo. Just as I did when learning watercolors, I’ve been focusing on one single element of landscape painting to work on each day. Already I’ve grown fairly comfortable with skies — clouds, not so much — but mostly I’m wanting to work on mountains now.

I’ve also been painting on a larger scale. My first paintings were 9 x 12. Then I moved up to 12 x 18. Today was the day I was going to make a gigantic leap. For me, at least. Yes, I was going to work on an 18 x 24 canvas. I didn’t have a canvas that size, but I knew where to get one. Our friendly Wal-Mart is only minutes away.

Once the bed was made and the breakfast dishes were done, I grabbed my coat and headed out. I had a fun time shopping, of course. It always brings a smile to my face when I can stroll down the “arts” aisle — or visit an art store — and feel that I actually belong there.

I bought two stretched canvases — triple primed — then grabbed a couple new brushes and from the paint aisle of the hardware section, I picked up a nice little bucket and even bought some terry-cloth painting towels. As messy as I am, I figured those would come in handy.

Back at home again, I couldn’t wait to begin. I had a few chores to attend to, and since it was nearly 10:00 AM, it was time to eat. (We get up about 4:00 AM, so lunch time comes early for me.) I fixed a sandwich and finished up a few chores, fighting off a big bout of impatience. I wanted my mind to be free of distractions.

I straightened my workspace, organized my supplies, and put the canvas on my easel. Now, this is a stretched canvas. That’s fine. But…I’ve been working only on canvas panels until today. Wal-Mart didn’t have panels in the 18 x 24 size, but how much different could it be, right?

To make sure I had a successful day — yeah, right — I looked at my reference photo and then used a drawing pencil to lightly sketch in the basic shapes of the mountain peaks. I was quite pleased with the results. I was feeling like a “real artist”, let me tell you!

After that small triumph, it all went downhill. Fast. Using phthalo blue, I began painting the sky. It looked fairly good, but I couldn’t exactly paint around those mountain peaks I’d drawn, and brushing over the marks seemed to smudge the graphite a bit. Oh, well. I’ve drawn and painted lots of mountain peaks. I didn’t really need an outline, did I? Besides, I had the reference photo right in front of me.

The sky turned out all right, but then I tried adding in fluffy white clouds. Nope. Not good. I sort of “brushed them out” and tried again. Better. I tried adding a few pale reddish highlights. It was all right, but not great. After looking at it for a bit, I brushed it out and tried again. Eventually I got a sky I was willing to live with. Time to move on to the mountains.

That’s when it all went wrong. I couldn’t get the shapes right. I couldn’t get the colors right. I couldn’t figure out where the lights and darks should go. Most of the problem, I think, was caused by the fact that I had far too much paint on my brush. Plus working on a larger scale meant larger arm and shoulder movements. I felt totally uncoordinated — not to mention fatigued! And, yes, I learned that there’s a considerable difference between painting on a canvas panel and using a stretched canvas.

Still, I persevered.

At one point, I was almost satisfied with the mountains, so I moved on to adding foothills at the base. Wrong. Again, I had too much paint. Again, my colors were all wrong. Again, I couldn’t tell up from down, top from bottom, sunlight from shadow.

I wiped away the foothills but in the process, I wiped out a bit of my mountains, too. I re-did the mountains, smeared more paint onto the canvas, and tried the foothills again. And again.

At that point, I gave up on the mountains and foothills. I grabbed a bit of sap green and attempted to make a distant tree line. Bad went to worse, and after doing a bit of this and some of that and not liking anything, I grabbed one of those terry-cloth towels I’d bought (see, I knew they would come in handy) and started trying to wipe off all my mistakes. I wiped and scrubbed, unable to believe how much paint I was taking off and yet how much remained.

I did leave the topmost portion of the mountain range. Now, I’m going to let it all dry, and then I’ll see about re-painting the foothills, a tree line, maybe a bit of ground with a few pine trees.

For now, here’s what I’ve got:


“Disaster” — WIP  18 x 24 Oil on Canvas

Note: The streaks you see on the left side are actually reflections from a glass cabinet next to my easel.

Stepping away and looking at the unfinished painting now does give me a little hope. I do like the sky, and while the mountain peaks aren’t anything like what I’d planned, they’re not completely awful. Or maybe they are. I’m losing my objectivity here.

But can the rest of the painting be re-done? I’m going to leave the painting alone for a few days, and then I’ll decide how I want to finish it. I’m open to suggestions!

Of course, the real question is whether or not I can learn to control my heavy-handed paint habit. I’m definitely open to suggestions there, as well.

simple-flourish-divider-clipart-1UPDATE: I won’t be working on this painting again. Earlier this morning, I attempted to move it from one place to another and managed to make an even bigger mess of it. I finally just grabbed my paint rag again, wiped as much of the original painting away as possible, and I’m going to re-use the canvas in a totally different way. I don’t think I would have ever been happy with this particular mountain scene. Now, I have plans! I don’t know how my idea will turn out, but I’m feeling adventurous. This “ruined canvas” will be a good opportunity to experiment.



  1. Every painting has ugly stages. If you don’t like it, scrape it off. Sometimes it is not until the last few hours that everything comes together. DO NOT be afraid to scrape if you have to. It is a bummer, but it saves a lot of work in the long run. I go through this with every single painting. Every single one. It usually takes me a few days after completion to appreciate them.

    If you are going to keep painting on canvas, go to dick blick and buy bulk. So much cheaper that way and better quality…even for their studio version which is a step above their student version I believe. Then you can go all the way up to linen if that is your wish when you start selling billion dollar paintings.

    I coat my canvas with two more coats of gesso on top of the triple primed for more texture, sometimes however, I put an extra acrylic base coat on the triple primed instead of gesso. Just burnt umber and yellow ochre or whatever you want your base color to be. It keeps your paint from sinking and getting dry spots that happen with thirsty canvas.

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    1. Since I have my disastrous “ruined” canvas to play with, I was planning to cover it with a dark acrylic to use as an underpainting. I’m not sure what I’ll do with it, but I think it will be fun to play around.

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      1. Nope. I’ve had enough painting “fun” for one day without all the scrubbing I did. I’ve already washed my brushes (and the floor, and my hands, any everything else) so I think I’m done for the day.

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      2. Just scrape off everything you can and start again. That is the absolute beauty of oil painting! The canvas is not ruined. You can put it aside and let whatever is left after scraping dry and start again, or you can scrape and start right away.

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      3. I lost count of how many times I scraped all or part of my canvas today. I finally got a painting finished. It wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I began, but considering all the trouble I had, it turned out better than I’d expected. I’ll be sharing it in a few days. 🙂

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      4. I am on the fourth scrape. Not having a good day. It happens. This one is no biggy cuz it’s only a 4 x 6 but still frustrating. I am gonna pack it up, get ready for my date with my husband and straighten the house and try again tomorrow. 😀

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  2. I agree with Dawn in so many regards, the scraping back of your canvas and especially shopping at Dick Blick. Stores that don’t generally concentrate on artist supplies like Ben Franklin (for me) are so darn expensive and they also seem to push the student grade supplies rather than artist quality. I say keeping going and keep experimenting. I understand the heavy hand approach, I have that problem because I like bold colors. Perhaps if you were to take a very slow approach, limit what you do in a day, as long as it doesn’t make you get nit picky or scared to proceed. I found that sometimes I would get in there and do a painting quickly and boldly because all that energy would create a painting, after all, isn’t this the way artists truly paint? By the way, your painting reminds me of the high Sierras in California, more to the south of me. The atmosphere and expanse is mindboggling. Google it and you’ll see what I mean. First of all, next time you paint, treat it as therapy with a Zen approach. Don’t expect nothing, start out slow and allow that creative, right side to activate. It doesn’t have a chance when you have a lot of expectations and demands. 🙂 be encouraged Judith, it takes time and effort being a creative but it is so worth it.

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    1. I did a sort of “Zen-like” approach yesterday afternoon…you’ll see the painting posted in a couple of days. It was great — except for one “oopsie” LOL. Just wait. You’ll see. But I loved everything else about the painting. It was a totally unplanned spur-of-the-moment “I’m just gonna paint” thing. Of all the paints I’ve tried so far, I think I do like the M. Graham best — both watercolor and oil. But I’m doing most of my painting with the cheap Daler-Rowney paints from Wal-Mart. Cheap is good for playing and having fun. I will be buying more “artist quality” paints soon. I know what a difference they can make.

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  3. Like Dawn said, every painting has ugly stages, especially in the beginning. Sometimes you completely screw up a painting and scrubbing it off is the only cure. I completely destroyed a portrait I’m working on but after scrubbing it off it actually started coming together. Now that you’ve wiped away your original painting, don’t think of it as ruined. Now you have a nice toned ground to work on once it’s dry.

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      1. I do regret having to wipe away the most beautiful sky I’ve ever painted LOL…but there was no other way. I tried to save it, but even after wiping away the rest of the canvas, I couldn’t get the colors right. It was easier for me to wipe it all off and start over. A good learning experience, for sure.


      2. I’m really pleased with the progress I’ve made in little over a week, so I’m excited to think what my painting will look like six months from now. Hopefully I’ll have a style that I’m really comfortable with. I’m discovering certain colors that I enjoy working with, and others not so much, so I want to develop my own “personal palette” to stick with as much as possible. Painting can be so exciting!

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      3. Oh yeah. You will discover all kinds of things you love and don’t. I was impressed with your debut oil painting. Great job. Can’t wait to see six months!

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      4. Thanks, Amber, for the encouraging words. The final result actually turned out pretty good. I need to put a few finishing touches on the painting tomorrow or Sunday, and then I’ll be showing it off in a post early next week. 🙂

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  4. I love the painting in your photo. I notice that I often feel most drawn to those paintings and drawings which you feel have failed in some way. To me, they are successes because they contain mysteries that speak to me . I also notice that it sometimes seems to be the works that aren’t photo realistic that seem to disappoint you, perhaps . .. but it’s the more evocative, abstract or impressionistic ones that draw me in…

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    1. I’ve seen some “abstract landscapes” that I really like. I don’t think I could ever consciously paint that way, though. I don’t have enough confidence in myself to go too far into abstraction. I don’t want to be overly realistic though. I’m looking for that “in-between” place, and I think I might just find it with oil painting. I hope so!

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      1. You will. You will noticing a style develop as you paint more. And you will lose some of the perfectionist tendencies and start to see that the imperfections add character. Perfect isn’t always perfect if that makes sense. As you get comfortable, your style will develop and it just has to do with how you move your brush and how much paint you like and how much detail, texture…it is very very personal. One of the things I quit doing Judith, is letting people tell me how and what I should paint. You can’t please everyone and I can only do what my mind and hand allow…my own style and taste, so not everyone will like your paintings, but as long as you are proud of them and would hang them on someone else’s wall…that is all that matters. Nothing worse than seeing something you painted that someone else wanted that you absolutely hate hanging on the wall. I cringe when I walk by some of my paintings I have done in a style or subject that isn’t mine in other people’s houses!

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