Frustration, Failures, and Unfinished Paintings

 

Being a creative individual is a beautiful experience, except when it’s not, and when it’s not, it’s no fun at all.

In recent weeks, I’ve been through ups and downs with my painting. I’m trying new things, taking different approaches to the process of painting, and moving toward a looser style. While it’s an exciting time, it’s also a time that’s brought its share of frustration, many feelings of failure, and lots of unfinished paintings.

What to do? I wish I knew. That’s why I’m writing this post and sharing my disappointing paintings. Many of you are professional artists; many of you teach art or have taught in the past. Most of you have much more experience in art than I do. I need advice. I need a little guidance here because at times, I really don’t know how to deal with the problems I’m facing.

Most of the time I’m doing practice paintings. I work on specific things, I follow tutorials, and I try to go one step at a time, improving my skills as I gain new knowledge. Then, after a bit of practice, I try doing an original painting, one from a personal reference photo or from ideas in my head. Although I don’t expect my oil paintings to be perfect, I do expect them to show improvement. I think, most of all, I expect to see a finished painting at the end of the process.

Lately, that hasn’t been happening. Consider this — very unfinished — autumn scene:

Unfinished Painting

I see possibilities within the painting, but I can’t get beyond that point. The scene is intended to be a wooded area surrounding a quiet lake. There is a rocky area near the trees on the left, as well as rocks and leaves strewn across the foreground. The right side of the painting is intended to be more leafy autumn trees. At the moment you can see only a rough sketch of shapes there.

When I began working on this painting, I was very pleased with how it was going. I especially liked the colors, and at first, I was getting lots of lights and shadows. But I had problems with the tree trunks and the rocks surrounding them. I had the trunks looking good, but the rocks were awful. I wiped them away. I manage to get the rocks looking good, but then I couldn’t get the tree trunks right. I wiped it all away again.

Time after time, I tried, and time after time, I failed to create the image I wanted. I can’t say how many times I started over, tried to fix the mistakes, and painted the left portion of the scene again. It became a hopeless ordeal. The more frustrated I became, the more impossible it was to paint the scene.

Finally, I set the painting aside.

Another failed painting with a similar story is this unfinished canvas:

Orange

Now, you might actually recognize this canvas. I recently posted an earlier photograph of it.
Autumn Colors in Process (2)

Again, I see possibilities in the painting. It’s a scene quite similar to the first , although instead of a quiet lake, this scene has more of a winding stream. I thought I had a very clear vision of what I wanted in this painting, but things didn’t work out. The darks seemed too dark, and then — somehow — I got carried away with leaves and obliterated the entire light areas of the sky. Frustrated by it all, yes, I wiped off the paint. I repainted the skies with a glowing white, but as with the first scene, I simply couldn’t get it together with painting. I gave up again. I wiped it off, leaving an orange canvas with a few splotches of shadows.

A third frustration is this canvas — which may look like some sort of weird abstraction but isn’t really anything at all.

Possibilities

This came about through experimentation, and it’s based on the idea of playing around with paints, making marks here and there with no conscious thought, and then stepping back to see what the lines and colors and shapes suggest.

I love looking at this canvas. From the start, I could see so many things it might want to be. I turned the canvas around and looked at it from a different perspective. I could see so many more things! No matter what direction I turn the canvas, I can see possibilities. The problem is I have no idea how to get from possibilities to painting. I haven’t got a clue where to begin, and so this brilliantly-colored canvas is just sitting near my easel, taunting me.

So, what do I do? Where do I go from here? Do I just set these paintings aside for a time? What’s the best thing to do when frustration mounts? Keep trying no matter how long it takes? Or is it better to step away from the easel, put the paints away, and come back another time?

Do I just chalk these unfinished paintings up to learning experiences and start fresh? Or do I continue to pursue the possibilities I still see in these unfinished paintings?

What advice can you give me?

 

 

About Judith

As an artist, author, and musician, I celebrate creativity and personal expression through all that I do. I invite you to join me as I explore many different aspects of life, love, beauty, and nature.

64 comments

  1. Something I have learned over time is that to create depth you need layers nothing in life is flat. Try to see your image as light med and dark not just Subject. Things in the distance would be lighter foreground has more detail. I feel like I’m rambling. Hope this helps a little

    Liked by 3 people

    • All suggestions are appreciated. My biggest problem is in not knowing if I should keep pushing, keep trying, and keep getting frustrated… or if I should just walk away when I feel as though I’m failing. I’d like to have something to show for my time, but sometimes I think putting a painting aside might be better — at least for my sanity. Any thoughts?

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      • Always walk away from frustration. The nice thing about oils is when you give them time it is easier to paint details on a somewhat dryer canvas (one that doesn’t move. BUT most important don’t listen to your fear. Walk away for the time it takes to come back confident even if your mind changes when you come back your painting may become the background for a whole new idea. So yes walk away but don’t stay away. I have set aside a painting for as long as 5 years 😀

        Liked by 6 people

      • What marvelous advice! Walking away often makes me feel that I’m just giving up, but I suppose it’s possible to “walk away with purpose” and plan to return with a better mindset. Just chatting with you this morning and looking at your gorgeous paintings is inspiring me. I’m feeling excited about art now. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

      • Exactly! Great advice.❤️

        Liked by 1 person

      • Tracing is not a a no no. What I mean is. If you want specific details. Either trace a photo and enlarge to fit your canvas or draw on separate paper and transfer that. Even if you trace exact. You will never be able or want to recreate exactly what you see so trace it’s ok

        Liked by 3 people

      • I will keep that in mind. I’m never sure how detailed my initial drawings (on the canvas) should be. I’ve tried putting in a lot of detail, but then it’s sometimes difficult for me to paint what I’ve drawn. At other times, my initial sketches on canvas are so vague they’re not really helpful. That’s one area where I’m trying a lot of different things — hoping to find the process that fits me.

        Liked by 1 person

      • You will find your place in art. Key is to believe in yourself. I have been painting for over 40 years and I’m still searching for the real me. Been on a long path but first and foremost believe you are amazing. Your art has you in it your signature art just needs a little time to tweak. That’s what life is all about

        Liked by 3 people

      • It’s certainly been an adventure! I’ve been drawing now for a little over three years, and oil painting for about two, so I still have lots of explorations to make. I am so grateful to have artists like you walking alongside of me, there for support and encouragement, yet letting me find my own way.

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      • I’m thankful for artists like you to remind me of how awesome the learning path has been. If you have any desire to tweak your drawing skills. An artist on YouTube I found amazingly inspiring Is J D Hilberry. His work is detailed pencil. He shares great insight on learning how to draw in detail

        Liked by 1 person

      • I will check him out! Thanks.

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      • I agree, sometimes it’s good to walk away, at least for a while. I noticed, that when I do that and return later, I quite often see things I had not noticed before, “oh, this needs to be lighter or this should be shorter…” You know what I mean. I also agree with dodiemccandless, when she says everything is light or dark. I don’t know how experienced you are because I have only seen this one post so far – and you might know that already. It’s very helpful to look at objects in terms of light and dark and also draw or paint this way. Instead of seeing shapes (or thinking in shapes) I try and see the shades of light, it helps me very much to create better work. There are also apps that can help with developing this skill (apps that clearly show grey scales). I hope that helps, it was meant to be helpful. All the best, never give up. Looking forward to seeing more of your work. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you. Yes, I definitely need to work more on seeing values instead of looking at the shapes of objects. It’s one of my weakest points, so I hope to improve upon it with practice. I appreciate all the advice!

        Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve been browsing your Facebook page. I love your art! Your colors are so beautiful and your paintings so imaginative!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m not a visual artist but thank you for this post. It’s so important to remember that art grows with all kinds of failures in its path, grows *because* of the failures.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It might help to change your perspective. Consider thinking of these paintings as first drafts or just underpaintings. They can’t be failed paintings if they aren’t finished. All of my paintings go through an ugly stage and the best way to improve your painting, other than painting often, is to figure out what isn’t working and fix your mistakes. In the first painting, one thing you need to remember is that the surface of water is always a straight line that needs to be level with the top of your canvas. If you have something like a curved shore along the top, zig zag the shore line along the curve to keep it as flat and straight as possible. It also helps me when I’m struggling to stop painting things and just paint light and dark. If you’re using a reference photo, turn it and your painting upside down. It can also be good to put paintings away for a while so you can come at them fresh later.

    Liked by 4 people

    • All excellent suggestions, especially the upside-down one. I’ve done graphite drawings that way, and it’s a good way to focus on shapes and values instead of seeing “things” to draw. I should try that with my paintings.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I love the autumn scene (first pic ). The only part that feels unfinished to me is the upper right quadrant . I don’t think it needs more detail , but more layering of soft translucent colors. The softness and diffusion of this painting seem to me to be strengths of it. That’s what I’d try to retain , if I were working on this .

    I think the others are done and beautiful . This, to me, is what abstract art is about . Don’t force realism or representationalism onto something that wants to be more impressionistic or abstract . Clearly these paintings have something to say, and it might be fun to relinquish control and let them say it… or even sing it!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Cathy. I like the soft, mistiness of the first painting — that’s one of the things I was trying for — but I wanted more detail in the foreground and could not get it right! The upper right — I haven’t worked on that yet at all other than putting in a few basic brush strokes to suggest the shapes. I got so frustrated with the left side, I had to quit. I’m going to let it sit for awhile and then I’ll go back it to. Meanwhile, I have another canvas with some initial colors and shapes laid out. I might play around with it later today.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Aloha, Judith! Thanks for the Follow on my art journal site http://artwithaloha.wordpress.com The other is a Christian blog.

        I love your site here because we have so much in common. I am also a writer and musician (ukulele, guitar, keyboard by ear), as well as growing artist. What I have learned about ‘good art’ is that to start with value contrasts of working dark to light with colors more saturated in the foreground. Values generally fade or get lighter moving toward the background. This means that landscape mountains and trees must show perspective in this fashion. And of course there are shadow areas in every part of a painting.

        I will write some insights on my failures and disappointments and what or who caused them in my next blog. This is such a good post to reblog, if you don’t mind that I do so. I am so glad to have found an art journalist who shares her art and life. Thank you so much. ~Liz

        Liked by 1 person

      • I am glad to be walking these pathways with you. 🙂 I appreciate the re-blog. Thank you, too, for your suggestions.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. You have gotten so much advice here. I relate to your struggles, been there done that and I still visit those frustrations time to time. Part of the struggle for me was impatience to get to the finished (and good) painting. Now I am realizing that my journey has to go through these stages. I know that you want to see progress, (by the way I see it) but you need to relax and go with it. This struggle is par for the course and I want to encourage you. Set paintings aside even if it is for several weeks. I have found that I am able to figure out how to finish a painting when I allow a painting to sit. It takes time to get to that place of knowing how to take a painting to finish. You have to go through the journey of uncertainty. Keep playing and discovering and don’t be discouraged with unfinished work. Set it aside and keep practicing. I think that you might benefit from watching videos by an artist by the name of Jose Trujillo on YouTube. His approach to oil painting is loose brush but he shares so much about the creative process. I got a lot from him, one thing he really emphasize is not to judge the work. I really appreciate that because most of my frustration was because I was judging it as I was painting. It kills the creative spirit and process. Anyway this is my two cents worth. Keep at it and don’t focus on the unfinished paintings or what you want now, remember it takes time and a lot of work. Evidently it starts to make sense.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks, Margaret. I will check out Jose Trujillo. I do “judge” the process, and I know I shouldn’t. I tell myself, “Well, it’s not supposed to look like anything right now”, and then I go right ahead and feel frustrated because it doesn’t look like anything. It really helps for me to step back and see the whole canvas, not just a part of what I’m painting. One problem I have is that once I set a painting aside, I’m hesitant to go back to it. I guess the answer in that case is to let it sit a little longer. That’s especially true with paintings that have really frustrated me. I hesitate to approach them again because I feel the frustration already starting. I want to be able to just paint and have fun with it.

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  6. I’m not an artist or an arts teacher. But I can tell you one important thing:
    Every time you try to integrate something new you are going to feel that you have lost all your talent.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Those are actually encouraging words 🙂 Thank you for sharing that thought. I know part of my frustration does come from the new things I’m trying, so that probably does account for a lot of my feelings of failure. I’ve stepped away from painting for a few days to give myself a “mental break”. I’m feeling excited again now to get back to my easel.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I like that you said ‘mental break’. For me it is a ‘rest’ from disappointing art work, not ‘artist block’ as some refer to this time away from the easel. I’ve played more music during this time and gone back to drawing a few simple objects with graphite and water pencils; also pen and ink. I have 2 unfinished paintings which I may go back and rework one day, but of the two, one was completely painted over and is half way done, but set aside. Fortunately these are 8×10’s! I display all of my art in my home studio; nothing is hid away. After a while the poor aspects of the paintings don’t feel as startling to the eye and one can see all the lessons that can be learned from them, the things you would change if you did another similar painting. But you move on and don’t live in the past. There are more clean canvases and more paint waiting for you…. Cheers, ~Liz

        Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t believe in creative “blocks”, but I certainly do know what creative frustration or disappointment feels like in art. I think it helps to change our focus a bit, so when I get frustrated with painting, I’ll usually pick up my pencils and draw for a time. If I get frustrated with graphite, I’ll turn back to my oil paints. So many people say to “keep pushing through” when frustration hits, but at this stage of my art journey, that only leads to more frustration. I think taking a little time away from one project and focusing on another helps me clear my head a little.

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  7. I’m not an artist but a writer. When I get frustrated with a piece I either walk away for awhile or trudge on and write other drafts. I think the first is beautiful. It seems that we are all very critical of our own work, don’t you think? Good luck with what you decide!☺️

    Liked by 2 people

  8. they are beautiful.you will get back with inspiration to complete them or recreate them! happens to me all the time with me!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know setting them aside right now is a good thing. I just wonder when and how I’ll ever be able to get back to them. I suppose if and when the time is right, I will finish these paintings. Meanwhile, I’m getting a few new paintings started. I’ll keep trying to achieve the “looser” look and feeling I want, and in time, I hope I do get there.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. OMG I L-O-V-E ALL these paintings you “hate”! They’re wonderful, light, flowing, eye-catching. Borderline abstraction (that other thing you are needlessly worrying about!). The last one is especially nice. Look at how your eye has to dart around the entire painting in order to capture everything that’s there. This is what art is about, engaging the viewer, sucking the viewer into the painting. That can be done realistically or otherwise, it doesn’t really matter. What happens when you constantly wipe off parts and start over is that your painting has become too “precious”–parts of it are really good and you’re afraid the rest of it won’t measure up so you keep fiddling with it. I don’t have any advice for that except to keep working with it without wiping anything off. The good thing is that you’re painting nature, and nature is very forgiving. There’s nothing about it that demands it be painted a certain way. Trees, leaves, stems, hills, streams, clouds–they can all be of any arbitrary shape. Give yourself some freedom here, like you did in the paintings posted above.💗

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Alli! I’m learning to let go… but I can’t get away from the fiddling around. You’re so right about those “precious” parts. I’ve never heard it described quite that way, but it’s so true! I spent so much time wiping things away on that painting. I never did even start on the right half. The frustration had gotten to me. I like my new exploration into more “impressionist” landscape painting, and like anything new, it’s going to take a while for me to really integrate it. I do appreciate your comments!

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  10. Reblogged this on ART with ALOHA and commented:
    At long last I have found someone who does art journaling! If you’re a fledgling artist, join in on ‘art talk’ by reading Judith’s posts along with the folks who have ‘Frustration, Failures, and Unfinished Paintings’!

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  11. Hi Judith – Congratulations on your willingness to experiment and try new things. It keeps the process and the paintings you will be creating fresh and exciting. I’ll share my experience with you. When I am trying something new (new subject, new approach, new colors) I do a LOTS of small 6×6″ or 7×7″ studies using oil paint on prepared paper (decent watercolor paper usually given a coat of shellac or acrylic gesso front and back). I don’t think of them as paintings, just “what ifs”. I try to concentrate on color and the broadest shapes, using as large a brush or knife as I dare. If it looks interesting, I stop and let it dry. If it looks awful, I wipe it off or let it dry with the idea of trying again on tip of the “failure”. These often become the best, because the layering of colors (arbitrarily) below makes for some accidentally interesting effects with the application of the new paint. Don’t judge, just work. Pick a few photos of one place from different vantage points and seasons and do a few dozen of the little what ifs. Then do more. Go back to the original site (or subject) as often as you can, trying to memorize what you are seeing. Mentally mix the colors you see. Squint a lot so you see only the biggest elements and values. Take deep breaths. Listen. Enjoy the experience. Then go back to the studio and paint, remembering the colors you saw that day. Practice takes time, but it is soooo worth it! You’ll get there.
    Teri

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for all the wonderful suggestions. It is fun to try new things, yet it can be so frustrating, too. 🙂 I will definitely follow a lot of your advice — and I will have a lot of fun doing it. I like thinking of these as “what ifs” more than “practice pieces”. It sounds so much more interesting!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Judith, You stopped by my site and I wanted to return the favor. I was in art for many years, and while disappointing when our creative ventures don’t work out, I am always glad I took the trip. I never fail to learn something. Since I’ve become a writer, my unfinished work now incubates, simmers, hides in a file on my desktop waiting like a psych patient for a breakthrough. I enjoy the journey of creating and the freedom of being able to set something aside. It may be “unfinished” to the world, but some art and some stories I have run with as far as I am able. I may not have achieved the vision I had for it, but I am done with it regardless.

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    • Thanks for visiting! Thank you, too, for sharing your creative experiences. Sometimes it is good to set something aside. With writing, especially, a little time can give us a fresh perspective if we later choose to go back.

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  13. I’m not a painter, but I do understand what it’s like to feel like your work isn’t good enough, I undertand frustration and how challenging it can be to persist in something that isn’t going your way. I enjoy writing alot, but there are times when I feel like I am writing the worst material known to humanity. There are moments where I wonder if it’s even worth my effort. As artists we are always trying to challenge the things we know and the things we have already done. We strive to be better than what we were before, but when we find ourselves in that quest for perfection, we can sometimes get lost in our vision and forget why are doing things in the first place. I suggest you give yourself a little break, you set aside sometime to gather your ideas, and return to your work with a fresh mindset. Never give up on your passions. Monet wasn’t always Monet, and Davinci didn’t always make Mona Lisas! I’m sure they both struggled like you, but they still held on and became some of the most celebrated artists the world has ever known. I see you are ver talented. I can sense you want to be the best, so persevere, practice, because one of these days you will be writing a post saying how all the struggle was worth it, and when that day comes, I will be here to read it. Keep up the good work! ☺️🙏🏼🌸🌟

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for the encouraging words. Following this art journey has been interesting and, at times, quite challenging. As odd as it may seem, the farther I go on the path, the more difficult it sometimes becomes. My expectations are higher now, and that does lead to frustrations. Stepping away from time to time is a good practice — in any form of art. I think it’s important, too, for me to learn to let go a little bit and, as you said, get back to why I’m doing art in the first place. I have to “let it be” what it is, at times, and tune in again to simply enjoying the process without putting so much emphasis on results. Thank you again for sharing your thoughts.

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  14. Pingback: Getting Carried Away | Artistcoveries

  15. Fine work – both writing and your art. Thanks for following my blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Pingback: Practice Makes…Progress | Artistcoveries

  17. I suggest you turn them to the wall for 6 months and forget about them, then turn them round and you’ll see them with fresh eyes. Some artists spend years going back and forth to the same work.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Not being an artist, I cannot give you any technical or professional advice! BUT, looking at your first one reminds me of a misty scape. To me it does not look unfinished at all. It looks surreal, etheric, soft. What I do know as a crafts person is that if I try too hard, it ain’t gonna work! Just breathe and let yourself feel. Turn off the logical’ rational mind and the critic. Light a candle, play some soft background music, breathe….. and let it flow as it will without expectation. Hope some of that makes sense!
    Thanks, by the way, for the follow 🙂 Appreciate it.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Wow! I am so glad that I stopped by to read this post. I can so relate to the frustrations of producing something that pleases. I have almost ground to a halt with painting mainly because I feel stale. Just this week I have begun to have a few ideas and yesterday I drew something up …. first time for over a year!! (I have been writing poetry instead). I do not paint in oils and have mainly worked in acrylics or pastels, but this time I am going to give watercolour pencils a try. Maybe trying out a different medium might help you too …. I don’t know.
    But one really helpful tip I was given years ago is to hold your painting up in front of you while looking in a mirror …. it is amazing how much this helps one to see things that are not working and those that are. It really helps one to “see” with a different eye. Hope that this will help you too.

    P.S. I think all your paintings shown in this post have possibilities, especially the first and last ones which to me seem well on the way to being finished!

    P.P.S We are always our own harshest critics, aren’t we?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, we can be very hard on ourselves! I really like the mirror idea. That’s something I definitely want to try. Have fun with your watercolor pencils, It’s always fun to try new media. I’m glad you stopped by to visit the blog. Thank you for your comments. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  20. Nice paintings, I like the drama of the bottom 2.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. I can’t offer any advice but I love the colours in this painting

    Liked by 1 person

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