The Hardest Lesson to Learn

On Christmas Day, my husband and I drove to St. Joseph, Missouri to spend a little time with my sister. While he drove, I gazed out the window, loving the beautiful scenery passing by. Trees, trees, and more trees, all set against wintry skies. All were worthy of being painted.

And then we passed by a stand of not-so-lovely trees. These were old, broken-down trees, with rough edges and ragged limbs. Oh, how I wished we could have stopped so that I could get a photograph. I wanted to remember those trees and put them into a painting.

So much of the time we paint beauty, and winter can be beautiful, indeed. But winter is also harsh, bitter, and cruel. I knew that if I ever painted those trees, I would call the scene Wretched Winter. 

Yesterday I did paint a rather wretched winter scene, but it’s not the scene of those trees. It was painted from a photograph of a very lovely snowy landscape, and at one point, my painting looked quite lovely. At least, most of it did. But there were a few other parts I didn’t like, so I kept re-doing it, re-doing it, re-doing it, and yep, before long it was a horrible mess. That’s when I grabbed a rag and wiped it all off.

I ended up with a lovely gray canvas, so now I have a good idea of what colors I can mix to make gray, but it looked so sad. Where before it had been an almost good painting of a snowy hill overlooking a small, icy-covered stream, with trees in the distance, it was now nothing more than an ugly gray canvas.

“Why did I do that?” I asked myself, already regretting my hasty act.  For me, the hardest lesson to learn when it comes to painting is that I shouldn’t wipe away my mistakes. I need to make those mistakes in order to learn, and even more, I need to keep those mistakes where I can see them — and then, hopefully, see myself moving beyond those mistakes.

Determined to have something to show for my efforts, I stopped caring about the end result and just started painting. I’m calling this one A Study in Gray, but it’s really a lesson about leaving well enough alone.

wretched winter
A Study in Gray – Oil on 8 x 10 Canvas Panel

My initial painting wasn’t great, but neither was it awful. I shouldn’t have wiped it away. Now, instead of the soft blues and pinks and gentle browns of my original painting, I have only this sad-looking study in gray.

On a positive note, this painting did give me a chance to play with shadows a bit, so I feel like I made a little progress there. I played around, too, with brush strokes and varying thicknesses of paint. Overall, though, I’m disappointed in myself for letting my frustrations get to me — again. I’ve done it many times, and it’s a bad habit I want to break.

It’s all right to do bad paintings. I’ve only been oil painting for a couple of years, and I’m still struggling to learn basic techniques, still working my way through finding a process that suits me. I should expect bad paintings and not be upset when they happen.

And when those bad paintings do happen, I need to let them happen, but that’s a hard lesson for me to learn.




  1. I am learning portrait painting now and my first had a few serious lessons of form and color mixes. I hope to improve on the next one I started on.

    I learned a long time ago that there will be paintings that will not be my best work, I keep them to look at and see what I could improve upon ‘next time’. I keep painting and see small improvements along the way, but never say ‘bad paintings’. They are ‘paintings to learn from’. Keep positive, Judith!

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Do you ever go back and try to fix a painting? I find that I learn the most when I figure out how to fix my mistakes. I learn how to do it correctly by fixing it and make fewer mistakes in the next painting. You could let this dry and then go back in with the colors you wiped away. If you painted it once, there’s no reason why you can’t paint it again.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. That’s something I will work on. I have “fixed” one painting in the past — and it actually won a judge’s merit award at a show, so yes, there’s definitely something to be said for letting a little time pass and then “fixing” paintings that don’t quite work.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. It turned out all right — all things considered — but I miss the soft pinks and the touch of pale blue that was in the painting before I got frustrated and wiped it all away. 😦

      Liked by 2 people

  3. There’s something to be said for “ruining” a painting, then continuing on and pushing through till you get something you like. Unfortunately in this instance you saw it as failure rather than something to spark a creative solution. There is always a “way out” of an unsatisfactory painting, you just have to accept that it doesn’t please you in its present state and take a relaxed attitude toward changing it. Sometimes changing it can mean, as you did, wiping a huge portion of it away. Or painting over most of it, just leaving a framework to begin anew. Your end result is not a “sad-looking study in gray”. Open your eyes beyond your expectations and you will see a soft, delicate painting evocative of the gentle shades of gray winter can bring.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I truly appreciate the kind words, and yes, my attitude and belief in “failure” certainly did limit my ability to see anything good in the finished painting. I do know that “ruining” a painting can sometimes lead to something better — I have a work in progress now that I absolutely LOVE, and it began as a “ruined” painting. So, I’m caught in uncertainty here. When a painting isn’t going well, do I finish it to the best of my ability and call it a learning experience? Do I finish it and then go back to it later? Do I allow frustrations to take over and wipe it away, turning it into a “ruined” painting that can be re-done? I know I have a low frustration level, so maybe I’m too quick to grab the rag and start wiping away. It’s all part of the learning process, of course.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Hi Judith, nice to see you back! I’m working on a new painting now and see from my sketch that I should stop and get the proportions right before blocking in any color. I think that sometimes we feel like we goof up because we didn’t have a ‘balanced’ composition thought through, or maybe should have looked more carefully at a photo reference in both color and black and white values. It also depends upon how much looseness in techniques, brush strokes and color harmony we’re allowing in our work. And how much we want to experiment/discover in the art process. A question to ask ourselves is whether we’re getting stuck in a ‘style’ of painting or have we decided that we like more abstract than a certain amount of realism shown in our work? That is probably where I cannot break out of right now. I like Impressionism but cannot get there.

        Liked by 3 people

      2. I still have so many questions about who I am as an artist. I know what I like — from other artists — but I’m not sure how to get there in my own work, or even if that’s where I want to go. I still have a terrible habit of comparing my work to others, and always coming away feeling unsure about what I’m doing. I need to break that habit! I know that the art world has room for many diverse styles. I can’t quite see, though, where I fit into that world. Once I get a stronger sense of who I really am as an artist, I hope I’ll be more comfortable sharing my work in our art clubs and displays. As it is now, I’m always second-guessing myself.


      3. You can do all of the above with your not-quite-right painting except throw it away. When you’ve kept it stored away long enough to forget what you were trying to do in the first place, you will see things you missed the first time around. That could be a springboard to future work. Besides, it’s really fun to get an occasional surprise!

        Liked by 4 people

      4. Excellent advice. I’ve left all my paintings sitting for the last few months while I’ve had fun with other creative pursuits. I’m coming back now to art, and I’ll be able to see things with fresh eyes.


  4. Judith, I like the colours! I feel like you could put it away for awhile and if you wanted you could go back after a little bit of time. Not ruined at all! And yes, fussing never helped anyone, I try to remind myself of this all.the.time. Thank you for your honesty.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Hi Judith! I know just what you mean about being afraid of mistakes, but you’re also so right that that’s often the best way for us to learn. I always try to encourage my students to enjoy the process and know that you’re always learning. I think it’s great that you realized you were learning more about shadows, and I agree with the comment that the painting has a nice winter mood to it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Kathy! We definitely learn more from mistakes than from successes, which is a good thing, really. 🙂 Thanks so much for visiting and commenting.


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