When It All Goes Wrong

Brace yourselves. Now that I’ve adopted the rule of never wiping away a work in progress, you’ll be seeing a lot of bad paintings, like this one:

Bad Painting (2)

This one doesn’t even have a name.

You’ll recognize it, of course, as yet another of my woodland scenes, and I feel sorry for any woodland creatures who happen to live here. It’s not a pretty place.

Like most of my paintings, though, it started off looking quite nice. I was very happy with the sky — a gentle blend of lavender, gray, and white. In looking at it now, I wish I’d added more white to the center to create an even lighter effect. Oh, well. Live and learn, and on my next painting I’ll try to add more light.

From that point on, everything went wrong with this painting, and in a way, I was actually glad. I’m discovering that it’s sometimes very beneficial to ruin a painting while I’m working on it, lest any part of it becomes too precious. For me, that’s always a problem because once I have those precious places where a particular part of a painting looks almost breath-takingly beautiful (that does happen once in a while) I tend to freeze up. I become afraid of the painting, hesitant to put another brush stroke on the canvas for fear of spoiling it all.

With a painting that’s already going bad, there’s no such hesitancy. I’m free to do whatever I want, and it doesn’t matter how awful it looks because it’s already looking awful.

So it was with this painting. I wanted dark trees against my pale skies, but I simply could not get the leaves dark enough. Of course, that’s because my skies were still wet. Had I waited until those first layers of paint were dry, maybe it would have worked. In my mind I saw almost a silhouette effect with dark, leafy trees standing out against the sky, but it just didn’t happen.

I started playing around, adding different colors to the leafy canopies, and in the process one tree (which is no longer visible) became horribly overgrown. No problem. I would just paint over it, I decided, since I need practice on placing objects in the foreground.

I played with colors. I put in a path — which has also mostly disappeared now — and I painted in bushes here and there. I tried creating a bit of land, turned it into rocks, tried to add water, and ended up with a horrible mud puddle. I added a few twigs and sticks, and then drew in the trunk of a tree with limbs going everywhere. Yes, it covered up the awful tree in the background, but it turned out to look just as bad.

As you can see, I ended up with an ugly painting. But what’s really so bad about it? I was actually glad to see that the composition itself isn’t too bad, and for once, I do have a slightly broader range of values than usual. Take a look at the same painting in black-and-white.

Bad Painting (3)

It’s not so bad in black and white.

I’m pleased to see that my sky is definitely the lightest value in the painting. I could still use more darks in the trees — especially the trunk of the closest tree — but at least I do have a little variation. I’m going to take that as a sign of progress.

And it feels good to see that even a ruined painting in some respects is probably better than some of the successful paintings I’ve done in the past. I am learning, and I am growing as an artist.

As we all know, we can learn a lot from our failures, so, yes, you can expect to see a lot of really awful paintings in the future because I intend to learn as much as I can.

And the music I hear for this painting? When It All Goes Wrong by Chase and Status. Enjoy!

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.

10 comments

  1. What you call your ”bad paintings” are always so beautiful to me: unique, expressive, and full of meaning. My brain is neurodivergent and I perceive in a way that isn’t typical, and these paintings so often speak to me in a language I can understand. They aren’t bad. They are different. And different is a gift.

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    • Thank you for those very wise words. This was a lesson I learned about myself many years ago, and it came as a startling, life-changing realization when I finally realized that there was nothing “wrong” or “bad” in who I was, that I was simply different from other people. I guess I need to understand that again now in the context of my art. It’s funny, too, yesterday, when I posted the painting, I thought to myself, “You know, I bet cathytea will like this!” LOL. When I do paint something that I just feel is “all wrong”, I try to look at it from other perspectives knowing that someone else might be something of value in the painting. That’s another valuable lesson you’ve taught me. 🙂

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  2. Since you seem to be a little short on patience, i.e., waiting for paint to dry before you paint over it, perhaps you should try a little cobalt dryer in your paints to speed the process along. And hopefully reduce your frustration. Yes, you will be told that dryers can affect the long-term quality of your paint, but since these are only practice pieces that won’t matter. Here’s a little summary of what’s available and its uses: https://www.trueart.info/?page_id=155

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    • Thank you! Yes, patience is not a virtue I possess, so I’m learning ways to work around it. One of my biggest frustrations is that it takes a while to get all my paints and brushes out for a painting session (since I’m painting in a corner of the kitchen, I don’t have the luxury of having all my supplies ready to pick up at any moment.) So, once I’ve got everything out, it is frustrating to paint for a few minutes and then put it all away again. So, now, I’m working on multiple canvases. This morning, for instance, I’ll be working on my “spacious sky” paintings — you’ll see them in the Thursday morning post. I’m taking my time, doing a little bit on each painting each day. That is really helping me slow down and appreciate what I’m doing. I will also check out the info on drying agents. Thank you again!

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  3. You are absolutely right to always finish a painting before deciding whether it’s good or bad. I happen to like some of your colours especially the use of violet
    Try doing less and leaving it overnight to go hard before doing anymore. Watercolour changes dramatically as it dries as you have probably noticed

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    • Thanks! I’m slowing down a lot now, working on small sections, setting them aside, and working on something else while the first one dries. I know that is helping me, and my new rule about never wiping a painting away is definitely benefiting me. I hope it leads to continued improvement in my landscape paintings.

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  4. It’s not bad! Why does seeing a part of it come out precious scare you? Precious doesn’t sound good in your sentence but if you see one section looking beautiful or precious, stop painting for a while until you have some time to stand it up out of the way and look at it off and on as you do some other things. Then you can decide how to keep the good looking part and proceed. You can take as long as you like to decide. Hours, days weeks. Deliberately ruining a painting to relieve the stress to complete it without failing is counterproductive. Taking breaks refreshes your concentration and helps you see how to proceed. Also, why make up an arbitrary rule for yourself like don’t wipe off anything? Why not? I wipe off paint, no big deal. No one even knows. Also, I paint on top if I see something looks bad after the paint dries. Go easy on yourself! You’re doing great!

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    • Thanks for the encouragement. About that rule… it’s imperative for me right now LOL. I tend to go so very frustrated that for a time I was wiping every EVERYTHING I tried to paint. Day after day, I’d do to the easel and end up walking away with nothing but a grayish canvas where I’d wiped everything off with a rag. Sometimes I’d have paintings that were actually looking good, but then I’d do something I didn’t like and I’d wipe it ALL off because as often as not I’d mess things up when I tried to correct my mistake. Knowing that I have to live with my mistakes is actually helping me in many ways. I’m also learning the importance of taking time, setting my paintings aside, and looking at them for a while before adding more. It’s helping. Thanks!

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