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Troubleshooting Your Paintings!

Tricks to solve a problem with the same brain that created them!

Colorful Pet Portrait of Biscuit

Self-evaluation is a skill that can be built right alongside your painting skills. The challenge for most of us is that we don’t know how to discern the positives from the negatives and tend to focus all our attention on the fact that the painting is not working and is therefore a “failure.”

This over-critical attitude is as stunting as the attitude that the painting is perfect and needs no help. Try to embrace a “teachable” attitude where each painting is a learning experience and not a polished finished product or an end unto itself.

Reference photo for Biscuit

When evaluating my work I go through these three things:

1. VALUE- this is usually the most common problem. 90% of the time, the problem is values and in particular, the form shadow (dark in the center of a rounded form). Check your darks and make sure you have gone dark enough-most beginners are afraid of the dark. Many of us seem to think we can’t go back from dark once it’s on the canvas-this isn’t true. It’s better to go a little darker than your comfortable with. Many beginners stay in the middle values and everything looks flat. There really needs to be lightest lights and darkest darks for an object to look dimensional.

a. Check your values by shooting a cell phone pic of the painting and converting

the photo to black and white. Any problems should be apparent.

b. Step back at least 10 feet and look at your subject, then look at your painting. You can’t solve a problem with the same mind that created it so take a break before you do this and walk away from the painting. Come back with fresh eyes and attitude.

Notice the warm colors on the horizon and the cool colors in front? this destroys the illusion of perspective!

2. PERSPECTIVE- this is the second most common mistake in novice art. Even the old master’s made this mistake commonly. Perspective is when lines don’t quite line up with the vanishing point, or look like they are part of the correct building. It can also happen when you place warm colors in the background (like a red boat on the horizon) and don’t have anything warmer in the foreground.

a. Warmer colors come forward, cooler colors recede! If you put light blues in the foreground and dark browns/reds/yellows in the background they will fight each other and destroy the illusion of depth.

b. Darker colors come forward and lighter colors recede-think about mountains in the distance-the further away they are, the lighter (and bluer) they look. The closer they are, the darker they are. If you make your horizon line the darkest dark, it will destroy the illusion of perspective.

c. Size-things get smaller as they move back in space. One way to determine size or perspective is to tie a thread to a tack and put the tack on the painting where the vanishing point would be. Use the string to check your line and sizes and make sure everything lines up correctly.

this is the thumbtack and string trick to check that the lines all line up with the vanishing point.

another view showing the tack and string to check my architecture lines

3. COLOR TEMPERATURE-this is the hardest thing for novice painters to see. You really need to train yourself to understand color theory, and to see colors as having a temperature. Most of us habitually dip into the white paint to lighten a color and the black paint to darken. This deadens a color-makes it appear chalky or grey.

Instead, ask yourself “is this color warmer or cooler than what’s beside it?” If its warmer (like in the sunlight) add yellow or red to the color to warm it up instead of white. If it’s cooler (like in shadow) add blue, violet or green to the color to cool it down. This keeps the painting dynamic and brilliant.

Color temperature requires some practice and intelligence. No one is born being able to instantly see these things and catch them. Instead, we need to patiently train ourselves-through trial and error-to improve our ability to paint, and discern what the problem is.

Stooping over a flower and shouting “GROW!” doesn’t make it grow any faster. Neither does chiding yourself or deriding yourself for not being perfect. Try to be patient and give yourself the time and encouragement you need to grow.

When you do have a success (whether accidental or on purpose) celebrate it, and make a note of what you did differently. It is our ability to change, accept directions, and honestly self-evaluate that makes us grow faster.

I’ve been painting for a long time-professionally for over 30 years. I try to remain teachable and open to growth experiences. I recently experienced a growth spurt as the result of trying something new. Believe me, I wasn’t born this way, I am a hard-headed Irish woman and tend to think I know best and should already know it all!

I learned to be this way, after witnessing scads of my students outgrow me and become more advanced than me in shorter periods of time. A humbling moment for me was watching one of my students obtain signature status in an organization that had rejected me repeatedly for years.

We can either learn by other’s mistakes or repeat those mistakes ourselves. If I can offer anything from this experience, it’s please be open to growth and teachable. You will grow faster and stronger by allowing yourself the latitude to experiment and make mistakes.

It’s like sprinkling compost on that flower instead of shouting “Bloom!”


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