When Paintings Go Wrong

Artists, stop me if you’ve heard this one:

You’ve started a new painting and it’s coming along great. You work on it for hours, fully focused, then decide to take a photo for social media. But when you look through your camera, suddenly it’s clear that there’s a major problem.

Maybe the proportions are off, the face is lopsided, the eyes are different sizes, or the colors don’t work. Regardless, this piece you’ve devoted hours to has a major flaw. You can’t unsee it. You resign yourself to starting over.

Frustrated yet?

This has happened to me more times that I can count. It was especially common when I was younger and just beginning my art journey, but 20+ years later it’s still a sad moment that crops up. It’s especially frustrating as a traditional media artist because, scan and transform as much as I like, the original is still irrevocably flawed. So, I’m faced with two options when this happens.

Option 1: Make It Work

Everyone’s done this. I think I can just work around it. If it’s not a major flaw, something most people won’t notice, I can de-emphasize it and make the painting work. Maybe.

The truth is that, if it wasn’t a major problem, I wouldn’t have noticed it either. Now, if I show it to multiple (reliable) people and they don’t notice it, or think it’s not noticeable even when I point it out, then it’s likely that I’ve just been staring at the painting too long. I can still salvage it. All is not lost.

Option 2: Restart

This is the option no one wants to hear but it’s also the one must likely to apply: sometimes, it’s best to consider that first attempt a rough draft.

Accidental rough draft of a Sansa Stark portrait.

Take this piece. It’s my rough draft of a Sansa Stark portrait, and I worked on it for about four hours before I noticed the thing you’ve probably already seen.

Her mouth is crooked. Actually, her nose is too, but that could have been retooled. But there’s no fixing that mouth.

This wasn’t supposed to be a rough draft, but now it is. So, armed with my lightbox and regret, I restart. It’s an awful feeling.

Why Starting Over Is Good

I used to balk when I watched comic book artists make heaps of thumbnail drawings, often with tons of detail, before starting the final piece. I’m still not that patient yet, and I hate wasting art supplies. However, practice isn’t wasteful.

Sketch vs painting in progress.

I have to repeat that to myself like a mantra, but it’s true: Practice isn’t wasteful.

Hours of work is just part of getting better at anything, and that means using products and time. It’s an expected part of the process. And though I know, it sucks, I too prefer just jumping in and making something, often that’s not the best way to show our best work.

For most paintings now, I start with a sketch. Sometimes two. I do this even for acrylic pours, planning which colors will go where and with what. It makes a big difference. And though it feels time-consuming and wasteful at the time, the end result is always a better art piece.

This is my two sketch process before beginning a large acrylic painting of this idea. The first is in pen, the second is in pen, acrylic, and watercolor.

In the end, I should have just listened to all those comic book artists and Disney Imagineers when they talk about making a bunch of thumbnails and concept sketches. Every time I think I know better, there’s a 75% chance I’ll get it wrong that first try and have to start over.

Do you make thumbnails and/or concept sketches? Do you end up with accidental rough drafts? How do you deal with it?

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