How to Avoid Common Painting Mistakes

written by Sophie | Beginners, Materials & Technique

We all make mistakes. Imagine what the world would look like if we didn't. And it is no different in painting. I often explain my painting method as one big process of fixing mistakes. My first marks are rarely any good. I am not that creative genius! But I’ve got to start somewhere so I put some marks down. And those marks are wrong, but at least I’ve got something to work on, I’ve got something to fix! So, there's nothing wrong with mistakes. It's all part of the process of painting. Then again, some mistakes are worth knowing about beforehand. Perhaps we can try and avoid them next time. Perhaps. Below I list a few paintings mistakes that I really want to avoid and mistakes that I see many of my students make. Have a read and see if you can avoid these next time you get to the easel. And do let me know in the comments which ones sound familiar to you! 

Using too much Paint

Many beginners want to dive into the yumminess of oil painting and create fast, big and bold expressive brush marks. They don't realise how difficult it is to create well thought-out, intentional and expressive brush marks. They end up putting way too much paint on their canvas, making the whole thing look messy.

The Solution:

Use less or very little paint, so you have the time and space to build things up and get things right. Slow down. Think about every mark you make. What is it for, where is it going and why? Don’t brush on paint for the sake of it.

Creating Mud

Mud often comes from either too much paint and/or a lack of colour mixing skills. If it doesn't look right on the canvas, then it is so tempting to just add some more paint to try and fix it. Still not right? Add some more paint. Before we know it, we have the all too familiar MUD.

The Solution:

Reduce the amount of paint you apply to the canvas! Wipe it off if you make a mistake instead of adding more paint. Load your brush with much less paint. Practice colour mixing skills by working with a limited palette (for example).

Skipping the Foundation Steps

Oh it is so tempting to paint that eye, to put in that mouth. How many times have I not had to repaint a perfect eye just because it needed moving up or down. It is so frustrating! After all these years, I still have to tell myself to stop going into detail until I am totally sure about its placement. 

The Solution:

Spend that little bit of extra time at your underpainting. Work out the composition, the placement, form and shape, the values and everything else in the underpainting. It sooo helps later on. 

Generic Portraits

Painting a portrait is hard - it is so obvious when you get it wrong. And it is so fantastic when you get it right. But many beginners end up drawing a face and forget to really look, like they would when painting a still life or a tree. A generic face comes out, only related to the sitter by it being a human too. We all know there is a mouth, nose and two eyes and it is so tempting to just put those in, in the obvious places. 

The Solution:

Instead of painting a portrait, consider a portrait as a 'head’ (a 3-dimensional block or shape) and focus on the big shapes that this head contains. Shadow shapes, dark hair shapes, the shape of a cheek, the triangle of a nose, the semi-circle of a chin. The eyes, nostrils and mouth will follow suit, they will fit nicely within those shapes later on.

Drawing versus Painting

If you are used to drawing it can be hard to start thinking in terms of planes. 

The Solution:

Use a wide brush or the flat side of your pastel to force yourself to forget about lines for a while and just look at value, surface, shape and planes. You'll be amazed!

"I Am No Good"

So many painters feel like they are no good, their work is not worthy of showing to anyone and they feel embarrassed. Many even feel like throwing in the towel when they see amazing art, thinking they will never be that good. 

The Solution:

But hey, do you want to throw in the towel when you visit a museum full of old masters? Do you remember why you started painting? Surely it was not to become the next Michelangelo? If it was, then you probably put in the hours and are pretty good by now. But if you did not set out to become the next Great Master, and you never did want to commit to 100 hours of painting a week, then why not just enjoy it? Why set the bar so high?

Artists that have taken the art to the highest of levels are celebrating and showing the world how amazing art can be. You enjoy the same thing. Just because Bolt can run amazingly fast, does not mean you can't enjoy a jog. Just because Jamie Oliver can cook better than I can, does not mean I can't enjoy my home-cooked dinner. It's the same in art: just because that amazing artist creates amazing art, does not mean you can't celebrate and enjoy the same thing: create art.

Go on. Enjoy the process!

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Published: November 10, 2021

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  1. Great tips. Thanks for your sharing. I also very often make the mistake of using too much paint and creating mud. I like how you share the fixes. It sounds highly recommended and simple to follow. I'll try them out for the next coloring and hope it gives a good effect.

  2. I appreciate your broader perspective and how you communicate in safe language. You are not strident or critical. I am going to try doing the big strokes of painting snd see how that goes! Love this article!

  3. Hi, Sophie,
    „Many even feel like throwing in the towel when they see amazing art, thinking they will never be that good.” I know that feeling all too well. The constant comparability through the Internet doesn’t make the problem any better, and if you tend towards perfectionism anyway, it’s very difficult to get away from this thought.
    I would add another “trap” to your list: too many role models. You want to be “as good as XY”, but also as good as ten or twenty or thirty other painters you admire – even if subjects and styles don’t and can’t fit together. Instead of practicing one thing properly, you jump back and forth between themes and techniques at random. You get bogged down in order to be able to do everything, and in the end you can’t do anything half or whole, becoming increasingly dissatisfied with your own work. And this leads to the fact that you always stop again, then after some time with the good resolution again begin not to let it come so far again … and yet a short time later fall back into old behavior patterns. Or am I the only one who makes this mistake?

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    1. Good point Martine! Indeed, I find myself swayed sometimes by more impressionist and expressive painters and although I don’t think it hurts to experiment and try things out, I must remind myself that I can’t be that painter that does all styles! LOL In the end I always come back to my own way of working…

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