How to Avoid Overworking a Painting

written by Sophie | Beginners, Materials & Technique

Overworking is a very widely used word amongst painters. People often worry they have overworked something and tutors warn for overworking a piece. But what is overworking and is it something that should be avoided? Can you overwork a pastel painting as well as an oil painting and so does it apply to all painting media? 

What is overworking?

Although I think I know what people mean by 'overworking' I did google it before writing this post. I found that the word has a slightly vague and varied meaning. Sometimes it is used when people are 'over-blending', at other times when there are just 'too many strokes'. Perhaps it has something to do with applying too many details and a lack of a focal point. Or does it have to do with working away on your painting until your support cannot take anymore and starts to fall apart? I liked the description on the Painters Keys site by Robert Genn best when he wrote "it happens when you don't know what you are doing".

Losing your Way

Overworking is not really a stage you end up in by going on too long. It is not something that can be avoided by stopping and calling your painting finished at an earlier stage. It is not about going on too long but about going on without purpose.

When you have lost focus and are putting down brush strokes without plan or design, hoping it will miraculously fix your wonky cottage or painted eye, you can end up overworking. I can well imagine this state and I am sure many of you can too. When you are not sure what you are doing or where you want to go with a painting, you might end up just applying paint to canvas or paper without thought. Sometimes it will actually lead somewhere and your concentration and focus gets back on track. Sometimes, however, it leads to nothing but mud and unclarity. The marks do not describe shape and colour well enough as there was no focus in your gestures. 

If you have an unresolved area in your painting, then putting down endless amounts of paint with endless brush strokes is not going to fix it unless you think, look and plan your approach (easier said than done!). 

When you are working in oils or acrylics this aimless state of painting can be overcome when you regain your focus and goal. So overworking is not a situation you could have avoided by stopping earlier. It is a situation you can end up in at any time; early on or in the final stages of a painting. And you can fix the overworked area by getting back to it and making it right with focus and a plan. Focus and a plan might be pretty darn hard to find though, but that is a different story.

No Focus Area

I am not sure it is possible to 'overwork' an oil painting, although it certainly is possible to go wrong, get lost or get stuck.  Often people refer to an overworked piece when all the details are photographically worked out into minute detail. But I do not think that is a matter of 'overworking'. If the painting looks like there are lots of details everywhere (like a 10,000 piece puzzle) then perhaps the painting lacks vision, composition, and design. Of course you can keep on painting at it, but it won't fix the real problem. 

Trying to Fix it without a Solution

Sometimes you hear the word 'overworked' when there is a clear problem area in the painting and you can see that the artist has tried to fix it over and over again but didn't really know how nor succeeded in it (gosh I know that one!). The shapes and colours end up unresolved and unclear. Again this is not overworking but simply an unresolved area in a painting. If possible, and once you figured out how, it must be repainted, scraped off or overpainted. 

Working Beyond the Capabilities of your Support

That brings us to what I think is the most accurate use of the word overpainting. This is when your materials limit how much you can do. If the tooth of your pastel paper is full, you can try and fix an unresolved area, but you won't get far: the tooth is full and you cannot apply any more pastel. You will end up with an ugly patch. Also in watercolour you cannot endlessly lift up paint in order to re-paint things. You only get so many goes at it. If you keep on trying you will end up with a mess. 

Does it apply to all media?

Overworking is not really a term we need to use for oil or acrylic painting. If an area does not look right, for whatever reason, we can simply keep on working until it does look right. Even if you are after a loose and impressionist effect in your paintings (and so too many brush strokes could kill the light and airy effect, which some might  call overworked) you can scrape off or overpaint.

Too many brush strokes can lead to 'mud'. Mud is easily recognized but many find it not so easy to get rid off. Adding more paint to a wet and 'muddy' painting will just increase the problem. So a better idea is perhaps to wipe/scrape off the paint and start again. Or if it is dry, to just overpaint. In these situations 'overworking' simply means the painting wasn't finished yet as there were still areas to resolve. 

Sophie Ploeg White Dove, underpainting. How to avoid overworking a painting

Should I avoid overworking?

I think 'overworking' is perhaps media specific. In oil painting, acrylics and up to a point in pastel, you have quite a lot of freedom to scrape off, start again, overpaint etc. So if an area looks too 'tight', 'wrong' or 'muddy' you can simply paint it again, adjust and resolve until the area looks good. The lovely thing about oil paint is that you can move it around on the canvas and so you get a lot of space to sculpt your paint into the right shape.

For pastel and watercolour you can indeed 'overwork' a piece. I am no watercolour expert but I imagine at some stage the paper will simply not allow you to change or add any more. Using a good quality paper will extend the time you have to play with the paint.

For pastels a lot depends on the paper as well. Using a strong pastel paper with a good tooth will give you lots of flexibility and time to paint, repaint, and brush off. If you end up using a smoother paper, with little tooth, and you are nearing the end of its pastel holding capabilities; you can try to brush off your pastel. Brushing it will never completely remove the pastel off the paper but it will give you some extra space to work in. Sometimes an eraser will work as well. One reason to not blend your pastels is that blending often fills up the tooth and it will shorten the time you can work on your painting. So give yourself a break and use a toothy paper and do not blend!

It is hard to overwork in Oils or acrylics

We have seen that overworking is not really a term that is relevant to oil and acrylic painters but it can be for pastel and watercolour artists. It is not something that is always caused by the brush marks of the artist, but more often by the choice of support. If a pastel or watercolour paper cannot support endless working than there will be a point where the paper simply cannot take any more. If you keep on working on paper that has had enough already, you end up making a mess. It is something to look out for and make sure you have the right support for the job. 

Overworking is something to keep in mind if you are working with materials that will limit what you can do. As long as you can overpaint or repaint something there is little risk of overworking.

Featured photo  by GoaShape

Do you struggle with overworking? How do you get over it ? Share your tips!

Published: April 3, 2018

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  1. I think you can overwork in acrylic. If you attempt too many times to fix the details of (say) the eyes or mouth, and you have not been careful to lay the paint down thinly, you can get a build-up of ridges of paint and you'll end up with an ugly area even if you eventually overpaint it correctly.

    Theoretically, maybe you can sand it down, but I'm not so sure you can really salvage it after a while.

    That's what I think is overworking in acrylic.

  2. Hi Sophie!
    Boy you picked a tough topic! It’s obvious to see, but difficult to define. My feeling is, something is “overworked” when you’ve gone beyond solving the problems (composition, value, etc.), to destroying what you’ve set out to do. I see it usually as a piece is being finalized. It’s at that time I ask my color- blind husband to take a look. He can see the values, composition, etc., and tell me when it’s “done”. At which point he’ll say, “Put down the brush, and slowly back away”. (😊) I trust his judgement, because by that time we may no longer be able to “see” our piece any more! I can see it clearly in a friend’s work. If I can look at it and see nothing that says to me, “WTF,” it’s finished: No wonky areas where value, temperature, perspective, jump out at you to be “fixed”. If a piece successfully answers the questions, and says what you set out to say, it’s done. Anything beyond that, imho, is “overworking”.

    1. yep, sounds like we agree. When people ask me ‘how do you know when to stop’ I usually answer with ‘when I cannot see anything that needs fixing anymore, and I can say ‘tadaa’ without feeling embarrassed’. Thanks for your nice comment!

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