Saving a Painting that isn't Working

"Perfect Day in Kananaskis"
12 x 24

Sometimes it's hard to figure out why a painting isn't working. I'll have stared at it for hours and be unable to see it objectively anymore. It's just clear that it's wrong somehow.

Ideally, I'd ask another person for a critique. My husband and children have become very adept at spotting problems at a glance though it takes careful questioning to pinpoint what bothers them in it. But if I don't have another body handy, I use a mirror to dissect the piece. Holding a painting up to a mirror is a way to see the piece fresh, from another perspective. This is the same reason that some artists examine their work upside down, through the lens of a camera, or in a different light or context. Just popping a painting into a spare frame can give you a better sense of what's working and what isn't.

Another great aid is a little piece of coloured cellophane or acrylic that many art supply stores carry. It's usually red, and looking through it turns your painting into a values-only composition in which it's easy to identify weaknesses. Usually, with me, the painting is too mired in midtones. There are too few highlights and too few and isolated darks. Putting in some stronger lights, or consolidating and strengthening some dark passages can work wonders.

The important thing, though, is not to give up on a painting without exploring all of the possibilities for saving it. It's tempting to just toss a piece, but it's awfully satisfying to rescue it.

The painting above needed some mirror work to rescue, but once I boosted the highlights, it all came together.


Matthew LeVier said…
I really enjoy the way the colors in this work together especially in the water. Very nice techniques. I'm trying to become more loose with my brush strokes without losing detail. Very nice work!!!
Thanks Matthew! I looked at your work and admired the detail that you capture.

In this one, I had considerably more detail in the gravel banks (trying to show gravel) and ended up smushing the whole thing together in order to reclaim the looseness. Sometimes it's hard to stay loose.