Anatomy of a Failed Painting

Learn from someone else’s mistakes.

Failed River Scene 24×30″ Acrylic on Masonite

This was supposed to be a mosaic-style painting, using the one-touch approach. I had such wonderful plans for this painting, but it careened out of control before I recognized it. This is an example of how NOT to do a painting. I truly believe that the best examples are someone’s mistakes. So I will tear me up, not someone else.

Best Intentions

This is what I was working from. A nice river scene in the spring. Even the composition is suspect.

Mattagami River, Timmins, Ontario.

Already, I handcuffed myself with the composition. I should have cut the sky off just above the treeline. The foreground rocks, river and trees are almost perfect thirds of the height of the picture, too uniform.

The Good

Step 1 Sketch out the composition. In this case, I should have had almost no sky, just trees and raise the river.

I sketched this our properly in my sketchbook, but for some reason, I wanted more sky than I needed. Also, my sketch here inadvertently called for a near-uniform treeline and shoreline. The idea behind one-stroke, (mosaic-style) painting is to use brushstrokes of different lengths and widths. Once a brushstroke is down, don’t touch it again. No mingling. No polishing. This gives the painting a painterly look and gives it immediacy.

The Bad

Step 2 Block in my big areas. Compounding the composition issues is the lazy cross-hatching using uniform brush strokes.

So knowing what I just said, do you see the obvious problem here? The crosshatching is nearly perfectly uniform. Sigh, all the strokes are the same length and width. I should have heaved this right then. But I don’t give up easily. No, I have to really mess it up first.

The Ugly

Step 3 Begin filling in the blocks. Again, uniform brush strokes.

Now the sky is perfectly uniform. You would obviously assume I’d learn from the tree mistake. Apparently I’m a slow learner. The brushstrokes in the water were supposed to show turbulent water. Nope.

Step 4, Walk Away and Prepare for the Burn Pile

I repeated my mistake in the water AND made all the brushstrokes nearly all the same colour. Then I made the tree almost exactly the same colour as the water, further confusing the picture. And then to complete the laziest mosaic painting I’ve ever done, I made the trees perfectly uniform. Oh and background hill behind the trees is a line instead of a series of vertical lines, of variable widths.

I can tell you what happened. My blunder was talking to someone while I was painting so I wasn’t paying attention to each stroke. Usually, I can walk around a room of students or other paint club members and see exactly where they lost focus. You can see where they painted by remote control, falling back on symbols instead of what they see.

Where my paint strokes became regular, I wasn’t paying attention. I just hurried through filling blocks with colour. It’s not unlike colouring in a book for kids. Picture, marker, fill. Mindless. Oy.

This “study” wound up in my annual burn pile. Burning failed paintings with a group of fellow artists is very therapeutic. And it’s good for a giggle at ourselves and our inflated egos.

But, please, learn from my mistakes.

A Better Example

Oh, to show you I can do it sorta properly…

Devil’s Rock, North Cobalt, Ontario. Acrylic on masonite, 36×24″

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