When you start painting you will make all kinds of mistakes. That is just part of the journey.
Making mistakes is not an issue in painting, provided you are able to identify the mistakes and learn from them. The problem when you are a beginner is that you will not be able to see most of the mistakes you make. You may be able to tell that something is off in your painting, but you will struggle to narrow down on what that problem actually is.
In this post, I will go through some of the most common mistakes made by beginners and what you can do about those mistakes.
An edge in painting marks a transition from one element to another. There are a few different types of edges:
A hard edge means there is a very crisp transition between the two shapes.
A soft edge has some kind of gradation between the shapes. So the transition is smooth.
A lost edge is one where the edge is so soft that you can barely see it or it does not exist (but you know an edge is there due to the context of the painting). This usually occurs when there are two shapes next to each other which have the same color.
Here is an example I used in my post about painting more realistically:
The interesting thing about edges is that they can give so much information about the subject. In the example above, the hard edge provides the most information and indicates the building is close in perspective and separate from the background.
The soft edge suggests there is a change in plane at the top of the building which is receiving more direct light, but not so much that the edge is hard.
The lost edge indicates the side of the building is not receiving any direct light.
Most beginners will make all the edges either too hard or too soft.
If you make all the edges too hard, then your painting may not appear natural. It is not necessarily a bad thing to use all hard edges as it could produce some interesting stylistic results, but you need to be aware of the impact of using hard edges. If you want to see some hard edges in action, check out Edgar Payne's landscape paintings.
If you make all your edges too soft, then everything in your painting will appear out of focus. Again, if that is what you are going for then it is not an issue. Many of the impressionists painted with all soft edges to produce these very ethereal paintings.
The other issue is using inappropriate edges, like a hard edge which should be soft, or a soft edge which should be lost. As noted above, the edges in a painting give a lot of information about the subject, so it is important that you get them mostly correct. And I say correct in a very loose sense. There is usually no one way to do things in painting, so correct just means that it works within the context of your painting and it helps you communicate what you want to say.
Poor Subject Selection
Poor subject selection is a mistake you could make before you even pick up your brush. Sometimes, a subject will not make a great painting no matter how well you paint it.
You should paint something which you are actually inspired and excited to paint. You should be able to envision yourself creating a great painting from the subject.
Below is a reference photo of Brisbane which is technically a decent composition. But, I am not inspired to paint this. I am not able to go into details why. It just does not inspire me - there is no X factor.
On the other hand, I can see a great painting from this reference photo. I think it is because of the interesting light in the background.
I spend a considerable amount of time deciding what to paint. I find that if I start a painting with no vision in mind, then rarely does that painting turn out well. Sometimes there are happy accidents, but only rarely.
However, this needs to be balanced with making sure I am actually painting enough. So I do not want to be too selective, otherwise I would never start a painting.
I like to keep a large folder of all my reference photos so if I am ever lacking for inspiration, I can go through the photos to see if anything can spark my inspiration.
Many people focus on highlights rather than shadows when starting out. Highlights do seem more interesting after all.
But the shadows actually provide you with much greater opportunity to create the illusion of light rather than the highlights. The shadows should really do most of the work and the highlights are just there as accents.
Shadows indicate the direction, intensity and temperature of the light. This is a lot of information so it is important that you properly understand how shadows work.
The good news is that light and shadow are much more predictable than color and composition, which are more subjective by nature. When you shine a light on an object, you can reliably predict the outcome of the shadow, provided you know what kind of light it is. This is great for us artists as so many other aspects of painting are subjective to some extent.
Being good at color or composition is largely based on who is actually judging. For example, some may look at the great impressionist paintings and see a stunning display of vibrant color, whilst others may see a jarring mess.
But being good at light and shadow is not subjective. You either understand it or you don't.
Here are some of the most common problems I see with shadows:
- Relying on black for shadows. You have so much color available to you. Black should be the last alternative.
- Ignoring the shadows altogether. Nothing looks more unnatural than an object with a missing shadow.
- Using the wrong temperature for the shadow. As a general rule, cool light will produce warm shadows and vice versa.
- Not accounting for reflected light (light bouncing back into the shadow).
Still lifes are a great way to learn more about how light and shadow work.
Trying To Paint Too Many Values
Value refers to how light or dark something is on a scale of pure white to pure black. It is widely considered to be the most important aspect for achieving a quality of realism in your paintings.
Most of the time, the subject will not be organized into a neat value structure, unless you set up your own still life. You will usually need to do a bit of work to simplify the value structure to make it more manageable and cohesive.
I will use my reference photo below as an example. There are two ways to look at the reference photo for a painting.
I could see every change in value no matter how small or insignificant. This is how normal people would look at the scene.
Or, if I were to think as an artist, then I would break the subject down into large values masses and ignore all the noise. When I actually painted this scene I broke the scene down into groups and then kept all the values within those groups around the same.
Stopping Too Early Or Too Late
Knowing when to put down the brush is one of the most challenging aspects of painting. If you stop too early, then your painting may appear incomplete. If you stop too late, then your painting may appear overworked.
I like to call a painting finished once I have reached a stage where nothing of significance is missing or needs to be changed. At this stage, I must be confident that any additional work would only distract from the overall feel of the painting.
It can be difficult to judge when this time occurs. I personally will just ask myself this:
“... will this next brush stroke add any more value to my painting?”
If the answer is a solid no, then I will stop painting. At this stage, I am confident that any further work will not add anything to the overall appeal of the painting.
Also, I try not to paint with a fear of messing things up. If I see opportunities to improve the painting, I will take those opportunities, even if it means risking the current state of the painting. Taking the safe approach is a sure way of having many average paintings.
Using Too Much Color
If you use too many saturated colors then the most likely result will be a painting which is jarring and uncomfortable to look at.
A vast majority of the colors you see in nature are not vivid colors. Rather, most of the colors you see are low-intensity versions. The image below demonstrates a range from vivid at the top, weak in the middle and finally neutral gray at the bottom. Rarely would you need to use the colors at the top.
Of course, there are times to use highly saturated colors. Like when you need to paint the vivid red of a rose, or when you are just going for that kind of style (like in Monet's painting above and many of van Gogh's). But most of the time, you will need to dull the colors down for your painting to some extent.
The dull colors should do most of the work in your paintings and the vivid colors can be used as accents.
To reduce the saturation of your colors, you could either:
- Add white (which would also make the color lighter)
- Add black (which would also make the color darker)
- Add gray
- Add the complement of the color (for example, to reduce the saturation of a vivid red, you could add green)
(If you want to learn more about color, make sure to grab my free Color Theory Cheat Sheet).
Overusing white is a particularly common problem for beginners. In many cases, I see white straight from the tube being used for all highlights, which appears very unnatural and not part of the subject.
This problem can be easily solved by learning how white works and some basic understanding of color mixing.
When you add white to a color, it increases the value and reduces the saturation of the color. Once the white is added, it is very difficult to get the richness of the color back.
You need to be very careful with getting white in your darks. Even just a touch of white could make your darks lose that rich and full appearance.
You do not need to rely on white to lighten your colors. In many cases, it makes more sense to use yellow to lighten your colors. Yellow is a relatively light color. Just be aware that adding yellow will also shift the hue.
Very rarely should you use pure white as a highlight. It will usually look out of place. Instead, you should use weak versions of colors. In the painting below, even the brightest part of the sun is not pure white but rather a very tinted yellow. In fact, pure white is not used at all in this painting.
Even when you are actually painting a white local color on a subject, you will probably not need to use white straight from the tube. Instead, you should rely on grays and weak colors. In the painting below, notice how little white is actually used for the white dress. But it still appears white.
(If you want to learn more about the principles of art, you might be interested in my Painting Academy course.)
I hope you have found this post useful. Have you made any of these mistakes in the past? Or are there any other mistakes you find yourself frequently making? Please let me know in the comments.
Also, I will just say that a mistake is only really a mistake if you do not learn from it. Do not paint with a fear of making mistakes, as they will happen. Just try to only make the same mistake once.