After many, many, many painting failures (and the angst that goes with them😩) I’ve come up with a list of what I currently see as things to avoid.
I think of them as prime suspects in my oft-repeated mystery whodunnit entitled “Who killed my painting?”.
Here they are:
Using commercial stretched canvas or canvas panels: This is usually a low quality product made with cheap wooden stretcher bars (or low quality cardboard in the case of canvas panels) and cheap cotton. It will not show your paints off to their best effect. Why throw good paints away by using cheap supports to paint on? Stretched textiles are generally not the best support for oil paintings anyway as they sag or tighten up, depending on temperature changes/humidity, and this is potentially destabilising to your paint film. As textiles go, however, linen is more permanent and much nicer to paint on than cotton.
Rigid supports, or textile adhered to a rigid support, is a preferable option if you want your painting to last. Good choices are high quality plywood or masonite, aka “hardboard”. The best compromise from my point of view, currently, is canvas glued to masonite or plywood panel. I was using acrylic-primed polyester as my canvas but just lately have found the lack of weave exhibited by polyester to be a bit deadening to the surface quality of the paint film. So now I’m using linen glued to polyester glued to panel. There is apparently a significant “archival” advantage to separating your canvas from your panel. The usual recommendation is to use fine quality paper between the two but as I have a lot of polyester canvas to try to make use of, I figure it’s just as good if not better than paper, given its ability to withstand humidity, acids, etc. I’m also quite keen on plain plywood primed with Michael Harding non-absorbent acrylic primer.
Using low-quality acrylic primer (aka “gesso”). Unless it’s really good quality, acrylic primer can be deadly stuff, aesthetically, for a number of reasons. It can really suck the life out of oil paint because it’s sooo absorbent. It will drag the oil out of your paints, leaving a dull, chalky, lifeless finish. Let’s face it, half the beauty of oil paints is exactly that–the oil. This is what gives them their lustre and glow and contributes to the transparency that allows you to overlay colours in beautiful ways. It’s what makes them flow beautifully and allows you to paint fluently and blend easily. Overly absorbent acrylic primer will suck the oil out virtually as you paint, making your brush drag so that every stroke feels like hard work. This can really kill the magic!
Another issue with low quality, overly absorbent acrylic primer is the texture, which can be extremely abrasive, almost like painting on super rough sandpaper. It will wreck your brushes and make painting hard and potentially joyless work. With a decent quality acrylic primer you can counteract any potential abrasiveness in the texture by sanding between layers as you prime the support, first with coarse sandpaper then finer varieties.
Alternatives to acrylic primer include oil or alkyd primer. The latter will almost never be identified as alkyd; for some reason its termed “universal primer” these days. I personally don’t particularly like alkyd primers; I’m not quite sure what it is about them but I find them unpleasant to paint on. If considering an oil or alkyd primer, you might want to enquire of the manufacturer what pigments were used. Very likely you will be inheriting a problem if you use the standard versions of these, as they will contain titanium white combined with zinc white. The zinc white is the problem here as it’s prone to cracking.
Lead white oil primer will usually not contain zinc and will give a very stable ground to paint on. It used to be the standard primer for oil painting supports but is now harder to find. Natural Pigments and Williamsburg are two manufacturers who do supply lead primer. A good lead primer is a thing of joy, smooth and beautiful to paint on.
As with many paints, you need to take simple, commonsense precautions with lead paint. Don’t put it on your toast (vegemite is much nicer!). Don’t rub it on open wounds. Don’t snort it, inject it or stick it in your ears (just kidding). If you get it on your hands, do NOT use solvent to remove it. Solvent will help to carry it through your porous skin, which normally acts as a good barrier to paints. Just wipe it off with a baby wipe and then wash your hands with soap and water.
I’m currently trialling Michael Harding’s non-absorbent acrylic primer and so far I like it very much. MH’s products are a favourite of mine generally as they are made to a very high standard by someone with a highly developed sense of craftsmanship.
Using too much solvent aka “turps” or odourless mineral spirit. Anything more than a tiny bit of solvent in perhaps the very first layer of your painting is too much, in my opinion. I no longer use any solvent in my paint film. My only use of solvent is in cleaning my palette after a day’s work. Solvent is simply not necessary, contrary to popular opinion, and using it in anything other than a very well ventilated studio is far from healthy. Because it breaks down the bond between the pigment and the oil “vehicle” in which it is bound, it can contribute to a dull, “under-bound”, structurally weakened paint film that looks chalky and lifeless. If you want to thin your paints to watercolour consistency, use watercolour. If you need solvent to get your paint to move on the canvas, there is something wrong with your canvas or with your primer–they’re either too rough or too absorbent, as discussed above. Solvent is never a good solution to such problems.
Working under artificial light. You really can’t see or judge colour well under standard artificial light, not to mention comprehend form or tone accurately and fully. This applies whether you’re doing realistic or expressionist work. Why spend a fortune on fancy daylight-mimicking lights (that never really get close enough to genuine daylight, unless you do your research very well and spend a lot of money) when you have REAL daylight provided for free practically every day ? Of course it’s not always so easy to get enough daylight, especially in winter or if you live in the Northern hemisphere, but it’s a good principle to remember that nothing can truly replicate the quality of daylight, so if you’ve got it, use it!
Not taking breaks. This is fatal. If you look at anything for too long, you’ll either develop a misplaced affection for it (because your eyes have ceased to see all your mistakes) or you’ll become disgusted with it–as you might with a meal you keep tasting as you cook it. Excess exposure to one thing is not conducive to good painting. It’s essential to take a break regularly–say every 30 to 60 minutes or so, for at least 10 minutes. This means putting your brushes down as soon as the alarm goes off (I set the timer on my mobile phone) and doing something else, preferably something entirely different, so that you can eventually come back to the painting with fresh eyes. It could be something else artistic; it just needs to be a significant break away from the current project. However, something that involves some movement, so that you get the blood pumping around your body again and get to stretch out your legs etc. is very helpful for “resetting” your brain and body.
Changing projects after a couple of hours is a good idea also. Getting too obsessed with one thing, even though it’s natural and essential to artists, can be very counterproductive. If that one project starts to go badly, you might end up with a very sour taste in your mouth at the end of the day, and feel like you’ve wasted your time. Try to avoid doing things that increase the likelihood of disenchantment. It’s good to have a few projects running concurrently, so if one fails, you have others to keep working on. I try to remember never to get too invested in any one work.
Not having a rest when you need one. I’m drawing a distinction here between taking a break and having a rest. A break is doing something different, such as engaging in a different art form, going for a walk or even doing mundane chores (I like sweeping, for example). A rest, on the other hand, is not doing anything at all. A nap is a rest. Lying on the sofa with the cat on your chest, while you watch TV, listen to the radio or to music and await that cup of tea your partner has agreed to make you (hope he’s reading this!) is a rest. Art making is one of the most demanding things you can do and is frequently thoroughly exhausting. Never, ever work on something that requires concentration and attention to detail when you’re tired. Your brain doesn’t work normally when it’s fatigued. In fact, from what I’ve read, it can even be partially asleep (basically “off duty” without permission) while you appear, to all intents and purposes, to be awake.
Your willpower is at its lowest when you’re tired so you’ll make bad, lazy and quite possibly stupid decisions. Your hand-eye coordination is also diminished and your patience (so essential to all art making!) will be way below par also.
Don’t let fatigue ruin your painting. Learn to recognise the signs that you’re becoming fatigued and be willing to give yourself the 20 or 30 minutes (or longer) that you need to replenish your energy.
Letting your palette turn into a mishmash of colour mixtures. It seems to be a point of honour amongst some artists to have a palette that looks like the floor of a pizza kitchen at the end of a busy night. But working with a chaotic or overly busy palette readily becomes confusing. It can lead to you picking a colour that’s “near enough” (in that state of desperation one can get into when painting, which can be rather like being in the heat of battle) rather than mixing one that’s exactly right, simply because you’ve run out of room for more mixtures or because you’re overwhelmed. This is especially likely to happen if you’re tired and haven’t been taking sufficient breaks.
Get rid of mixtures once you’ve painted that segment of the picture. If you need them again, mix them up freshly. Make sure you’ve always got plenty of room on your palette for new mixtures. Having a big palette, or several palettes, can help prevent this.
Failing to maintain cleanliness and order. Tidy and clean up as you go. First of all, this forces you to take much needed breaks, so that you regularly “come up for air”. Secondly, painting is extremely complex and mentally and physically exhausting. If you don’t have everything in an orderly state around you, the chances of you making a horrible mistake increase exponentially.
Despite what you may have seen painters doing in Hollywood movies, ie thrashing around with the brush wildly, as if violently possessed by artistic fervour, few painters are able to produce decent paintings by working in this way. In fact, you’re pretty much guaranteed to produce a hideous mess that not even your mother would love if you let the illusion that it’s all about spontaneity and passion take over. We need a balance between passion and discipline. Someone famous quipped that “reason without passion is sterile, while passion without reason is chaos”. Walk the middle path.
The third reason for cleaning up partially as you go is that, when you get to the end of your painting day, you won’t have an horrendous amount of work ahead of you to clean up and set everything straight again, ready for the next painting day.
Additionally, it’s important to remember that if you’ve had a bad day in the studio, an out of control mess is the last thing you want to be tackling, as it will likely just reinforce your sense of bitter failure–which is not something you want to do!
Rushing. Like not taking breaks, this is one of the worst things you can do. In my experience, nothing good comes of rushing. I’ve wrecked a lot of art works by rushing. Don’t give in to the impulse that says: “this will only take 5 minutes, lets just get it done”. Nothing ever takes “only 5 minutes” and the “get it done” mentality is anathema to creativity. Art is art because it requires intense focus, intuition and patience. It’s not like doing the washing up. Don’t tempt fate by treating art disrespectfully in this way. It doesn’t matter how long it takes. Pace yourself, do it slowly and do it properly.
Not loving and honouring your materials. Never ever leave the studio without ensuring you’ve put the caps back properly on your paints, cleaned your palettes properly, wiped down your work table if you have one and, most importantly, cleaned your brushes.
You need to think of your brushes as being like your fingers. This means you need to treat them as well as you treat your own hands. Yes, they ARE that important. They’re also very expensive and very easy to wreck if you mistreat or even just neglect them! Make the brush-washing part of your day a relaxing and mindful ritual. Put some music on or listen to a podcast as you do it, You can actually learn to enjoy the whole procedure if you think of your brushes as your best friends in the studio and worthy of the best care possible.
It’s a lot easier to enjoy this essential aspect of painting if you don’t use solvents to clean your brushes, because inhaling solvent is not fun and really bad for you. Instead use cheap cooking oil as an alternative to solvent, then wash your brushes with lukewarm soap and water. Always dry them flat or hang them brush head down, if you have some way of suspending them, so that any residual moisture in the brush head doesn’t seep down into the ferrule, where it will eventually weaken the glue and cause your brush to lose its head–not something you want to see happening to your beautiful expensive brush!