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  • Writer's pictureHazel Manley

Art: When It All Goes Wrong

Updated: Apr 14, 2022

It's easy to look at the finished works of artists and assume that everything they try works, first time, every time, but this just isn't the case.

In fact constant perfection is often a sign of finding your comfort zone and hiding in it! If an artist doesn't get days when a piece of art just isn't coming together as they expected, then they aren't trying anything new, pushing the boundaries or using different techniques. That being so, what do you do with work when art goes wrong?

Some while ago I came across video called, 'What Good Art Does When Things Go Wrong'. I clicked on it eagerly expecting it to be full of advice about how to deal with art that just isn't working, but it turned out to be about the role of art can play when life goes wrong (which is also useful, but not what I was looking for at the time).

Since then, I've learned a few things, so if you have clicked on a link that brought you here hoping to find out what you can do with pieces that aren't working, here's an opportunity to learn from my mistakes.

It all depends

The medium and surface that you're using will have an impact on what options you have. Techniques that work well with watercolours, probably won't work with oil pastels and vice versa. What follows is based on my experience with oil pastels finishing up with a few ideas from other artists that I think are really interesting ways around troublesome picture problems.

Leave it alone

It's very easy to become hyper-critical and see 'disasters' in every corner of every piece, fiddling endlessly trying to correct them leaving it overworked and dull. Before wading in, I find it helps to put a painting aside for a while where I can look at it from time to time. This will either reassure me that it does not need meddling with or it will help me clarify what really does need changing and develop a plan for making those changes.

Give Up!

I don't mean never paint again, although I think that most artists have days when that seems a good idea! I mean give up on that painting and decide what to do with the 'remains'. (There are some great ideas from other artists below.) It may seem defeatist, but sometimes if a piece has gone badly wrong early on its process, it may not be worth investing more time in it. An example of this is my first attempt at Poppy. I quickly began to realise that the composition was disappointing. It was the moment to start again.


With watercolours it is often not possible to correct by over painting. They are hard to remove from paper without ruining the surface and because they are often transparent, under painting cannot easily be blotted out.

One of the joys of oil pastels is that they tend to be very forgiving - it is possible to change things without making those changes obvious.

An example of this is Gorse. About three-quarters of the way through, I realised the main flower just didn't make sense. I left it aside for a while, but it was really bugging me. I may not being producing textbook botanical illustrations, but I do like flowers to look real. The flower that is the whole focus of the painting was just not working.

Fiddle or Plan?

I generally use one of two methods once I've decided there is a problem. Fiddling - I just keep making small adjustments until I get reasonably close to the result I'm looking for. This works well for fairly minor changes, but more major changes require a plan. With Gorse, I took and printed a photo of the whole painting and listed the areas I didn't like and ways to change them. Next, I tried out some of the changes on the photo. For me and others who can't manipulate images in their head, this process is incredibly helpful. I like to use pencils on paper, but I know of artists who use digital tools to do this. If you want to see the time-lapse video of this painting in progress, you can find it on YouTube here.

Scrape, swab & over paint

Where major changes are needed, it helps to remove any existing layers. Oil pastels can be scrapped off a surface because they never become completely solid. I use a penknife carefully angled to avoid damaging the paper or canvas by cutting into it.

Next I paint the area with thinners which dissolve the remaining oil pastel, and swab it from the surface with kitchen paper, cotton buds, or even dry brushes. Some pigments will leave a pale stain on the surface, but this is usually pale and can be covered.

Finally, after waiting impatiently for the surface to dry completely, I begin to put the new layers on. If I rush into beginning to add new oil pastel before the thinner has evaporated off, it can lead to layers mixing and becoming 'muddy' rather than clear.

What else?

Some artists keep unwanted paintings and reuse parts of them to create new works . There's a great demonstration of this by Denise Allen that had me resolving to throw less away! If I can collect enough watercolour or acrylic rejects, I'd like to try this, but the waxy nature of oil pastels might make sticking pieces down more difficult.

Other artists create a 'window' from paper to look at smaller areas of a painting that doesn't work as a while but has some great parts. The larger piece can be cut down to leave one of more smaller paintings that look fantastic. I'm currently trying to decide if this is the way forward with one I've started that I'm not happy with!

There is (with canvasses anyway) always the option of painting over a piece and artists have been doing this for centuries to save money. As a result hidden paintings are often discovered by x-rays just like this Picasso. Usually artists cover the canvas with a base colour and start again from that. The texture of the hidden painting can provide added interest to the final result.

Go on: make some mistakes!

If you're struggling with a piece of work, I hope this encourages you to make mistakes by trying something new, pushing the boundaries or using different techniques in the confidence that others make mistakes and it's not the end of the world.


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