Why Paintings Fail

A painting is like an investment. Sometimes, your investment pays off, landing you wealth, happiness and a tidy sum for the future, and sometimes, it doesn’t. Whether its down to a bad decision, an unstable market, or perhaps just bad luck, you can’t always predict whether your investment is a ‘sure thing’.

It’s exactly the same with painting. Now, I may know nothing about investments, but I know a fair bit about painting. And what I’ve come to realise is, no matter how much you paint over it, how much you fight with it, sometimes a painting will fail, and you won’t immediately know why. Given the time, energy and money that you’ve put into a painting, from sketching away furiously to scribbling down notes, mixing and discarding colours and sweating at your easel, to finding that the fruits of your labour have failed can be a damn hard feeling to swallow. If a painting is going badly for me, you’ll know about it. Even the dog will know about it.

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My faithful assistant Luna, keeping guard

I have discarded numerous paintings over the years, probably more in the last two years than the previous six combined. Not because I’m becoming a worse painter (far from it, I hope) but because I’m becoming more selective about the paintings that I carry to full term. Many others transform into experiments, giving me the freedom to try out a new style, a new mix or brushstroke when I cannot get a clear idea in watercolour, or as a sketch.

You can learn a lot from paintings that fail; from why that colour mix didn’t work, or why that composition looks so….wrong. It’s all research, warming you up for the next one.

I thought I’d talk about this in more detail, by sharing with you a few of my recent failures, and why I think they went wrong.

(Also, if you’re anything like me, you won’t have kept much of a photo record of the failures!)

Lack of Coherency

Deer

I love the idea behind this one; the intention was to create a big, rich, forested scene with the deer merging into his background, in a similar vein to my Palaeolithic Inspired paintings. The composition is dominant, it works, but I didn’t define the planes and the lines clearly enough before I started, so what should have been a coherent abstract/cubist canvas became a busy, cluttered mess.

No Planning

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I had the vision of painting Malta’s national bird, the Merill, or Blue Rock Thrush, in a paint-by-numbers style – letting each colour sit beside each other with a subtle shift in value to create a flat yet rich painting. Yet I didn’t know what I would do after that. I used to love paint by numbers, but when you have to choose the values and draw all the little shapes, it’s not so easy! At this early stage, I have to admit I loved this painting. Then, I got stuck – I didn’t know how to get my rocks to look like rocks, and I feared that the feathers would lose their effect the more I painted. I think I painted over him now, but I’m not sure. I will try him again one day soon.

Painting Under Pressure

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Never, ever go and paint live without a plan. Granted, the passers by were thrilled watching me paint as I threw colours here, and there, and here again during a Notte Bianca event in Malta’s capital city of Valletta. But I didn’t know where I was going; it was dark, uncomfortable, I was painting out of my comfort zone, trying not to spill paint on a 16th Century floor. If you’re going to paint live at an event, or for charity, or go plein air, make a sketch beforehand, start putting some colours down a few days before. Get the basics in, and know where you’re going before you arrive.

Thanks in no small part to these three pieces, painted between 2015 to just a couple of months ago, I’ve learned to plan my paintings better. In fact, I would say that I paint less now, as I spend a good month or so gathering resources, backtracking on ideas, scribbling notes, snippets for blogs, taking photographs and producing concepts and colour sketches. Planning takes away some of the trepidation of diving in head first, even though often the temptation to just plunge in and start painting is overwhelming. Don’t do it!

So there you have it, three reasons why I think many painting, including my own, fail. What are your thoughts on paintings that you feel didn’t turn out like you expected, or those that ended up being the underlayer to an entirely new piece?

Cosmic Thoughts – Awe

Ever since I was a little girl the aesthetics of the universe had a Sisyphean hold on me. I owned many big books and encyclopedias about astronomy, where I was amazed by the way galaxies whirled and how bright and colourful nebulae always were. I looked at the planets on our solar system and learned their Roman names. Saturn’s rings, in particular, reminded me of a princess wearing her crown. And Jupiter – the king of all gods, isn’t he? – always looked pissed off to me.

I had lost that connection with astronomy as I grew up and nature – earth’s nature – took more of a hold on me. But by a personal Darwinian evolution I went from religiously watching David Attenborough documentaries to watching Professor Brian Cox. Attenborough’s natural heir. He re-kindled my infantile passion and sense of wonder at the great beyond. His Wonders series are a masterpiece in themselves. And when I feel that mixture of awe and curiosity the only way I can subdue that wonderful itch is to paint.

who is listening
Who’s Listening? Watercolours

You can learn more about my cosmic nature paintings here.

Cosmic Thoughts – Expression

No matter what medium you use to paint cosmic scenes – be it oils or watercolours in my case – they are full of inimitable expressiveness. Van Gogh painted his mythical night sky, Starry Night, using oils so thick it made the painting feel tactile. It’s as if Van Gogh was inviting you to touch that bright moon in a way you can’t in life. In watercolours, I find, the night sky feels more fluid. As if you can swim in the unreachable depths of space. As if the night sky is a free-flowing seascape. I don’t know what to choose, so I keep alternating between the two. Happily, may I add.

Swan Nebula Galaxy Watercolour Painting
Swan Nebula, Watercolours

You can learn more about my cosmic nature paintings here.

Cosmic Thoughts – Calm

Nothing is more calming than painting the night sky. A scene which is deceptively static yet full of unfathomable concerts of movement, death, rebirth and evolution. I was never one for meditating. Never followed the fad of yoga or Zen. Sometimes I feel guilty. But then I paint the night sky and I see those fads in a new perspective: they’re bullshit. All those stars, those long-dead supernovas of radiant colour, all the immeasurable galaxies, an ecosystem beyond imaging, a symphony of exo-planets possibly filled with life – all those thoughts inevitably go through your mind as you paint, and really, there is no greater joy.

Barn Owl Watercolour Painting
Waiting For Wings To Take On The City, Watercolours

You can learn more about my cosmic nature paintings here.