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?

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2 thoughts on “Why Paintings Fail

  1. Painting is a Darwinian process. But who does the selecting? Who decides that a painting is a failure or not? The painter, society, or maybe even the subject matter itself? Only the fittest paintings survive. But those that go extinct have powerful lessons to leave behind.

    Liked by 1 person

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