Ideas and techniques for abstract painters

Painting Mistakes

Common Mistakes in Paintings and How to Fix Them

There are a number of reasons why a painting doesn’t work. The main reasons will have something to do with colour, composition, materials and technique. If your painting is not working see if your painting has one of these common mistakes.

These ‘mistakes’ listed below all have exceptions where they can actually work, an experienced painter knows the pitfalls and can work with them. If you are having difficulty getting your painting to work it may be worth trying some of these fixes.

1.a The Edge Disease

The edge disease is when your painting has a lot of elements that do not continue to the edge of the canvas. Beginners, often unconsciously, create a border of about 5cm (2″) around the edge of the canvas where there is very little happening, most of the interest in the work is concentrated in the middle section.

1.b. How to fix this

Continue elements of the work to the edge of the canvas, lines, shapes or colours. This expands the work rather than constraining it within a border.

2.a. Inconsistency of Technique

If your painting is created using a wide variety of techniques it may be that they are competing with each other. It is easier to create a painting that works by using the same technique throughout rather than trying to include ten different and competing styles.

If you have used several techniques then make sure they are each used in several places so there is a balance and harmony to the way your work is painted.

2.b. How to fix this

Make sure you paint the canvas in the same way throughout, the same technique and the same direction of brush stroke. If you have used a variety of techniques, repaint the painting in the same way throughout and see if it improves the work.

Brush strokes placed in the same direction all over the canvas can help to harmonise a work. Try painting with brush strokes that go in a vertical direction rather than following the contours of shapes in your work.

3.a. Colour

Using colours that work together is vital to successfully completing a finished painting.

See the Beginners and Art Inspiration pages for ideas using colour as a starting point.
Here are a couple of simple colour schemes you may want to try:

Pastel colours: use one colour and white as a base and then add different colours to it. Make up each new colour in the same way using at least half white.

Monochromatic: Choose one colour and mix it with varying amounts of white to create a monochromatic colour scheme.

3.b. How to fix colour problems

Simplify the colour in your painting. Bright colours, flouro colours and metallics are hard to get to work successfully. Try painting these out with another colour you have already used in your painting.

Look at your colour scheme, which colours are working well together and which are not? Paint out those that are causing the difficulty. Use a colour from the painting to paint out the places you are editing, the idea is to simplify the colour palette. When adding colours mix each colour you add with a little of one of the other colours already in the painting, it will help the colours to harmonise together.

4.a. The Bullseye

Creating a painting with a central dominant component creates a bullseye effect. The viewer goes straight to the centre and takes little notice of anything else in the canvas. Your aim is to send the viewer around the painting by creating an interesting composition.

4.b. How to eradicate the bullseye

Paint out or reduce the object in the middle so it is no longer the dominant focal point in the painting. Working on a 1/3 and 2/3 basis creates a composition pleasing to the eye. Place your focal point based on these relative proportions. For example you might place a focal point 1/3 in from the top and 1/3 in from the side.

5.a. Diagonals cut the painting plane in half

If you have a major diagonal element in your work that goes from one corner diagonally across the canvas it cuts the painting plane into two. The viewer’s eye starts at one end of the diagonal and follows the line out the other side of the painting. It is better to have elements in the work that send the viewer around the canvas so they are more engaged with the work.

5.b. How to fix the diagonal

Paint it out! Lessen the emphasis on this element by painting sections of it out or completely removing it. Create other focal points in the painting.

6. Materials

Cheap materials can create problems for the beginning artist. Look out for warped frames that are not flat. Try pressing the canvas into a wall. If all four corners and edges do not rest on the wall it is probably warped.

Cheaper brands of paints such as school quality paints can be very thin. You may need to paint over a colour up to five times to create an opaque or solid area of colour. Better quality paints will do this in one to two coats when used straight from the tube.

Coarse hair brushes will create very textured brush marks and these can look great. If you are after a flatter smoother finish try the taklon soft hair brushes. See the materials page for more information.

7.a. Repeated shapes and patterns

It is common error to have shapes placed on a canvas that are the same size and same distance from each other. This creates a patterning effect which is predictable and easy to read. Randomness is more interesting (unless you are going for an all over pattern).

This also happens when placing areas or lines of colour on a canvas, if you don’t make a conscious effort to think about placement, they will tend to be the same width, the same length and the same distance apart which creates a stripey effect. The viewer looks at this and quickly sees it is a repeated pattern. Randomness is more interesting and causes a viewer to spend more time looking at your work, to see all the little variations.

7.b. How to fix this

Vary the size of brush you use, vary the size and placement of shapes and lines on your canvas. Make lines and shapes different lengths and emphasise some more than others.

8.a. The dropping horizon or falling horizontal lines

This occurs when you are standing at one side of the easel and painting across your canvas horizontally. The line begins straight at the edge closest to your hand and drops as it moves away from you. This is due to the arm extension. As you extend your arm and get to the end of your reach the line drops down. This leads to the dropping horizon or many lines at one side of the canvas dropping away.

8.b. Straighter lines and horizons

Consciously look at the horizon and horizontal lines on your work. Are some straight and several dropping away at one end? If so re-paint those that drop away so they are parallel. If they are meant to be straight make them straight. If they are meant to be random then make sure they are.

5 responses

  1. Pingback: Having difficulty finishing that painting? « Jane McKay

  2. Michelle

    This page of tips and fixing mistakes is like gold to me. It identifies a lot of issues I have when creating my abstract paintings and helped me overcome them. I stumbled upon this website and I am so glad I did. This kind of instruction is exactly what I was looking for. Ideas, tips and how to overcome common mistakes without steering my style or technique in another direction. I will be visiting frequently!

    April 11, 2011 at 3:25 am

    • Glad you found it helpful Michelle

      April 11, 2011 at 7:46 am

  3. I am so happy I found this site. And I love your paintings, Jane. I’m a beginner and I love learning as much as I can everyday about abstract painting. Thank you so much for all the great information.

    July 20, 2014 at 3:17 pm

  4. Maree Gately

    Very useful tips – will definitely keep this link!

    January 25, 2015 at 10:31 am

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