The #1 Most Maddening Problem in Painting
(and What to Do About It)

The #1 Most Maddening Problem in Painting <br/>(and What to Do About It)

Visitor: “It must be wonderful being a painter. It seems so relaxing.”

(Sound of artist’s teeth grinding)

Well, they’ve got the first part right. Being a painter is wonderful.

And for those fortunate enough to paint full-time, it’s a marvelous way to spend your life.

But relaxing? Seriously?


Oh, the Frustration. Oh, the Stress.

Artists have historically been prone to work-related stress. Anxiety. Fits of hysteria.

Not because there are seismic consequences to failing in our work.

We don’t send soldiers into battle. We don’t make million-dollar trades on Wall Street. We don’t fight terrorists bent on destroying us.

And, yes, we are supremely fortunate in finding meaningful, satisfying work that we love.

Which is the very thing that makes the work stressful.

Failing at something that you don’t care a rat’s ass about is no big deal. Most of us have a slew of minor failures each day, and we rarely give them a second thought.

But failing at something you’ve given your life to, now that smarts.

Investing your sweat, your money, and your time in a work of art, only to see that it looks like crap the moment you step back from it, is mind-numbingly painful.

And That’s Not the Most Painful Part.

The part that drives artists bonkers, the part that confirms the presence of dark, evil forces conspiring to transform our life’s purpose into a seemingly worthless waste of time, is this:

The #1 Most Maddening Problem in Painting <br/>(and What to Do About It)

It’s when you know in your bones that you’ve found a solution. The kind of solution that makes you want to cry, “EUREKA

And it doesn’t work.

I’ve got it! Warm this color a titch.
—Doesn’t work.

I know, adjust the proportions.
—Doesn’t work.

I see now, apply some heavier paint here.
Doesn’t work.

Revelation, elation, and disappointment—all in 3.5 seconds. Repeat that a dozen times and you’re ready to board the express train to insanity.

Now there’s nothing left to try. Your bag of tricks is empty as the unresolved painting stares back at you, mocking:

 “So, you think you’re a hotshot artist?”, the painting asks. “Think again, kiddo.”

All aboard!

But first…

Question Your Instincts

One of the few things I remember from college was an experiment with lab mice placed in an elaborate wooden maze.

The only route to the subject’s food was backward through the maze, away from where the mice were duped into believing the food was.

In other words, they had to be counterintuitive.

A few clever mice solved the puzzle—if you want to eat, walk away from the food and find a new entrance. 

The others pressed on, as their anxiety soared.

And we, fellow artists, are giant mice.

We want to advance, always. We want to feel we’re improving, always. We want to look like winners, always.

We do the obvious thing. If that doesn’t work, we do another obvious thing. Or worse, the same thing, believing that eventually, it’ll work.

That’s when it’s time to get super creative.

When You Can’t Move the Needle, Ditch the Needle. 

If doggedly laboring over your painting doesn’t bring results, chances are you’re way off track. So instead of moving the needle, take a sledgehammer to it.

The #1 Most Maddening Problem in Painting <br/>(and What to Do About It)


Sand an area down to bare canvas.

Bury a passage with fresh paint.

Lose edges and find them again.

Alter the subject or the lighting, if possible.

Splatter some paint over the work, à la Pollock. This gives atmosphere and forces an edit, with surprising results.

These tricks will shift your perspective on the subject, the work, or both, enabling you to…

Break Out of the Loop

Which is something even veteran painters get mired in — a stubborn mental loop. 

It’s the human brain’s way of dealing with mundane problems. Take a tangled ball of yarn, for example. You persist and persist, and unless you’re a certified caffeine abuser, will eventually disentangle it.

Troubleshooting a work of art is far more complex.

It means grasping unusual shapes and patterns. Embracing new, unfamiliar techniques, even at the risk of feeling inept at first.

Humiliating? Yep. Painful? You bet.

But you’ll grow three to four times faster than you would by playing it safe.

So the Next Time You’re Stuck, Consider This…

Don’t let those maddening little painting problems devour your physical and mental energy. Shake the work up instead. Make a mess, then attack from a new angle.

Avoid making assumptions about what will or won’t work. Be open to anything and try everything. 

Christopher Gallego is a painter and blogger, who teaches at the Art Students League.


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