Dealing with “Problem Paintings”—Part 1: Too Boring for Words

If you’ve painted in watercolor for more than a day or so, I know you’ve been here: after hours of hard work, you’re struggling with a blotchy, overworked section that you know isn’t going to be right, no matter how much more effort you put into it. It’s tempting to conclude that you just don’t have what it takes . . . maybe it’s time to take up something easier to master, say, golf.

How do you deal with “problem paintings” like this?

First, don’t assume a “problem painting” means a “problem painter”!  
This is a common experience, even for the most accomplished watercolorists.  If I manage 3 or 4 decent paintings out of 10, I feel like I’m on top of my game.

Don’t just keep fiddling with the part that’s currently bugging you. That’s the artist equivalent of picking a scab, and your mother already warned you about that.

Instead, figure out what kind of problem painting you’re dealing with, so you can decide what corrective action to take.  In this series of posts, I’ll discuss how to deal with 4 types of problem paintings, beginning with . . .

 . . . Too Boring for Words

photo of a barn
The “too boring for words” barn your sister-in-law wants you to paint.

Your sister-in-law asked you to paint the barn on her family farm, and you love your sister-in-law, but . . . you hate painting barns.  Especially dilapidated old barns.  Depressing!  (Or, you finally had a few hours to paint, but no good ideas, and this old barn was the only reference photo in your stack that was halfway decent.)

If you didn’t start off with an inspiring idea for your painting, is it any surprise that you’re not wild about the results?  But, still, you told your sister-in-law you’d paint the barn for her, and you’re kinda stuck.
And you know what?  It’s a good place to be stuck!  Any subject can be compelling, even beautiful.  And forcing yourself to work within constraints often stimulates creativity.  But you have to start from your artistic vision, not from that washed-out snapshot your sister-in-law pulled out of her family album.

How do you do that?

Be clear about your passions.  What do you love, and why?  If you don’t know some answers to this question (or if the old answers don’t seem so exciting anymore) it’s time to pull out your journal, or sit down with a friend and find some.  There’s no point trying to create a “wow!” watercolor if you don’t even know what makes you feel “wow!”

Be specific and descriptive.  Don’t settle for “I love flowers because they’re soooo beautiful!”  What is it about flowers that you love so much? Sit down with a few photos, paintings, or better yet, actual flowers..  Write as if you are sharing that flower with someone whose attitude is “What’s the big deal?” and help them see what you see.  The brilliant range of reds, the light glowing through the translucent petals, the luscious interplay of reds and greens at the edge of the leaves.

Open up the question to everything you’re passionate about, even if you don’t see how it relates to painting.  Baking?  What gets get you excited about baking?  The sharp scent of cinnamon?  The smell and weight of a new loaf fresh from the over?  Mmmmm.   I might have to stop writing and try to capture that warm-from-the-oven feeling right now!

Okay, but . . . the barn.  You still have to paint the barn.

So here’s the trick for dealing with “too boring for words” paintings.

Change the rules. Find a way to subvert the task so your sister-in-law gets her barn, and you get to paint what you’re passionate about.  Paint a meadow of wildflowers (your passion) that just happens to have the barn as a compositional element.  Put the side of the barn facing in shadow to showcase the light glowing through the cosmos along the fence.

Your passion is baking?  Imagine the barn on a bright fall day, with all the golds and browns of fresh-baked goods in the fields and trees, and wispy clouds (like steam?) streaking the cool blue sky.

Seems far-fetched?  That’s part of the brainstorming process.  Not every idea you come up with is going to be fabulous, but most of them are going to be a lot more fun than that boring snapshot.   Give yourself freedom to be playful, outrageous, (overly-)dramatic, subtle.  Ever hear of artistic license?  Take advantage of it!

Play “what if?”  What if you painted the barn in winter moonlight (because it gives you an excuse to use the blues and purples you love)?  What if you zoomed in and painted the sun slanting between the dilapidated boards making a dramatic pattern of light and shadow inside?  What if you use the barn as a backdrop for painting the chickens you really love to paint?

If you’re still completely stuck, why not describe your project here and see if others can give you some ideas?  Or hop on over to my Facebook page and post your reference photo and/or painting in progress and ask for feedback.  (Just please make sure you have the rights to any photos you post.)

If all else fails, you might want to consider next Watercolor Rescue! workshop (see the Classes & Workshops page to find out when the next one is being offered).

Next post:  Problem Paintings, Part 2:  The Hyperactive Overachiever