Painting Failures And Mistakes – Should I Give Up Or Start Over?

The odyssey of one of my painting failures begins…

Life is full of failures. I’ve had small painting failures before, but this one had me starting over. I had primed one of my panels improperly and the painting just wasn’t working. This painting was a commission and had to be done within a specific time frame and a mistake was not part of the plan.

Painting Failures image

It started out great, or so I thought…

Above you see the progression of the painting I’m talking about. It might look good in the photo, but the first two shots are of the panel that failed.

I started the drawing and captured the likeness, but as I continued to work I noticed I was struggling with the paint on the surface. I had just started painting in oils, so I really didn’t know if this was a normal thing or something going terribly wrong.

All I knew is that the struggle was getting really, really, real!

Step 1: The pain begins:

Painting of Sammie step one - painting failures

Sammie step 1 – a disaster waiting to happen

For step 1 on this little painting of Sammie, the cutie-pie Cavalier King Charles, I was feeling pretty good about how the drawing was going.

I get really excited at the beginning of a painting.

Actually, it’s part excitement and part fear of failing – they sort of feel the same to me.

However, I thought the likeness was good so the thought that I might fail wasn’t that strong.

Step 2: Oh, how wrong I was…

As I continued with this little painting, I noticed that the paint felt like it was “disappearing”. I couldn’t see the color very well which made it really hard to know where to paint and what to paint.

You can see below that things are looking a little flat.

Painting of Sammie step 2 - the failure continues

Sammie step 2

Shockingly, it still hadn’t dawned on me that one of my most epic painting failures had begun. I’m like a terrier – when I grab a hold of something I just won’t let go.

Step 3: That “sinking” feeling sets in…

Below is step 3 of this perilous little painting.

I kept painting over and over on parts that were disappearing, trying in desperation to salvage it.

Painting of Sammie step 3 - painting failures

Sammie step 3

I kept thinking of all the time I would have wasted if I had to start over.

I had done several paintings on panels like these and they were successful, so there was a part of my mind that just wouldn’t accept that this sweet little painting would need to be classified in the “painting failures” category.

Admitting defeat – sort of…

It’s hard for me to give up on things (one of my personality flaws I suppose), but giving up on the failing panel was the only thing I could do given the time frame I was working within. I had to act quickly.

Fortunately, I had ordered a sample linen panel with a fancy double-primed oil surface.

I FINALLY gave up on the other panel and started in on the new one. Time was a ticking!


Within a 24 hours of starting the failed painting, I had a new painting (below) and the anxiety of not being able to deliver for my client subsided.

Painting of Sammie the Cavalier King Charlse Spaniel

Successful Sammie on a new double primed linen panel

I was happy with the new panel, but I couldn’t get that other little panel out of my mind.

Entering “MacGyver Mode”

Like I said, I hate giving up on things so I went into “MacGyver mode” and began a plan to save the panel.

I had read about retouching varnish a few weeks earlier and ordered some.

Retouch varnish allows you to continue painting on top of your work after the varnish dries. Many times with oil paintings, when they dry they get dull.

Painters love “varnish day” because that’s when their beautiful oil paintings come back to life.

Would I be able to bring “Sammie No. 1” back to life???

I couldn’t get this thought out of my head, so I grabbed the retouch varnish and sprayed the failed panel. Instantly the color started to come back, but as it dried, the color kept sinking back in.

This is so crazy!

A part of me said “STOP! Throw it away. Burn it. Move on”.

And then then the illogical crazy part of me said “don’t give up” – I don’t want to have a painting in the “painting failures” category!

Guess which one I listened to?

As you can see below, I listened to the crazy part of me. I didn’t give up.

I sprayed that varnish on that little panel until IT gave up.

Now there are two Sammies. The one on the left is the “failed” panel. Who knows, it may still have problems in the future, but for now he’s looking good.

The one on the right is the linen panel. I will be painting on this surface from now on!

Double Sammie painting

Seeing double – the tale of two Sammies

The moral of the story

For me, the lesson here is that creating anything new can run the risk of failure.

I thought I had done all the right things to avoid a mistake, but things went wrong anyway.

I could have given up and allowed the mistake to make me feel like a failure. But the creative process is all about trying something, running into problems, and then fixing those problems.

If you know ahead of time that trying something new will not go perfectly and give yourself permission to “fail”, then the process has something to teach you.

If you think about it, it’s not so different from anything else in life, really.


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