How do you deal with subjects you cannot deal with?


Every once in a while I look at some photo and decide, what a wonderful painting that would make. I try, and fail. Try repainting it over and... fail again. Let the idea sit for few months and there it goes again.

Most often it's those typical tourist eye views of complex architecture, think those picturesque villages in Italy with all the little details, or some flowers with petals that one must be a magician to be able to simplify when painting. I think I did up to five attempts on one or two photos until I gave up.

Yes, surely it's about skills, but also about the tricky subject. When I was searching for examples of one particular subject I was fighting with, from real masters, I could barely find some. I heard that the famous Russian marinist Aivazovsky tried some portraits before deciding it's not his thing.

How would you deal with the temptation? Try more and more, not spending time on things I can do better? Or read some psychology tricks designed for people to quit smoking or similar? Or find a pro teacher who will guide me until it works (and I find another subject that doesn't).


  • edited December 2021
    You mentioned complex architecture and tricky subject.
    I would go for doing simple architecture and non tricky subjects initially and once becoming more adept at those then tackle something more challenging.

    If you keep trying at something and repeatedly failing it does suggest that you need practice to bring your skills up so that you are able to find the solutions as to when your are failing and address them.

    Finding a teacher is a good idea, or even just following Marks free videos will help you come on leaps and bounds.

    Keep at it.

    I think being tenacious is key if you want to improve and the fact that you keep trying is good.

    Keep it up.

  • dencaldencal -
    edited December 2021

    Well … I would try doing a tonal study in pastel, looking for light and shade and ignoring detail, using about three earth tones on a toned surface. Thinking about achieving surface texture.

    Grid, project or trace the image. But better always to draw by eye from life.

    Then block in with acrylics with a focus on shape and edge.

    By now most of the work is done in easy stages. Apply premixed oils with the emphasis on value, temperature and texture.

    If the risk is being overwhelmed then work in grid squares, one at a time. Or tackle one subject area each day, say finish the sky first, then the background, then mid ground and finally foreground.


  • @outrema. Are you having problems with drawing details? Or is it a problem getting the paint to go where you want it to go (brush control)? Or is it a problem getting values right?

    Whatever it is that's holding us back, then that's what we need to practice.

    However, if it's difficulty drawing, there are things that can help us. @Dencal mentioned grids. For big landscape paintings with a lot of complexity in the foliage, rocks, water, etcetera, I will save myself a lot of time and effort and use a grid. That way I don't even need an under-drawing. Painters have used grids for centuries. It's quite acceptable and I have no qualms about doing this.

     If it's a question of values/colour then carefully colour check and have colours mixed before starting the painting.  I like @dencal's suggestion of doing some value studies prior to painting.

    If the problem you are having is due to poor brush control then I'm afraid the only thing for it is practice. And like @MichaelD said, start with simpler subjects. It takes a long time to acquire the skill to draw and paint architecture well. It needs a steady hand and we need to understand linear perspective. I have never tried to paint a really complex architectural subject with more than one vanishing point but, if/when I do, I'll be reading a book on perspective. 

    Hope this is helpful.  :)
  • Thank you very much for your responses. Let me answer one by one.

    I can do drawing and take care of perspective. I do use grid sometimes and I am thinking of getting a projector, although the latter, to me, is a bit of cheating as I'd like to be able to use my eyes only.

    My last attempt went into quite good basic shape/value blocking and I thought, it's going to work. To get the idea, do an image search for Cinque Terre. That kind of stuff. But when I started to add details I thought, oh no, I see it coming.

    I think it's a combination of all the other factors mentioned by you apart from drawing and perspective. I tried once to do a watercolor, it kind of worked, but the result was not as I wanted it to be, plus I prefer oils.

    I will keep trying, maybe I will post the next failure and ask to slam it with criticism.

    But not only that, the technique. Sometimes I think, maybe I should simply accept that some things are done better with my camera, and I love that too, and then I got my brushes for other subjects. Why not have peace between those two worlds.

    Thanks again!
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