Weekly Question No. 17 - On failures

edited March 19 in General Discussion

Not every painting can be a masterpiece. I have several failures in my studio leaning forlornly, face to the wall. But maybe “failure” is a bit too judgmental and final; perhaps “unresolved” would be a better word. 

I’ve burnt a few early works. They were not worthy of anyone’s wall.  And I’ve read of famous painters doing the same with paintings they were not happy with. Those works by famous artists would probably be worth a lot of money today. But the artists are dead, so it doesn’t matter to them.

I have occasionally recycled stretcher bars of unfinished/unresolved works.  But I feel a wrench when demounting a painting. I keep thinking that if I were a better artist I would have/should have been able to fix the painting and that one day, if I'd wait, I may be able to do so. But those stretcher bars were exactly the right size for my next project.

What do you do with failures/unresolved paintings? Is everything worth trying to save or are some things better burned and forgotten?


  • Folks

    From about 30% to about 90% of the way a painting goes through an Ugly Phase.
    Ever an optimist, if it still looks ugly in two years, I say I’m only 90% done with this painting.
    Occasionally, pragmatism takes a hand. Out comes the sandpaper and primer.
    If you follow Mark’s workflow for Draw/Mix/Paint there is not a lot that can go wrong that can’t be scraped off with a silicone spatula and go ‘round again.


    Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.

    Thomas A. Edison

  • I have one failure that I use for testing purposes.  I’ve tested scraping paint, adding and removing varnish, applying isopropyl alcohol onto it to see how that affects the paint, etc.  it’s a small piece 11x14 that I could have thrown in the trash but I kept it around and it has come in handy.  I will use it as a test piece when I try spray varnish next.
  • edited March 19
    For years I averaged maybe one painting every 2-3 years. In a busy life, I would try to take some of my annual leave and complete a painting if i wasn't working on another creative venture. About 10-15 years ago I had a couple of failures. When they failed, I was pretty discouraged, because leave was over and they didn't succeed. I was also in the tauk end of 15 years of chronic depression back then (which I've been out of for nearly 15 years). I still have the two failed paintings - could easily fix them now, but probably won't. They just sit in the pile. I've moved past them, really.
  • Thank you, @dencal and @GTO. I like you idea of using a failure to experiment on @GTO. You could do all sorts of cruel things to it and it would never complain.  :)

    @Dencal, sanding down, repriming and painting over is a good idea if one has finally decided a painting is beyond hope and cannot be rescued.   :)
  • edited March 19
    Thanks, @Abstraction. I empathize re the depression. It's awful.

    I think it is sometimes the right thing to do to let a painting go and move on. The failures I've had were due to lack of knowledge and experience. I think if I tried to do them again now they may well succeed. But, like you, I've moved on.  :)
  • @tassieguy

    Could it be that every failure is in fact just a study, but the artist just didn’t know it at the time?

    Can any purposeful effort of an artist still growing and honing his or her craft be a real failure and a total waste of time?
  • edited March 19
    Thanks, @CBG.

    I think that's right. Failures don't represent wasted time but learning time. One can only learn to paint by painting. No book and no teacher can make us into painters. We have to do that ourselves by absorbing what knowledge we can glean from books and teachers and then we need to get down and dirty with the paints and brushes in order make their knowledge our own knowledge.  It's the only way. And in the early stages especially, the results don't have to be a masterpieces.   But they should be learning pieces. :)

  • edited March 21
    Interesting topic, thanks @tassieguy.

    I think perhaps when one becomes more skilled, they may view prior paintings as failures. At the time the painting was created, however, it was not a failure at all.

    In a past hobby I would hide the finished failed projects out of site, out of mind, maybe throw it away. 

    For painting, at least so far, I pretty much go one painting at a time and work it, work it, work it, until I can be halfway content with it.  So I fail, create a terrifying painting, redo it, repeat.  In the end by the time I'm through with it it is not a failure to me, it's just not excellent.  

    And again, as time goes on past 'successes' really aren't that impressive to me any more.

    (edited for clarity)
  • I read once that we learn more from our failed paintings, than we do from the successful ones.

    I have very rarely had a whole painting that was a failure, but the couple I do have, I have done just as @GTO spoke of.

    What I do have is a series of failures in one section of the painting.....An arm too long on one, but the rest of the work I was really pleased with.   

    One painting that started well, then I messed up the hues and got sloppy and lost the outline or spontaneous brushstrokes that initially "worked".   Once gone, I was unable to find the same quality and became disheartened and frustrated.   

     Three others, I bit off more than I could chew and tried landscapes and gardens which became "laboured".  I put pressure on myself to get them right and failed miserably.   My discovery from those, was my ability to do great landscapes as backgrounds to a main subject.  Landscapes on their own, still allude me and I must work at cracking the code one day....!

    My failures get visited on the odd occasion, I look to see if I could now fix the issues, but have never actually placed one on the easel and tried. 

    I also have successful pictures I began, blocked in, yet never finished.  An accident prevented me from painting how I used to so I stopped painting for over 12 years.   They remain as they were when I stopped, but I have them on display anyway.    They are "works with unrealised potential"!!

    I am not sure about anyone else, but some of my best works are still some of the paintings I did in my first 6 months of learning to paint about 15 years ago??   Perhaps a topic on our early works compared to our current works would be interesting?   
  • Thanks, @allforChrist and @toujours. You both make some interesting points.

    And you both touched on how we see past paintings now compared to how we saw them when we did them. And that would indeed be a great topic for a Weekly Question.  :)
  • This is a great topic @tassieguy.  I have a few paintings that were put aside simply because they weren't working the way I wanted them to.  I could definitely start over on them and do a much better job.  But why?  It was a very nice learning experience.  They are small paintings and aren't worth my time to try and fix them.  I keep them around just to look at and remember what I could or should have done.  It's a great reminder sometimes as to how far I've come rather than as being failures.  It used to bother me that they weren't finished but not anymore.  These paintings are a look at my own personal journey.
  • Thanks, @A_Time_To_Paint. Yes, that's a good reason not to toss old paintings out. Instead of having a gallery of failures we'd have a gallery of lessons learned.  :)

    Some of my early works that I now consider failures looked ok to me at the time. It's only much later after gaining much more experience that I began to see them as failures and that I understood what was wrong with them. So, as you say, they represent a personal journey, stages in the learning process,  and might be worth keeping just for that reason.  :)
  • edited March 22
    Yes it is good to embrace the failures for the lessons they give us.

    Though of course if you just keep failing without getting anywhere its time to rethink.

    “I have learned from my mistakes, and I am sure I can repeat them exactly“ —  Peter Cook


  • I agree that our failures are a valuable reminder of mistakes to avoid repeating - in many ways to be treasured, rather than trashed. I have one that has been sitting for over 20 years that I’m working up having another go at. I had my first go at painting in the days before the internet, and blind trial and error guided by some pretty ordinary books back then wasn’t much of a recipe for success. 

    And speaking of the gallery of failures
  • Cheers, @Roxy. A couple of my failures in that thread.  :)
  • That thread in failures is interesting.  I found Rob’s @tassieguy paintings from 2017 to be interesting.  I don’t know how you feel about it Rob, but it seems to me that not only have your skills progressed over the years but you also seem to have found your “voice “ or “niche” or whatever you want to call it.  And I find that to be probably the most difficult thing for an artist to achieve.
  • edited March 22
    Thanks, @GTO. Yes, I only discovered DMP in 2016 and had been painting for less than 12 months when I did those failures. I was still trying to find my feet. I didn't know what to paint, but I felt sure that if I followed Mark's DMP work flow and practiced the skills, my technique would improve and I'd be able to pursue landscape which is really what I wanted to paint. But the still lifes were really important in learning how to draw and how to see and mix colour. After I got into landscape and got taken on by the gallery some of my early still lifes were actually sold, lol. :)

    So yes, it's good to look back at those learning pieces in the "gallery of failures" thread because it gives us an idea of the progress made. Your brilliant still lifes are an example of what can be achieved by following Mark's method. Your failure rate is nowhere near as high as mine was. But I'm sure that if I were to paint that landscape of my garden on the farm today I'd make a much better job of it.

    As important as Mark's lessons have been, the feedback members can get here has been just as valuable. Without that, I would been painting in a vacuum down on the farm. Sometimes we paint a picture and we just can't figure out why it doesn't work. The fresh eyes available here, and the kindly critiques, point us to the problems. That is so important.  It's hard to "find our voice" until we hone those basic skills. Good C&C helps us to hone those skills and to find our voice. And that's the beauty of DMP. It's all there for us - the lessons, the videos on everything from how to stretch a canvas to how to light your studio, and the C&C on this forum. And it's completely free. Thanks, Mark. <3  :)
  • A  few weeks earlier i was watching a  live webinar discussion among plein air painters on zoom, where the topic of success rate of paintings came up. They were all established painters and i expected them saying it was a full 100%. But they all laughed about it and said they still have a significant failure rate, though with time and practice the success rate and quality improves... the discussion on the topic wasn't a long one, sorry :) 
    I think most other failures in life (say like sticking to a schedule, or a starting a new good habit, etc) are not as visual or take up as much physical space as a failed painting does and may be that causes such a big effect. Personally, when i have painted something and isn't what i pictured it to be, i keep it not only out of sight, but physically far away (back end of closet) and don't add it to my website.. but i do keep it as i have seen how good it makes me feel when i come back to them much later to see my progress,, or even remembering the earlier days of my journey. Also with time what we consider a failure changes, standards change, we aren't what we were. For me, i would paint over a painting if it is only in the initial stages, but keep what I've worked for days and reached the end , but not satisfied with.
  • edited March 23
    Thanks, @anwesha. Yes, even the greats have failures just as even the most well adjusted people have bad days. But a bad day occasionally doesn't mean a person is maladjusted and a failed painting doesn't make an artist a failure. I think that in the early days we invest so must time and energy in a painting that we get discouraged if it is not a masterpiece. But if we look at it as a learning piece it doesn't seem to feel as bad. But for a painting to be a learning piece we need to figure out what was wrong. And that's where this forum is such a help.  :)
  • tassieguy said:
    Thanks, @anwesha. Yes,... But for a painting to be a learning piece we need to figure out what was wrong. And that's where this forum is such a help.  :)
    Perhaps, with this in mind, we should some of us put up pictures of our old failures to see if others also identify the areas we feel did not work?  Either this thread, the other one alluded to or a fresh one?  To do so, myself, I would need to search mine out, wait for a sunny day I have a moment to spare and click some pics.....
  • Thanks, @toujours. In fact, this is what we do all the time here when we post paintings in the "Post Your Paintings" sub-forum. We do it (or at least I do it) because I want comment and criticism rather than just praise. Not that praise isn't also appreciated but it's the ability of fresh, and perhaps more experienced, eyes to see problems that make posting our work here so useful. I don't know how many times folks here have pointed stuff out that I was able to fix because they saw what I hadn't. Criticism by other painters is priceless.  :)
  • tassieguy said:
    Thanks, @toujours. In fact, this is what we do all the time here when we post paintings in the "Post Your Paintings" sub-forum. We do it (or at least I do it) because I want comment and criticism rather than just praise. Not that praise isn't also appreciated but it's the ability of fresh, and perhaps more experienced, eyes to see problems that make posting our work here so useful. I don't know how many times folks here have pointed stuff out that I was able to fix because they saw what I hadn't. Criticism by other painters is priceless.  :)
    Oh, absolutely.   That is the ongoing value of this forum.

    What I was meaning, was a look back at the ones we will probably never bother to fix.  See if others would suggest a different approach to the one we now feel may help the painting, were it to be salvaged.

    T'was a random thought, probably not worth the time taken to type it......!
  • edited March 24
    No, I think it's a good idea, @toujours. As you said, we could just revive the old thread. That would be the simplest way. But I too would need to take photos of my failures. 

    So, if anyone has a painting that they consider a failure and wants to post it in the "gallery of Failures" thread for discussion/comment  I'd be happy to oblige.  :)
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