5 Ways to Overcome a “Panic Moment” While Painting

Published on Aug. 5th 2013


Painting in a state of “flow” is wonderful. You’re happily working, feeling the magic of a painting that is coming together, and then. . . something inexplicably goes wrong.

Perhaps you suddenly realize that you took a wrong turn, or your composition isn’t working, or you just plain don’t like the way your painting looks anymore. Maybe you even have the urge to toss your painting in the trash before someone else walks in and sees it.

This is your panic moment—so what do you do??

First, take a breath. There are plenty of ways to work past a panic moment and get back to that harmonious state of flow. In fact, here are 5 methods that I’ve found work very well for me:

Take a break and sketch from life

If your painting session has come to a screeching halt because you don’t like what you see, put the painting aside, grab a sketch pad and your favorite sketching materials (I like charcoal), and give yourself 15-20 minutes to sketch something from life.

It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, but do your best to make an accurate sketch, focusing solely on your new subject for that specific time period.

Sketching from life gets your artist brain into a slightly different mode, and gives you a chance to hone your drawing skills at the same time. When you’ve finished your sketch, you can go back to your painting, now that you’ve had a little “palate cleanser” to put your brain on a different track.

Detach from your subject matter

Another way to get out of the frustrating cycle of painting and feeling like you’re making things worse is to separate yourself from your subject matter.

Try turning your painting upside down, which utilizes a different part of your brain. Or, start looking at your painting strictly as an arrangement of shape, value, and color, rather than representational objects.

If you’re painting from life, you obviously can’t turn your subject upside down like you can a photograph; so try squinting at what you’re painting, which reduces the details you see and gives you an overall view of shapes, lights, and darks.

Other methods to separate yourself from your subject matter include looking at your painting in a mirror (so you get a quick feel for its compositional strengths or weaknesses), redrawing your painting as a thumbnail sketch, or taking a quick photo of your work and looking at it in a small, flattened view to see what stands out as a problem for you.

Revisit your painting inspiration

When you began your (now frustrating) painting, you were probably inspired by something. Think back to what it is you wanted to accomplish with your piece, and ask yourself what you see in your painting that isn’t following what originally inspired you. For example, if you were inspired by a view of dappled light on trees, have you gotten away from the range of values you originally wanted to show?

Another way to use your inspiration as a resource is to ask yourself which artists inspire you to paint the way you do. If Monet’s water lilies inspired you to paint some water lilies of your own, take a closer look at photos of his work and note what makes it successful, then apply the same concepts to your own work.

Make a plan

Put your painting up in plain view and make a list of what’s bothering you about it. Write down each problem you see. If you know something is wrong, but can’t identify what it is, turn to another pair of eyes for help (choose your source wisely—ask someone you trust to be objective with you in a way you find helpful).

After you’ve got your list of what’s wrong, write up a plan to correct the problems. If that plan is to gesso over it and start again, at least you can paint mindfully the second time, knowing the pitfalls you faced in the first round.

Put it away

If none of the previous tricks work for you, try putting the painting away for a set amount of time (at least overnight, longer if you’re particularly sick of it). Putting the painting out of your visual range gives your mind time to rest from the problem of trying to fix the painting, and separates you emotionally from all the effort you’ve put into it.

When you’ve had enough of a break to truly forget the details of the work, take it out, set it up on the easel, and stand across the room to look at it. If you were teaching a class, and a student showed you this painting, how would you critique it? Looking at the work with a cool, detached eye helps you identify strengths and weaknesses without taking your self-criticism as personally.

When you recognize a panic moment for what it is and move on from it, you take possession of your progress and build confidence in your skills as a painter.

Pushing past a panic moment takes courage. But once you get accustomed to it, you’ll find yourself much more adept at returning to that wonderful state of flow that draws you to your easel in the first place.

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