12 Ways to Allow Creative “Accidents” into Your Painting

By Susan Holland in Art Tutorials > Painting Tutorials

What’s an accident?

According to wikipedia, an accident is an “Unintended external action which occurs in a particular time and place, with no apparent and deliberate cause but with marked effects.” Usually an accident causes a negative outcome, which you try to avoid, if at all possible.

In other words. . . “If I’d only waited until this part of the watercolor was dry, the colors wouldn’t have bled into one another!” Or, “If I’d planned ahead, that unpleasantly shaped tree wouldn’t be in the middle of my painting!”

But paintings are like that. Sometimes you wish you could could return to the pristine white canvas you started with. Other times, the bleeding colors, or the unfortunate tree may be happy accidents that you end up liking. (Or it’s so bad you paint over it!)

Many a painting instructor would have scolded Degas for his awkward compositions, with the edge of the canvas interrupting a face, or a wall coming between all but a glimpse of part of a ballet dancer’s body. Degas’ people walk out of the canvas! His compositions are stunningly atypical, and he is famous for it. Were they accidents? Perhaps at first?

We wonder, because while staying inside the lines is safe, and usually good, it’s the exceptional that catches our attention and draws us in.

Who doesn’t love where the clouds explode out of their confines and make wild patterns in the blue sky? We are delighted when we find a burst like that in a painting, where the artist has let the paint do the exploding, and the effect is so like nature. Was it an accident, or did the artist intend to make that happen?

Obviously a seasoned watercolor painter knows from experience what will happen when a deep, watery blue hits wet paper. Blooms of paint spread wherever the water flows, until the pigment finally comes to rest. It’s a natural effect, uncontrolled by the artist, and perfect for a cloud.

What viewers notice most about a painting is the exceptions that makes a work different and more fascinating than the ordinary fare.

They notice the creative accidents.

There are many ways to break through the ordinary and allow such accidents in your work. Here are some of the ones I have used:

1. Prepare the surface in a way you have not done before, like distressing it, or ironing it, or scuffing it, or putting on a texture.

2. Do an opposite color underpainting! You will notice how the underpainting makes the final coat “pop” as bits of it peek through the top coat of paint.

3. Use a dryer or more liquid medium than you usually do.

4. Use a palette knife instead of a brush.

5. Use a thumb, or your fingers instead of a brush.

6. Outline all your shapes in fuzzy bright colors by scumbling, giving halo effects.

7. Drop brilliant color into a neutral scene.

8. Pick up top colors with the handle of a brush to reveal underpainting.

9. Scratch wet or dry paint with a tool to create texture. Try using a handmade tool with an unpredictable edge.

10. Drop medium into an area that has already been painted but is still wet, and see what the medium does.

11. Repeat any naturally-occuring “accidents” in one painting. For instance, where blooms have happened, continue to make blooms happen in the medium, making them part of the technique on purpose.

12. And there are myriad other ways. . . smudging, scraping, imprinting, waxing, wrinkling, burning. . .

it may even be worth taking a workshop, or getting a group together to explore new variations from the usual methods. Just experiment!

Most importantly, allow yourself the freedom to play with paint, texture, and tools without any preconceived ideas of what’s “right” or “wrong.” If you do, I guarantee you’ll find yourself wiser in the use of intentional accidents in your future paintings.


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