Gain Freedom in Your Painting (by Embracing Your Mistakes)

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embrace and learn from your painting mistakes

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Embracing your painting mistakes, can have profound benefits. As artists, we often strive to create “good” paintings, but this kind of mindset hinders our growth and development. Therefore it’s important to remember that the creative process is just as valuable as the end result. 

This article is your guide to embracing the ‘mistakes’ in your work, and discovering the freedom in painting that lies within these unexpected moments.

Freedom from painting mistakes

One reason why we often approach a painting very carefully and neatly is because we are afraid of making mistakes. We so badly want our painting to turn out well and look beautiful. However, this is one of the biggest hindrances in our forward progress as painters.

example of degas embracing painting mistakes for real growth
Here is an unfinished painting by Degas as a reminder to not be afraid of exploring a painting and leaving it unfinished. You might find yourself returning to it later or taking what you explored and moving on to another piece.

There is great freedom in embracing the painting mistakes your painting and not being afraid to have to make multiple starts. It is important to allow yourself to be messy in your painting and be willing to make mistakes in the process. Mistakes are inevitable in any creative process, and painting is no exception.

Growth never happens without mistakes

To grow as an artist, it’s important to approach mistakes not as failures, but as opportunities for learning and experimentation. It sounds cliché, but it couldn’t be more true. When you allow yourself to make painting mistakes, you open yourself up to new techniques, styles, and mediums that you might not have discovered otherwise. You’ll find yourself more willing to take risks and explore new ideas in your artwork.

Prioritize the process

example of a painting not worrying about mistakes
Focusing on the painting process and capturing values in color allows your art to have a real sense of painting loosely.

It’s easy to get caught up in the end result of your painting. However, the process is far more important than the end result. By prioritizing the painting process over the final product, you will end up achieving paintings with greater results. The path to creating profound and beautiful work is to push yourself to grow and develop. This path requires you to get messy with your painting and be willing to make mistakes.

Growth comes from the process

You will naturally find yourself growing and developing your skills and work when you focus on the process.

Painting a landscape is a lot about capturing the environment – and you are able to do that by focusing on the elements within your painting process, such as; edges, colors and composition.

When you are mentally active and involved “in the trenches” you are much more aware of what you are doing. Every decision you make isn’t done out of fear of failing, but rather out of a sense of curiosity and desire to discover something new. This shows through in your work in the end.

Ironically, a lack of concern with the end result actually ends up creating the best work. The key is to becoming deeply involved in the process.

Let go of trying to control (your painting mistakes)

One of the hardest things for a painter to do is to let go of control. Instead of worrying about each brushstroke being perfect. However, by embracing the process and letting go of control, you free yourself up to create something truly special.

When you’re painting a seascape there’s no better time to let go of control and embrace your painting mistakes. Seascapes are constantly changing – the sky is constantly changing. So, allow yourself to paint freely and experiment.

It is a real struggle to let go of wanting your painting to turn out perfectly. However, as a painter you need to be willing to make dozens, if not hundreds of paintings. Doing so will allow you to achieve greater degrees of learning that will have lasting impacts on your painting. So, avoid treating each painting as a potential flawless masterpiece. Instead, embrace them as opportunities to learn and discover something new.

You might find yourself trying new brushes, techniques, and ways of painting that you wouldn’t have considered before. By letting go of control and embracing the messiness of painting, you can find a newfound sense of freedom and creativity in your work.

Make lots of starts

So many artists end up painting so tightly because they’re afraid of messing up their painting. One of the best ways to combat this, is by practicing making a lot of new starts to a painting. You can easily scratch out your painting with your palette knife or paint overtop of it if you’re concerned with using canvas.

The best way to embrace painting mistakes and messiness in your work is to make lots of starts. This is one of the most rapid ways to grow. When you focus purely on the start of a painting you immerse yourself into the process over the product of the end result.

How to make lots of starts

In order to make lots of starts you need to be willing to make lots and lots of paintings. This is done by working in a premier coup/ alla prima manner with a deep focus on the fundamentals.

Have plenty of linen canvas available to you to paint on so you have a ready supply. Make an adequate size painting surface available for yourself – such as a 9 x 12 or 12 x 16 in. Make a sketch of your subject matter and then begin your painting with the first three spots of color. Continue with your painting by working thoughtfully but rapidly at the same time. Only work on your painting for about 2 – 3 hours.

Limits create freedom

When you know that you will not be working on a painting for more than 3 hours, this releases a certain attachment to your painting. Instead you gain freedom to paint messy and make mistakes – allowing you to grow and learn more with each and every premier coup/ alla prima painting you do.

Success requires failure

In conclusion, to be a successful painter, it’s important to ‘paint messy.’ When you embrace your painting mistakes, prioritize the process, let go of control, and understand that the process is just as important as the outcome. you open yourself up to a world of new creative possibilities.

Here is a character study by Degas that isn’t concerned by being messy – growth comes from leaning into the painting process and making lot’s of starts and painting studies.

Not only will your painting mistakes help you grow and develop as an artist but they’ll lead to more beautiful and unique works of art that truly capture your creative spirit. So let go of control, embrace the messiness of painting, and watch as your artwork flourishes.


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    Hello! I'm Elisabeth Larson Koehler

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    6 thoughts on “Gain Freedom in Your Painting (by Embracing Your Mistakes)”

    1. Good reminder: got to be making hundreds of paintings, don’t look for perfection & make a work under 3 hours. So true, I made a painting right after reading your article. Thanks!

    2. I should reread this article every day before I paint! Perhaps I’ll eventually get in the right mindset .I need to resist the urge to grind away trying to control the work…control isn’t my strong suit anyway but finding the balance between loose and merely slapdash- there’s the rub!

      1. Good to hear from you David! It really is something that requires continually reminding. I always need to remind myself of these things as well. I find that it is a lifelong process – as I think the more we paint the more we realize there are more and more layers to the act of embracing mistakes and creating a sense of freedom and finding that balance as you mention. You are doing a great job in pursuing these things!

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