Photo Gallery: Painting Problems

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Painting Problem: Identifying or Isolating Colors in a Small Area

How to make a painting viewfinder
From the Painting Problem Solver. "Cup & Spoon" by Gerald Dextraze. 8x10" (20x25cm). Oil on cotton canvas. Photo © Gerald Dextraze

Solutions to painting problems encountered learning to paint.

The aim of this visual guide to common problems encountered when painting is to a solution (where possible). Sometimes problems arise because of a lack of brush control or lacking technical knowledge. Usually there is a solution, but sometimes what seems a problem may in fact not be one.

For more even more solutions to painting problems, check out the Painting Problem Solver Hub. If you don't find an answer, you're welcome to email me and I'll see if I can help.

From the Artist, Gerald Dextraze: Cup and Spoon is a study in which I was focusing mostly on the spoon and light effects. I painted the spoon from life (it's almost life size); the rest of this study is creation.

To help me identify or isolate colors on the spoon I cut a piece of cardboard with holes in it. I painted this acrylic black mat so I could see small sections of color on the spoon without seeing other objects or colors around it.

Painters can use this viewfinder in many more ways; they only have to be creative. Like painting a small sample of your mixed color on a piece of paper (or plastic if you prefer) and holding it near the hole to compare before applying the color to your canvas. When the colors match, the painting will be perfectly in register with the subject or model.

02
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Painting Problem: Straight Horizons and Lines

Painting straight horizons and lines
From the Painting Problem Solver. Image: © 2008 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc

I know from experience I have a tendency to skew my horizons, so before I've gone very far in a painting I use a T-Square to check it. It's just a matter of putting the T-Square on the edge of the canvas, then holding it in place with one hand while with the other I mark where the horizon ought to be.

If the paint is still wet, I scratch a line in it with a painting knife or the handle of a brush. If the paint has dried, I either mark it just with a damp brush (if I'm using acrylics) or with a very thin bit of paint so it doesn't impact on what I'm subsequently going to paint.

It's something that'll work wherever you need a straight line, whether horizontal or vertical. Look for a T-Square that's long enough to extend across most the width of the typical size canvas you use. If you don't have very strong hands, look for a lightweight plastic one.

I use an old wooden one of my Dad's, which is very sturdy. (It has one straight edge and one angled, which I've made idiot-proof by painting the large arrow on it pointing to the straight edge!) I don't stress about getting paint on it (it is just a working tool after all), but at the same time do make a point of wiping the edge after I've used it so it doesn't become uneven from accumulated dried paint.

Buy Direct: Buy Wooden T-Square and Plastic T-Square

See Also:
• Knife Painting Tutorial: Rocky Seascape

03
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How to Use Masking Tape to Paint a Straight Line

Using masking tape for painting a straight line
From the Painting Problem Solver. Here I'm using masking tape to help me paint a straight horizon line in a seascape. Photo ©2012 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

Make the job of painting a long straight line of equal width easier by using masking tape. (It works for short lines too, obviously.) Cut two strips, then stick them onto the painting in the right place, with a small gap between them. Check the strips are straight by measuring from the edge of the canvas. Ensure they're firmly pressed down so paint doesn't seep underneath.

Then using paint that isn't too fluid (which is more likely to seep under the tape than stiff paint), brush along the line. Try to avoid brushing into the edge of the tape as this may force paint underneath it.

Once you've painted the line, remove the masking tape and that should be that. If the paint has seeped beneath the tape, dab off the excess with a bit of cloth. If you wait for the paint to dry before you remove the tape, you obviously won't be able to do this, which is why I remove the tape soon after painting.

04
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Painting Problem: Trying to Include Too Much in a Landscape Painting

Painting composition -- using a viewfinder to select the best possible composition in a landscape.
From the Painting Problem Solver. Using a viewfinder helps you isolate part of a scene, to select the strongest composition for a landscape painting. Image: ©2007 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc

When you're out scouting a landscape for potential paintings, it's crucial to stop and look at the scene in sections, to remember that you don't have to include everything. To this end, it's helpful to take a viewfinder (or use your fingers as a viewfinder) to help isolate part of the scene. Trying to include too much in a painting (and especially on a relatively small canvas) can mean you end up with a work that lacks focus, and seems cluttered.

The stretch of coastline shown in the photo (above, bottom) is one I've walked along regularly. But then one day, after I'd been reading a monograph on Monet, paying particular attention to reproductions of some of his seascapes (such as this one in the Musée d'Orsay), I suddenly noticed the strong curve of the cliff edge, which echoes the curves of the hills in the distance.

Cropping the scene to just a section (top photo) makes for a strong composition, dominated by curves contrasted by the horizon line. I've sat on the benches admiring the view there many times, and I've done paintings featuring the hills in the distance (see this painting demo), but I'd never considered the cliff edge at my feet until before. I'd been looking at everything, including too much of the view, rather than considering smaller aspects of it. Inspired by Monet, I saw the piece of coastline with new eyes, and will never see it the same again.

See Also:
• Painting Composition Class: Using a Viewfinder
• Painting Composition Class: How to Make a Viewfinder
• Top 10 Tips for Painting Composition

05
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Painting Problem: Splattering

Painting Problem Solver -- Splattering paint
From the Painting Problem Solver. Image: ©2007 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc

When you're painting with very fluid paint, it's may happen that you accidentally splatter some where you hadn't intended. If you notice it while the splatters are still wet, you can wipe them off or brush them in. If you notice only when the splatters are dry, you can either paint over them, or ignore them as part of what gives the painting character.

Whether it's really a problem of not depends on the color splattered, and what style the painting is in. If it's a photorealistic painting, then it'll likely look like a mistake; if it's an expressionist-style painting, then it'll likely look like part of the painting.

06
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Painting Problem: Glazing Not Working

Painting problem solver -- glazing
From the Painting Problem Solver. Images: © Rich Mason / Tina Jones

If building up colors by glazing isn't working, there are two things to check. First: are you glazing onto paint that is utterly, totally, and completely dry? If it's not, then the fresh and old paint will mix on the canvas, which you don't want.

The second, are your colors thin and transparent? When glazing, it's better to have to apply another glaze because the color isn't quite where you want it to be rather than using paint that's too opaque or thick. A glaze should be like a color filter, rather than a color layer.

The photo above left shows a painting where the paint used for glazing isn't thin enough to produce subtle color changes. This will be solved by diluting the colors with more medium than has been used. The photo above right shows how far you can go in terms of diluting a color for glazing. It may look too thin, as if it won't have any effect, but it will. Glazing is about building color up through layers, slowly, until you've the strength of color you want.

See Also:
• Top 7 Tips for Painting Glazes
• How to Paint Glazes in Oils or Acrylics
• Painting Demo: Glazing with Acrylics
• Painting Glazes with Watercolor
• An Oil Painter Reveals His Glazing Secrets

07
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Painting Problem: Leftover Color

Painting problem solver -- leftover color
From the Painting Problem Solver. Image: ©2007 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc

If you're painting over an old painting, or change your choice of colors after you've been painting a while (for whatever reason), you may get small bits where a 'wrong' or leftover color still shows. Whether this is indeed a problem or not depends on the colors involved.

In the painting in the photo above, the blue in the final painting was Prussian blue, but initially I used some cobalt turquoise light hue in the foreground. My intention had been to use the cobalt turquoise for shallow water, but then I decided that the shallows would be dominated by foam and not show any clear water. For this to work visually, the white of the foam then needed to be mixed with the Prussian blue of the open sea.

When I'd finished, I noticed that in a few areas there were tiny bits of the cobalt turquoise still showing. Now, is it really a problem? A tiny bit of wrong or stray color in a painting can be extremely distracting, or it can enhance a painting by being visually intriguing but noticeable only on close inspection.

In this particular instance, I think it simply adds visual interest. If it's been some other color, say a bright orange, it may well have been annoying and distracting. It all depends on the color(s) involved, and on your eye. One of the 'rules' for getting harmonious colors in a painting, is to select a small range of colors and stick to these. But sometimes breaking the rules gives better results.

08
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Painting Problem: Fingerprints in Varnish

Painting Problem Solver
From the Painting Problem Solver Note: When I took the photo, I specifically angled the painting towards the light to show up the varnish. Image: ©2007 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc

When this painting is angled to the light, three dull fingermarks show up in the matt varnish. I no doubt created them when I moved the painting while the varnish was wet, rather than leaving it on the table to dry first.

What to do? Pretending you never noticed is the easy option, but not the best for your reputation as a competent painter. Removing the varnish and starting again would be the ultimate, but time consuming. (And let's admit it, varnishing isn't a particularly exciting aspect of painting in the first place.)

Which leaves adding another layer or two of varnish, applied with greater care than the first time. Add it across the whole painting, not just a section. Otherwise you run the risk of getting a stripe in your varnish that shows up in the light, repeating the problem.

If you notice something like this when the varnish is still drying, avoid the temptation to touch up just that area unless the varnish is still very wet. If you disturb varnish that's started drying, you run the risk that it'll turn opaque or milky.

See Also:
• Varnishing Paintings: How and Why

09
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Painting Problem: Irrelevant Texture

Painting Problem Solver
From the Painting Problem Solver. Image: ©2007 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc

This painting was done over an old one and in a section there's texture that's irrelevant to the final painting. It's a problem partly because there isn't similar texture elsewhere in the painting, and partly because it doesn't relate to the subject of the painting. If the texture had been horizontal it might have added to the feeling of sea, but as it is it simply looks like muck on the painting.

It's unfortunate that I only noticed it once the paint had dried, and so any attempt at fixing it will involve a fair bit of repainting. (I'd been trying out a new brand of acrylic paint, so had used an old canvas as I'd intended to simply play with the paint. As it was, I ended up with something I wanted to keep.)

I could either add more texture to the painting overall, hiding the mistake, or remove the lump and then repaint. As it's acrylic paint, I'd first try peeling or picking it off with a fingernail (you could use a knife, but I'm paranoid about slicing a hole in the canvas) or by using some sandpaper to wear it down. If it were oil paint, I'd go at it with some turps on pointed edge a cloth.

10
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Painting Problem: Perspective on a Stool

Painting Problem Solver -- Perspective on a stool
From the Painting Problem Solver. Painting © Usha Shantharam

This painting was submitted by Usha for the Still Life with Fruit Painting Project Gallery, saying: "I know that something is wrong, I think it is the composition, or the view-point."

I'd agree, something definitely has gone awry in this painting, and I believe the problem lies with the perspective of the legs of the stool. The edges of the stool top and the cross-struts on the legs ought to be parallel, but they're not. Rather it's as if the viewer is being shown two different viewpoints of the stool's legs.

In the photo at the bottom, I've made a few quick changes to the stool legs in a photo-editing program. Although it's not perfectly done, you can immediately see that it looks more "right", so the painting's problem does indeed lie with with the perspective of the stool.

Getting the perspective right to fix the problem is a question of careful observation and measuring. Ensure that you're standing in the same spot when you're checking too! And if you're using a pencil to check angles, make sure you're doing it with your arm and wrist straight, not bent.

See Also:

  • How To Accurately Measure the Angles in Objects in a Painting

11
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Painting Problem: Background Fighting for Attention

Painting a background
From the Painting Problem Solver. Painting © Lyn Rasmussen

If you've a background that's competing for attention with the main elements in a painting (in this example, a still life), what are your options? You want to adjust the background so the viewer's eyes are pulled into the main subject, and don't wander around unable to decide what to focus on.

Of the four versions of the painting in the photo above, No.1 is the original. The painting is called Sphere, Cube and Cylinder with Poppies: Learning to Paint in Red and was submitted by Lyn Rasmussen to the Still Life with Red Painting Project Gallery, with a question about how to push the background away.

I think the solution is to lightened the tone of the background, and reduce the detail a little, as shown in No.4. If you make the background brighter, more like a sunny day, (No.2) or reduce the detail and darken the tones a little (No.3), I think the background still fights too much for attention.

By lightening the tone, the red elements in the painting become dominant in tone, as well as in color. This pulls the viewer's eye strongly towards them.

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Painting Problem: How to Paint Circles

How to paint circles
From the Painting Problem Solver. Painting © Diane Leckenby

From the Artist, Diane Leckenby: I love doing circles in my paintings. What I do is to first draw the circle with a pencil, using a plate or saucepan lid whatever size you need (there is always something in the house) on my painting. Then, using a fairly soft square brush, start with the edge of the circle. Use the edge of the brush to go all the way around the circle, then change to a bigger brush for the center.

More Tips on Painting Circles:

  • From the Painting Guide: Use a brush where the hairs don't spread out but drag together nicely to give a sharper edge rather than a ragged one. My favorite brush shape is a filbert and turned so you're leading with the narrow side, this works well to tidy up the edge of a "colored-in" circle. For an outlined circle, a rigger brush may work best as you can get a longer line without having to stop and start. But it takes a bit of practice to get a line of consistent width.

  • From Tina Jones: Trace and cut a flat kitchen sponge for larger circles, smoothing out the sponge marks when you've applied the paint with a brush. Or make a stencil out of cardboard and paint it in.

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Painting Problem Solver: Cropping a Composition

Cropping a painting for a stronger composition
From the Visual Painting Problem Solver. Photo © A Lester

If you've ended up with a composition where the subject is getting a bit lost on the canvas or sheet of paper, don't let the shape and/or size of a canvas or sheet of paper dictate. Instead, consider cropping or cutting off part of the composition, either only a little or in an extreme fashion.

Preview what it might look like by covering over the sections you might crop with some paper or card, then stepping back to consider the result. What you're after is a composition where the space around the subject or focus of the painting forms visually intriguing negative spaces.

Don't fret about cropping off some of the subject. Someone looking at the painting will mentally complete the subject, and be actively engaged with the painting when they're looking at it.

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Painting Problem Solver: Applying the Rule of Thirds

Painting project
From the Visual Painting Problem Solver. In the example here, the photo on the left shows the original painting, the center photo shows the composition with the rock in the middle removed, and the right-hand photo shows the composition adjusted slightly to put it in line with the Rule of Thirds. Photo © Frances Tanner

If there's something about a painting that simply doesn't feel right but you can't figure out just what it is, go back to the basics. Squint your eyes to check the balance of light and dark tones. Identify the major elements in the composition to see how they related to one another, and check if they work with the Rule of Thirds. Look at the colors you've used to see if there's something that doesn't sit comfortably.

In the original composition the rock in the center is a bit too much of a distraction, pulling your eye in too strongly and to the detriment of what else is in the painting. The options would be either to take it out completely (provided it's not a well-known part of a famous landscape!), or to reduce it in height (as well as lightening the tone). In the manipulated photos, it's been taken out completely and the tone of the other distant rocks knocked back a little.

Other slight adjustments that have been made are lightening the tone of the front bit of coast has a little as it was a little too dark, creating too much of a contrast with the rest of the coast and with the brightness of the horizon. And making the horizon line a little more more definite, so there is more of a distinction between the sea and sky. At the moment there's too large an area of very light tone that your brain has to work too hard to figure out what's going on. It doesn't have to be much, just a subtle change of tone on the horizon in to the sky.

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Painting a Still Life With the Help of Photos

Painting from life -- still life setup
From the Visual Painting Problem Solver. Top: Photo of a still life set-up. Below left and right: Two paintings created from this still-life set-up and reference photos taken of it. Photo © Rene Ghirardi

With a still life painting, taking photos can be a useful way to access what you're looking at.

From the Artist, Rene Ghirardi: I believe photos are a reference. I set up a still life, for instance, shoot my own photo(s) and then work in Photoshop with cropping, etc. The result becomes my 'guide' to transfer to the canvas.

Then I paint from the actual still-life setup and the viewpoint from which I shot the photo. Occasionally I'll reference the photo for some close-up details that are easier to see in a photo than sticking my nose an inch from the actual setup.

Here you can see two different paintings in which I used both the still-life setup and a photograph. With the second painting (bottom right), I departed further from the actual setup and photo although I still referenced both.

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How to Use a Photo as Reference for a Painting

Using reference photos in a painting
From the Visual Painting Problem Solver. Left: The reference photo. Right: The completed painting. Photos © Brian Rice

From the Artist, Brian Rice: This photo and painting show how I use a reference but I am not being a slave to the photo. You will see that I just used the photo as an idea. I did my own thing with regard to position, color and shape of the rocks, trees, grasses and even the well house.

I changed the design of the simple construction to be more typical of the craftsmanship of my grandfather's era. For example I put trim on the right side corner as it is on the left this gives the building a proper design. My painting is quite different to the photo. It is richer in color and conveys the feeling I wanted to get to the viewer much better then the photo would. I feel I was able to use the reference as an idea without allowing the reference to enslave me.

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How to Use an Arm as a Mahl Stick

Using an arm as a mahl stick for painting details
From the Visual Painting Problem Solver. Photo © Gerald Dextraze

Tip from artistGerald Dextraze: Using a mahl stick is the classic answer to steady your hand, but I prefer using my arm which I control a lot better. These photos show how I do it.

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DIY Travel Paint Set

Pocket painting palette
From the Visual Painting Problem Solver. Photos © Reidar Huseby. Used with Permission.

From the Artist, Reidar Huseby: I am a traveling painter. I keep my pencils and brushes in my jacket, the car, the house -- well, according to my wife, "everywhere". In order to ease the world for all parties, I have set up a low-cost, high-value solution for a travel paint kit. I use an old CD-cover and the small, handy camera-memory boxes for travel palettes. Add a waterbrush, a bit of paper, and you're on the go.

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Oil Painting Palette of Artist Jerry Fresia

Oil painting palette of Jerry Fresia
A list of the oil paint colors used on his painting palette. Photo © Jerry Fresia

• Jerry Fresia's Articles on Painting

From the Artist: My paint palette is 16x20 inches (40x50cm). When I go out to paint, in addition to the easel and canvas, I carry a separate box that contains just this palette. I find that I need at least this much space to mix colors comfortably and often I need to clean my palette during the painting process. I clean my palette with paint thinner each and very time that I paint.

The colors are:
1. Vermilion
2. Cadmium orange
3. Cadmium yellow medium
4. Cadmium yellow light
5. Permanent yellow green
6. Permanent green
7. Emerald emerald
8. Viridian
9. Turquoise
10. Cerulean
11. Cobalt blue
12. Ultramarine blue
13. Dioxin purple
14. Alizarin crimson
15. Quinachridone rose
16. Titanium or lead white

This palette uses what are called "prismatic" colors; that is, the colors that white light breaks into when it passes through a prism. These are also the colors of the rainbow. The reasoning is that everything we see is light and one way of painting what you see is to paint the light. So, we use the actual colors of light, when broken down into its component wave lengths to help create the feeling of light on the canvas, as opposed to painting descriptively or painting things with names - house, tree, person, sky, etc.

It is rare that I use colors straight out of the tube because the odds that a manufacturer produced exactly the color that I am seeing when I look at something is very low. Also, remember that when we look at anything, we are like fish in water looking at something, except our water is the atmosphere. This means that everything will be mediated and unified by the atmospheric colors at a particular time and place. In short, that we mix a great deal both on the palette and on the canvas.

It should also be pointed out that colors are always relationships. A bright red, for example, is bright only because of what is around it. This means that we must always be squinting. Otherwise we are not able to see color or value relationships well.

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Matching Rose Doré

Rose Dore paint color swatch
Visual Painting Problem Solver Left to right: Rose Dore. Permanent Rose + Titanium White. Permanent Rose. Permanent Rose + Zinc White. Permanent Rose + Zinc White + Winsor Yellow. Color swatches by Paul Robinson from the Winsor & Newton Techical Team. © Photo courtesy of Winsor & Newton

Rose doré is a distinctive light red but it's an expensive color, so what might you substitute for it? As these swatches show, it's not an easy color to match in both transparency and hue, though the various alternatives may be close enough for you.
• More about Substitutes for Rose Doré

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DIY Container for Cleaning Oil Paint Brushes

DIY paint brush bottle for rinsing or cleaning a paint brush
From the Painting Problem Solver. Photo © Claude

From the Artist: This is the container I use to clean my oil painting brushes. To make one, you'll need a glass container with a tight-fitting, screw-on lid and a rubber band (or clothes peg). The rubber band (or the clothes peg) prevents the brush's ferrule from falling in the turpentine.

Drill a hole close to the center of the lid, big enough to accommodate most brush sizes. Place the brush handle a little way through the hole from inside, then wrap the rubber band around the brush handle on the outside of the lid. Pour some turpentine into the container. Screw the lid (with brush) onto the container.

You want only the bristles with the paint to be in the turps. While holding the brush handle, roll the rubber band (or slide the clothes peg) upward until only the bristles remains in the turpentine.

Eventually the liquids will separate (the paint from the turpentine), and the paint will settle at the bottom of the glass container. I recycle the top (turpentine) by pouring it in another container, then I discard the remaining paint using paper.