Plateau and Failed Paintings

Progress in anything I’m familiar with is marked by improvement curves and plateaus. I’m in a plateau right now with my watercolor. I wonder if it’s because I have been trying to learn by watching many different painters and trying to grab what lessons I can from them all. Maybe, learning this way is the equivalent of painting a wash using all the pigments in my palette.

Failed Painting

Here’s a failed painting I made a little bit ago. I wanted to try to paint the Ravine again, but in landscape instead of portrait. This was immediately after a painting that I actually liked for the most part. The funny thing is I liked this painting a lot before I got to the trees.


I started with the sky and a grey blurred background, which I liked. I felt like it was moody and distant which helped convey a sense of depth.

Maybe I should have stopped here.

Then I painted the foreground and loved the wash. I was trying very hard to follow the bead and let the pigment mix on the paper. I kind of wish I had stopped there.

Uh oh… it’s starting to fall apart.

Then I added these trees. I like the red and orange on the trunks to convey light. The shadow on the grass is a nest of confusion and haste. The branches are much the same. I was trying to paint with confidence like Joseph Zbukvic or Rick Surowicz or Alvaro Castagnet – it’s awful. You can see how timid I am in the branches, second guessing myself as I paint, and the leaves are slapped in place like an imposter. This isn’t me. This is me trying to be Joseph Alvaro Surowicz. Nope.

Shit shit shit…

I need an oblique! I need value contrast! I need to reduce my palette! I need to dull garish colors! I need perspective and light traps and brushwork and atmosphere and mood and… oh god. It’s ruined.

More. Maybe more will fix it.

By the time I started painting figures all hope was lost. Everything is wrong. I started painting like me, and got to painting to avoid the criticism I find myself saying in my head about amateurish work. Don’t be like them! Don’t be bad! Don’t over do it! BURP. it’s done. It’s ruined.

Failed Plein Air

“Go outside” I said to myself. “Paint the light. Relax. Take your time. See how the monument is a beautiful blue on the right and golden orange on the left? Look at those people and their shadows – how they cast such dynamic shadows. The tree line is so perfectly directed at the horizon. Sketch it out – carefully now. No! The street is all wrong. That’s ok, fix it in the painting. Ok, paint the wash. Don’t just slap it down, be intentional. No not like that! Perspective man! Don’t forget atmosphere! Ohhh that color is GARISH. You call that purple?! There’s no sense of depth! You’ve ruined it. Relax!”

Oh my! Look how the light bounces around on the underside of the bridge!

I went back outside. I want to calm down. I want to be at peace. I drove to the tow path, and found this absolutely gorgeous spot to paint. And I utterly ruined it. The light on the underside of the bridge was so gorgeous, but – I couldn’t get the perspective right in my drawing. The painting never recovered. I threw it away and started over, but the light was fading. I tried to simplify the bridge – knifed some quick lines. Ugh – wrong. Paint the grass – ugh. Wrong. The wall – wrong. The refle-wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. Ok, just shash some branches and leave.

Overworked mud dirt.

I’ll redo the monument-maybe I can improve on it…


I’ve spent a lot of time painting failed paintings. I have an absolute cacophony if voices in my head, each telling me to do something different, and I try to answer them all in the painting. From which brush I use to how much water is on the brush to which pigment, how thick it is, how I apply it to the paper, when can I touch it again… every video and post and book I’ve read scream their lessons as I try to relax and just make something beautiful.

The result is a plateau. Every painting looks and feels like an argument.

I don’t know how to break out of this. I think it’s either: just paint for the hell of it, and discard what everyone thinks – or paint from one teacher. Ignore everyone else and just follow one set of instructions to see what you learn.

One thing is certain. I can’t improve by quitting. This isn’t the end of my painting journey – this is a swamp I need to get through – maybe there’s a meadow up ahead.