Stuck in the middle with you!

what to do when you are stuck with your painting

Right, I’ve got to the middle stages of a painting, and I’m stuck…

These days my paintings begin with no fixed idea of outcome. I may make early choices about colour or bold shapes to get the surface active, but as the layers build often the marks and decisions are fairly random. Occasionally I glue things in, I choose colours I really don’t like – just to rock the boat! And there is certainly a stage where it all looks a complete muddle and I wonder if I have any idea what I’m doing. Keep going. Keep adding, change scale, use hands, use glazes…

Next comes the most crucial part of the process

Early spontaneity is essential if a painting is to have a sense of life. Actually, keeping a feeling of freedom and spontaneity is important right until the end. But, if you only have spontaneity then you can all too easily end up with a painting which simply looks a muddle.

At some point you need to bring in a more conscious assessment. Don’t get me wrong – many of those early processes have thought involved, although perhaps these were more subconscious or intuitive. As my painting experience grows, the more I build an understanding of what is likely to work and these become almost instinctive.

My own personal response is changing all the time as I learn how I want to deal with the paint, but there comes a stage where I need to take charge over the so-called random marks.

At times it can be clear what I want to do; certain elements may stand out to me and I know what I want to amend. Other times, this involves a fair amount of sitting and looking – just sucking in the information already within the painting. It can help to turn the painting, or to reduce a photograph of it – anything which distances me from my experience so far and lets me take a more analytical approach.

Unfortunately at this point one thing usually becomes clear… some of it has to go.

That beautiful part where the yellow and blue overlap just so? It’s just in the wrong place.
The section with all those delicate lines – just too distracting.

This is one of the hardest things I’ve had to come to terms with in this more fluid approach to creating a painting. The loss of parts you love.

So a few things help:

Take regular photographs as a painting progresses

Sometimes I prefer how it was yesterday. Ouch. While I can never recreate (or should try to) what has gone before, it does help if I know I have a visual record. I can use this as a scrapbook of ideas, or just a reminder. Often it’s hard to identify HOW something was actuallycreated and I know I’m not alone in the feeling of looking at a painting and thinking “I made that?!” and next… “Can I even do that again?” But having photographs helps remind me that good things come from trying something new. Often a painting jump steps up a gear just at the point when you do something drastic.

Accept there is no one right answer

At any point a painting has so many options open to you. This is what makes creating art so challenging, and what makes looking at it so invigorating – hopefully you have a sense of what has been and an immersion just at the point the painting stopped…

Knowing that if you sacrifice one part, it will usually benefit the painting as a whole

Just knowing this helps. At first this was something I had to force myself to do because it is so hard to do something risky when you have already put so much time and energy into a painting. But if it’s not working as it is – then what do you really have to lose?

Visualise some alternatives…

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This can be as simple as squinting from a distance and simply using your imagination to project what impact changes might have. Would this dark area be better light? How about if this green shape was much larger?

Hopefully this gets easier, but I have three practical ways to help.

I often use sections of paper to overlay certain areas as a first stage test to see “will this work better?”  I can use coloured paper, pages from magazines or painted paper, or even torn sections from old paper palettes.

The other trick I learnt from the Nicholas Wilton course is to use Photoshop to make some adjustments. There are some limitations to this – you can’t ‘copy and paste’ whole sections of multi-layered paint. If only! That really does only exist in Photoshop world. But it does allow you to troubleshoot if you feel the whole paintings is not working and perhaps work out some ways forward.

This screen shows a recent change I thought through in this way. On the left you can see how the painting was. I had reached a stage where I had this off-set composition which I liked, and the bird shape had materialised. I don’t paint birds, but I rather liked the slightly surreal nature of the bird on the hill. (It reminds me of a Beatles song for some reason. I’ve googled “Beatles song bird on the hill” and it doesn’t exist so there’s another strange subconscious link!) Anyhow, I liked the bird but he was too obvious.

On the right you can see the changes I tested out. My aim was to let the complexity of layers in some areas show clearly – if it’s all complex, it’s all just too much. I wanted the soft green to be key, so I enlarged this area, I introduced some deep reds as the complementary colour to the green and I darkened the ‘sky’. This could have been deep blue or red, but I chose a warm mushroom brown. The destaurated colour lets the other colours take centre stage and the bird becomes slightly hidden.

Of course this now needs to be taken to the studio and created in paint! But having a clear idea helps me make adjustments with a similar clarity of approach. Is this part small and controlled or am I creating a large textured ares with subtle gradations of colour. Either way, better not to be tentative, but decisive.

This painting has now SOLD but you can see current available originals here.





6 replies
  1. Wendy Bailey
    Wendy Bailey says:

    Really interested in your thought process.

    I think the song you may have been thinking about was perhaps ‘Fool on the Hill’ by The Beatles?

    The Fool on the Hill
    The Beatles

    Day after day alone on the hill,
    The man with the foolish grin is keeping perfectly still,
    But nobody wants to know him,
    They can see that he’s just a fool,
    And he never gives an answer,
    But the fool on the hill
    Sees the sun going down,
    And the eyes in his head,
    See the world spinning around.
    Well on his way his head in a cloud,
    The man of a thousand voices talking percetly loud
    But nobody ever hears him,
    Or the sound he appears to make,
    And he never seems to notice,
    But the fool on the hill . . .
    Nobody seems to like him
    They can tell what he wants to do.
    And he never shows his feelings,
    But the fool on the hill . . .

    Songwriters: John Lennon / John Winston Lennon / Paul Mccartney / Paul James Mccartney
    The Fool on the Hill lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

    • Alice
      Alice says:

      Yes, possibly or ‘blackbird’ Strangely I did one of those silly Facebook quizzes today and got 100% right in matching 19 Beatles lyrics to the right songs! Definitely good ideas for titles in there…

  2. mary
    mary says:

    Thank you for this Alice. Its fascinating to hear what you have learned from Nicholas Wilton. I follow his blog and thought his video trailers for the Art to Life course brilliant and so helpful. The course is beyond my means so rather cheekily I feel I can benefit vicariously from you.

    best wishes

    • Alice
      Alice says:

      It’s not cheeky Mary – he actively encourages sharing! Pass it on 🙂 His videos are very helpful and it takes time to apply it to your own work. I find hearing the same idea repeatedly is helpful for me and sometimes a slightly different angle from a different source is what give you the a-ha! moment. Thank you for reading, and you can share the post so others may benefit too.

    • Alice
      Alice says:

      Definitely! Even having had a pause will help you see them fresh – but can make it harder to go back in to them I find. It’s almost the same as beginning – there was a reason perhaps why you stopped. Sometimes the piece is actually done and you only need small changes with a fresh eye. Sometimes you need to do something radical – and if they’ve just been waiting, face to the wall…. you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. 🙂 Let me know how you get on.

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