Kerrie Woodhouse

Whimsical Watercolour

Watercolor Problems - I hate my art… now what?

art tipsKerrie Woodhouse

Have you ever turned out a painting that you hate? Of course you have - everyone does.

One of the watercolor problems that every artist needs to learn to solve is handling the paintings that they don’t think are good enough. It happens to us all, believe me.


Don’t be fooled by the Facebook effect where only the brightest shiniest versions of everyone’s life see the light of day. Even the most accomplished artist will turn out a painting or two that no one ever gets to see because they don’t think it is good enough.

It is one of our natural human tendencies to strive to do better. This means that as you progress in anything you do, you lift your own expectations. This is a good thing, but it does mean that dodgy paintings are an inevitable part of the process. There are broken eggs for every omelette, after all.

Since creating a disappointing painting every so often is par for the course, I think that it is a watercolor problem we should talk about a bit more. Eventually you will hear yourself say I hate my art ! Here are some strategies for handling that eventuality with grace.

I think the easiest way to do this is to talk you through an example of one of my own paintings which I considered to be less than stellar. Yes, how lucky that I can utter those immortal TV cooking show words…. Here’s one I prepared earlier…

One of the series I painted is called Rainbow Roosters. It was a lot of fun and I produced some paintings that I did like. Even made a flip through video.

But there was this other painting that just did not make the grade in my opinion. So let’s use this rooster as our guinea pig, as it were…to take you through my own 3 step process for gnarly paintings.

What to do when you hate your painting - a 3 step process

There are two important aspects to dealing with a painting that you hate, I think - the touchy feely mindset part and the physical practicality part. Of these, of course, the mindset is the most significant.

When we create with our hands and hearts our products are an extension of ourselves. Harshly criticise your painting and you are harshly criticising yourself whether you realise it or not. This will not help your next painting.

Not everything you create will be a masterpiece, but learn to love it all the same.

Your paintings are a bit like your children. Most of the time they are  brilliant and wonderful…. And then there are those other times…

Use the same advice they give to parents. Encourage what you would like to see more of, and try to let go of the rest.

If you are on a road trip and you get a bit lost, you won't help your cause very much by dwelling on all the wrong turns you made. Focusing on where you are still  trying to go is the better way to reach your destination.

So that brings me to my three step process for handling the paintings you think you hate.


1.Analyse don't criticise

I bet you already know what you don't like about your painting. Use it as a way to refocus your attention to what you do want rather than a way to judge your shortcomings.

For example, I know what went wrong with my rooster. He seemed a bit wishy washy. This is a reminder to be bolder with the colour in the first instance as watercolour dries paler. This I will definitely keep in mind for the next painting.

Once I noticed that I added a second layer of colour to him for a bit more oomph. However I lost the energy of that first wash (which I love) and the shape and volume of his body which now appears pasted onto the background. This reminds me that what I love is the alla prima approach - fresh loose and lively - all in one go. Working in layers is perfectly fine, it’s just not what makes my heart happy.

Now you see I could go on here. But I think it is best to take one or two pointers from the painting and move on.

You know what you don’t like about your painting but try to view these aspects from the perspective of what you are aiming for, not what you did ‘wrong’

2. Find something good to say about your painting

If I were a psychologist I would give you a lecture about negativity bias and how we are all programmed, for the sake of survival, to pay more attention to the negatives than the positives. All I will say is fight your natural programming by making a special point of finding at least as many things you do like about the painting as the negatives you already identified.

For my rooster painting, I really like the abstract washes in the background. They remind me how much I love watercolour and the way it does some of the painting for you if you let it.

Actually I have a whole class about that very idea of collaborating with the watercolour - you can check it out here, if you are interested…

Abstract backgrounds give a nice softness that emphasises the subject - I’ll remember to do a bit more of that in future paintings.

I also am really loving the indigo I used. I had forgotten about it in my palette so I am looking forward to using it a bit more. Loving how it works with the Indian Red I have too. A super useful colour.

Now to the practical side which is Step 3. It’s a good one because really, there are so many options available to you.

3. What to physically do with the problem watercolor painting

Option 1 : Experiment with all the watercolor techniques you can think of

You have nothing to lose now! May as well try out anything you can think of to alter the perceived problems in your painting.

This is the time to test your lifting out skills, perhaps?

See if you can rewet that dry paint and lift if out. At the very least you will start to learn which paints in your palette do this better than others and how successful you can be with this after different lengths of drying time.

Maybe see if you can add something to the composition, paint another layer like I did, or whatever you can think of.

If you can maintain the spirit of play and experimentation you have a terrific opportunity here with this painting.

Option 2 : throw it away and never speak of it again

It is just a piece of paper (another advantage of watercolour) so this is a perfectly valid option. But I am quite serious when I say never speak of it again.

If you have decided that the best thing to do is to physically dispose of it then you don’t want to use it as instrument of mental torture by keeping a tally of your perceived failures in your head.

The problem is not the problem, the problem is that you keep thinking and talking about the problem
— Dana Wilde

Option 3 : Add Mixed Media to your watercolour painting

One of the things I love about watercolour is how nicely it plays with so many other art supplies. On a base of watercolour you can add coloured pencil, pastel, gouache, pen, ink and many others I am sure. In fact you can even take some acrylic paint and paint an entirely new painting over the top of this one.

I decided to do some doodling over my rooster. Let me show you.

Option 4 : flip it - turn that watercolour painting over

If you are using 300gsm (140lb) watercolor paper (and I recommend that you do) then you can turn the painting over and paint on the back. SInce it is not a perfectly pristine sheet anymore it is a bit less intimidating of a ‘blank’ page to start with - how freeing!

Since I seem to be in confession mode here, I did this by accident once. I spent days hunting for one of the paintings in my Vases of Flowers series. There is a mirror in my studio and I just happened to glance up at myself holding a bunch of paintings in my hand. Imagine my surprise to find the missing painting on the back of the one in my hand!

The point is, it is perfectly possible to use both sides of the paper… either accidentally or on purpose.

Option 5 : Recycle that watercolour painting

How about getting out the scissors and chopping it up. Yes, I know, sounds satisfying already. You can turn this one less satisfactory painting into a series of tiny little abstract paintings.

(That’s what I did with the cut out bits of this rooster painting in the quote below.)


If you are a crafty sort who is into things like journalling or scrapbooking then what you have in your hands is a whole lot of ready prepared tags. You can cut them into tag shapes and use them like any other tag in your journal.

Add a quote perhaps, or use it as a journaling tag.

Or an actual gift tag.

Or a bookmark.

See? So many options.

Use any leftover scraps as test paper for trying out colour schemes for the next paintings.

So there you are. Regardless of your own opinion of the painting you have created, don’t waste your energy berating yourself  for any perceived mistakes or failures.

There is no such thing as a ‘bad’ painting.  

There’s mostly just more opportunities for art.

Happy painting.

Looking for more art tips?

I’ve got you covered.

How about one of these?

Is your inner critic preventing you from doing your creative work?

How to paint a portrait in watercolour

Why paint? Do you ever question the importance of painting… or is it just me?

Where do you get your creative inspiration?

Which watercolour paper should you choose?