The 13 Typical Mistakes of the Beginner Painter
Most Beginner Painters Make the Same Types of Mistakes
Have you ever been to a fine art exhibit and had the impression that the paintings were made by amateurs? Somehow, you don't need to be a great artist to spot beginner's artwork, you just know. But what are the giveaways of amateurish works of art?
Below is a list of the most common artistic missteps to avoid—otherwise, it could be your artwork being labeled mediocre or inadequate.
What to Avoid:
- Placing the main focal point in the center of the painting
- Painting with small brushes in the beginning
- Painting similar or equidistant objects
- Having the same amount of details in foreground and background
- Using greens straight out of a tube
- Not knowing how to dull, brighten, lighten, or darken colors
- Being stingy with paint
- Including everything you see
- Painting things just the way they are
- Painting what you know, not what you see
- Using the wrong color because you don't want to waste it
- Having only hard edges
- Worrying about the results
Keep reading for more information on each item.
Mistake 1: Placing the Focal Point Smack in the Middle
Avoid putting the center of interest in the middle of the canvas. Otherwise, the eye of the viewer will tend to stay rooted there.
In the same way, avoid having major lines—like the edge of the table, the horizon, or a tall tree trunk—cutting the picture exactly in the middle either vertically or horizontally.
Mistake 2: Painting Details With Small Brushes (From the Beginning)
Brushes come in a wide variety of widths. Small brushes should be used only for details, and you don’t need those until the end. Resist putting in details too early: it would make the painting look overworked.
I like to start with my largest brushes to block in the big shape. Then, I move to medium brushes for smaller shapes. Finally, I use small brushes for the final details.
How big is a big brush? It depends on the surface. If I paint on a 6”x6” (15.2x15.2 cm), I start with a brush that is about one inch (2.5 cm) in size. Then, I slowly move down to smaller brushes.
The bigger the surface, the bigger the brushes you need. For large canvases, like a 30”x40” (76x102 cm), I start with 2"-3” (5/7.5 cm) household painting brushes, move to my biggest fine art brushes, and then slowly work with the smaller ones.
Obviously, you can apply more paint with a wider brush, but that’s not the only reason to use wider brushes. They keep your painting lose. Stay with the larger brushes as long as possible before moving to smaller brushes.
Mistake 3: Painting Similar or Equidistant Objects
There is one simple rule that always applies to a composition: keep all intervals varied. That means you should add variety to all things to keep the viewer interested and their eyes moving around the picture.
For example, in a landscape, vary the shape and size of your trees, the greens you are using, and the intervals in space between them.
Look for the character of each shape. Avoid a neat series of “lollipop” trees, or bushes all of the same size.
Even when things are really lined up and all the same in the reference photo, like a picketed fence, make sure you introduce some variety, like a bigger gap in between, a crooked picket, or a missing one.
Watch Out For Odd-Looking Details
When you try to record subjects as accurately as possible (photographic realism), even the smallest mistake—disproportion, wrong angle—will be highly noticeable to the viewer.
Mistake 4: The Same Amount of Details in the Foreground and Background
This mistake is particularly common in those that are painting from a photograph rather than from life. Many photos show the whole scene detailed and in focus. You can see the individual blade of grass in the foreground and the tree branch in the background. However, that is not how our eyes see. When we focus on one area, the rest of the picture is out of focus.
- Decide where your focal point is and then give that area the highest level of detail.
- Don't paint everything with the same degree of detail. As a general rule, paint looser and with soft edges the background and objects far away. Add more details and hard edges in the foreground.
They'll sell you thousands of greens. Veronese green and emerald green and cadmium green and any sort of green you like; but that particular green, never.— Pablo Picasso
Mistake 5: Using Greens Straight Out of a Tube "As Is"
Most beginners’ landscape paintings have greens that are too bright and all similar to each other. You can just tell they rely on bought colors.
The variety and intensity of greens that occur in nature is quite amazing, and it's impossible to match using only greens that come pre-mixed in a tube—no matter how many you have.
As convenient as green tubes are, you’ll be more successful using those greens in a mixture rather than using them pure.
To avoid those problems, expand the range of 'ready-made' greens by mixing them into other colors.
- Adding blue makes a green cooler.
- Adding yellow makes green warmer.
- Adding red makes green duller.
Mistake 6: Not Knowing How to Dull, Brighten, Lighten, or Darken Colors
Look at the masters' paintings and you'll notice that:
- Each element in the painting has some color and value variations within the same hue.
- Very little has been painted with an unaltered color straight from the tube.
At the beginning of the painting, it's great to simplify and unify the shape as one color, but as you progress you should pay more attention to all the slightly different color variations. Some areas are cooler, some are warmer, some are intense, and some are dull.
To learn how to tweak a color you need to practice some color theory.
Let's talk about mixing green, as an example.
When you are mixing greens, each different blue/yellow combination will give a different green, not to mention the variations depending on the proportions of each in the mix. However, greens obtained by mixing only blue and yellow are usually way too intense compared to real greens in a landscape.
- Some colors that we think of as green are closer to blue or a very dull yellow.
- Most greens are much grayer than we would imagine. Instead of just mixing yellow and blue, add orange or red into your greens and see how that dulls them.
- The greens of a landscape change a lot depending on the time of day, the color of light, and the season. Objects that are bluish-green in the morning, might be a yellowish-green in the evening. Greens are more intense in the spring and duller or more orange in the fall.
- Experiment mixing green using no blue. Mix different kinds of black or dark gray with different types of yellow. You'll be surprised by how many wonderful greens you can get.
Here is more information about mixing a neutral color from orange and blue and the importance of the color bias in mixing.
Take an afternoon to practice mixing greens. Make a color chart to record which paint colors gave you what results. Some greens will have two blues and or two yellows. Try replacing blue with black. Then, try adding red to the mixture. Notice how different reds change the mixture in different ways. With practice, it becomes instinctive to mix the shade of green you're after.
Mixing Exercise: Greens from Cadmium Yellow Medium
Below is an example color chart using cad yellow medium. You can read more about the process and the results here.
Three Images From My Color Mixing ExerciseClick thumbnail to view full-size
Mistake 7: Being Stingy With Paint
This is a habit that is hard to stop: not using enough paint. Nothing says unprofessional and unconfident as strokes that look cheap, afraid, and stingy.
Mix twice the paint that you think you are going to need, and use it all. You may end up wasting some paint, but it’s all worth it.
- It’s a good idea to keep the initial layers of color thin. Towards the end of the painting, you should apply thick, decisive, confident strokes. And leave them alone.
- Don’t go back and blend or scrub over a stroke. Apply with confidence and let it be—even if that is not so easy to do.
Sometimes, a color may look fine on the palette, but when you apply a thick stroke of it, it does not look as you expected. Stop yourself from fixing it right away. Keep working on other areas and wait. When you come back to it, you’ll have fresher eyes and a cooler mind, and you can decide if it’s worth messing with it or if you should just let that brushstroke be after all.
Mistake 8: Including Everything You See
When painting a scene, you don’t need to act as a human camera. You are creating artwork and you are allowed to filter reality through your interpretation of the subject and what makes a strong composition. You're not required to paint everything just because it is there in real life or in the photo.
- Be selective: include only the strong elements that identify that particular scene.
- Simplify. Paint only the essential elements, edit out the distractions.
Mistake 9: Painting Things Just the Way They Are
Your goal is to capture the essence of a setting and create the best composition possible.
- Moving things. Just because an object is in a certain position doesn’t mean you have to paint it there. Don't hesitate to re-position the elements to create a stronger composition. This is true for landscape painting as well as any other subject matter.
- Changing color/value. The same thing goes with color and value. Feel free to change colors, or make them lighter, darker, duller, or more intense according to what would improve the composition.
- Adding things. You can even take things from different photos and merge them into a painting as long as you keep the light source and proportions consistent. This may be tricky if your subject is a very recognizable scene, but you can still move or eliminate secondary and variable elements like people, umbrellas, furniture, flowers, etc.
Mistake 10: Painting What You Know, Not What You See
This is a typical mistake, both for beginners and not-such-beginners as well.
- We know the house is white, and we paint it white.
- We know the flower is magenta, and we paint it magenta.
However, in many cases, the real color of an object from our point of view is nothing like the local color of the same object up-close and under a direct light.
The same is true with shapes. We know a pine tree is triangular and a plate is round, and we tend to paint them according to our mind’s generalization rather than really observing and comparing.
Squint at the object. Observe the shape, observe the negative space, and compare how things relate to each other.
Here's a Tip
White in the shade is darker than black in the light. Your brain may not accept this easily, but if you squint and observe, you can see it.
Mistake 11: Using the Wrong Color Because You Don’t Want to Waste It
Paint is expensive! When there is a big amount of paint on the palette, it’s painful to throw it away. So we want to use it, right?
What if we tried to mix a big lump of dull green but we ended up with a lot of dull blue or brownish gray? Stop trying to fix that mix! Start over and keep it fresh. Don’t use the wrong color—Better yet, use the wrong color to mix in as “gray” and neutralize other colors.
Putting paint on because you don’t want to waste it will ruin your painting.
To avoid this fear, I started using a sealable palette that keeps the unused paint wet for a few days. This way, I am not afraid of squeezing out or mixing too much paint.
Mistake 12: Having Only Hard Edges
When I first started to paint, I had no idea that you could have hard edges, soft edges, and even lost edges. Most of my edges were hard. Sometimes, I made soft edges out of luck or instinct.
What is a soft edge? A soft edge is when you blend two adjacent colors, making one mix into the other. In contrast, a hard edge is when the division between one color shape and the other is clearly defined.
The common recommendation is to place your hardest edges at your focal point and in the foreground, and softer edges on secondary elements and the background.
Mistake 13: Worrying About the Results
One of the most subtle killers of artistic outcome is fear. Students fear the comparison with other more talented students. Beginners fear the judgment of more experienced artists. Everyone fears the negative criticism of the viewer.
Fear causes hesitation and insecurity. The apprehensive artist second-guesses every decision during the creative process, and the final result will show that.
Sometimes it’s not the fear of other people’s opinion, but the fear of wasting precious art supplies that acts as the stumbling element.
When you start creating, abandon fear. Trust your instincts, yourself, and your judgment. Follow your creative gist and enjoy the process!
Poll: What Is Your Mistake?
What mistake do you find yourself making over and over again?
More Painting Advice in This Video - 10 Other Mistakes for Beginners
It's Not a Mistake If You Do It on Purpose!
Everything I called mistakes are legitimate ways to paint—if that's what you like and that's your style. Finding your voice as an artist is a long process that requires practice and self-critique. As you paint a lot, you may find out that you really enjoy breaking some of the common rules of painting. If you love the final result, by all means, go ahead and keep it up!
Art is all about expressing yourself and enjoying the process.
My list of mistakes is just a guide of things that are usually noticeable in beginners' paintings, but it does not mean that the experienced artist can't find a way to make them work.
I hope you found it useful and enjoyable. Happy painting! :)
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2016 Robie Benve