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How to Save a Ruined Painting (Tips for Intermediate Artists)

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Nelvia is a self-taught artist who's been learning and creating for over 25 years.

In this guide, I use an example of how I saved a ruined painting of my own.

In this guide, I use an example of how I saved a ruined painting of my own.

How many times have you drawn or painted something that looks terrible or not what you wanted? Did you just waste valuable time and supplies? Do you have to tear it up and throw it away? Start over? Or is there a way to salvage that work and still create what you saw in your mind?

Tip #1: Use Mixed Media to Rework Your Piece and Create Something New

There is a segment of people who say it isn’t art if you didn’t do it in a “purist” form—all oil, pastel, watercolor, etc. However, for years many artists have been mixing and combining different wet and dry media and developing so many new techniques that it is mind-boggling what can be achieved.

Today, there are many more artists saying you can and need to use all the various art tools and supplies available to help you transfer the vision you see in your head onto your paper or canvas. Mixed media combinations can give you effects and textures that you just can’t achieve using one media alone. It also gives the artist the advantage of easily correcting mistakes or changing directions on the fly.

One of the best advantages of using mixed media is that there is never a mistake that can’t be corrected by applying another layer. That awful painting/drawing result can reworked to become a satisfying work of art. Or, worst case, that unsuccessful drawing/painting can get totally or partially gessoed over, become a new underpainting or background, or get torn up for collage paper to help you create the next project.

Tip #2: Start by Adjusting Your Attitude

In this example, I was trying learn a new technique by playing with a new tool, fluid acrylics, on a gray-toned grisaille. Since I was working with supplies I hadn't used much before, I needed to adjust my expectations and not expect a masterpiece.

But I really wanted to end up with a good result for my efforts. I felt comfortable with the techniques I was going to use, so I told myself to just play, relax, and let the painting tell me where it wants to go. In other words, “take the pressure off,” and remember, it is just a piece of paper. I can always paint over it and start again.

Finished grisaille.

Finished grisaille.

Tip #3: Try a Grisaille Technique

Using black and white acrylic gesso, I have done a gray-toned grisaille. I have done several before, so I was fairly confident I could come up with a good base underpainting. This is a technique that many of the old masters used. When you do this type of underpainting, you do most of the building of form and tonal work on this layer.

In order to add color, you simply apply thin transparent glazes. Use either acrylics or oils to do the glazing technique. (Remember, you can apply oil over acrylic, but never try to apply acrylic over oil.) It is just like magic when you apply the color over the gray tones. Most of the shadow and highlight work is done and it should look awesome.

Tip #4: Experiment With Fluid Acrylics

Recently I acquired some fluid acrylics, most of which are highly transparent. Since it has a consistency like ink, I thought it would be perfect for glazing. When I swatched the colors, they dried pure and vibrant. That was just what I was looking for.

Previously when I tried applying the fluid paint direct from the bottle to the paper, it soaked in and left hard edges. I felt I needed to dilute and keep the paint watery—watercolor consistency—so it spread and had softer edges.

Remember: Different Paper Produces Different Effects

While I didn’t have high expectations, I certainly hoped for something better than this lackluster and weak-colored result. I guess it got way too diluted and lost its ability to deliver the clear vibrant color I wanted to make the gray tones shine.

This is a perfect reminder that when you work on paper it can be your best or worst friend, depending on the quality of the sheet. Looking at how this paper took the washy color, I know I won’t ever be able to go back and add more wash layers that will give me that clean vibrant color look.

After fluid acrylic glazes.

After fluid acrylic glazes.

Tip #5: Add Pastels for Vibrant, Translucent Yet Opaque Color

So, it's time to figure out a plan B. As an advanced beginner or intermediate artist, you have some experience with different techniques and types of wet and dry media. Hopefully you have spent some times experimenting with colored pencil, pastel, charcoal, gesso, collage, pencils, etc., learning the strengths and weaknesses of each medium. Now you know which mixed media can be combined and what works together to create the effects you visualize.

After reviewing all the different media, I decided that only pastel could give me that bold, pure vibrant color that I originally wanted. Pastel also has a unique blend of being translucent (the space between the particles allows the under layer to shine through and reflect light), but it is opaque enough to cover over some problem areas.

So, I went into the stash using the reference picture and original fluid color scheme I started with and selected some medium/soft pastel sticks that were similar colors. I inhaled a deep breath and just went for it! I just trusted myself to add the various colors where they felt right. Certainly I wanted to liven up some dead background color, arms, and hands. I also added both highlights and medium tones to the planes of the face. (Right about now a little wine would be beneficial!)

Ah, much happier with the addition of pastels and some colored pencils.

Finished painting.

Finished painting.

Recap of What I Used for This Mixed Media Piece

  1. Should have started the paper with several coats of white gesso (that way, the fluid acrylics wouldn't have been so easily absorbed into the paper).
  2. Used black/white acrylic gesso for a grisaille underpainting.
  3. Added a layer of diluted fluid acrylics (a watery, watercolor-like application).
  4. Added pastels for bold, vibrant color passages and pops of color.
  5. Limited use of color pencils for those little accents and neatening up the edges.

Let your combinations and ideas flow as mixed media rides to the rescue and provides extra interest to your next project. You can save that stinker!


sheila delgado on September 04, 2020:

Thanks for sharing Nelvia. This is a technique I have never used, but I love your results :)

Nelvia (author) from Atlanta on July 30, 2020:

Thank you Umesh for taking your time to read and then comment, it is much appreciated.

Nelvia (author) from Atlanta on July 29, 2020:

Think you are right Denise, if you don’t make mistakes you aren’t pushing forward. The garbage man is my biggest collector!! Usually you have learned something from every attempt and if you take it that way instead of feeling defeated than you can have a lot more fun in art. Got to say you inspired me to try my first portrait in collage, so thank you.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on July 29, 2020:

I find that every "failed" picture is a learning experience and the next one will be 100 times better because you see where things went wrong with the first. I also do several things with my old paper like turning them into gift boxes and bags. I have lots of work that ended up as gift bags and people wowed over them. You aren't a true artist if you don't have a stack of work that didn't turn out perfectly as you hoped. Even photographers say that they hope/expect one stellar photo out of ten mediocre ones.



Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on July 29, 2020:

Good guidance, useful.

Nelvia (author) from Atlanta on July 26, 2020:

Thank you Lyndsey. When we worry so much about getting it perfect it is hard to let the emotion shine through. It is hard to remember though. Appreciate yiur taking the time to read and comment

Lynsey Hart from Lanarkshire on July 26, 2020:

Great hub, I too love the talk about adjusting your attitude. I am a definite perfectionist, so I think I really need to work on that.

Robie Benve from Ohio on July 20, 2020:

I love how you talk about adjusting your attitude, that is really the key to avoid disappointments. And of course I love mixed media... mixed media to the rescue! :)

Nelvia (author) from Atlanta on July 18, 2020:

Thanks Peggy, once I started with mixed media it is doubtful I will ever go back to trying to be a purist!! Thanks for reading and leaving a comment on my first ever article!!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 18, 2020:

I loved your result. Using mixed media can be fun as you nicely portrayed in this piece.