How to Keep Painting When Nothing Is Turning Out
There are times when I’m painting and nothing turns out. Nothing. The painting process feels off, my brush is clumsy and awkward, and the most promising beginnings turn into ugly, gauche messes. It feels like everything I thought I knew about watercolor has failed me, I’ve lost any skill I might have had and NOW WHAT?
Has that ever happened to you?
Before you lose faith completely, let me assure you with this; in twenty-four years of painting, I’ve experienced this many times, and it’s never been the end of the story.
Repeat after me: “This is a learning phase. A breakthrough is right around the corner.”
It’s really as simple as that. Let me show you with a story:
When my children were tiny, I noticed that there were times in their lives when they were absolutely miserable to be around. That sweet little baby would get grumpy, prone to tears and little tantrums and I’d be at my wit’s end trying to figure out how to satisfy this unhappy child.
It got so much easier to be patient through their grumblies when I realized that these times of discontentedness always seemed to happen shortly before my little one would learn a new skill. It was like their brains grew just a bit faster than their bodies, and they needed that time of frustration to propel them to learn a new motor skill, like sitting up, crawling or walking. Once this new milestone was achieved, my happy baby was back; at least until the next milestone loomed!
Change Doesn’t Mean Loss!
I believe that our artistic “inner child” goes through a very similar process of growth and struggle, and that this is both natural and desirable. As adults, we tend not to welcome change and we often equate change with decay rather than growth. If my creative skills seem to be suffering, I fear I’ve lost what abilities I had, rather than seeing the struggle as a sign of advancement.
In her book “The Artist’s Journey,” Nancy Hillis describes work that feels ugly, awkward or like a regression as “your future work waiting to be birthed.” Imagine your “struggle” paintings as the embryos of your future masterpieces; doesn’t that seem like freedom? If that is truly the case, we don’t have to fear our failed paintings; we get to embrace them, to welcome them as seeds that spark exciting growth and change!
I don’t know what my future art will look like. I can’t predict it! At twenty, I had no idea my art would evolve as it has; I had no concept of the freedom and beauty I would find in embracing my inner artist, painting with fearless energy and just learning to spark my greatest creativity through play! At the time, I assumed my growth would come through hard work and serious focus, not the playful silliness that makes me so happy when I let it reign through my brush.
My job isn’t to find my future art, or to force change to happen. I show up to paint, and I watch the paint, and I use my brush as often as possible because I know that time develops my hand and eye, and acceptance of where I am right now opens my heart to communicate with the parts of my body that move the paint. And when I start to feel bored, or stuck, or out of place, I dive even deeper into the unfamiliar because when I welcome it in, it finds a place with me and that strange, foreign art that felt like a mistake - those painting embryos - find their place as I make room for the new and let go of anything that is holding back my willingness to enjoy this new phase I’m entering.
How it Works (Usually)
I’m painting. Happy, content. Comfortable.
Something starts feeling “off.” I can’t feel the magic or connect to the painting the way I usually do.
I try to fix it. I try to do the stuff that has always worked before, the familiar colors, brush strokes, subject treatments.
It still feels off. Paintings that used to turn out fine are looking wrong, feeling wrong. I’m worried now; I try going back even further - that doesn’t work because I’m not who I used to be. Change always happens; you can’t go back to the old you! You are not that artist anymore.
If I’m smart, I’m starting to see that maybe I’m in a learning phase. I recognize that I need to behave as though I’m starting over in some ways. I start to listen to myself; where am I stuck in uninspired thinking? (Look for phrases like “have to” - I have to paint it this way - or “can’t” - I can’t overwork this painting.) I challenge these mindset patterns and overthrow them in rebellion.
I’m patient. Keep painting and try new things, listen to “what if’s” that suggest new possibilities that I may not have seen before.
Something clicks! I can’t predict what it will be, but embracing change, trying new approaches, trusting that growth is still happening even when I can’t see it - these things empower me to keep moving by not basing my success on the outcome of the painting. I recognize that undesired outcomes in my paintings do not equal failure, rather, the process of painting grows my skills even when nothing is turning out.
If you’re struggling right now, the best thing you can do for your creative growth is to keep painting in faith. Choose a mindset that accepts that there are stages in the journey where progress is hard to see, and be willing to keep moving until the breakthrough happens, even though you can’t choose the timeline.
Let your “baby brain” grow until the body can implement the amazing ideas that are brewing inside of you! Your embryonic future work depends on time to mature to the point where it can be born on paper, and you don’t get to choose the due date. Be patient and repeat after me, “a breakthrough is right around the corner.”
It has never yet not been true for me. It will be true for you too.