PASTEL Art tips 3 min read

7 Ways to Rescue a Painting 

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Try one or more of these seven resuscitative ideas for breathing new life into a failing painting.

By Yael Maimon 

We’ve all experienced those feelings of bewilderment, frustration, or anger when a painting just isn’t working. Whether it’s a small or a large piece, or a painting we’ve been working on for just a few hours or days upon days, it’s never a fun experience. You may be able to turn things around, however, if you embrace the challenge—or multiple challenges—it presents. 

It usually takes a few hours—or a few days—for me to solve problems in a painting, but Sweet 16 (15½x19½) required months before I revisited it. I had trouble creating the desired mood, and I took copious notes on tones, edges, and color before eventually returning to it.

Before backing away from a failing painting entirely, try one, some, or all of these practical troubleshooting tips. I’ve used each or a combination of these at one time or another, and it has always benefited my work—and my emotional state. 

1. Take a step back. 

Although you may want to be as proactive as possible when you find that your painting is failing, I think it’s the worst thing you can do if you want to repair it. Instead, take a step back rather than immediately jumping in to save a painting when you’re not ready. Get some distance from the painting; give yourself as much time as you need before going back to it. If that means putting it in a drawer for a week (or more), so be it. 

2. Figure things out. 

Think objectively about the problems in the painting. I find it’s helpful to write them down as I notice them. I’ll note that a painting “looks too brown and dull” or “might be unnecessarily detailed.” Once you’ve clearly pinpointed the reasons things aren’t working, you can figure out how to fix them. 

3. Make sure the painting really isn’t working. 

Are you positive that your painting is all wrong? Maybe it’s not the painting; maybe it’s you. If you’re in a bad mood, feeling overly stressed, or just need to eat, nothing looks right. Try to readjust your mood by playing upbeat (or calming) music, diffusing essential oils, taking a snack break, or fitting in a cat nap. 

I wasn’t sure that Cats and Lines No. 7 (pastel, 12×16) was working, but I think it had more to do with some personal issues I was experiencing that were making me feel uncertain. Luckily, I didn’t rework the painting or retouch it, and—after a few days—I felt the painting looked great thanks to its simplicity.

4. Get a second opinion. 

If you’re really frustrated with a painting, ask a friend for help. See if he or she can provide some insight. What’s not working? The composition? The color? The perspective? A second set of eyes can be quite helpful in finding a potential solution to a problem. 

5. Avoid letting the situation consume you. 

The conundrum may drive you crazy and make you feel bad about yourself; however, no matter how unpleasant the situation, don’t let your happiness and sanity hang on one painting. You have to stay focused and positive if you want to try to work it out. 

6. Talk to the painting. 

This is going to sound weird, but it often works. Once you’ve given the painting a bit of space, initiate a conversation with it. Of course, it’s actually a monologue rather than a dialogue. Just confront the artwork and ask, either silently or out loud: What do you need? Where do you want to go from here? How can I help you reach your full potential? 

7. Determine if it’s even worth saving. 

You have to do some careful thinking here. If, for example, you’ve worn out the surface of the painting with your marks, or you just get a general feeling of ennui when looking at the piece, it’s probably not worth the additional time, attention, and effort to make it become something it’s never going to be. Sometimes, you just have to move on and begin a new painting. Remember that there will be many more in your future—some more successful, some less. Life goes on. Onward!  

3 Before & Afters  

Before: I didn’t get the form of the cat right, but I liked the overall feel. I knew the painting wasn’t working but that it had the potential to be great. 

After: After taking some time to figure it out, I was ready to rebuild the form and shape of the cat. I also transformed the food plate into a bowl. Finally, I added the moon in the background to complete Under the Moon (pastel, 18×25). 

Before (16×11): I felt that the painting was too “loud.” I especially wasn’t happy with the cat’s eyes; the gaze was simply unconvincing to me. 

After (12×11): I cropped Closer to an almost-square format to create a more intimate, closeup view. I also reworked the fur in some areas using muted colors and “rebuilt” the eyes and nose. 

Before: I didn’t like the atmosphere I had created and the color combination I had used, but I couldn’t figure out how to fix them, so I put the painting away. 

After: I returned to the piece after a month or so had passed, and I was able to look at it with fresh eyes. I took a different approach with the colors to rescue Enjoying Brunch (pastel, 15½x23½) from obscurity. 

About the Artist 

Yael Maimon is an Israeli artist. Although grounded in realism, her feline artwork is often impressionist in nature, traditional yet contemporary. She enjoys painting in a variety of media, including oil, pastel, watercolor, acrylic, and mixed media. Her paintings have been featured in solo and collective art exhibitions and have garnered international recognition. 

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