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Mistakes and how to learn from them.

When you start painting you will make all kinds of mistakes. That is just part of the journey.

Making mistakes is not an issue in painting, provided you are able to identify the mistakes and learn from them. The problem when you are a beginner is that you will not be able to see most of the mistakes you make. You may be able to tell that something is off in your painting, but you will struggle to narrow down on what that problem actually is.

In this post, I will go through some of the most common mistakes made by beginners and what you can do about those mistakes.

Painting Edges

An edge in painting marks a transition from one element to another. There are a few different types of edges:

A hard edge means there is a very crisp transition between the two shapes.

A soft edge has some kind of gradation between the shapes. So the transition is smooth.

A lost edge is one where the edge is so soft that you can barely see it or it does not exist (but you know an edge is there due to the context of the painting). This usually occurs when there are two shapes next to each other which have the same The interesting thing about edges is that they can give so much information about the subject.

The soft edge suggests there is a change in plane at the top of the building which is more direct light, but not so much that the edge is hard.

The lost edge indicates the side of the building is not receiving any direct light.

Most beginners will make all the edges either too hard or too soft.

If you make all the edges too hard, then your painting may not appear natural. It is not necessarily a bad thing to use all hard edges as it could produce some interesting stylistic results, but you need to be aware of the impact of using hard edges.

Choosing the best subject

Poor subject selection is a mistake you could make before you even pick up your brush. Sometimes, a subject will not make a great painting no matter how well you paint it.

You should paint something which you are actually inspired and excited to paint. You should be able to envision yourself creating a great painting from the subject.

Below is a reference photo of Brisbane which is technically a decent composition. But, I am not inspired to paint this. I am not able to go into details why. It just does not inspire me - there is no excitement.

I spend a considerable amount of time deciding what to paint. I find that if I start a painting with no vision in mind, then rarely does that painting turn out well (this is so true!). Sometimes there are “happy accidents”, but only rarely.

However, this needs to be balanced with making sure I am actually painting enough. So I do not want to be too selective, otherwise I would never start a painting.

I like to keep a large folder of all my reference photos on my devices so if I am ever lacking for inspiration, I can go through the photos to see if anything can spark my inspiration.

Trying To Paint Too Many Values

Value refers to how light or dark something is on a scale of pure white to pure black (look at our Tea, coffee, milk, cream, butter scale). It is widely considered to be the most important aspect for achieving a quality of realism in your paintings.

Most of the time, the subject will not be organized into a neat value structure, unless you set up your own still life. You will usually need to do a bit of work to simplify the value structure to make it more manageable and cohesive.

I will use my reference photo below as an example. There are two ways to look at the reference photo for a painting.

I could see every change in value no matter how small or insignificant. This is how normal people would look at the scene.

Stopping Too Early Or Too Late

Knowing when to put down the brush is one of the most challenging aspects of painting. If you stop too early, then your painting may appear incomplete. If you stop too late, then your painting may appear overworked.

I like to call a painting finished once I have reached a stage where nothing of significance is missing or needs to be changed. At this stage, I must be confident that any additional work would only distract from the overall feel of the painting.

It can be difficult to judge when this time occurs. I personally will just ask myself this:

“... will this next brush stroke add any more value to my painting?”

If the answer is a solid no, then I will stop painting. At this stage, I am confident that any further work will not add anything to the overall appeal of the painting.

Also, I try not to paint with a fear of messing things up. If I see opportunities to improve the painting, I will take those opportunities, even if it means risking the current state of the painting. Taking the safe approach is a sure way of having many average paintings.


I will just say that a mistake is only really a mistake if you do not learn from it. Do not paint with a fear of making mistakes, as they will happen. Just try to only make the same mistake once. We are always learning. I once heard, “I never lose, I learn.” Words to live by-right.


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