Coping when art turns out bad + Mermaid watercolor painting process

Published by Nela Dunato on in Art, Creative process, Nela's Art Chat, Tips for creatives, Video

Sometimes you put in a ton of effort into an artwork and in the end you realize that it just sucks. It doesn’t look anything like you’ve envisioned it, and you feel like you’ve just wasted a lot of time on something that wasn’t worth it. In today’s episode of Nela’s Art Chat you can watch me paint a mermaid that did not turn out the way I wanted, while I talk about 4 different ways you can deal with similar “art fails” of your own.

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Tools used in this drawing

(Amazon affiliate links. I’ll get paid a few cents if you buy these art supplies using my link, and there’s no extra charge to you.)

Finished drawing – before the fix (2019)

The Trophy – watercolor & colored pencil drawing for Mermay 2019
The Trophy – Watercolor, colored pencils and pastel pencils on A4 300g watercolor paper. See the fixed version below!

Finished drawing – after the fix (2021)

After filming this video, I discovered new favorite mixed media art supplies: watersoluble wax pastels. I realized that these pastels can be used to retouch artworks, as they’re very opaque and they adhere to almost any surface. Then I saw this painting that I hated so much in a folder and decided to give it anoter chance. I had nothing to lose. I covered up the streaky background with darker tones, and managed to fix her face and hair so it looks more like the original sketch. It’s not perfect, but it’s much better than the previous version!

The Trophy – mixed media mermaid painting
The Trophy – Watercolor, colored pencils, watersoluble pastels and pastel pencils on A4 300g watercolor paper. Click to see larger image in the gallery

Video transcript

It’s reasonable to expect that every artwork you make in your life will be better than the previous ones. We think that progress is linear, and that practicing regularly leads to steady improvement. In theory, that’s how it’s supposed to work, but progress doesn’t look like a straight line—it’s more like an oddly shaped stairway. Some steps are narrow and you can jump over them easily, while others are really wide and you feel like you’re stuck in the same place for a long time until something just clicks, and you can finally move on.

And then there’s another thing we don’t like to think about, but it’s very real and it sucks when it happens: the dip. You thought you’ve had this down and you’re beyond failing at this, but turns out you can still mess things up just as a newbie would.

What causes the dip? It can be a number of things.

  • You thought you’ve mastered this skill because you were able to do it once, but the learning didn’t “stick” and you need to keep practising.
  • You’ve neglected art for a long time and got rusty. It’s normal to have a warm-up period after long inactivity.
  • You’re switching to a different medium and your skills don’t translate into it as well as you thought they would.
  • You’re switching to a different art supply brand and it’s performing differently. It might mean the product you’re using is of worse quality, or maybe it’s better quality but it takes getting used to.

Whatever the reasons for the dip are, the result is the same: art that sucks.

Having spent hours on a piece that looks nothing like you envisioned is the ultimate artistic disappointment.

It feels like a waste! Why did I even bother if this is all I have to show for it?


Well, it just happens, and we need to learn to deal with it. So that’s what I’m talking about today.

The painting I’m making in this video was based on a sketch I did during #Mermay, which was probably my favorite drawing in the entire challenge. I had high expectations: I thought this was going to be my best watercolor painting in a long time.

In the end, the painting turned out just… OK. It wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t good, either.

What’s wrong with it?

Well, the mermaid’s face and arms look nothing like the sketch. She doesn’t look as beautiful as I envisioned her at first, and it bothers me a lot.

The other thing that bothers me is the top half of the background, which is super messy and as you’ll see later, I had to use soft pastels and colored pencils to salvage it, though it still didn’t help as much.

I blame the paper I used, the spiral-bound Canson XL Aquarelle pad. I’ve never used it before, and I had no idea how bad it would be to actually paint something on it. It’s the worst watercolor paper I have ever tried. Really. I’m so, so disappointed and I’m never using this for watercolor again. Maybe it will be fine for something else. This surprised me because I use Canson papers and sketchbooks all the time and they’ve always been great. I didn’t know that their XL line was aimed at complete beginners, and thus not very high quality.

My inability to control paint in a way that I’m used to resulted in a very frustrating painting process, and in a piece that I’m not very proud of. I should have started over on different paper as soon as I realized something was off, but there’s this thing called the “sunk cost” fallacy: I’ve already invested so much time in this painting, and in the recording of this painting, and it was the last days of Mermay, so I wanted to just be done with it as soon as possible.

Sometimes you need to quit and start over.

There are mediums that are more forgiving, like acrylics, oil, gouache, collage, or any digital medium. One time as I was working on an acrylic painting on canvas (“Crucify II”) and I realized the entire figure was off-center. It bothered me so much, I repainted the figure and positioned it 5 centimeters to the left. Yes it took me lots of time, but if I just kept going, it wouldn’t feel right in the end. I’m glad that I made that change.

Other mediums don’t make it so easy. Watercolor may be fixed under certain conditions, if you work on quality paper. This was not the case here. Colored pencils and ink are very difficult to fix so getting a fresh sheet of paper may be the only way to do it right.

Most artists aren’t used to the idea that you can make several attempts at the same piece until you get it right. I’m not used to it either, and I really should have learned it by now. We see the time spent on an artwork as something we can never get back.

How invested do you need to be in the work to keep re-doing it over and over until it looks “just right”? It takes the sort of dedication and single-mindedness that amateur artists rarely possess. Do you know how hard it is for me to find the time to do even one of each painting? What if I was doing multiples of every single one? Who has that kind of time, you know? Professional artists I suppose, not me.

If the art piece is important enough to you, there’s always the option of doing it again.

It may be immediately after you realize this one isn’t working out, or it may be months down the line. Life and art have many parallels, and I’ve written about this in an article if you want to read about that, but the biggest difference between art and life is that in art, you get infinite do-overs. How awesome is that?

I understand that if you’re using very expensive materials, your resources may be limited so you can’t exactly scrap the “failed” sculpture, or a piece of jewelry, or a dress that you just wasted a ton of money on. So yeah, I understand that in certain mediums the rule of infinite do-overs doesn’t apply in practice as well as it does in theory.

For those of us using reasonably priced mediums on mass-produces papers, boards, and canvas, there’s no excuse. The only question is how much more effort you’re willing to put into this.

Some attempts are meant to be forgotten.

I’ve started several paintings on canvas that I didn’t like, and then I covered the canvas with gesso and went on to paint something completely different. Looking at the final paintings, you’d have no idea there was anything else under it.

I like recycling, so I think of this “bad art” as fertilizer for something better to come. I made an attempt, it didn’t quite work, and I’m putting it behind me and never showing it to anyone else.

We can’t afford to be too precious about everything we ever created. We are makers, yes, but we also need to be curators of our own art and recognize pieces that just don’t fit into our larger body of work.

A couple of years ago I cleaned up my studio and thew out a bunch of old drawings, paintings, and sketches that I felt were only taking up space and didn’t contribute to my body of work. I kept a couple of “milestone” pieces to have a record of the development of my artistic skills, and that was it. Most of it didn’t make the cut. I don’t even remember all the drawings I threw away. I didn’t feel like they were important, so I was willing to forget all about them.

The pieces that make into the selection are those that really count. All the other ones were just the means to get to where you are now.

If the piece is stubbornly not working, consider that perhaps it’s not the right time.

I don’t want to feed into your perfectionism even more if this is already a problem you struggle with, but there is some value in putting a project off until the “right time”, as long as you know how you’ll recognize the time has come.

Maybe you’re having a bad day and tomorrow will be entirely different and things will go smoothly.

Or maybe it will take longer to be ready for this. It depends.

Neil Gaiman shared in an interview that he started writing “The Graveyard Book” several times and realized he wasn’t good enough of a writer yet to give the story justice. The final time he started, he was able to do it “right” and write a wonderful, heart-warming, magical story that pulls you right in. If you know anything about Gaiman, you know he didn’t sit arms crossed and just waited for his skills to magically improve on their own. He wrote piles—stories, comic books, novels… He was actively working on improving his skills. That’s the sort of “putting off” that works well.

I had an idea for a graphic novel more than 10 years ago that I never made. I wasn’t good enough to write it or draw it at the time, but in the meantime I didn’t do much to change that. I’m not a much better fiction writer given that I’ve only written a few stories since… I am a slightly better illustrator though. But waiting didn’t do anything for my project. I still don’t feel ready for it.

If you’re going to use the strategy of “putting it off until you’re better”, don’t be like Nela—be like Neil.

Finally, there’s always the option of accepting your work as it is.

This is the most common way we respond to “art fails” because all it requires is a shift in thinking. If you’re not going to bother changing the work, you need to change your thoughts and emotions about it.

Change what this work means to you.

If the failure to capture your vision frustrates you a whole lot, the meaning you may be assigning to this work may be:

  • I suck as an artist.
  • My skills will never match up with my vision.
  • I’ll embarrass myself in front of others if I show them this junk.
  • I have wasted so much time and have nothing to show for it.

How about changing the meaning of this result into something more productive?

  • This was a worthy attempt.
  • Time spent making art is never wasted.
  • It’s OK to be disappointed sometimes. I’ll do better next time.
  • Even the best artists have bad days.
  • Just because I’m not seeing other people’s bad art, it doesn’t mean they’re not making it—they just pick and choose the work they show.
  • I don’t have to post my work on social media to justify my effort. It’s enough that I know about it.
  • I can show this work to others and make it into a learning experience.
  • There could be positive sides to this piece that I’m not seeing, but other people might.

Bad art is a natural byproduct of being an artist.

You can’t avoid it, all you can do is decide how to deal with it.

Whether you choose to fix it, start over from scratch, toss it in the trash, or keep the work in its current form is up to how invested you are in this idea, and how badly you want to see this vision through.

Once you’ve decided what you’re going to do about this artwork that didn’t quite meet your expectations, move on. Get back on the horse as they say, because the most important thing after a failure is to wash out that bad taste with something you’ll enjoy. Do a small, fun, and easy piece of art that will lift your spirits. Prove to yourself that you’re capable of doing things right, and this was just a small hiccup, and exception.

Your next piece is definitely going to be better than this one, and that’s something to look forward to.

Thank you for watching me muddle around with my own bad painting. I hope this was helpful to you in some way, and that I’ll see you again in the next episode of Nela’s Art Chat.


Some blog articles contain affiliate links to products on Amazon or Jackson's Art Supplies. I’ll get paid a few cents if you buy something using my link, and there’s no extra charge to you.

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