The awkward, unlovely stage in painting a picture is always a difficult time. I begin a painting excited and inspired to paint an image or scene that appeals to me. I create a plan of attack, having a vision in my mind of what I would like the painting to become.


But the stage between the initial underpaintings and the finalizing of values and details can be troublesome for me. At this stage, the picture usually looks uninteresting, incomplete, sometimes confusing. Well, it is! It’s not finished! I know this, yet, it’s sometimes hard not to get discouraged at this point. If I start to judge my work too soon, I may not think I’m going in the right direction. I can start to second-guess my original plan and self-doubt can set in.

Tire swing middle.jpg

Preliminary stages in ‘The Tire Swing’ Watercolor Painting.

Rationally, I understand that a painting proceeds in a series of many steps – from beginning to end. And I know I should not despair. I realize all artists encounter frustrations and self-doubt. Struggling is part of learning and growing, and being creative. Anxiety, uncertainty, and self-doubt will always be part of making art. It’s not possible to always predict how a painting will go, whether any efforts you make will have the effect hoped for, or not. Art is experimentation. So, I try to accept my feelings, to not worry, and to open myself up to the possibility of continuing to improve my painting, pushing through and beyond the awkward stage.

Attitude is important here! Don’t give up, I tell myself. Don’t criticize your work. Have faith that the awkward stage will pass, that it is just a problem to be overcome. Trust yourself!


It may be a good time to step away from the picture and get some perspective. You could even take a break and come back to the painting the next day. But don’t get too frustrated before you step away. We are often are own worst critics.

 Maine fall Start.jpg

Early, ugly stage of ‘Maine Color’ Watercolor Painting.

 Maine fall Middle.jpg

Middle stages, as ‘Maine Color’ Watercolor is developing.

Maine fall Final.jpg

‘Maine Color’ Watercolor Painting, Final.


When you come back to your painting after a pause, often your work doesn’t look as bad as you remember it. You’re rested, fresh, and may already have an idea what your next step in the painting needs to be. If not, think again about the big picture and what you’re trying to accomplish in the painting. This would be the time to reassess, perhaps to adjust and reformulate plans, if necessary.

Taking a cell phone photo to look at can give you more objectivity. Are colors in the painting too bland? Does the picture need more emphasis around the center of interest? A black and white photo (gray scale) can help you decide where to strengthen your contrast and values (lights and darks). Determine where in your picture you want to add (or not add) details and highlights. Turning your picture upside down (or looking at it in a mirror) can make it easier to see if your shapes are accurate. This helps to insure you are not focusing on unimportant details. Squinting your eyes is yet another way to evaluate the quality of values and details in your painting.

After evaluating your work with a positive and problem-solving attitude, you will undoubtedly have some ideas about what your painting needs. Continue to follow through with your plan and vision. You can do it!


Remember, as artist Angela Fehr says, “Every painting starts out as a problem… and continues to be a problem, right until it’s finished. Think about it, your first problem is a sheet of white paper.” So, become a problem-solver! Stay patient and re-focus as needed. Give yourself a chance to work through all the necessary painting stages.

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