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13 Painting Mistakes Usually Made by Beginners

Updated on November 28, 2017
Robie Benve profile image

Robie is an artist who believes in the power of positive thinking. She loves sharing art tips and bringing people joy through her paintings.

Most beginners make the same mistakes, and those mistakes for some reason can be picked up also by the non-artist. Here is a list of the most common habits to avoid, or your artwork could be seen as mediocre.- "Parliament, Effect of Fog" Claude Monet
Most beginners make the same mistakes, and those mistakes for some reason can be picked up also by the non-artist. Here is a list of the most common habits to avoid, or your artwork could be seen as mediocre.- "Parliament, Effect of Fog" Claude Monet | Source

13 Mistakes Commonly Made in Painting

Have you ever been to a fine art exhibit and had the impression that it was all work by beginners?
You don't need to be a great artist to spot amateurish artwork. But how do we know? What are the giveaways of amateurish works of art?

Well, most beginners make the same mistakes, and those mistakes for some reason can be easily noticed by professional artists and non-artists alike.

Below is a list of the most common artistic missteps to avoid, or it could be your artwork the one labeled as mediocre or inadequate.

#1 Including in the Painting Everything You See

Don’t act as a human camera. You are creating artwork, your own interpretation of the subject.

You're not required to paint everything you see just because it is there in real life or in the photo.

Be selective: include only the strong elements that identify that particular scene. Paint the essential elements, you don't have to submissively represent what you see.

Besides, when you try to record subjects as accurately as possible, rendering them with photographic realism, even the smallest mistake, disproportion, wrong angle, will be highly noticeable to the viewer.


#2 Being a Slave of the Scene

Just because an object is in a certain position, it doesn’t mean that you have to paint it there. Don't hesitate to re-position the elements in order create a stronger painting composition. This is true for landscape painting as well as all other subject matters.

You can even take things from different photos and merge them into a painting, as long as you keep light source and proportions consistent. This may be tricky if you're painting a famous, very recognizable scene, though you can still move or eliminate secondary and variable elements like people, umbrellas, furniture, flowers, etc.

Your goal is to capture the essence of a setting and create the best composition possible.

#3 Placing Major Elements in the Middle of the Canvas

Avoid putting the center of interest in the middle of the canvas, or the eye will tend to stay rooted there.

In the same way, avoid having major lines, like the edge of the table or a tall tree trunk cutting the picture exactly in the middle, either vertically or horizontally.

#4 Painting Similar or Equidistant Objects

There is one simple rule that always applies in a composition: keep all intervals varied. That means you should apply variety to all things, in order to keep the viewer interested and moving around the picture.

In landscape, vary the shape and size of your trees, vary the greens you are using, and vary the intervals in space between objects.

Look for the character of each shape. Avoid a neat series of “lollipop” trees, or bushes all of the same size.

Even when things are really lined up and all the same in the reference photo, like a picketed fence, make sure you introduce some variety, like a bigger gap in between, a crooked picket, or a missing one.

Great painting by Vincent Van Gogh. Thick Paint, less detail in the background, great composition, use of lines, and placement of focal point. Vincent van Gogh - Irises (1889)
Great painting by Vincent Van Gogh. Thick Paint, less detail in the background, great composition, use of lines, and placement of focal point. Vincent van Gogh - Irises (1889) | Source

#5 Same Amount of Details in Foreground and Background

This mistake is particularly common in those that are painting from a photograph, rather than from life.

Most photos show the whole scene detailed and in focus. You can clearly see the blade of grass in the foreground and the tree branch in the background.

However, that is not how your eyes see. If you focus on one area, the rest of the picture will be out of focus. Decide where your focal point is and then give that area more detail.

Don't paint everything at the same degree of detail. As a general rule, paint less detail in the background and far objects, and more detail in the foreground.

They'll sell you thousands of greens. Veronese green and emerald green and cadmium green and any sort of green you like; but that particular green, never.

— Pablo Picasso

#6 Using Greens Straight Out of a Tube

The variety and intensity of greens that occur in nature are quite amazing, and it’s impossible to match using only greens that come in a tube, no matter how many you have.

One of the main advantages of buying green paints in a tube rather than mixing your own is that you always have prompt access to certain greens. However, you’ll be more successful using those greens in a mixture rather than using them straight from the tube.

Most beginners’ landscape paintings have greens that are too vivid and all similar. You can just tell they rely on the pre-mixed greens.

To avoid those problems, expand the range of 'ready-made' greens by mixing into other colors. For example, adding blue makes green cooler, adding yellow makes it warmer, adding red dulls green.

Poor Fisherman, 1896, by Paul Gauguin.
Poor Fisherman, 1896, by Paul Gauguin. | Source

#7 Not Learning How to Mix Your Own Greens

Similar to #6, but different.

When you are mixing greens, each different blue/yellow combination will give a different green, plus variations depending on the proportions of each in the mix.

However, greens obtained by mixing only blue and yellow are usually way too vivid compared to real greens in a landscape.

Each green plant or object has a slightly different hue, some are cooler, some are warmer; some are intense, some are dull.

Some colors that we think as green are actually blue or a very dull yellow.

Most greens are much grayer than we would imagine. Instead of just mixing yellow and blue, add orange or red into your greens, and see how that dulls them.

Note that the greens of a landscape change a lot depending on the time of day, the color of light, and the seasons. Objects that are a bluish green in the morning, may be a yellowish green in the evening. Greens are more intense in the spring, and duller or more orange in the fall.


Take an afternoon to practice mixing your own greens. Make a color chart to record which paint colors gave you what results. Some greens will have two blues and or two yellows.

Then try adding red to the mixture. Notice how different reds change the mixture in different ways.

With practice, it becomes instinctive to mix the shade of green you're after.

Great painting advice - Starting at about 40 seconds into the video.

#8 Being Stingy With Paint

This is a habit that is hard to let go: not using enough paint

Nothing says unprofessional and unconfident as strokes that look cheap, afraid, and stingy.
Mix twice the paint that you think you are going to need, and use it all. You may end up wasting some paint, but it’s all worth it.

It’s a good idea to keep the initial layers of color thin, but towards the end of the painting, you should apply thick, decisive, confident strokes. And leave them alone.

Don’t go back and blend or scrub over a stroke. Apply with confidence and let it be – even if that is not so easy to do.

Sometimes a color may look fine on the palette, but when you apply a thick stroke of it, it does not look as you expected (or wished). Stop yourself from fixing it right away. Keep working on other areas and wait.

When you come back to it you’ll have fresher eyes and cooler mind, and you can decide if it’s worth messing with it or if you should just let that brushstroke be after all.

Use Thick Paint to Add Texture

"Mix twice the paint that you think you are going to need, and use it all." Where Yesterday Meets Tomorrow, oil on canvas, detail. By Robie Benve, all rights reserved.
"Mix twice the paint that you think you are going to need, and use it all." Where Yesterday Meets Tomorrow, oil on canvas, detail. By Robie Benve, all rights reserved. | Source

#9 Painting What You Know, Not What You See

This is a typical mistake in painting, both for beginners and not-such-beginners as well.

We know the house is white and we paint it white.

We know the flower is magenta, and we paint it magenta.

However, in many cases the real color of an object from our point of view is nothing like the local color of the same object up-close and under a direct light.

The same is true with shapes. We know a pine tree is triangular and a plate is round, and we tend to paint them according to our mind’s generalization rather than really observing and comparing.

Squint at the object. Observe the shape, observe the negative space, and most of all observe the value pattern. What is darker? What is lighter?

White in the Shade Is Darker than Black in the Light

Your brain may not accept this easily, but if you squint and observe, you can see it.

#10 Using the Wrong Color Because You Don’t Want to Waste It

Paint is expensive and when there is a big amount of paint on the palette it’s painful to throw it away. So we want to use it, right?

But what if we tried to mix a big lump of dull green and we got a lot of dull blue or brownish gray? Stop trying to fix that mix, start over, keep it fresh. Don’t use the wrong color, or better yet, use the wrong color to mix in as “gray” and neutralize other colors.

Putting paint on simply because you don’t want to waste it, will make you waste your painting.

To avoid this fear, I started using a sealable palette that keeps the unused paint wet for a few days. This way I am not afraid of squeezing out or mixing too much paint.

#11 Having Only Hard Edges

When I first started to paint I had no idea that you could have hard edges, soft edges, and even lost edges. Most of my edges were hard. Sometime I made soft edges out of luck or instinct, just trying to match what I saw, until I learned that there are some general rules about where hard and soft edges should go.

First of all what is a soft edge? A soft edge is when you merge two adjacent colors together, one blends into the other. In contrast, a hard edge is when the division between one color shape and the other is clearly defined.

Common recommendation is to place your hardest edges at your focal point and in the foreground, and softer edges on secondary elements and the background.

#12 Painting Details and with Small Brushes from the Beginning

Brushes come in a wide variety of widths. Small brushes should be used only for details, and you don’t need those until the end of the painting. Resist putting in details too early: it would make the painting look overworked.

I like to start with my largest brushes, block in the big shape, then move to medium brushes for smaller shapes, and finally small brushes for final details.

How big is a big brush? It depends on the surface. If I paint on a 6”x6” (15.2x15.2 cm) I start with a brush that is about 1inch (2.5 cm) in size. Then slowly move down to smaller brushes.

The bigger the surface, the bigger the brushes you need. For big canvases, like a 30”x40” (76x102 cm) I start with 2”/3” (5/7.5 cm) household painting brushes, and then move to my biggest fine art brushes, and slowly to the smaller ones.

Obviously you can apply more paint with a wider brush, but that’s not the only reason to use wider brushes. They keep your painting lose. Changing to small brushes: stay with the larger brushes as long as possible.

#13 Worrying About the Results: Trust Your Instinct and Trust Yourself

One of the most subtle killers of artistic outcome is fear. Students fear the comparison with other more talented students. Beginners fear the judgement of more experience artists. Everyone fears the negative criticism of the viewer.

Fear causes hesitation and insecurity. The apprehensive artist double guesses every decision during the creative process and the final result will show that.

Sometimes it’s not the fear of other people’s opinion, but the fear of wasting precious art supplies that acts as the stumbling element. (See mistakes #8 and #10)

When you start creating, abandon any fear. Trust your instinct. Trust yourself and your judgement. Follow your creative gist and enjoy the process!

Poll: What Is Your Mistake?

What mistake do you find yourself making over and over again?

See results

I Hope You Find My Writings Helpful

By no means I consider myself a master artist, but what I know I enjoy sharing with others. I wrote this article hoping that it will help beginner artists in their creative process, not because I believe I “know” how to paint.

I hope you found it useful and enjoyable. Happy painting! : )

© 2016 Robie Benve


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    • Robie Benve profile image

      Robie Benve 5 months ago from Ohio

      Hi Tish Campos, glad to year this was helpful for you! Sometimes very good things come out of unfortunate events. I hope your hand gets back to full use again, and your skills keep growing in surprising ways. Best of luck in all your artistic endeavors.

    • profile image

      Tish Campos 5 months ago

      This is a Huge help. I'm a self taught artist & have a difficult time drawing "nouns " then 5 months ago I lost the use of my dominant hand for the next year or so and I can actually do things I Never thought possible for me- a fascinating process. Thank you so much for your article- i plan on referring to it many times!

    • Robie Benve profile image

      Robie Benve 21 months ago from Ohio

      Thanks a lot for your feedback ChitrangadaSharan! I really hope this hub will be useful to painting enthusiasts (I love that definition!). Happy painting to you!

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 21 months ago from New Delhi, India

      These are some of the most common mistakes a painter might commit while painting. There is a tendency to include a lot in one canvass and even I did it in my earlier paintings. Now I keep it simple and focussed.

      Thanks for sharing this useful hub for painting enthusiasts!