6 Beginner Painting Mistakes that are Easy to Make

This is part of my guide for beginners learning to paint in acrylic, based on my own experiences as a self-taught painter.  These are some mistakes I made when I was starting out, and how you can avoid them in your own paintings.

Mistake #1: Not modifying your photo composition

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I strongly recommend working from photos as a way to improve technical skill.  If left to my own devices, I would probably just paint the same landscapes over and over, but my work doing custom paintings from photos helped me learn new skills and find enjoyable subjects that I never would have tried.  However, it’s important to think of the photo as a starting point, not your end goal.  Many new artists get tripped up trying for photorealism. We have cameras for that.  Move things around, take things out, change the sky, make it your own.

Mistake #2: Cleaning your brush too often

Taking care of your brushes between painting sessions is important, but while you’re painting, resist the urge to clean your brush thoroughly between each color.  Instead of rinsing it off completely each time, just wipe off the excess paint on your apron or a rag, and let a bit of the color stay on your brush.  This will help tie together the colors in your painting, and help you to discover new combinations you may not have tried.

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Mistake #3: Not stepping back to check your painting

You don’t need an easel or fancy lighting setup when you’re starting out, but it is important to step back frequently and look at your work at different distances and angles and in different lighting situations.  You’ll be surprised how different paintings can look between the working distance (close up, bright lighting) and the typical viewing distance (across the room).  This is especially important if you’re working flat, since you’re viewing it at an angle and your perspective may be off.  I like to take my painting in progress (being careful if it’s still wet) and hang it somewhere on the wall of my living room, then sit back on the couch and look at it for a few minutes before continuing.

Better yet, if you’re planning to put your work online, take a quick photo of it with your phone and see what it looks like in thumbnail, since that’s how most people will first encounter it. Sometimes I can’t quite figure out what’s off about a painting until I see how it looks small.

Mistake #4: Using student quality supplies for too long

I know I say this a lot, but it pains me to see promising intermediate artists struggling with poor quality paints and brushes, as I did for a long time.  Proper paints and brushes actually make a huge difference, and you’re better off with a small quantity of professional supplies rather than a big “student quality” beginner set, and brushes intended for elementary school poster painting.  Read my supply guide for beginners if you haven’t already, to figure out where to spend your budget.  Don’t sell yourself short, buy proper supplies.

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Mistake #5: Using a brush or canvas that is too small

Beginners gravitate towards small canvases and small brushes, but this can actually make things more difficult.  Small brushes slow you down, when you want to get through the early, overwhelming stages of a painting quickly.  I recommend choosing a brush that you think is too big, getting the canvas covered with color, and then sizing down as needed.  Picking a small brush too early can also make you too detail-focused.

Similarly, a small canvas looks less intimidating but gives you a smaller space to fit in your detail, requiring more dexterity.  When I was painting commissioned portraits, I stopped offering the 8″ x 10″ canvas size simply because I found the small paintings too difficult.  I recommend you start with at least 9″ x 12″, preferably larger.

Mistake #6: Getting discouraged too early

Most paintings look strange in the early stages, and it’s easy to get discouraged before you’ve given it a fair shot.  I now know to get color on my canvas quickly, and avoid stopping until the painting is through its awkward phase.  I actually like to have several different paintings on the go at once, so I can switch and work on a different one if I’m getting frustrated.

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Other artists, what are some beginner obstacles you’ve gotten through?  

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