What to Do When You Make Mistakes in an Oil Painting

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What do you do when you’ve made a mistake in oil painting? Keep reading for some tips! (Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash)

If you create art of any kind, then you’ve had the moment when you realize something’s gone wrong and now you must fix a mistake in your oil painting. Though frustrating, mistakes and missteps are a part of learning and happen to everyone. 

Even if you’re a working professional, you’ll still make mistakes. Now the caliber of your mistakes will be much higher, but you will still make mistakes. 

So how can artists begin to fix and recognize mistakes in their art? Keep reading to learn some ways to learn and recover from mistakes in an oil painting.

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Take great care to place your moderate lights correctly. Regardless of how dark an object seems, anything that is in the light must be given a light value. 

Do You Know What's Wrong?

The first step to fixing mistakes in an oil painting is to actually find the mistake. Students will often ask in our school, “Is this done? I know something’s wrong, but I don’t know what”. 

The first question to ask yourself when you see problems in your painting is if you know what the issue is. If you feel like somethings wrong, but you can’t figure out what it is, you need to let the painting be done. If you can’t figure out what’s wrong, you won’t be able to fix it. 

However, when we look at our work, we can usually pinpoint the issue. Whether it is in value, edge, color, or proportion, it usually sticks out to us. 

Then the next question to ask yourself before attempting fixing a problem should be “Do I know how to fix the issue?”.  If the answer is yes, then you can go in and try to fix the problem, which will improve the painting and move along closer to the end goal.

...artists often find themselves painting in circles trying to fix problems they don’t understand or know how to correct.

But if the answer is "No, I don’t know how to fix this problem", then you must stop painting. You can’t fix something if you don’t know what it is you need to fix or if you don’t understand how to fix it! It seems simple, but artists often find themselves painting in circles trying to fix problems they don’t understand or know how to correct. 

If you don’t understand where the problems are in your painting, then nothing needs correction at this point. Correcting issues that you don’t understand will create more problems and mistakes. Better to leave a mistake that you don’t understand or know how to fix, rather than creating additional problems. 

But, if you can find the mistake and know how to fix it, then you are ready to begin making corrections to your painting. 

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This painting by Evolve student Craig H. shows careful control and care from the very beginning, which results in a beautiful painting.

Can You Fix the Mistake?

As you work on a painting, stepping back to look for mistakes is important for several reasons. As you work, if you step back and see an easy issue that you can fix, the fix is fairly easy when the paint is wet. 

With a rag or small piece of paper towel, parts of the painting can be wiped away and restarted, or the wet paint manipulated, an edge sharpened or softened, or really any simple fix. As you go in to make a correction in wet paint, it is important to ask yourself if fixing the issue will help the painting or cause additional issues. 

If correcting a minor problem seems like it will cause a chain reaction of issues you’ll then need to correct, it is better to leave it alone. Also, depending on where you are in the painting, it may be best to leave the issue. Minor problems at the beginning of a painting are easier to correct than problems that you spot at the very end. 

But what happens when a major issue arises? Major issues in paintings stem from not enough care in the beginning of the painting, and the artist simply needs to take greater care and focus with the beginning stages of their painting.

Looking back and forth between the reference and the painting, see if you can find the issue with the painting and ask yourself if you understand how to make the fix. Then ask yourself if by fixing the major problem, will the rest of the painting suffer and will you have to repaint other large areas. If the answer is yes, it might be best to leave the painting and start again. 

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Knowing when to stop and restart or move on is an important part of painting. (Photo by Gary Chan on Unsplash)

Know When to Let Go

When major issues arise in your painting and you don’t know how to fix them, sometimes you need to let the painting be and start again. Overworking a painting never helps to achieve what you want. Making bold, informed decisions in your painting is what creates solid work, not guessing. 

Each stroke past a certain point either helps or destroys your painting. This means you need to weigh each stroke with extra intensity after a certain point. You can muddle about forever making tiny, inconsequential moves. 

Sometimes it is best to just stop or restart. And sometimes it is ok to leave some mistakes in your painting if you don’t know how to fix them. If you don’t know what the mistake is or how to fix it, chances are that with time you will learn how to. Each painting has the opportunity to teach you through its mistakes. Know when to let go of a painting and start again or move on. 

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Learning how to spot and mistakes in an oil painting is a big part of the Evolve education. Here, Lisa S. shows how she carefully controls each part of her painting to make a solid Block 3 piece.


Mistakes are a part of learning. This post offers some simple ways to think about mistakes and how to begin to understand correcting them. Remember that sometimes the best thing you can do for your painting is to know when to stop

And if you find mistakes in your work, don’t worry! All artists make mistakes, no matter how knowledgable they are or how long they've been painting. But those artists who are most successful have learned that mistakes are opportunities to learn, not a final word on their skills. Learn from your missteps and continue to grow as an artist. 

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