Artist blocks · Beginner Art · Colour · Painting

6 Common Problems with Artwork

Having taught art for a few years now, there are some common problems that I keep seeing so I thought I would share them and offer my advice on how they can be fixed.

Colours are dull and muddy 

This is usually caused by the overuse of brown tones like burnt sienna and ochres. Another contributing factor might be not having clean water for brushes so every colour is being muddied.  This is a common problem with watercolour, where colours can very readily become muddy.  I have also seen learners not allowing an under-layer of paint to dry so that the colour layered on top mixes into it, which is not always the desired result.  One way to solve this issue is to mix your own browns from the three primary colours (red, yellow and blue) and mix a range of neutral tones rather than using neutral colours straight from the tubes.  Use browns with some caution, like black it is a colour that can make things look dull very quickly.

You can’t mix the specific colours you want 

Colour mixing is a skill which comes with time and the way to learn is to mix all the colours from the three primaries (red, yellow and blue) and avoid using too many secondary and tertiary colours from tubes.  Try mixing colours before on the palette and trying them out on a test piece of paper (colours can look different on paper to the palette).  Some colours are impossible to create exactly, for example some bright pinks won’t be possible if you have a deep blue-based red for example.  Lots of learners concern themselves with this issue, but does it really matter?  If it does for example if you are trying to capture the colour of a flower accurately, you may have to purchase some more colours.  However in some cases learners mistake their difficulties with colour with tone.  Often the issue is capturing the right tone (how dark or light something is) not the right colour.

You may not be able to get the exact colour, does that matter?

I also have another trick to help identify the subtle changes in colour that can be hard to see.  If you are painting something that is all the same colour for example green but there are many different greens there, you can use a colour identifier to work out the slight differences.

Isolate the colours to work out the differences
Isolate the colours to work out the differences

Out of proportion

When artwork just doesn’t look right it is often because it is out of proportion.  Look at the comparative proportions, this means how long, wide etc. one object is in comparison to the other(s).  It is well worth spending time planning out the drawing before starting on the painting to help this issue.  You can also look at the negative space around the subject.  If you are struggling with this problem constantly you could also use a grid.

Boring composition

Does the artwork just lack something?  This is often due to a poor composition, things are too regular, placed in the middle of the page or just too uniform with no focal point.  Rethink the composition, try out a few possibilities with thumbnail sketches before you paint.  Consider a new viewpoint, you could look up or down, or choose a viewpoint from behind a door, an extreme close up or more distant view. The best way to find more  interesting compositions is to experiment, using a camera is a good tool for this too.

Is your composition boring?

Lack of tonal range 

If your artwork just looks flat and doesn’t really have a great deal of impact it could be due to lack of a tonal range.  Contrast – lots of very dark and very light tones creates a sense of drama and depth.  Often beginner artists draw in a range of mid-tones and avoid the darker tones that could make the subject look more dramatic and three dimensional.

Learn to improve your art


There is a time when you should finish a piece of artwork but for some of us we don’t always get this right!  This leads to overworking and the artwork starts to look stale and lacks the vibrant look it may have started with.  Overworking is a common problem because we want to work until the artwork is ‘right’.  Moving onto another piece is always a better solution, if you must come back to a piece leave it a few days so you have fresh eyes.  Learn when to move on!

Do you have any advice for tackling these common art problems?  Do share below…

3 thoughts on “6 Common Problems with Artwork

  1. Getting stuck on the composition idea can sometimes be resolved by looking at the picture in a mirror, or upside-down – or even by taking a photo of it with your mobile phone.

    It can be surprising how the brain gets fixated and ‘blind’ to issues that a fresh perspective brings.

      1. Yep indeed, it’s easy to get swallowed up into the moment and not doing the work any favours.

        Being “in the zone” is the ideal. But in the zone and zoned out to the bigger picture is probably when it falls apart.

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