Question Sticker Series: Overworking

Question Sticker: "What are your biggest struggles or fears when it comes to making art?"

Reply: "Overworking"

Oooh, this one can be tricky. Let's first define what overworking means and then hopefully I can shed some insight on how to avoid it.

Before I begin, I would like to point out that this is something that happens to all artists from time to time but is more apparent with mediums that are less forgiving. I have overworked my share of paintings and I am sure I will do so again in the future. For the oil or acrylic painter, if they don't like something they can simply paint over it. This is not the case with watercolor since it is a transparent medium. Thus planning before you start the painting process goes a long way.

What is overworking?

So what does it mean to "overwork" a painting? To me, this could mean several things.

  • One, that my colors are getting muddled and muddy and are no longer distinct. In other words, too many unintentional neutrals (greys and browns, AKA 'mud').
  • Two, that I have created unwanted textures with excessive brush strokes or damaged the paper by scrubbing and lifting too much. This is distracting and can, in my opinion, detract from the aesthetic appeal of the work.
  • Three, that I have put too much paint down on the paper, or simply made everything the same value. By making everything too similar in value it has a flattening effect on the painting due to lack of contrast. This also diminishes the impact of the focal point and lessens the effectiveness of the composition.
  • Four, high level of detail in too many areas of the painting. Excessive details are often distracting and overwhelm the eye of the viewer. What constitutes excessive will vary a great deal from one painting style to another. Again this is just my opinion.

I am sure there are other things that could be called "overworking" but these are the ones that come to mind.

I feel like this piece was overworked because much of the green is the same value and feels flat.

How to Avoid Overworking

While I do not consider myself an expert in this area by any means, I am happy to share the things that have helped me deal with this problem. I hope you find them helpful as well and I encourage you to add to this list if you have other techniques or suggestions. That way we can all learn from each others knowledge. Much of what I have to share on this is similar to my previous post about Understanding Light & Shadow, as the two things go hand in hand.

Things to Keep in Mind

  1. Value studies.
  2. Thumbnails and/or rough sketches.
  3. Color planning/mixing and making swatches ahead of time. Mixing colors in advance saves time later and can help a lot with timing (which is often quite important when painting with watercolors).
  4. Use a limited color palette. Fewer colors in your palette means less mixing and fewer decisions of "what to use where". In other words, it can help simplify the color aspect of painting so you can focus on value and tone, etc.
  5. Remember that contrast and value are more important than color.
  6. Intentionally exaggerate or engineer the contrast between values to create greater depth and impact in your artwork.
  7. Leave some areas of the paper white. You can always go back and tone them down later. But once you've painted over them, there is no getting that pure white back.
  8. Try using a well-developed under-drawing with some values indicated.
  9. Don't rush! Take your time. Rushed decision making will lead to more mistakes.
  10. Try not to get caught up rendering details from your reference photo UNLESS they have a purpose. (I struggle with this one!)
  11. Less is more (most of the time), especially in watercolor. Both in general and in regards to the number of washes and brushstrokes.
  12. You do not have to create just one version of a painting. Masters will often repeat the same painting over and over until they get it just right. Masterpieces don't happen by accident.

Planning is Key

Preparation will give you a solid plan and help you to avoid overworking. It is like creating a road map for yourself to follow. Planning allows you to work out a lot of the questions ahead of time so you don't have to make rushed decisions during the painting process. When it comes to a successful painting, VALUE is far more important than COLOR. It is easy to get distracted with color matching and the vibrant hues in your palette, so stop from time to time and do a progress check. Take a step back and evaluate your contrast and value range. Sometimes a few well-placed dark tones are all a painting needs to feel complete.

For a while, I had a piece of paper taped to my wall with three words listed in order of priority when it comes to painting. It read: contrast, composition, color. This advice comes from Tom Newnam, a successful Pennsylvania watercolorist.

If You Are Unsure, Stop

Often, if things start to go wrong it is better to just stop and move on to another area of the painting. Many times I have overworked a painting by trying to "fix" it. While sometimes it does work itself out, there are plenty of other times I just made it worse. If you are unsure how to handle a particular area, take a break. Make a cup of tea, go for a walk, then come back to your painting with fresh eyes. Trying to rush or force things is usually not the best solution.

No Painting is a Waste

It is easy to feel disappointed when your painting doesn't turn out, but try to keep in mind that every time you put brush to paper is a valuable learning experience. As watercolor artist Angela Fehr says, you are "logging brush miles." All of our mistakes are teaching us, showing us what we need to work on to take our painting to the next level. Without mistakes, we cannot learn, without learning we cannot move forward.

Angela also encourages artists to use overworked paintings as a place to push your limits and experiment. If it is already "ruined" you have nothing to lose by taking things in a new direction. Try something dramatic or turn it into an abstract. Regardless of what you choose, try to get the most out of it rather than seeing it as a failure.

Quality Matters

I think it is also important to note that the quality of the materials you use matters and can impact the amount of "wiggle room" you have before a painting starts to get overworked. Paper quality, more than anything else, can have an effect on this. Higher quality paper can take more brushing and lifting before it will start to show damage or pilling. It also helps to make your washes smoother and layering easier. It dries flatter with less warping, which means less puddling etc. Long story short, good quality paper can completely change your painting experience. I am often frustrated by lower quality papers because I am fighting with it the entire time, trying to get it to behave. It is not something I am doing wrong, it is just how it goes with cheap papers. I worry that some people blame the flaws in the paper on themselves and think it is because of something they are doing. Keep in mind that painting should be a pleasant experience, and your supplies should work with you, not against you. I promise you that spending a few extra dollars on better quality paper will have a positive impact on your work.

Additional Resources

One of the artists I follow on YouTube, Steve Mitchell (his channel is called The Mind of Watercolor), has a video about overworking where he shares his insight on this topic. You can watch it HERE. It's a vlog style video so skip ahead to 1:15 to get to the painting stuff. Steve has an entire playlist on watercolor basics as well as many other types of videos such as product reviews and his painting process.

Thank you for reading!

Wow, that was a long one! If you made it this far, thank you so much for choosing to spend your time reading my blog! I really hope that you found this helpful because I know overworking can be super frustrating. As always, I welcome your comments and feedback. You are the inspiration behind my posts so if there is something you'd like me to talk about, please let me know.


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