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Art Masterclass - 118

How to avoid overworking your paintings with Haidee-Jo Summers

An overworked painting is usually recognisable by being too stiff, lifeless and lacking in recognisable focus. We just know when we’ve gone too far.

It’s easily done with watercolours – the freshness is gone, the colours are dulled, the white of the paper all vanished and you know you’ve gone beyond the point of no return.

At least oil paints can be scraped back or wiped off easily while still wet, as long as you have the nerve to do it.

And if all else fails with an acrylic painting, just give it an even coat of colour and have another bash.

Inside the FIsherman's Shelter, oil, 10x14in (25.5 x 35.5cm)

This is an example of a painting where I feel I got the balance right between describing the subject and leaving a chance for the viewer to finish it in their own mind. I find it difficult to get the values right when working in an interior with an outside view but I think I managed it here. The darkness inside the room was enhanced with looser, less prescriptive brush marks.

Too precious
Is the real problem here that we get too precious, defensive about the time we have put into a painting and soldier on with a grim determination? If you find this happening I suggest you put it away for a while, and then be prepared to make a radical overhaul using your largest brushes, or a scraping down with a palette knife, or a good to king with paper. Nothing ventured, nothing gained! Guard against being precious and working to tried and tested formulas. We learn far more by being daring and trying new approaches, and are more likely to recognise when something isn’t working and make the large changes needed.

When you know something is wrong with the drawing but are unsure what it is, try looking at it in a mirror. Or turn it upside down and consider how the colours and values are working together as an abstract arrangement. Is there discord where you were seeking harmony?

When I was a student I read a quote by an American artist: ‘Say what you need to say in the painting then get out. There is no use chattering on after you have made your point’. I don’t remember who said it or where I read it, but I have never forgotten it and it has been my mantra for the past 24 years or so. So before you start, ask yourself ‘what am I trying to say in this painting?’ Because if you can’t answer that, you can’t expect to know when you’ve said it.

Useful pointers
My painting approach is to consider the entire composition, to bring the painting on as a whole, rather than working section by section in a piecemeal fashion, and I am always alert as to when I might have ‘said enough’. I may start with quick linear marks to position the subject but I soon move on to large areas of tonal value. This approach helps me to form the main structure of the painting before getting involved in details that don’t add very much impact. I aim to make a concise statement.

If you suspect that sometimes you go too far in your own work, here are some ideas that may help:

  • When working en plein air or from life, turn away from the subject from time to time and regard the painting rather than the subject. What’s the biggest difference you can make that will move you from where you are to where you’d like to be when finished. Go from there to asking what else the painting needs to improve it and keep in mind the initial inspiration behind it or the feeling you are trying to convey.

  • If working in the studio consider taking more breaks. A break is either a time to think and absorb ideas about the painting or to get away from it altogether and come back to it with fresh eyes. Looking at a painting in a mirror can help you to see any inaccuracies with the drawing. Desirable as it may be to achieve a loose impressionist look, you still need the underlying structure or drawing to read well, otherwise you will lose the believability and it will be difficult for your viewers to engage with the piece.

  • Take regular photos of a painting during the stages of its production. When you look at the photos you might find there was a point where you continued working and actually lost more than you gained from there on. This can be something of an eye-opener and can help you to spot when and how you might bring future paintings to a different conclusion.

  • Consider timed exercises. Painting en plein air is terrific training for getting an idea down quickly and developing a short-term visual memory. It is well worth setting a time limit to remind yourself of time passing and everything changing. I set a timer on my phone to go off after an hour of painting because by then I should have a statement of everything I need, and then again after another 30 minutes because I should be about done by then, give or take a little finessing. Even when working from a static reference set strict time limits to train yourself to get a complete idea down quickly and with minimum fuss.

The level of detail and finish you aspire to is a personal choice and it would be a boring world if we all responded the same way. What excites me is that people perceive a level of detail in my paintings that isn’t really there; I love it when they get up close to the surface and see the abstract marks that led them to believe they could see a whole village on a mountainside.

I think each painting needs a balance between descriptive shape and suggestion. You can still convey a strong idea if your taste is for fine detail, but consider leaving some parts of the painting more open to suggestion as this can help you to direct where your viewer focuses their attention. Standing back often makes it easier to assess the vitality of the work as a whole and not lose it by trying to perfect insignificant areas of detail that don’t add any real value. Knowing when to stop is hard, but think of your painting as a collaboration and leave its future viewer a little something to work on. Notwithstanding all of that, the very best way to finish a painting is to start a new one.


Demonstration: Dotty's Tea Rooms

Stage One

I mixed a thin turpsy wash of French yellow ochre deep and magenta, which I painted all over the surface, then rubbed in with a rag to smooth. I applied extra pressure to the rag to lift the coloured wash in the lightest areas, particularly the window. I then began to block in the dark masses, varying the colour mix and the pressure and angle of the brush while applying the paint to create interest, using a Rosemary & Co large filbert with a 24in handle, French yellow ochre deep, magenta, cadmium red and blue black, with only a little turps added.




Stage two


I continued with the same approach with the darkest areas, adding more blue black and magenta, softening some of the edges with my finger or a rag. Changing to a clean, smaller flat brush for the lighter value opaque colours, I started with the warm light colours of the artificial lighting, as it is a focal point that I very much wanted to include in the painting. I then moved onto the green of the tablecloths.





Finished Painting

Dotty's Tea Rooms, oil, 10x8in (25.5 x 20.5cm)


The finishing touches were a little more detail by way of a couple of dabs of green, pink and grey for the flowers on the table.
At this point I felt I’d achieved my initial objective of a warm and inviting interior with a little daylight beyond to provide contrast and intrigue. If you look at the window you can see the broken colour effect of the initial wash and subsequent layers of thicker paint, which loosely describe the shapes of the window and lamp shade, chairs and tables without saying too much about them.



Haidee-Jo Summers

Haidee-Jo Summers studied illustration at DeMontfort University, Leicester. She has exhibited widely and won many awards, including The Artist Purchase Prize at The Artist Open Art Competition in partnership with Patchings in 2014, and is a regular contributor to The Artist. Haidee-Jo tutors workshops and demonstrates for art societies. Her DVD Vibrant Oils is available from APV Films, price £28.55. Telephone 01608 641798; and

This feature is taken from the September 2016 issue of The ArtistClick here to purchase your copy.

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