If at first you don’t succeed…

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again. So the saying goes.

I can’t decide whether the originator of this simply cracked it after three attempts, or the recommendation is that you give something three attempts and no more, or if the three attempts is just the beginning and that you should endeavor to keep on trying until you succeed or lose the will to live. Based on this week’s painting experiences, I’m inclined towards the latter of these statements… and I’m beginning to think I know why too.

But first, some background. Word has reached my dear elderly mum that I’ve been doing some painting… and she’s said that she’d very much like to have one… and her birthday is fast approaching… and I don’t have any better ideas. So far, so simple. However, rather than present her with something that, aside from me, she has no particular relationship with, I thought I’d try to paint a view that she’s familiar with, that she’ll be able to relate to. Scanning my photo archives, I came across the picture above, of the Windmill on the seafront lawns at Lytham and St. Annes. It’s as much of an iconic building as the area has (without heading a bit further up the coast to Blackpool and its much taller tower of course). Now it’s not a scene that I’d normally be drawn to, but I saw it as a challenge to try to do this some artistic justice, plus I thought the photo captured a strong enough play of light for me to be able to paint something reasonably interesting.

I first did a very quick pencil note just to pick out the main areas of contrast. (Apologies for the paint splodges all over the place – they were a consequence of some rather indiscriminate splattering that followed on from this thumbnail sketch.)


Then I launched into my first painting of the scene.

Try 1

I quite liked the foreground treatment which, even in the photo is pretty flat and unvarying. I painted this quite simply and, whilst the wash was still wet, splattered in some colour to give a bit of texture. Similarly, I also introduced some greater variety and texture into the sky. I initially thought this was okay but could still be improved on.

So, I tried again.

Try 2

Now the more I looked, the more dominant the buildings were and, compositionally I didn’t like the direction of either of these efforts. The landscape in that area is quite flat, overlooking a tidal plain towards the opposite coastline of Southport, Liverpool and, in the far distance, Wales.

I decided that the composition would be improved by showing the buildings more in this context. I also felt that having to ‘cut’ around the buildings with my first sky wash was hampering the enthusiasm and freedom that I’d like to apply to the sky, so I decided that I’d try masking these areas out. This led to take 3.

Try 3

Now compositionally, I like this much better. But not so much that I didn’t think it could be improved upon. So, take 4.

Try 4

Now I actually enjoyed painting this one, perhaps a little too much as by the time I’d put in such a dark tonal value for the sky, everything else went that way too – to the extent that this looks like the view under an intense full moon rather than a shot of bright daylight – atmospheric maybe, but not what I was after.

By now I was becoming pretty frustrated – not just with the process but my inability to correct my own errors. I was also frustrated with the inconsistency of my drawing – every time I sketched out the scene, the size, proportion and relationship of the buildings was dramatically different. Still, I felt I had enough of a handle on things that, with one more effort, I’d finally crack it.

So, here’s my fifth (and final?) effort:

Try 5

Now I do think that, comparing them all side by side, this is the most ‘complete’ / least offensive of the five. Or, is it ‘Try 3’. Or maybe ‘Try 4’? Needless to say, I’m still far from happy.

Reflecting on this experience – I think what I’ve learned is that I’m still not sufficiently accomplished that I can make anything look good! I wouldn’t naturally be drawn to this view – nothing against windmills of course and I fully expect them to feature in many more of paintings in the future. It’s just not a view that particularly inspires me.

I also don’t feel that I’ve been able to interpret this view in the manner of painting that I’m striving towards – that of loose, spontaneous immediacy. Some of the skies are ok, and some of the foregrounds are ok, some of the distant shore lines are ok some of windmills are okay.. need I go on. Across the five paintings, there are some okay bits but none of them work sufficiently well together in a single image. Whenever I get onto painting the buildings, because of the edges and quite distinct shadows, I really tighten up when I paint them – they somehow become much more illustrative rather that painterly.

Whilst my latest attempt is okay, and will probably look even better with a mount around it, I’m generally dissatisfied with where I’ve managed to get to with this subject matter, and it’s driving me ever so slightly mad!

After vowing that enough was enough, and after a night’s sleep, I’m already toying with the idea of another attempt, albeit with a slightly different and looser approach. I fear that reading this post and seeing my efforts may be almost as painful for you as it has been for me – for which I’d like to offer my deepest apologies. I shall be striving for a much more successful and upbeat post and painting/s for next week – but in case there’s anything to learn from this, some notes and observations:

  • Firstly, and most importantly, to myself. Don’t paint what you don’t feel drawn to paint, and don’t try to compromise the style you want to paint in.
  • On masking fluid – I know it’s not cheating, but I still feel I should be able to render this image without resorting to it. Plus, when you do use it, beware the harsh line that’s created by the pigment from the wash accumulating up along the masked edge – it’s a dead giveaway (I now know!) and it doesn’t look good!
  • Trying can be, well, very trying!
  • If you can, find another present – it’ll be less stressful and probably more enjoyable for both giver and recipient!

Finally, any thoughts on exactly how many efforts one should try before giving up would be most welcome as I already think that I’m way over the threshold.


Since writing this entry, I’ve already sketched this scene out again and have been mentally mixing paint, applying brushstrokes and visualising, step by step how I’m going to tackle this. Now I just need to carve out some time to put this to bed once and for all and, if what I see in my mind’s eye comes to fruition, it will look markedly different to anything you see here!

Thoughts on If at first you don’t succeed…

14 thoughts on “If at first you don’t succeed…”

  1. Pingback: A happy(ish) ending – Brushes with Watercolour

  2. I actually quite like the first version, and I think your mum would be delighted to have that. I like the sunlight and the open, airy, feel that it has. It could perhaps have benefited from a bit of the foreground texture from the second version.

    I don’t think you needed to worry so much about cutting round the buildings. You could have run the sky over the left-hand side of the lighthouse and the barn, and it would have been covered by later washes.

    1. Thanks Keith – I don’t know why but I got it fixed in my head that it was best to cut round the windmill and building. You’re quite right though, aside from the highlight on the side of the windmill, everything could be painted over the sky wash. I spent a few days rethinking my entire approach to this painting and have done another version of it that I’m much happier with – shall post it up tomorrow and be interested to hear what you think of it.

  3. Hey John, I’ve gotta chuck in my 5p’s worth. I love your tenacity – it will undoubtedly take you far and all practice is good practice. While I can see that 4 is the most confident and accomplished, I want to reiterate my comments about the early spontaneous ones always being the most exciting and engaging. You’re very critical (which I understand – its the bane of artists) and persistent in the pursuit of perfection of each image you paint, and I wonder if there isn’t an alternative approach?

    A very inspirational artist friend of mine always encouraged me to be prolific but never repetitious – to paint/draw/make something and immediately LET IT GO. This frees you to get on with the next thing and never to kill the spontaneity. And makes it easier to give things away that aren’t ‘perfect’.

    It’s a bit like being self-conscious about having your photo taken – we don’t want to share/record for posterity an image that we don’t see as flattering. But if you take 5000 photos of yourself (that’s the prolific bit) you kinda run out of energy to keep finding fault with every one. I’m not saying don’t have a critical eye, but it shouldn’t constrain you. And then there’s how you critique your work: As Polly very memorably pointed out (as I was hating a photo she’d taken of me), she didn’t see what I did – she saw how I was feeling not an unfortunate profile. So I reckon critical analysis should always consider the emotion invested in the work – it’s what leaps out (or doesn’t if it’s been beaten to death ha ha).

    It might be worth trying some time restricted paintings that aren’t about a ‘finished’ piece. Giving yourself less and less time with each version is a good way to increase that free flowing approach…..

    OK thassit! Keep up the good work
    Bec xx

    1. I love your 5p’s worth Bec and appreciate such a constructive response. You’re right in so many ways – I’ve always struggled with a more prolific sketchbook approach of different subjects in favour of completed works. My approach with all of these recent paintings is to try not to become precious about them but there’s always a niggling ‘this could be the ONE’ babbling away in my head! I’m still committed to another attempt at this one but shall be endeavouring to recapture the spontaneity – I’m already feeling good about it! (Damn – that’s probably cursing me to fail before I’ve even started!) hopefully I’ll be able to post the results next time for a compare and contrast.

  4. I would be pleased if I could come near to your quality of work. So in my eyes all your attempts are good. However, I do understand what you are going through. I am new to watercolor and have just completed a painting of purple pansies 4 times. I am taking a break and will come back in a month or so to see if with more experience under my belt and fresh eyes I can do better. Plus I already have the sketch on paper ready for attempt No. 5. So I really understand where you are coming from. I agree you have to like the subject that can be part of the battle. (I don’t like flowers unless they are in my garden!!) I think you have to do it again to get it out of your system. However, with each attempt you are learning something, it may not be clear at the moment, but you are. You are also building up brush stroke miles. All good! You have put added pressure on yourself by working on a present. Look forward to seeing your next attempt!

    1. Thanks so much for this Carmel – great to know I’m not alone in my current situation! I feel I can’t let go of this one until I’ve done something I more satisfied with. As you say, as long as I’m learning something from each effort (which I feel I’m sort of doing) – none of this is wasted. As for the added pressure, I think you’re right… I’ve recently sent off four different paintings to a friend so that they can choose the one they prefer which I think is a much better way of going about gift giving of one’s own work. Look forward to seeing you purple pansies!

  5. Oh I love hearing about your process! I learn so much and not to worry it isn’t painful reading it. I just had to remind myself to take my time, this is worth reading. I understand perfectly what you mean about painting what inspires you and yet I try to tackle subject matter that doesn’t inspire me just as an exercise, it is worth the effort and pain! I see your attitude during the process coming through and I would say that try 1 is a bit tentative, try 2 is trying for intimacy perhaps thinking that it would foster some enthusiasm? try 3 I see a bit of “hmmm” and try 4 to me is the strongest, more confident and determination perhaps? try 5 looks like you have had enough! I am looking at it as an overall feeling not necessarily picking out the mechanics or techniques (of painting) of the paintings themselves. I often feel that I always hate one area of my painting or love it in all my attempts and I wish that I can take a wand and fix it all! Oh it is an ever ending challenge being an artist. 🙂

    1. Thanks so much for your considered (and generous response) Margaret – I really appreciate it. I think that try 4 was the one I enjoyed painting most – and like you say, is the most confident of my efforts. The version I’m working on (in my head!) will probably be closest to this version but I need to sort out the light balance better. Perversely, now I’ve had a break from it and have reconsidered my approach, I’m kind of looking forward to throwing myself back into the fray! Will hopefully have something I’m more pleased with for next week’s post! – Thanks again Margaret and, let’s be honest, it’d be dull if it was easy!

      1. So true! it would be dull if it was easy. Be watching and reading your process and re-doing a painting several times, I am convinced that it is worth a go to keep going back to “get it right”. Was this something that Monet had in mind when he painted his pond many, many times or was it because he loved the pond and was inspired by it? I’m looking forward to you marching on with your paint brush. 🙂

        1. Haha – unlike Monet (in so many ways!), I definitely don’t love this view enough to keep returning to it – but it’s become a challenge that I don’t feel I’ve risen to so far and I’m not quite prepared to quit and move on. Nearly, but quite yet. It’s been wonderful receiving the your (and everyone else’s) feedback as I feel re-energised about taking this on again just one more time – so thank you very much!

  6. Another lesson to take away from this is, don’t be so hard on yourself. 🙂 All of your attempts are very pleasing to look at. Since I myself have never seen the scene before think its beautiful and peaceful. Perhaps choose a subject that does inspire you and come back to this scene another time. 🙂

    1. Thanks Susan and I promise that after my next attempt at this scene – I’m off to paint something that I really want to paint!

I'd love to hear any thoughts you have about this

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