Learning From Painting Mistakes

The three paintings shown below are from 1986 when I wanted to show a deer running through a winter landscape. They are painting sketches filled with mistakes I made while learning about deer and the art of painting. Each painting sketch gets better, but they all contain obvious errors that detract from each picture. Fortunately, I was never afraid to make mistakes while I painted, which helped me grow as an artist. After all, making art is a lifelong process of making mistakes.

"Deer Running, Sketch 1"
Deer Running, Sketch 1, Acrylic
"Deer Running, Sketch 2"
Deer Running, Sketch 2, Acrylic
"Deer Running, Sketch 3"
Deer Running, Sketch 3, Acrylic

While mistakes are often blows to the ego, they’re also beautiful learning lessons. And learning art is achieving the knowledge of which mistakes to correct and which ones to keep. Did you know that good paintings are full of wonderful accidents that the artist refused to fix?

TV painter Bob Ross called his mistakes “happy accidents” because they sparked his creativity and urged him to try new methods. As you study your subject and the painting process, you must not worry about the results or be afraid to paint something “ugly.” As you grow, you will learn how to spot errors and mistakes and problems in your art and find solutions for correcting them. There are many how-to books and Internet sites that will teach you. Just look for their banner headlines:


While you paint, learn not to think too much about the result. Set yourself a goal, but don’t force the painting along. When you’re painting, lose yourself in the act of applying a variety of dark and light and big and small brushstrokes of color that tell different stories within the big picture. Painting, like writing or making music, is about emotions and the landscape they create. The result won’t be perfect, but it will be true.

"People Reading Stock Exchange"
People Reading Stock Exchange, Norman Rockwell

No matter what, allow yourself to make mistakes and learn from them, like Norman Rockwell did when he mistakenly painted the three-legged boy in this picture of an illustration he did for The Saturday Evening Post. Yes, the boy in the red shirt has three legs. Two with their knees locked, and a third with the knee bent so that he can rest his hand on it. Rockwell was embarrassed, naturally, when the error was printed for the multitude of Post subscribers to see, but he never repeated this mistake in any of his 4,000-plus paintings.

Never stop learning.

6 thoughts on “Learning From Painting Mistakes

    1. Steve Campbell

      Thank you, Harry. It was exciting studying the art of painting and learning techniques those many years ago. I see that youthful excitement in those paintings and it pleases me. 🙂

  1. Lola

    I never knew that about Rockwell. To err is human and to forgive, divine, huh?
    Your article gives me more confidence to keep writing and drawing.

    1. Steve Campbell

      For me, human error and the strive toward perfection is what makes art special. Please keep on writing and drawing. And have fun.

  2. An absolutely wonderful post! And truer words were never spoken: one can’t learn anything and/or hope to improve without casting off the chains of perfectionism, having at it, seeing the work thru, and resolving to learn from one’s mistakes.

    I had never heard of Rockwell’s “three-legged boy.” Delightful. It should give every artist hope. And FWIW: I liked all three of your paintings, and I refuse to go thru them with a fine-tooth comb, looking for mistakes. Nice work, great post, thanks for sharing. 🙂

    1. Steve Campbell

      Thanks, Mark. It is a constant reminder to all my students to do their best, aim to improve, and never regret their errors. I know too many artists who cripple their talent by fussing away the years aiming for perfection before ever finishing one piece of art. And some never finish at all, but give up. Writers too.

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