Painting AGAINST the Nature of the Subject, Problem-Solving, and Optimal Training

Welcome to the September 2022 training report. I’ll use my recent painting, Boat at Wynnum (below), to illustrate key points.

Dan Scott, Boats at Wynnum, 2022, 700W
Dan Scott, Boats at Wynnum, 2022

(Click here to see a high-resolution photo of the painting.)

Painting AGAINST the Nature of the Subject

I often suggest that your brushwork should play into the nature of the subject. That is, use rigid brushwork for rigid subjects or smooth brushwork for smooth subjects. This is a good rule of thumb, but there will be times when you should ignore it and paint against the nature of the subject in order to make the painting work as a whole.

Boats at Wynnum is a good example. It features several distinct parts: the boats, buildings, and other manmade structures; the glassy water and its reflections; and the trees, grass, and other nature. Each area favors a different painting approach. The boats, buildings, and other manmade structures favor a more calculated approach with intricate drawing and detail. This plays into their geometric and structural nature. The glassy water and its reflections favor a subtle approach with smooth strokes and gentle rendering. The trees, grass, and other nature favor an impressionist approach with luscious color and energetic strokes. 

The problem is, if we were to use a different approach and brushwork for each area, we might end up with a disjointed painting with no overarching style. And remember, it doesn’t matter how well the parts are painted if the painting doesn’t work as a whole.

What’s the solution? You might need to paint against the nature of the subject for certain areas to make sure they fit in with the rest of the painting.

Boats at Wynnum follows an impressionist style (though I was more careful with the rendering and brushwork than usual). This is fine for the trees, grass, and other nature—impressionism was created to paint nature! But impressionism doesn’t play as well into the detailed and geometric nature of the boats, buildings, and other manmade structures. So I needed to compromise with these areas. I pushed the relaxed brushwork, broken edges, and simplified detail as far as I could without compromising their appearance. This helped these areas fit in with the rest of the painting and the overall style. Refer to the closeup below of the grass, retaining wall, and water. See the relaxed strokes, visible brushwork, and subtle broken color I used for the retaining wall.

It can feel unpleasant to paint against the nature of the subject. You’ll feel natural urges pulling you in a different direction. As I was painting the main boat, I could feel natural urges to zoom in on the reference photo and capture every detail with fine rendering. But that would be a mistake as the boat would end up looking tight, overdone, and out of place in the context of the painting. (To be honest, I still think the boat looks slightly off and you might as well. But there comes a time when you just need to move on to the next painting and let that feeling of dissatisfaction go.)

Problem-Solving and Being Open-Minded

In Boats at Wynnum, I encountered an issue with the main boat around halfway through the painting process. I initially thought the issue had something to do with the drawing, scale, and perspective of the boat. I spent ages adjusting the drawing here but nothing worked.

I eventually realized the problem had nothing to do with the boat but rather the surrounding water. The water was too smooth and flat and for some reason that was messing with my perception of the boat. The solution was to paint the water with broken palette knife strokes. This is another example of painting against the nature of the subject. The broken palette knife strokes are not what you would typically use to paint calm, glassy water, but that’s what this painting needed. 

The key lesson here is to be open-minded when you encounter a problem. Don’t tunnel vision one element as I did with the drawing, scale, and perspective of the boat. If you cannot get a solution to work, maybe that’s not the solution.

Four-Step Problem-Solving Process

Here’s my four-step problem-solving process. Treat this like a brief mental checklist when you encounter a problem. Use it to avoid guessing your way through a problem—that’s a surefire way to end up with a muddy mess on your canvas. 

(Step 1) Take a breath and slow down. Mistakes can easily compound when you work stressed. 

(Step 2) What exactly is the issue? Be specific and open-minded. Think big-picture first. Does it have anything to do with color, value, composition, style, etc? Once you identify the big-picture issue, narrow it down. Is the color too light, dark, warm, or cool? Is my brushwork too tight or relaxed? Does this part fit with the overall style of the painting? To help identify problems, refer to this checklist (the “Painting Questions” section).

(Step 3) What are the possible solutions? There are usually multiple solutions to single problems. For example, if your focal point is not strong enough, you have two possible solutions: you could further emphasize the focal point or you could further restrain the background. 

(Step 4) Test the best solution in a non-committal way. Does it fix the problem? If so, commit. If not, try another solution. 

I’ll show you what I mean. Below is a progress shot of Boats at Wynnum. There’s a problem with the leaves that frame the right-hand side of the painting (something about them just looks wrong).

Let’s run through the problem-solving process: 

(Step 1) Take a breath and slow down. 

Done! I’m relaxed and trying to think objectively. 

(Step 2) What exactly is the issue? Be specific and open-minded. 

We have already determined there is a big-picture issue with the leaves on the right-hand side of the painting. Having looked at the painting and the reference photo, I can see the leaves are too cool and light. There’s also a lack of color contrast, making the area look flat. So the problem relates to color, or more specifically, temperature, value, and contrast.

(Step 3) What are the possible solutions? 

I could paint over the top with darker and warmer colors or I could make the surrounding colors cooler and lighter.

(Step 4) Test the best solution in a non-committal way. 

The best solution seems to be painting over the top with darker and warmer colors. 

I test the solution by applying a few strokes and assessing how they fit. It seems to be the right solution, so I commit to this direction and proceed with the painting. 

This is just one example of problem-solving but I encountered many others. Painting is really just a long string of problems you must solve. The key is not to avoid problems altogether, but rather to hone your problem-solving ability and the range of possible solutions you have in your toolkit. Every painter encounters problems, even realist virtuosos like John Singer Sargent or Joaquín Sorolla. The difference is, they make the solving part appear effortless as if the problems didn’t even exist.

Before change (left) and after change (right)

Tip From a Fellow Inner Circle Member

I recently answered a member question about struggling to finish paintings. The question and my answer are below in case you missed it. 

Q: “I have trouble with finishing paintings. I get to a certain point and then lose interest in continuing. This is especially true if I like what I have done up to that point. I guess I am afraid I will mess up if I go further. When I don’t like what I have done, I tend to continue and try to identify and fix the problem(s). How can I overcome this stumbling block?”

A: “You need to constantly remind yourself that it’s just a painting and it’s ok if you stuff it up. Most of the time, you’re better off taking a risk if it means you might improve the painting. It won’t always work out, but take comfort in the fact you tried and at least found out what didn’t work in that particular scenario.

If you play it too safe in painting, you will plateau. And that’s no fun either. I would much rather fail a few paintings than hit a long plateau. You need to constantly push yourself into these uncomfortable areas to keep improving.

It might also be the case that you are reaching a point in the painting where you simply don’t know what options you have. You might know something needs to be done, but you aren’t sure what. Experience will help with this. More paintings under your belt will mean you will have more tools and solutions at your disposal.

So, keep painting and take those risks. It will get easier. And get comfortable with being uncomfortable. That’s how you know you’re progressing!”

In response to this, Inner Circle member Wanda emailed in with some additional advice that you might also find helpful: 

Hi Dan,

Here is a helpful tip regarding this problem of not knowing what else to do on a painting or other piece of art…

Put your piece up on a wall or propped up in your home somewhere where you will see it often and leave it alone for a while.  As time goes on and you wait with your painting, it will “tell you what it needs” and then finishing becomes a little less difficult – either you will settle on it as is or you will know what needs changing or adding. 

Been there


Thanks Wanda! Great tip. I do this myself. Before I sign a painting, I typically leave it on the easel for a day or two. As you said, it will tell me what it needs, if anything.

The Optimal Training Routine

I was browsing an art forum looking for inspiration and I stumbled across a discussion on what the optimal training routine would be to master painting as quickly as possible.

Many of the answers were something along the lines of: 

  • Work out your curriculum a year in advance. 
  • Practice for 5+ hours every day.
  • Have a mentor critique and challenge your work. 
  • Do this for at least 5-10 years. 

Sure, this will put you on the fast track to mastery, but it’s missing an essential ingredient: you must be able to keep enjoying what you do. It doesn’t matter how optimal your training routine is if it saps your joy and cripples your motivation to continue.

The great artists are those who stay at it, year after year, decade after decade. They do so because they stay in touch with the joy of painting. 

Sure, a rigorous training routine like the example above might work for you, but it’s not for everyone. Especially if you have kids, as I have found out in the last year with the birth of my daughter Elora (who is now 14 months). Compromises must be made!

I share this because I see many students beating themselves up over not doing things the “optimal” way. There is no optimal way. Just strive to be the best artist you can be given your circumstances and goals. And stay in touch with the joy of painting!

Happy painting!

Dan Scott Signature

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

PS. Below are some progress shots of Boats at Wynnum for those interested.

8 thoughts on “Painting AGAINST the Nature of the Subject, Problem-Solving, and Optimal Training”

  1. Problems for the viewer are questions like: Why is the boat not tied up? Why is a tree growing in the water? Was there a flood and the boater missing and in danger? Why is the horizon slanting and parallel with the foreground wall? Why is the boat almost bullseye centered?

    • Hi Barb. If you look at the reference photo, it looks like the boat is anchored in the water. This is a random spot in Wynnum QLD where I would almost say, it’s a shipping yard for old, no longer used boats. The creek is filled with dozens of boats like this. It is also a Mangrove area hence the tree(s) in the water. Hope that makes things a little clearer for you when viewing the painting 🙂 Chontele

  2. Thank you for this insight.

    Your comments reflects very well the too often encountered questions we face with our painting.

    I find your boat is well rendered, In my point of view think it fits just perfect. One thing you might add is that it also depends on the viewer’s standpoint and perception. Not everyone looks at a painting the same way. The important thing is that you are satisfied with your work.

    Carole D.

  3. It always amazes me when my first impression is “wow” but with time I see potential weak areas in a painting. Yours is quite beautiful and relaxing. I am wondering if the far side of the boat should pick up more reflection and therefore be less sharp…fade into the water appearance wise. Also should the boat’s shadow fade as its way from the boat. But lovely!

  4. This is a lovely painting, Dan! And the points you made about the process were very insightful!
    I truly enjoy your teaching approach and very wise advice to enjoy the process:) Thank you so much for sharing your process.

  5. My favorite part of the painting was the sharpness of the boat’s shadow. Almost startling, contrasting with the soft yummy colors of the water and the boat’s interior. Nice. And I appreciate the tip about using a mix of style or technique as necessary. Thanks, Scott!

  6. Thanks for this break down and advice. I absolutely get what you say, having had criticism of some of my work for exactly that- ie it is somehow disjointed, a painting of many parts. It’s good to have a strategy for thinking about this potential problem and shall consider the idea of choosing opposing brush work in certain circumstances. As for the not being able to finish issue, I totally concur with the person who suggested standing it up and standing back for a while. I always do this even if I think it’s complete and I’m satisfied with what I’ve achieved in a long session. Invariably the mind relaxes and the painting suggests a tweak on something you’ve missed. Of course, there has to be a limit to this as you can pass the point of no return and spoil spontaneity so I try to stick to a single chance for it to speak (or forever hold its peace!). Occasionally it takes a little longer to reveal what’s needed though. I sometimes dabble in portraiture and had almost abandoned one of my daughter. So I parked it up intending to give it a coat of white undercoat. Suddenly I realised the pupil to nose triangle relationship was minutely adrift, so her gaze was too. A tiny adjustment saved the canvas from the recycling pile. It works.

  7. I agree with Wanda’s comment; after finishing the paint I hang it on the wall for few days. In this way I can always find some mistakes or problems I couldn’t see before.


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