Art Inspiration: Pulling Through the “Hot Mess” Stage (and 14 Solutions)

There’s nothing I love more than doing things that make me feel human. Things like growing and preparing food, connecting with others who are both alike and different from me, and making any form of artistic expression all make life more meaningful. But let’s take a closer look at artistic expression. One of the reasons art is so meaningful and human is because creating it brings out a range of emotions. We experience inspiration, curiosity, peace, joy, pride, frustration, self-doubt, and even pessimism. Wait–did I just go there? You bet I did.

These last few qualities exist, whether we like them to or not, and CreativeGirl Danielle Donaldson isn’t afraid to shine a light on them. That’s because Danielle knows we all experience these negative emotions on some level, and, here’s the important part, we can all overcome them. Keep reading to see how Danielle gets past this stage, and scroll down for some of her “hot mess solutions.” ~Cherie

Art inspiration | Danielle Donaldson,
allALONEgirl (mixed media on paper) by Danielle Donaldson. Click here to learn about the CreativeGIRL Go-To Watercolor Kit (featuring the book CreativeGIRL, plus a paint and brush set and two quality markers!)

When Your Mixed-Media Art Turns Into a Hot Mess by Danielle Donaldson

I have my own way of finishing a piece of art. I have a tendency to work through a new piece in my head first. I usually do most of my drawing on the couch. Once that’s accomplished, I head to the dorm room (my studio) and add my first layer of watercolor. Then I walk away for a while. Or, if I’m really excited about it, I’ll turn on my craft dryer to speed up the process. I smile at the initial magic of it all. The piece comes back out to the couch (or maybe the kitchen if it’s dinnertime), where I add another layer of pencil work. Then it’s back to the dorm room for some more color. Somewhere between trips, the piece turns on me. Maybe I added too much of one color. Maybe I added shadows where there should have been light. But most often I have no idea why my head is telling me, “Wow, Danielle, that is a hot mess! What the heck?”

I end up frustrated, mad, irked, and, for a brief moment, I consider the piece ruined. That happy colorful magic has lost its shine. I may even stomp my feet or call myself an unkind name. Dramatic and pessimistic, I know. Each artist has their own name for this stage. Mine is “the hot mess stage.”

It’s really important for you to know that every artist experiences this stage. Every artist. Online class videos, how-to books, and social media can sometimes be deceptive from this standpoint. They often leave this stage out, and I wish they didn’t. I think this is often the most important stage. This stage offers an opportunity to give ourselves grace and to problem solve. It allows for a little self-reflection and therapy. It makes us figure out how to work through the discomfort of it. For me, the key is taking the time to identify what the issue is rather than just letting it go and moving on.

So, when you’re creating and this happens, cut yourself some slack. When it just isn’t working, walk away for a bit. It’ll be exactly where it was when you come back. I promise.

Art Inspiration: 14 “Hot Mess” Solutions

Pick and Choose: Save the best parts of an old, ugly or worn-out piece. You can do this by cutting it apart and adding your favorite bits to your stash and throwing the rest in the trash. Doing so is highly therapeutic.

Cover-Ups: Cover up an old or sad piece altogether; either with paint or paper. You can also cover up the parts you don’t like anymore with paint, patterned papers and ephemera. All of these options work well and give you a multitude of new surfaces to paint on, allowing you to incorporate the bits you preserved and blend them in with the new. This is my favorite technique with panels and canvases, and it works well when the majority of the piece is not your favorite. 

Art inspiration | Danielle Donaldson,
“Perched” (mixed-media watercolor) by Danielle Donaldson

Work-Arounds: Identify the part of a piece that bugs you, then dig into your stash to fix it. This allows you a more positive solution than painting over a little spot or reworking it, which usually only leads to one thing—hating it even more. That spot already had your attention, now it has everyone else’s too! Instead of letting go of the little spot that didn’t work and focusing on the rest of the piece, you managed to turn the little spot into the focal point of the piece. I’m not sure why we’re programmed to do that, but we are. Allow yourself the time to mull it over and think of how to make it shine, rather than disappear. At the very least, set it aside and take a break. Then come back and work around it.

Walk-Aways: Allow yourself the opportunity to set a piece aside and disconnect for a while. If your creative brain works anything like mine, you’ll actually imagine a brilliant solution, given a little bit of grace and a decent amount of time. Some of my best ideas come after I have stomped away, when I turn in for the night and my head hits the pillow. And if that doesn’t happen, tuck the project away behind a box somewhere. You’ll discover it down the road, and a new technique or supply will be just what you need to finish the work with a smile!

Let It Go: Allow yourself the opportunity to value your time and energy by tossing work in the trash. We tend to invest ourselves in our art so early in the process that we don’t allow ourselves to just let something go. It isn’t working. It’s not like what you imagined. Let. It. Go. Your time and energy are worth more than the product you used.

It’s OK to Have a Bad Day and Be in A Bad Mood: I’m a perfectionist and a morning person. I’m a planner, a list maker and a full-time worker bee. I’m a mom, wife, daughter, and friend. I’m a creature of habit and a hermit. I’m loyal, sensitive and worry about pretty much everything. I’m happiest when my mind and hands are busy, and my daily creative practice is often my reset button at the end of a busy day. But there are days that just don’t feel the creative love. At all. On those days, I want nothing more than to create my way out of my bad mood. Some days I am successful and other days, I can’t draw a stick figure to save my life.

It’s OK to have an off day, and sometimes it’s OK to just not push your luck and to offer yourself the opportunity to do something else. Anything else. Just walk away and come back another time.

Practice Doesn’t Make Perfect But It Does Help: I find that I can move most of my art forward if I can identify the trouble spots and work with them instead of against them. But sometimes it’s bigger than a spot or two. Usually, for me, it stems from the very start of the piece; I didn’t spend enough time practicing how to draw what I’m trying to draw. My mere love of horses and an epiphany that my next new thing is going to be a watercolor series of colorful long-legged ponies doesn’t automatically make me an equestrian-drawing aficionado. You have to give yourself the opportunity to practice before you throw yourself into the series you have envisioned. Skipping the practicing part is a quick path to frustration.

Art inspiration | Danielle Donaldson,
Mixed-media art by Danielle Donaldson

Wow, You’re Deep: One of my favorite steps in my creative process is to add depth to my work. I add depth by varying the size of objects in the foreground and background, by using perspective drawing and by adding shadows and highlights. Perspective drawing was one of my favorite classes ever. (Weird, I know!) The whole concept of being able to make things look like they’re jumping out or fading away is just awesome.

When your perspective is off, you know it. For me, the only solution is to get better from the get-go. While my techniques and step-by-steps (LINK) give you some basic insight into how I add depth, there’s so much more you can learn! Dedicate an entire journal to adding depth to objects and scenes using perspective drawing, take an online course and find a great reference book and practice. The beauty of perspective drawing is that once you get it, your work will grow by leaps and bounds and there’ll be about a gazillion new subjects you can draw and paint. Art inspiration | Danielle Donaldson,

Sometimes Less Is More: White space is an integral part of my work. By definition, white space is the negative space—the empty space that allows the artist to create visual focus on the object(s) in the piece. In graphic design, it’s the blank space between lines of type, the gutters and even the space between a title and a subtitle. Either way, awareness of what isn’t there is as powerful as what is there. For me, it’s the absence of clutter; it’s a deep, calming breath; it’s imagination. And it’s as important as anything you might draw or paint.

To create white space, resist the urge to fill up every nook and cranny of your paper, canvas or panel. Try to be aware of trapping white space as well. Look at your drawing and ask, “Did I create a shape with white space that distracts the viewer?” Think of these spaces as trapped bubbles that just bounce around instead of floating away. A great way to avoid the bubbles is to be sure to allow some elements of your drawing to bleed off of the paper or canvas.

Finding Your Balance With Color: Have I mentioned my deep love of all colors? For me, the overall balance and use of color is really important. I have a pretty darn good nose for color and can sniff out problems and resolve them pretty quickly. It’s a gift, and I am very thankful for it. If the overall palette seems lacking or unpleasant and you’re having trouble identifying why the color scheme is out of balance, grab your rainbow reference strip. Run through each color of the rainbow and ask, “Is there too much or too little?” Once you have worked through all of the colors, it’s pretty easy to determine what color you should choose to balance the piece. You can even take your questions up a notch and for each color of the rainbow ask, “Is it a good balance of cool and/or warm colors?” If you find that you’ve added colors that have thrown off the balance, consider starting over or repurposing the piece altogether. I know it can be painful, but you learned something valuable about color. And in the end, working on a new piece is a better use of your time than working to fix one that may or may not be able to be fixed.


Blog, Mixed-Media Painting Techniques, Mixed-Media Techniques

2 thoughts on “Art Inspiration: Pulling Through the “Hot Mess” Stage (and 14 Solutions)

  1. I have to say great timing on article. I have had a “hot mess” of my own that I have been dealing with. I work in a similar manner, I try and give my art it’s start and want the piece to find its own voice and at about 85% into the project I am frustrated that the piece hasn’t whispered how it wants to finish.

  2. Great idea to add splashes during the painting instead of the end…..first rule of painting watercolor especially….paint and water should be on same side as the hand you paint with….eliminates driping paint or water on paper where you don’t want it and the distraction of arm constantly crossing in front of camera. mraz


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