Fixing Mistakes in an Acrylic or Oil Painting.

Patience and Titanium White Can Fix Almost Any Mistake.

Everyone makes mistakes, and painting is no different than the rest of life. At times you fiddle with a portion of your scene too much and are left with an area that doesn’t fit. The color may be muddy, you may have too much texture built up, or it just isn’t working out the way you planned. 

It’s frustrating and can make you want to abandon the whole thing. Yet, there is hope. You can fix your mistakes in oil and acrylic paintings both. Simply step back, take a deep breath, and follow these tips.

Determine the Best Approach

Before you begin to fix your painting mistakes, it is important to look at the problem area as objectively as possible. This may mean that you need to take a break for a while. Go out for a walk, have a cup of coffee, or simply call it a night and look at it with new eyes in the morning. 

We can often get emotionally involved in our paintings, and if something isn’t going right, it only builds up our frustration. That can lead us to do things to try and fix it without thinking clearly. The “fix” may only compound the problem.

For instance, you may be tempted to just paint over a shadow that’s all wrong. Yet, if you do not allow black or deep-tinted paints to dry before applying white, the color will bleed through. It can create an endless cycle and result in an unnecessary buildup of paint that doesn’t match the rest of the painting.

Instead of looking for the quick fix, ask yourself this: 

  • Is the paint still wet or has it already dried?
  • Do I have the patience to deal with it while it’s still wet, or should I just walk away and deal with later?

Whether your paint is wet or dry, acrylic or oil, you can remove your mistakes and begin with a white background in that area.

You should, however, keep in mind that as you build up, remove, and build up paint again, you may lose some of the “tooth,” or original texture, of your substrate. This is particularly important when working with canvas if the rest of your painting is thin enough to show that texture. It may not be noticeable, but you should be aware that it could become an issue.

How to Correct Painting Mistakes

Your best friend when it comes to painting out your mistakes is a tube of titanium white. This extremely opaque, warm white will cover any color, even blacks, and other deep pigments when applied in a few thin coats.

Many artists make the mistake of adding a single coat of titanium white, then continuing on with their painting. This may cause any new pigments you apply to be tinted by the paint under your cover-up, and the colors will not be as true as you wish them to be.

You should apply at least two thin coats of titanium white, and the second coat should be applied only after the first is dry. This will give you a clean, white base to begin painting on after it has dried.

Do check that you are indeed using titanium white and not zinc white, which is more transparent. If the tube says “mixing white” or similar, check the label information to see which white is in it.

Think of titanium white as the painter’s eraser. First, however, you need to remove any texture, impasto, or paint ridges, and try as much as possible to get back to the original texture of your painting.

If Your Paint Is Still Wet

Oils do not dry as fast as acrylics, so these techniques may work best with those paints. Yet, if you catch your acrylic mistake quickly enough, the fixes here may still work.

  1. Scrape off as much paint as possible with a painting knife, thick piece of paper, or even an old credit card.
  2. Continue wiping away the paint with a soft cloth until you have removed as much as possible. Take care that your cloth does not drag across other wet areas of the painting.
  3. With oils, add a small amount of linseed oil to a clean cloth and wipe away any excess paint. With acrylics, put a little water on the cloth. Make sure your cloth is only slightly damp and not wet so that you do not have liquid running down your painting.
  4. After you have removed as much paint as possible, allow the clean area to dry completely. This may be two or three days for oil paintings.
  5. When dry, paint the area with two layers of titanium white (allow each layer to dry).
  6. Continue on with your painting.

Tonking is another technique used with oil painting. It is often used to add texture to thick paints but works to remove painting mistakes as well.

  1. Tear a piece of newspaper (or other paper) to the approximate size of the area from which you wish to remove paint.
  2. Place it on the wet paint and press it with your hands (support the canvas in the back with your palm, if needed).
  3. Gently pull away the paper.
  4. Continue this process with clean paper as many times as needed or until paint no longer appears on the paper.
  5. If necessary, use a cloth dampened with linseed oil to clean off excess paint.

If Your Paint Is Dry

You will use this dry-paint technique most often with acrylics because of the speed at which that paint dries, but it can be used for dry oils as well.

  1. Working with a very fine sandpaper, gently sand down the area you wish to paint over.
  2. Should you run into any wet paint in the bottom layers, remove it using your palette knife or any of the tools mentioned above for wet paint.
  3. Continue removing paint until you have reached the surface.
  4. Use a damp cloth (linseed oil for oils, water for acrylics) to remove any dust and excess paint.
  5. Allow the area to dry completely before painting it with two coats of titanium white, allowing each to dry before continuing.
  6. After the white base is dry, continue painting.