5 Reasons Your Painting Doesn't Look Like Your Subject

Isn't it frustrating when you paint and re-paint an area of your picture, only to step back and realize that something still looks "wrong"? Well, when I can't get my painting to look like my subject, it's encouraging to remember that there is a maximum of just 5 things that could possibly be wrong—
  1. Drawing
  2. Value
  3. Edge
  4. Temperature
  5. Color

These are what I call the 5 Fundamentals. Now, I'll share how you can start diagnosing these types of problems in your work.

1. Drawing


"Drawing" is not only a noun; it is also a verb. As a verb, "drawing" is the act of placing the right marks in the right places. Even when I'm painting, I consider myself to also be drawing, because I am still endeavoring to place the right marks in the right places.

How to diagnose: If your painting looks out-of-proportion, "cartoony," leaning or tilted, etc., you have probably made some wrong marks. To learn how to avoid these pitfalls, read The 4 Actions for Correct Proportions.

2. Value


"Value" is how dark or light a shape appears.

How to diagnose: Does your painting look "flat"? You have probably made a value error. Be sure to read Making Your Flat Portraits Look 3-D.

3. Edge


Envision your subject made up of graphic shapes, like mosaic tiles. "Edge" describes the softness or sharpness of the boundary between two tiles.
How to diagnose: If the forms in your painting don't look rounded, or if things look "cut out," you probably have an edge problem. To learn how to paint edges accurately, read Making Your Flat Portraits Look 3-D Part II.

4. Temperature

"Temperature" refers to how "warm" or "cool" a color appears.

How to diagnose: Do you struggle with "muddy" or "chalky" color? These are temperature issues. For help in understanding temperature, read Avoiding Muddy & Chalky Skin Tones.

5. Color

I'll skip the difficult task of defining color—color is color!

How to diagnose: Color problems are sometimes painfully obvious—like when you can't get your mixture to match the color in your subject!* One of the biggest questions I'm asked by my workshop attendees is, "How do I mix that color?" If you struggle with mixing color, this lesson is for you: My Simple Method for Mixing any Skin Color.

*Disclaimers: You may certainly choose to interpret
your subject non-literally (e.g., monochromatically or
with a limited palette). In cases like these, your mixtures
can deviate from the colors in your subject
without being considered wrong.
And even with literal interpretations, there
is "wiggle room," because color perception
has a degree of subjectivity.

When I can't figure out why my painting doesn't look like my subject, I'm always encouraged to remember that the problem is just 1 or more of these 5 things. I'm not saying that makes things easy, but at least it makes things manageable and learnable!

Dig Deeper With the
Online Video Course!

(Click image to view full-size)
The online video course mines the depths of the 5 Fundamentals and Composition. With 52+ lessons including over 10 hours of videos, I'll show you how I communicate the beauty of portraits and figures from start to finish.

Access to the course will become available for purchase on October 7, 2019, but you can start the course today for FREE! For more information, please click the button below.

Learn More About Online Video Course

Now, there is actually a 6th thing that might be considered "wrong" with a painting. This thing can be subjective, so it's often inappropriate to describe it as "correct" or "wrong," but #6 is composition. Although composition can be subjective, there are principles that can help make a composition more dynamic. I'll share a few of my favorites next time in 4 Principles for Powerful Paintings.

See you then!


  1. This is very interesting blog for all the artists and painters out there who love painting and whose painting portrays a message as a subject. I like how different genre of painting is described in this blog. Keep sharing more. Thanks

  2. Very interesting and informative blog I'm glad that how beautifully you have described all stuff related to painting..... thanks alot plus keep sharing more in future! Eagrly Waiting for your next blog


We'd love to hear from you!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.