“Painting” Starts With “Pain”

‘The Rehearsal’ by Edgar Degas, 1877

If you’re an illustrator or concept artist, I guarantee that your art will eventually cause pain.

I know it hurts to even think about but it’s true.

The good news is you can put pain in its place so it actually serves a purpose instead of just bringing you down.

Now, let me be clear: I don’t mean to romanticize pain.

I’m not validating the whole “tortured artist” act. Self-punishment will just make you self-centered. …and crazy.

Pain is not a reward. Pain is not awesome. Pain is not an end in itself.

Pain sucks.

But pain is proof.

Pain is proof that you’ve discovered the limits of your ability.

Pain forces you to decide.

When you reach points of pain, you decide whether you’re going to accept your limits and work within them…

…or practice until you move past them.

So You Think You Can Paint?

The Season 9 Finalists on "So You Think You Can Dance"

The Season 9 Finalists on ‘So You Think You Can Dance’

Last night, my wife Angie and I were in the audience for the live season finale of So You Think You Can Dance?

For those of you who don’t know, it’s a reality competition show in the vein of American Idol (but way better).

I’m a HUGE fan.

So You Think You Can Dance? has significantly enhanced my appreciation for dance as an art form.

It has given me fresh perspective on my own work, improved the way I communicate and made me wish to God I was capable of this:

Falling Is Failing:

So last night, the judges were going on and on about Tiffany. She’s one of the Season 9 finalists.

The judges said that, throughout the entire season, Tiffany hasn’t fallen once.

I’m no expert, but I’ll bet that’s an important quality for a professional dancer.

…the whole “not falling” thing.

Tiffany does all of her falling during rehearsal.

Tiffany does all of her falling during rehearsal.

Tiffany’s Job Description:

Become weightless for two hours.

Glide, twirl and spin in distinctly stylistic ways while remaining in-sync with the music.

Regardless of your mood, express the appropriate emotions with every movement of every part of your body.

Transfer those emotions to a studio audience of hundreds and then to a live, television audience of millions through the performance.

Try to look good while you’re being hoisted, thrown and swung upside-down by some dude who is also trying to remember it all.

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot…

Don’t fall.

I can’t even clean my own bathroom without giving myself a concussion.

Not falling is amazing.

On the show, before each routine, they show these cute, video montages where we get to see the dancers working with the choreographers, explaining the story or the thoughts behind the routine, telling embarrassing stories about their dance partner and so on…

The editors of the show often pick clips that will make us worry that the dancers aren’t ready for the performance.

Sure, they do this to create suspense, connect us with the performers and hold our attention but they’re really just saying with video what everyone in the audience is already thinking:

“Are they going to fall?”

When one of the dancers initiates a gravity-defying movement, you can hear everyone in the audience hold their breath.

As a professional dancer, you simply can’t fall during a performance because you’ll break the spell.

Falling Is Fixing:

So, falling is painful. Falling is embarrassing. Falling breaks the spell.

Falling during a performance is a big deal. 

…but nearly every week there’s some major wipe-out during rehearsals.

The dancers fall constantly.

In a recent episode, one of the girls took a flying leap onto her partner’s back at which point he was supposed to catch her backwards and twirl her around in front of him.

It didn’t go that way in rehearsal.  She completely over-shot his back and SMACKED the dance floor face-first.

She laughed it off, got back up and tried again.

Of course, she didn’t fall during the actual performance.

So last night, while the judges were going on and on about how great Tiffany is, it hit me: Good dancers do all of their falling during rehearsal.

Tiffany & George Rehearse With Choreographer Sonya Tayeh

Tiffany & George rehearse with Sonya Tayeh

Rehearsal is where they discover the limits of their abilities.

Rehearsal is where they reach the points of pain.

Rehearsal is where they decide whether they’re going to accept their limits and work within them or practice until they move past them.

Rehearsal is where they plan to fall.

That girl who landed on her face had to practice that leap over and over and over again until she got it right. Through practice, she calibrated her body to the creative vision in her mind.

The Fall Of The Illustrator:

Thumbnails, studies and color comps are the Illustrator’s rehearsal.

…and the final painting is the performance.

Just like the dancer’s rehearsal, this is where you discover your limits, reach the pain points.

This ‘planning stage’ is where you plan to fall.

The pain you experience while planning your painting, forces you to decide whether you’re going to accept your limits and work within them…

…or practice until you move past them.

You need to sketch, thumbnail and make comps over and over and over again until you get it right.

Through practice, you calibrate your drawing hand to the creative vision in your mind.

If you fall during the performance, you’ll break the spell.

And that fall, my friend, will not help your career.

“Painting” starts with “pain” but it doesn’t have to end that way.
-Tweet This Quote

No Pain, No Painting:

'Ballet Dancers Before The Rehearsal' by Edgar Degas

‘Ballet Dancers Before The Rehearsal’ by Edgar Degas

The Dancer’s pain is immediate and physical.

The Dancer has to rehearse because she might literally limp home bloody if she doesn’t.

The Illustrator knows she should be rehearsing but because she’s not risking a bloody face or a broken tailbone, she skips rehearsal, opens Photoshop and leaps right into the performance.

It’s ironic that she thinks she’s avoiding pain.

She tells herself that she can plan and paint at the same time.

Yet she keeps falling during the performance. …the same way every time.

The truth is, she’s afraid of the pencil’s brutal honesty. 

She’s afraid of falling.

And she thinks that Photoshop will always be there to catch her.

It’s completely natural to be afraid of falling.

It’s completely natural to want to avoid pain.

But the truth is, whether you’re a dancer or an illustrator, pain is inevitable.

No Jobs And No Fans.

In this culture of Digital Painting, Ctrl+Z  and Speedpainting it’s tempting to just leap into every painting with no rehearsal.

But would you advise a dancer to just leap into every performance with no rehearsal?!

Of course not!

Whether by injury or embarrassment, it could mean the end of her dance career!

Just like the dancers, you can practice at the pain points on your own terms, during rehearsal, where you plan to fall…

…or you can fall during the performance in front of an audience which will cost you jobs and fans.

If you struggle with the planning stage (as most artists do) then subscribe to my FREE Email Mini-Course called The Key To Great Paintings then listen to this podcast episode: Improve Your Art Before You Start.

Now go get a pencil.

You’re late for rehearsal.

Comment & Share:

Tell me about a painful experience you had as a concept artist/ illustrator that ended up improving your art in a big way…

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{ 87 comments… read them below or add one }

María Paiz

Being a stage performer myself this post echoed profoundly on my life. I had never seen “rehearsing” as a part of my painting process, but I cannot conceive a performance without first rehearsing. Even improptu a-capella in-house renditions of songs to family and friends are usually of songs I’ve done over and over again and could perform whilst sleeping.
To be able to perform properly a musical in front of hundreds of people every night I underwent six months of yes, very painful rehearsals, a painful diet and lots of painful workouts. I fell plenty of times during rehearsal and would come back home complaining of sore muscles, sore throat, sore everything; sometimes with the added charmful notion that I wasn’t getting anywhere… that all my efforts on the piqués and pirouettes (and eating carrots three times a day) where yielding nothing. Then finally came opening night and, even if I was a knot of nerves, I knew I could do it. And I did. Not surprisingly, the more the cast performed the play, the better we got. The last show was, if I may say so myself, fabulous!
When painting, I think I don’t rehearse enough. I always sit down with the idea that I’m gonna do a finished painting from the first try. Like if I could sing perfectly a song I’ve heard once! I just go and dive right in. Lately, I have been trying to plan a little bit more and I can already see the changes. Maybe if I rehearse more, my performances will become invariably better helping me become a better paint.
So the comparison is SPOT ON! Thanks for another great post!!!! 😀


Chris Oatley

Thanks so much, Maria! Right on!


Lars Otterclou

Great article, Chris! Loved this one!


Chris Oatley

Thanks, Lars. I’m really glad you enjoyed it!



I’m starting to see the advantages of rehearsals, I always did, but it’s such a great feeling to jump right into a new project, take out canvases and brushes and go wild with paints. Unfortunately, you then have to wipe off everything you’ve made on those canvases, sit down with a piece of paper and a pencil, and start from the beginning 😉

I try to never skip rehearsals when I’m working for a client, not even when it’s a quick job or I have too little time for that. Because if anything goes wrong I have to start all over again and that’s just not wise.

However, to feed my inner monster of wild painting I sometimes work unprepared on my own projects. It’s kind of liberating – but only because it’s for me and I can keep it hidden if it looks terrifying 😉


Chris Oatley

Adelaida, you bring up some great points here.

Play time is GREAT! In fact, I have made “play time” a regular part of my character design process where I go wild with Sharpies and Colored Pencils to loosen up and try to surprise myself.

Also, time is almost always an issue with illustration jobs. All the more reason to “rehearse” as often as possible.



No “pain” no gain, right? Nice post. It would be worth integrating a warm up before the rehearsal into the analogy here as well. Or maybe thumbnails are warm up, roughs are rehearsal, color comps are dress rehearsal, whatever. It resonates a truth no matter how it’s worded,


Chris Oatley

Very good points, Tim. I wish I’d thought of those. 😉


Natan Moura

Great post! I think this is relevant to all kinds of creative growth. I always compared the importance of falling or failing to stories: The satisfying story conclusion is completely dependent on the journey and how a character grows when faced with obstacles. The process of creating great work is more often than not a great story with great struggles. Thanks for the reminder :)


Chris Oatley

Wow. Very true, Natan! Thanks for sharing!


Scott Spinks

Really well put, Chris. I think the key to always being ready to perform, as an artist or as any professional, is to always stay in touch with your craft. I think of a dancer as someone who does everything gracefully. Walking, cooking, texting :) … They are always graceful; a result of their commitment to the craft. I think the same needs to be true with an artist. Always observing, always drawing, agetting student of the craft.
Thanks for the post, Chris!

-Scott S


Chris Oatley

Geez. That’s amazing. I want to be that kind of artist! Thanks so much, Scott.


Scott Wiser

This is totally true! And I’ve “felt the pain” in both animation and my current work on my Misfit Supers book – During the drawing / planning phase, things got so painful that I felt like quiting at times. But I fortunately force myself to figure out everything on paper, referring back to reference as often as possible. Now that I am in the painting phase, things are turning out BETTER than expected. What was once painful has become an exciting and gratifying experience!


Chris Oatley

So glad to see you chugging along, Scott. There’s a shout-out to you in the next episode of The ArtCast!


Scott Wiser

OOOOH. Can’t wait to hear it.


Mark Armstrong

One line really leaped out at me: the pencil’s brutal honesty.

To me this says: the concept is mightier than the execution.

Obviously, if you haven’t mastered the tools and can’t execute your concept, you’re nowhere. Understood.

But brilliant execution won’t save a lousy concept.

That’s why the pencil’s so powerful, more powerful than flawless technique.

Sure can’t dispute your basic premise: mastery can only be achieved through the pain of ongoing failure. Guess that’s why true masters are in mighty short supply!

Excellent post, thanks Chris.


Chris Oatley

You’re so right, Mark. The two go hand in hand.

And yes, true masters ARE in mighty short supply.

Well put.


Rogerio Caetano

Chris, when I read in some moments I recognize myself in some points, I think the most strong part it’s the fear to do something wrong and had the courage to take back and start over and over to get the final performance.

Great article!

Rogério Caetano


Chris Oatley

You’re exactly right, Rogerio. The fear of doing something wrong.

The great part is that in the sketchbook, nobody is deciding what is right or wrong except you! So enjoy that freedom and fall all the time!

You’re so awesome, BTW.



Another great entry Chris; and as yet another mixed background artist, this really hit home. When I was in Theatre we would do a scene dozens of times together, working on blocking, timing, reactions… all of that so that when we were in front of the 7th audience for the week it would feel completely new and spontaneous. Literally weeks of studies are paying off for me in spades and this post came along at such a time to validate all of that. Thanks again for putting together so much awesome in one place.


Chris Oatley

Thanks, Crispen. I completely geek out when I see or am shown parallels between the different expressions of art. So inspiring. As my friend Brian McDonald says, “We are all the same.”


Jules Rivera

Oh, man. I’ve got a very recent example of learning all this the hard way. I recently took a drawing class that required me to do a lot of elaborate environments. I got into this bad habit of not doing idea-generation sketches (thumbnails, small scale tests) before I would do my pieces for the class. I would do everything the night before and hope for the best. This ended up backfiring on me on more than one occasion. I learned that idea sketches ahead of time helped me to plan out my illustration so when it came time to do the full scale piece, I already had the heavy lifting done. All that was left was execution.

I am only now starting to understand the immense value of pre-planning larger scale pieces. The latest two page spread in my webcomic Valkyrie Squadron had about 2-3 thumbnails and a sketch final before I took it to final. Really took the pressure off doing that huge piece.

Lesson learned: PLAN AHEAD! Thumbnails and up front problem solving are your friend!


Chris Oatley

Great stuff, Jules.

Can you post the link to those pages you mentioned?


Jules Rivera

The spread can be found here: http://www.valkyriesquadron.com/archive/chapter-3-pages-46-and-47/

I completely forgot I did a bunch of ideation sketches on not just the page but on the ship in the foreground, the Integration.


Marcin Walenta

I can feel the pain very often recently 😉
I recovered my sketching talent buried deep, back in high school, when I chose wrong turn on my education/career path. It was economics school vs. art school. Art lose than and 15 years i’ve been long, long away from my passions and creativity.
Got closer to it, when – in the sudden, unsuspected opportunity – I jumped into the tiny ad agency (very, very tiny :) as a “graphic designer”, which – without proper education was pretty lucky for me. After a few years I started working in the promotion dept. of a big private university – this time as an experienced and confident print ad designer.
But after next few years I felt like I was choking. I was professionally burned out and than I realized the reason.
It was still in me. The passion for art restrained or substituted for so long. I realized that rearranging almost the same project of flyer/poster/magazine ad like Lego bricks in Corel/Illustrator over and over is only a mere substitute for what I really want to do.
Two years ago on my way to work by the bus i just took a notepad and doodled. When I was at my stop I realized, that those doodles are pretty good. I decided to find some courses and tips connected to drawing and sketching, promised myself, that I will draw at least one sketch a day. Started study anatomy, proportions, composition rules, etc. from every source available.
Now I practice sketch, inking and digital art very hard. Still work where i was working, but now, with a goal in my mind everything seems easy – which sometimes I find strange, because I’ve got a lot more work with my daily job and practice. But no burnout now. No empty look in the bus window on my way to work or back (maybe because my eyes are busy looking at the sketchbook when I’m doing some drawings from memory or guerilla sketching of nice girls on the bus 😉
I’ve got a goal and to achieve it I have to work hard and I’m falling many, many times, but I have in mind your today’s topic – falling is learning. Falling is getting up, unless you want to stay down. My goal is not small – I want to get into the gamedev, as a concept artist. I know it’s very hard work but I’m used to it. I know, that our dream job may be disappointing when we get there – may even turn into a nightmare 😉 but I’m ready to give it a shot. And than – when I apply and I’ll have my opportunity – i don’t want to fall.
And you Chris, you gave me a HUGE moral boost with your approach, your website, tips and actually you are the one, who helped me to crystallize that goal. Thank you. I will surely give you a word after my “show”.

ps. Sorry for my bad English. Hope it was readable 😉


Chris Oatley

Amazing, Marcin!

Great, great stuff.

I love this–> “Falling is getting up, unless you want to stay down.”

With an attitude like yours, you’re going to continue to do very well.


Roelof Venter

Beautiful story, Marcin. I have had a similar experience. There are SO MANY great art instruction resources available online today, including this wonderful blog, that there is really no excuse.


Mary Claire

When I finally learned this lesson, it actually wasn’t a *visual* problem. I’ve always been fairly devoted to thumbnails and studies, just because I enjoy the process of studying so much.
It was actually in writing for my comic, René… I had tried starting the comic multiple times, just diving straight into sketching and and drafting the pages WITHOUT A SCRIPT. I thought, you know, I had the whole general story in my head so I just didn’t feel like I needed a script or written storyline.
I DID. I actually wrote a script, and while I was writing, I sketched different random panels to visualize what I was trying to write. I planned overall page composition WITH the story. I’m not trying to plan and execute simultaneously anymore, and it is a lot more satisfying for me.

For me, I had to change the “What if I fail?” question to “If I don’t want to fail, why don’t I plan and structure my OWN safety net?”

I really, really like this article! A lot of my fellow artists in school see finished products from professional/experienced artists, and they (myself included) try to imitate the result, not the process. This is a good reminder that the path to excellence…… exists. And it must be used :)


Chris Oatley

You are so very wise, Mary Claire.



Great reminder! I definitely need to hear this every now and then; otherwise I forget it.

Another reason I think it’s good to slow down and practice and “rehearse” whenever you can is that the lessons you learn from doing so will help you when maybe you DON’T have time to rehearse, when you have to dive right into a project because of a quick deadline or something. But if you’re constantly in the habit of not taking your time on composition before diving right into the picture, you won’t be able to learn those lessons.

I also do theatre, and another saying that has really shaped me is that “you perform as you practice.” You can’t assume that when you’re performing, suddenly all the pieces will fit together and the final product will be incredible. You HAVE to go above and beyond in your rehearsal in order to achieve that satisfying final product. The same can be said of drawing. Always engage your mind whenever you draw, so that when you “perform” (move onto the actual painting stage, or whatever), your ending will be satisfying.


Chris Oatley

“It’s good to slow down and practice and “rehearse” whenever you can is that the lessons you learn from doing so will help you when maybe you DON’T have time to rehearse, when you have to dive right into a project because of a quick deadline or something.”

You addressed something extremely important, here, Annamarie.

This is the balance of art & professionalism. You nailed it.


Jose-Luis Segura

I love it! I’m gonna share this post and pin on the wall of my studio…

“Painting starts with PAIN”

Thanks Chris I needed this reminder.


Chris Oatley

Awesome, Jose. Fun stuff. :)


David Wilson

No pain no gain, the truth in the article is so apparent to anyone who has “tried.” I’ve found when I’m animating or painting, I get the most creative enjoyment and often the best results after I’ve “broken” the piece. I reach in to new territory and see new possibilities.
Sometimes when working on a piece, it starts to get precious. That’s the most dangerous time for an artist, when he/she wants to be too tender with their work. Our work needs tough love and discipline to grow, there is pain and discomfort in that. Thanks for encouraging us to fall.


Chris Oatley

That’s great, David. I didn’t think of general frustration as being one of the illustrator’s pains but it most definitely is. Thanks for pointing that out.



Thank you so much for this post. When I go to art shows, occasionally people look at my art and say something like, “wow, what great talent! It must come easy to people like you.” That might feed my ego, but I will always stop and tell them that no, it has taken years, literally DECADES of hard work, constant sketching, crumpled papers, studying and rededicating myself to always being better with the new creation that has put me where I am. (That and the many wonderful and influential people that have inspired and helped me along the way!) If anything could be said to aspiring artists it would be what you have written here in this post. Work at it until your fingers are calloused and never stop doing it until you’ve learned what it takes to do what you dream of becoming, having faith that it IS somewhere inside of you just waiting to come out.


Chris Oatley

Great stuff, Heather.

Lora and I talked about this on an episode of the Paper Wings Podcast. She pointed out that when we just write off the accomplishments of an artist as “Well, it’s easy for them. They’re TALENTED.”

We actually diminish the value of their YEARS and YEARS of hard work.

I’m not actually saying that there aren’t “freaks of nature” to whom the concepts come more naturally, but there’s not a “talented” and successful artist on the planet who will tell you it’s EASY.


The Pencilneck

Excellent article!

Akin to the concept of rehearsal is the concept of research. Lots of artists charge into their art and don’t take the preliminary steps of doing their homework; in either the subject matter OR their clients!

I’ve found that it’s definately a case of “an ounce of prevention…”. I contend that it’s two-fold: it behooves artists (I don’t know if I’ve ever used the word ‘behooves’ in a sentence before :) ) to take the time to learn their craft, AND to dig up the skinny about the gig.

Not only will their work be stronger and more authentic, but their professional relationships and cred will too!


Chris Oatley

Great stuff, Owen.

I sure do like you.



Awesome post, just what I needed. Thank’s Chris!


Chris Oatley

Great to hear, Russell!



This has given me another way of looking at planning! I’ve always appreciated how much better my work is when I spend some time and plan it properly, but I’d never considered the planning stage as being somewhere it’s comfortable to fail – to not be afraid of failing. The more I think on that the more I actually get goosebumps thinking about what you can achieve if you’re not afraid to fail – that those dancers, knowing it’s not the final performance can be even wilder in their jumps to figure out where their limits are, calibrating, like you say. I’d always thought of the planning stage as gradually building something up until it’s perfect but this has just made me see that’s probably not the best way to see it – the planning stage is where you can go wild and really fling yourself around, as it *doesn’t matter* if you mess it up. Eye opening stuff!


Chris Oatley

SO well said, Sam. I wish I could have re-capped the post this well. Excellent.


Sasha Mirzoyan

Great post, very motivational and straight to the point. Thanks, Chris!


Chris Oatley

Thanks, Sasha!




What a great article and so inspiring! You’re completely right! We must rehearse and train and move through pain so we do not fall during our performance!

Thank you!


Chris Oatley

Tarsila, I’m so glad you found it inspiring.


Sly Eagle

I had no idea so many people jump into final pieces without thumb-nailing, color-testing, etc. My workspace is buried under concepts and scribbles, I have studies taped to my wall, and even my comic pages tend to have some on-the-fly thumbnails in the margins past the bleed edge from when I changed my mind between the thumbnails and working on the actual page. When I start a piece digitally, I make a FOLDER and by the time I’m done there are usually 5-6 different files associated with the piece.

I guess it’s a side-product of the “speed-painting” culture? There are so many videos of time-lapsed art appearing on the screen as if by magic. If you’re watching these and thinking that’s how these things actually get done, here’s a video for you: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZo25fFBJsA I find it very inspirational, and I hope you do too.


Chris Oatley

Sweet video, Sly!

Yeah, our “instant-results” cultural paradigm, the tight deadlines freelance culture, and worst of all, the “speed painting” culture has gotten us all in a huge, unnecessary rush.

When we take the time to properly plan our art, the final paintings usually don’t take as long AND they’re almost always better than any of the crap we make when we just dive right into the final with no preparation.

Great comments. Loved seeing Diana’s work come together. Thanks so much for sharing.


Tegan Clancy

“Maury Ballstein: What do we do when we fall off the horse?… we… get back on!
Derek Zoolander: Sorry, Maury. I’m not a gymnast.”
So many artists don’t even try, just because of the risk off falling and stay with what they know best, and sadly don’t grow, and sometimes I have also thought this way. The best thing about So you think you can dance, is putting these fantastic dancers into challenges and styles they have never danced before, and trying to still show their “art” in a new way. My hat is off to them and their growth is so evident by the season finale. Thanks for the great reminder Chris to try new things and to be brave with our art in rehearsal! thanks


Chris Oatley

Oh, Tegan! You’re a fan too?! Twitch is our favorite ever.

Great points.



Great piece of writing Chris! Began reading Twitter as a distraction from my own RSI related pain and found your alert to the new post. I’d have to say the most painful and rewarding thing for me recently was drawing a single creature design. I called it The Hard to Draw Beastie. Can’t share images (NDAs). It’s made up of only the most most difficult body parts- long, twisting horns, quite realistic human hands and arms, correctly feathered wings, bipedal dinosaur hind legs and, perhaps hardest of all, a duck bill. It’s an artists nightmare! After a few attempts at drawing turnarounds I could see myself improving rapidly though. Now how about a post addressing the physical paint we endure and how to avoid/deal with it? Thanks for the inspiring and generous blogging, you’re a star.


Chris Oatley

Wow, Tom, that DOES sound like the hardest thing to draw… EVER. But it sounds like you’re rocking it out. Keep us posted!


PJ Magalhaes

Hey Chris,

First post from a very recent follower. You are amazing with these posts and even though i have read only a few i already wish i could tell you all my struggles and worries so that you could point me to the right post that will set me in the right path. 😀

We shall start with this one. It was awesome and i am going to go and practice some before further developing my portrait! 😀

thanks again,


Chris Oatley

Hey, PJ, you can always email me if you have specific questions.

Thanks so much for the kind words!



Nothing really that new here to add, other than I have actually started painting less, and have really tried to take a lot more time to work on sketches. A lot, now instead of opening up Photoshop right away, I will carry a little note pad, and sketch and sketch and sketch and sketch. I will have an idea, and I will take a good two weeks to try and wrok on composition. Then one I have that down I will then pick the color scheme and then the values (not necessarily in that order) and then I will finally get to work. I’ll see what I did wrong, and then I will keep trying. So this post seems really timely. Thanks much Chris it seems like I am on the right track here. Much appreciated.


Chris Oatley

Nice, Moe! That’s great to hear!



This is amazing! Recently i was watching many dance performances, musicals etc. and I was always impressed on how much time they spent during rehearsals, practicing each an every step. And i have never thought of drawing like that. i realised that, just like you said, im always taking a pencil, or openning photoshop with the desire to do a complete and awesome painting right from the start. And always get down by the fact that i cant draw the thing i imegined right from the start. Reading this post now i realise that i have just skipped the rehearsal, jumping right to the performance and falling, after the fall thinking “i dont have any talent”. Thank you very much for the great post! I’m really gratefull.



THIS IS THREEDOG AOOOOOOOW and your listining in to Chris Oatley,s fantastic & HUGELY inspirational website( well I changed those last few lines). C,mon guys I had to do that. It’s the best voice anounce ever from Fallout 3.



Hey, Chris,

Just wanted to say that article is so simple and obvious, but so very true and amazing at the same time. It never occurred to me that doing studies and sketches is the “rehearsal before performance” until you mentioned it. I can see now that I was on the wrong track so many times, just diving into the what is supposed to be the finished painting at the very start, without any preparations.

There’s, however, a one small problem that I have. I am afraid of falling and pain. I feel like even during “rehearsal” everyone is watching me and they expect me not to fall. I knot that I’m often being just too precious about my art, but I can’t help it. I just can’t start being loose and relaxed with sketches or studies. In one of your podcasts you said (can’t remember exact words) “Produce bad art, make crappy pictures” and that’s something I can’t do.

Obviously I’m not a great artist and I can’t say that all my pictures are great and I don’t have a single bad picture (quite the other way round) but it’s just that whenever I start something and it doesn’t go the way I want, it doesn’t look the way I want it to.. I just stop.

Any suggestions on overcoming that annoying feeling that every single picture and sketch must be perfect, must be good?



Chris Oatley

You just have to do it anyway.

Nothing bad is going to happen from making bad sketches. Only good things. LEARNING!


Carole Pivarnik

I really loved the dancing analogy relative to artistic growth. I think it’s not so much that you have to plan to fall, but that you have to not be afraid of it happening. Fear is the mind killer, after all. :) I’m not sure why digital artists would ever have a moment’s hesitation in leaping across those developmental chasms…I mean…it’s just pixels!!!

It’s a little more daunting when you’re working in a physical medium (in my case watercolor) because there is a real (although admittedly minor) cost to “wasting” (I laugh at this idea but that’s how some people see it) supplies as you practice through your incompetence :)

But no one is born good, and as Ira Glass said in his famous advice to creatives: “…the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.” Good or bad, you just gotta do it…and then you gotta be honest with yourself about how it could be better.

Good post … I really enjoy your blog.



Wow. I have to say, Chris, that in all of your posts, you seem to address every single issue I struggle with as an artist. Being lost is a big part of my problem. Not knowing how to plan, how to execute, and how to perform. I get requests all the time from friends for pieces of art, at a price, but I put them off because I don’t know how to start. These posts (and this one in particular) gives me a better picture/road map of how to begin, how to compose, and most importantly, how to follow through with a finished piece. I did exactly the thing above that you aren’t supposed to do: Skip to the performance, hope it turns out well, fail anyways.
I used to have dreams all the time that I was being pulled into song and dance performances in front of an audience at the last moment, and I’d stumble through the routine as if I knew it, but I didn’t know it well. Sometimes, there would be a moment where I was supposed to sing or dance solo, and I see someone else standing in my place, doing 100 times better at it than I would. I simultaneously feel like they belong there instead of me, and ache that it isn’t me in that spot, performing and wowing the audience.
In order to give our best, we must continue to rehearse, practice and study, so that when the time comes to perform, we don’t bloody our noses with a faceplant. Thanks for bringing this into focus for me.


James Combridge

Great post Chris. This is just what I needed to hear – in general I’m way to impatient with my paintings and end up scrapping a large percentage of things I work on from lack of rehearsal and planning. It’s quite a discipline.



Thanks for these amazing posts Chris. After watching the video about the importance of thumbnails, this one came along and brought the whole thing home. I never compared planning a drawing with performing but it makes total sense. Next time I will be sure to play the theme song to fame when i start my thumbnails and color comps.


Doug Hoppes

Good article, Chris. This echoes a lot of what Greg Manchess also teaches. He talks about how you should have all of the problems solved before you even start painting. The thumbnails and values should be already worked out. The physical act of painting is just knowing how to mix the paint and put it on the canvas.


Anthea Wright

This really hit home, I feel like I’m constantly having to relearn this and remind myself to stop trying to jump into the deep end. I’ve been going through a stage of frustration of not feeling like I am progressing – now every time I slow down and ‘rehearse’ I start to realize just how rewarding it is and how necessary in the work flow it is as it really brings results in the long run. Thank you for sharing the hard stuff we have to hear :)



I guess my first real painting, a homework assignment for a private tutor, was the most painful. i didn’t do any studies or thumbnails or anything beforehand, i just jumped right in. having the blank canvas stare at me was really scary. where do i start, can i do this, am i good enough, all the questions newbies ask themselves buzzed around in my head. at two in the morning on the third day of furious painting my nose started bleeding. i was completely exhausted!

what it ended up teaching me was that the blank canvas isn’t as scary as i first thought. that first brush stroke was a huge threshold that i needed to step over. (it’s almost like stage fright, having to wait in the wings and build up all that nervous tension before going up on stage.) i have of course since then started sketching and preparing better, but that painting was still the hardest i’ve ever painted.


Denzel De Meerleer

Amazing article! Feels like you just watched my 2nd round application for Films on Paper and thought, let the teaching begin haha
It’s getting into the right mindset to thumbnail that I still have trouble with. Thanks for this article Chris!


Alex Bond

Excellent points. Puts the visual development process into perspective. You really struck a chord.


Mike Ruyle

This whole series is great Chris. Thanks!

A couple of years ago, my wife and I made a big move across country. We decided that I was going to become a stay at home dad, and I decided that I was going to emerge from those toddler/preschool years as an artist! Ok, what’s that even freaking mean? Seriously – why would I make such a declaration when I had no idea what that even meant?!

Over those two years, I’d draw really intensely for about a month, would hit a plateau and then get frustrated and not draw again for 2 months. Rinse and repeat until ~December of 2013 when I realized that failure is indeed part of the process. That without failure, I’ll never grow.

In the last few months I’ve come to realize that not only is failure part of the process but that I am in fact, still rehearsing. That I don’t even have a portfolio piece yet, just a body of rehearsal work. It’s been a difficult process to overcome the “speedpaint culture” where it is absurdly easy to discount all of the rehearsal that those individuals that created those really nice speedpaints. I have worked hard to step back and intentionally stay away from doing a speedpaint as a result of that. I have tons and tons of rehearsal to go before I get to my performances.

All of that said, I do love to just open photoshop and go sometimes. It’s also part of the learning process. Especially in learning to let go of what isn’t working. Last night I did a painting that I feel pretty good about. However, I spent a long time doing different comps in photoshop before I came up with it. I believe I had around a dozen renditions before I settled on that one, and then that one even changed a dozen times before I hit something that I actually liked. I opened photoshop to just “go” and in doing that, I learned some valuable things in just doing that. Both definitely have their places! :)



Well that sounds so obvious now that i’ve red your article …
Thanks a lot for this, you pinpointed a key problem for a lot of us i think
Altough i was rehearsing before doing a paid illustration, i was not really doing it before doing a personnal or portfolio illustration…
I know what i need to do now, rehearse more! Failure here i come :)



Thanks so much for this Chris. I cant tell you how many unfinshed paintings I have because of not planning them out and diving in too soon to make nothing but nonsense.
Your first lesson in magic box actually changed the way I’m thinking. I was painting yesterday and talking out loud to myself . Telling myself just work
on design and shapes etc and now i’m forcing myself not to go into photshop until I have decent ideas on paper. Anyway its all helping a lot.
There is a painter who I wont name who is mad famous and I read somwhere every painting is a battle for him. When you know the masters
srtuggle and have to do the groundwork it helps. I think us artists are very hard on oursleves. I get so frustrated when I cant get whats in my head onto canvas.

Plan, plan and plan…. yesss!!




I really like how you tie in one artistic discipline like dancing, in with another like illustration to show the similar parallels between them. The excellent point you made of illustrators practicing rehearsal so that they make mistakes and fall first, and eventually getting to a perfectly put together finished piece second, is such great advice and a tip I myself need to do more of before I jump into Photoshop!
Thank you for posting this Chris!


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Good word, Chris. I needed some prodding into getting back to my drawing. I really am afraid of the pencil. I growl at myself everyday. Sometimes all I want to do is drop everything and surf Pinterest! But to keep on going equals getting closer to my dreams. Anyways, thanks so much for this.


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For me I find I rush in without having everything figured out 100% because I want to be able harvest that idea while its still fresh from my head and I still feel on top of the world for thinking of it.



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