My Artistic Creative Process: Leaves, a Butterfly and Perseverance while Painting

This painting, “On a Golden Journey,” captures the fleeting moment when a butterfly briefly perches on a sunny leaf, but the process of creating it was anything but fleeting! I don’t plan my art, but experiment with paint and see what evolves (read more about my painting process HERE). This piece took a lot of perseverance while painting as it went through many layers and changes.

The artistic creative process for "On a Golden Journey" an abstract acrylic painting of a butterfly by Katrina Allen. Visit to see more paintings and order prints.

Watch a painting take shape!  “On a Golden Journey” by Katrina Allen

This painting is a great example of my typical artistic creative process. Here, I’ll lay it out for you in a few steps:

1. This is great. I’m having fun.
2. Uh oh. I’ve messed it up.
3. This is awful. Why did I think I could do this?
4. Try things. It still looks bad. I’m unhappy.
5-12. Repeat. Aaargh!
13-14. Oh, that’s a little better. Maybe I can fix this.
15. Wow, I like how it turned out. Creating is cool!

Even after having completed lots of paintings, I still go through some version of this same roller-coaster with each new canvas!

The Painting Process Step-by-Step

Let’s walk through all the stages of creating this painting and I’ll share what I was thinking as I worked on it.

I start with putting some warm colors (pink, yellow, orange, a little darker red and purple) onto a wet canvas so the colors blend. Painting in horizontal lines give it a fun, sunset-like look. This is the loose, beginning stage of a painting where I’m just playing with colors and not thinking too much about what to do. (Step 1 – This is great. “I’m having fun.”)

I add in some yellow lines and white blobby shapes . . .

followed by dark purple ovals sprayed with water to create texture. I love the intricate organic-looking patterns produced this way, but you can never predict exactly how the colors will spread. I just spray on the water and let the paint flow however it wants to.

Then I add some blue squiggly lines . . . and end up getting carried away. So many lines, oh dear.

Hello there to Step 2 – Uh oh. “I’ve messed it up.”  In any creative project, you reach a point where it feels like you’ve suddenly started making things worse. This is perfectly normal and just the way the artistic creative process goes!

After going overboard with the squiggles, I use a darker blue and some green to tone them down. However . . . it’s not looking much better yet.

Welcome to Step 3 – This is awful. “Why did I think I could do this?” This stage feels particularly bad on paintings where I quite liked how the beginning stage looked. Like this one, which I’m kind of hating at this point.

But wait! Do you see a couple big leaf-like shapes? Kind of like long oval leaves pointing downward? When shapes that I didn’t plan start showing up, I tend to go with it and consider them a message from the painting about what it wants to become.

Or . . . I could just be seeing things. Either way, it gives me a step to take next. Figuring out something, anything, to try is the most important part of Step 4 – Try things.

So I outline the leaves with blue and cover up some of the extra lines with orangey-yellow. I wanted to use a color that would really contrast with the blue, and blue and orange are complements (opposites on the color wheel) so that’s what I picked.

Yowsa! That’s a very bright color. It doesn’t exactly fade into the background does it? (This is the second part of Step 4 – It still looks bad. “Uggh. I’m unhappy.”)

I like the leaf shapes, but the background really needs to be calmed down. I go back to my starting colors (remember when it started out so nicely?) and use shades of peach and pink to go over the background again.

Hmm. The leaves are distinct now (although that stem is way too thick at the top), but I don’t love the dark leaves against the light background. Light colors come forward and dark colors recede, so the background doesn’t look like it’s behind the leaves. Instead everything’s jostling for attention at the front.

So I decide to make the background darker. It’s also gotten pretty flat, so putting back in some drippy texture seems appealing. These are leaves and I haven’t used much green yet, so I try dripping dark green paint over the background.

Know what happens when you put dark green paint over pink and peach? REALLY YUCKY COLORS, that’s what!

All this stuff? Is right there in Step 5 to Step (Who Knows How High We’ll Have to Count) – Try more things that don’t work. “Aaargh!”

However, this is still a totally normal part of the process. At the beginning I described this painting as one where perseverance while painting was very necessary. Now you see why. I was very frustrated here.

Any time you are creating something new, you just have to get used to making mistakes and trying to fix them. And trying again when your first fix doesn’t work. I don’t think you can create a life where you feel alive and fulfilled without becoming experienced at failing and then trying again. This type of painting with acrylics is a great way to practice experiencing mistakes because in the end, it’s all just paint. You can always put on another layer to cover up the parts that don’t work out.

So, after a break to work on some other, more cooperative paintings (take that ugly colors – I’m not looking at you!), I come back to this one. Tinting everything with translucent yellow paint improved the colors, although I don’t like the inside of the leaves yet. (In my free ebook I talk about why heavily patterned leaves often don’t work well for me. Maybe someday that lesson will sink in!)

Also, did you notice that I slimmed down that super thick stem? Now it is much more svelte and graceful. Finally I’ve arrived at Step (I don’t know what number I’m at) – Oh, that’s a little better. “Maybe I can fix this.”

Next I tweak the colors some more. Blue leaves with bits of pink and purple in them are too crazy, so I tone them down with more blue. I also stamp on a bunch of smaller green leaves. I really like stamps like this where the paint goes on irregularly and adds lots of texture to the painting.

It’s getting there, but now the painting needs a focal point, so I try out an orange butterfly and sprinkle around small flowers in the same color.

Up to now I’ve done this whole painting with the canvas turned the other way around, but the butterfly looks much better sitting on dangling leaves than upright ones. It’s never too late to turn things around, right? Literally, in this case.

A few dark details on the butterfly, some dark blue in the background to help the butterfly stand out more, and then it’s done. Probably.

Deciding when to stop can also be a challenging element of my artistic creative process. When I step back to evaluate a painting, I almost always think of things I could do to it, but by the end I only want to make those changes which will clearly help the painting  – either by adding something it needs or fixing something annoying. When I reach the point where I’m not sure any potential change would be an improvement, it’s time to stop.

The reward for my perseverance while painting this is finally getting to the Last Step – Wow, I like how it turned out. “Creating is cool!” If I keep going through the mistakes and frustrations, eventually every painting comes together, and I’m always surprised because the final result is never something I could have imagined at the beginning!

Do you like reading about the process of creating paintings? I wrote a whole ebook that discusses the artistic creative process and goes step by step through a painting explaining what I did at each stage. You can download both the ebook and the painting for free as my gift for signing up for my monthly newsletter!

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