My Creative Process and 3 Mistakes to Avoid

Shelby Williams

Take a behind the scenes look at one of my most popular paintings and learn from the mistakes I have made in developing my creative process.

What comes first in the creative process? The meaning or composition? The answer you probably don’t want to hear… it depends. Each artist has his or her own process that changes and develops over time. Sometimes ideas come from life experience and other times it seemingly comes out of nowhere. From the very beginning of this piece, I did not have a specific meaning that I wanted to communicate. I was working very hard to sharpen my skills and push my artistic boundaries. I made a few mistakes during this process that I will share in hopes they will help you develop your process. Because of this, I see this painting as more of a composition study or rough draft for something to come. I’m sharing the genesis of the idea with much more still to come.

My initial spark of inspiration came from a picture that my husband took while we dating. It was our own rendition of Swingeing London by Richard Hamilton. My husband and I had a rough transition from friendship to relationship mostly because I let rumors and assumptions get in the way of God bringing us together. I remember being so frustrated and put out because there was no way to defend myself against slander and rumors. I started joking about posting this picture on social media as a way of publically telling everyone to leave us alone. I loved that Thaddeus’ hand is hiding our faces, but my smirk is still visible through his fingers. It looks as if we have a secret that is only for us. Recreating our own version on Swingeing London helped me turn a negative situation into something funny. and creatively stimulating. It has been a special picture to me ever since.

“Whenever I have an idea for a painting, I like to find a quiet place and let my mind wander, free of inhibition. It’s much more like surrendering and allowing the idea to develop naturally rather than searching or trying to force the issue.”

In late 2016 I was looking back through our old cell phone photos and came across this picture. The idea came to me instantly. I’d say this is the moment my process truly began. Usually, when I have an idea for a painting, I like to find a quiet place and let my mind wander, free of inhibition. It’s much like surrendering and allowing the idea to develop naturally rather than trying to force the issue. I don’t have the luxury of participating in this part of the process for every painting. Luckily I was in the midst of wasting time when the idea came to me. I knew I wanted to keep the essence of the picture where a hand is blocking the view, but I also wanted to play with negative space and add a few creative elements. Initially, I pictured the hands as solid objects with just the eyes showing through.


After thinking through my idea, My process almost always proceeds with sketching. This leads me to the first mistake to avoid. Do not discount your ideas. Take your ideas seriously and document everything! After seeing my inspiration photo and thinking through my idea I quickly sketched on a random piece of paper in a random notebook I hardly use. At the time, I did not know if I’d ever act on my idea or if I possessed the skill to make an attempt. Later, I had to search through several notebooks to find this sketch. I did not record the date or write notes on what I was thinking. By the time I went to take a reference photo from the sketch, I had forgotten completely that this was inspired by our picture or that our picture was a recreation of Swingeing London. Looking back, I wished I’d treated this idea as if it would become a masterpiece.

My advice is to purchase a notebook where you keep all your sketches/writings together in one book. Document and date everything! Write a short summary or a few keywords below your sketches. Better yet, journal about what you are thinking or feeling at the time and what inspired you. Without documentation to accompany my sketches, I had only fragments of my initial idea from which to work. Learn from my mistakes. Organizing your thoughts and sketches will save you time and frustration later in the process.

The next step in my process is to take a reference photo. I personally believe that taking your own reference photos (rather than searching the internet) is crucial to keep your work original. I used our likeness, but I do not consider this painting a portrait of me and my husband. At the time, using our faces was more convenient than trying to convince friends. I had a family member take this reference photo and I began building on my secondary sketch from there.


I personally enjoy painting on a flat and stiff surface rather than canvas which needs preparation to give it a smooth texture. For this piece, I decided to use wood. The second mistake I made was thinking I didn’t need to prepare the surface of the wood before or after sketching. Without a primer of some kind, wood will rot under the surface of the paint. This is especially true if you use water to thin your paint (which I did for this piece). Here are a few tips for preparing the wood. Purchase a good quality wood panel without cracks or irregularities. If you’re painting directly on the surface, apply a layer of gesso after sanding to prevent paint or water from soaking into the wood and potentially rotting over time. If you look at the dark spots in the right corners of my panel, you will notice that the grain is tight in this area. Without gesso or a primer of some kind, oil paint will not dry evenly in those places and will likely discolor. Luckily, I used acrylic paint for this piece so everything dried quickly and evenly. When using oil, I also like to apply a setting spray or clear gesso over my sketch so the graphite does not discolor the paint.


The third mistake I want to highlight is really a byproduct of the first mistake. I wasn’t able to properly plan the color scheme and layout due to the lack of organization during the beginning stages. I changed colors and composition several times throughout the process of this painting. At one point, I even used soap and water to scrub a layer of the sky off of the surface. While changing colors or composition is often part of the process, planning and developing your ideas as much as possible in your initial sketches will cut down on last-minute changes and save you a lot of frustration. I struggled with the color palette big time. Blending blue to orange with fast-drying acrylic on inconsistent shapes is an exercise in futility. As you can see from the progression, I tried a few different variations before settling on a blue swirling sky. I also did not initially paint both hands transparent. I made that decision after washing off the orange sky. At the time, I considered this is the final draft so I worked hard to get the colors and composition exactly the way I liked.

Overall I am happy with the end result. At the time that I painted this, my goal was to attempt something ambitious. I had never painted a person from a reference photo before and I lacked many skills. As a result, I was driven by composition and technique. I did not bring the emotions or meaning of the inspiration picture into the painting. Perhaps that will be a challenge for the final draft. There is much more to do with this idea and many more mistakes to be made!

I would love to hear from you! Share about your own creative process by leaving a comment below.

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