Painting and Fixing the First Draft, part 1

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As a writer and an artist, I see similarities of writing stories and poetry, and painting paintings. For this post, I’m including double photos of some of my paintings, showing the “first draft” of an idea, and the final draft of the painting.

I almost always begin the construction of my paintings from a series of thumbnail sketches—a brainstorming technique of feeling out ideas. I look at the overall appearances and designs of my sketches, and then choose the one sketch I like best. Using the sketch as a guide, I paint my first draft quickly. I never aim for perfection straight out of the gate, but I try my best to create the scene I’ve envisioned, while it’s still fresh in my mind.

A first draft, which is also known as a rough draft, is the very first version of a piece of art. The point of the first draft is to further flesh out my painting idea and provide it with more detail.

I look for problems in the first draft, then fix them in the second one. My objective is to make my paintings profound and interesting.

blue jay and red fox paintings
Blue Jay and Red Fox. Copyright © 2023 Steven Leo Campbell at – All rights reserved.

The first illustration of the above photo shows an unfinished watercolor painting I did in the 1980s. I was new to the medium, experienced several problems with it, and lost interest in finishing the project. Fast forward to 1991 when I returned to the project, isolated elements of the scene I liked best, and repainted the fox and blue jay in acrylic paint.

No one starts out as a perfect painter, just as no writer starts out as a perfect novelist or poet. Those first drafts come with problems. But we improve when we recognize problems and fix them.

The first draft can sometimes turn out unlike what I envisioned. And sometimes it can be awful enough that I don’t do a second one. But if I love my idea and want to give it a chance to succeed, I will experiment and come up with new edits, which often lead to a fine finished work of art. In some cases, the second draft is NOT the last step. Sometimes I need three or more drafts to reach my goals.

Sometimes a first draft can spark new ideas. Just as the first fox and blue jay painting sparked an idea of placing them in a winter scene, the following first draft sparked the idea of putting a nonchalant red fox in a fall scene. This happened during a fantasy phase of my career when I painted a series of talking trees and rocks.

red fox paintings
Red Fox. Copyright © 2023 Steven Leo Campbell at – All rights reserved.

After I let the first draft sit and rest for a while, I go back for round two when I feel ready. The same is true when I’m writing stories and poems. In both writing and art, round two is meant for major changes and for clarifying points of interest. I look at the work’s weaknesses and make any necessary alterations—a necessary step that helps make it better.

barn paintings
Barn. Copyright © 2023 Steven Leo Campbell at – All rights reserved.

The first painting of the barn above is acrylic paint on canvas. It has dark elements that displease me. Instead of painting lighter values over the dark ones, I copied the illustration to paper and redid it in watercolor. Watercolor has a unique way of using the white of the paper to show lighter values.

Sometimes a first draft leaves me wishing there was more to the scene. This happened with the following painting of a local creek. I knew it needed more water, so I broadened the scene in the redraft and changed the color scheme to a brighter one.

creek paintings
Creek. Copyright © 2023 Steven Leo Campbell at – All rights reserved.

In summary, my time painting is very much like my time writing books and poetry: sketching ideas, choosing a sound, attractive idea, getting the idea down on canvas or paper, and cleaning it up. Anne Lamott, a well-known novelist and writing teacher says it this way: “The first draft is the down draft—you just get it all down. The second draft is the up draft—you clean it all up.”

Thanks for joining me for Part 1 of Painting and Fixing First Drafts.

I hope I encouraged you to get out those first drafts—whether they’re your writing or art. Find one that speaks to you most and give it a second round.

And as I used to tell my students: “Have fun with it.”

Steve, 4/23/2023

This post “Painting and Fixing the First Draft, part 1” copyright © 2023 Steven Leo Campbell at – All rights reserved.

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7 thoughts on “Painting and Fixing the First Draft, part 1

  1. All the second draft paintings above really do perfect the originals 😍 For me while writing, I don’t have a proper system. But I’m guided by the final aha moment of satisfaction ~

    Liked by 1 person

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