Paint Yourself Out of a Rut

Push yourself and your work forward with these five creative kick-starts by Betsy Dillard Stroud.

By Betsy Dillard Stroud

Push yourself and your work forward with these five creative kick-starts.

1. Begin by painting over an old painting with either transparent acrylics or watered down white gesso.

In Tattoo, I glazed over an old watercolor painting, using transparent acrylic Pyrrol Orange to make the surface harmonious. After the glaze dried completely, I drew the figure with charcoal and then brought out my opaque acrylics. Leaving the skin the color of the glazed underpainting, I emphasized the kimono with opaque white gesso and other pigments, delighting in the play between the transparent and the opaque paint. One of my students said, “Name it Tattoo.” She was so right, for the linear elements showing through made the title fit perfectly.

figure painting
“Tattoo” (watercolor and acrylic on paper, 30 x 22 in.)
2. Use fluids and tube acrylics, plus your favorite medium, and emphasize the difference between transparent and opaque paint.

Mysteries in the Studio has just about everything mixed and mingled. I began by doing a transparent underpainting in blue after I had drawn the figure and some of the geometric elements. Again, I decided to use the contrast of opaque and transparent in the painting. To give some more “oomph” to the surface, I also collaged some Mulberry Paper I had painted with Phthalo Blue and then painted over that with Golden’s Gold Flake Medium. It added just a bit of sparkle without being garish.

figure painting
“Mysteries in the Studio” (fluid and tube acrylics, Golden Gold Flake Medium, Mulberry Collage; stamping with my personal carved stamps on paper, 30 x 22 in.)


3. Change the surface you are painting on and try watercolor markers with watercolor for linear effects.

In The Dreamer, I chose to use YUPO. And wow, being able to wet a Kleenex and go back to the white shiny surface was fantastic. I decided to use some watercolor markers to enhance certain areas like the costume of the figure. As I painted this figure, I was reminded of the expressionistic drawings I used to do with Morton Traylor, a wonderful painter who studied with Rico leBrun. Perhaps you might want to try ink or some other marker. Just go for it.

figure painting
“The Dreamer” (watercolor and watercolor markers on YUPO, 22 x 30 in.)


4. Divide your surface into sections and make sure they all connect with each other.

With Natasha in Greys, I divided the paper into three sections making the middle section where I put the figure the largest. My experiment was two-fold. First I wanted to make those side sections connect to the figure. Second, I wanted to use muted colors and greys. Women often remind me of flowers and I took that idea and designed the side sections connecting them with the model.

watermedia painting
“Natasha in Greys” (watermedia on paper)


5. Let a master artist inspire you. Use some of his or her tenets and some of your own.

For Delilah and Matisse, I was thinking of a Matisse painting. I drew a face, and changed the nude top to a bright orange blouse. Elements of his “cut collages” float in the upper left and lower right. The rose idea came that day when a student presented me with a beautiful yellow rose. Use opaque acrylics, black gesso, even collage if you like.

“Delilah and Matisse” (acrylic black gesso, fluid and tube acrylics, 30 x 22 in.)

Paint yourself out of a rut by picking a subject, not necessarily a figure, and trying these creativity-boosting exercises. Change is the name of the game. Even small changes can stoke your creative fires. Most importantly, don’t be attached to outcomes!

If your portraits can’t be described as exciting, unique, and authentic, try the techniques in Mixed Media Portraits Beyond Realism from watermedia master Jean Pederson.

Jean Pederson
Watermedia portrait by Jean Pederson


  1. I took one of Betsy’s workshops years ago through the Arizona Watercolor Association. What a fun experience. Thanks for sharing this article. I need to try this method to get out of my rut.

  2. I especially like the use of mixed media in the paintings. I really enjoy seeing the stylized figures of the women in the painting! I’m inspired to try some of the ideas to get out of my rut!

  3. Great inspiration and ideas to try new things and surely would spark an avalanche of new ideas. Love the ” don’t attach to outcomes” advice. I am excited to try some of these.


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