It's not the first time something like this has happened.
Very often, when I think a painting is or should have been a "wiper" the actual problem is quite minor. Correct that, and all is well with the world once more (or the painting, anyway).
Here are some things I do when I have that miserable "there is something wrong with it, but I don't know what" feeling:
- IGNORE it. Put it in the cupboard for a week and ignore it. The problem may spring out at me next time I look.
- USE A DIFFERENT VIEWPOINT. Traditionally, this means reviewing your work in a mirror by holding a mirror up to the painting or the painting up to a mirror and looking at the reflection. For some reason, this shows up issues that have previously been hard to spot. It is very good for showing up wonky bits. I find mirrors a bit tricky to use and prefer to photograph the painting and then review the photo on the computer. It is the same principle, though. Sometimes I then import the photo into the Brushes app on my iPad and make changes to it by drawing them in one or more layers so I can see whether that will sort the problem.
- ANGLES check them. If it is a building this is easier - are the uprights actually upright or on the wonk? Are the angles correct or shooting off in the wrong direction? The same principle applies to animals though: often the nose angles are wrong. It can make the animal look like it has a large button on the end of its nose that has been stuck on upside down or sideways, when in fact it is just one angle that is off.
- SHADOWS. Are there any (or enough)? If not, the painting might look like a cartoon. Eyelids cast shadows; muzzles cast shadows on the neck, ears cast shadows on the head (unless they are the sticky up type) and the entire animal casts a shadow on to the ground even if just the occlusion shadow (the very dark one wherever his body touches the ground). Absence of the occlusion shadow can make the subject look like it is floating.
- VALUES. Squint at the painting. Is there a pattern of lights and darks or is it just mush? If it looks mushy (or foggy) there is the answer: not enough distinction between lights and darks will make the painting look formless, lifeless and dull. Unless you are JMW Turner painting fog. In which case ignore this.
- COLOUR. Does it leap out at me like the entire contents of a Toys R Us catalogue? Did I want that to happen? If yes to the first question but no to the second, then the answer is to introduce more greys into the work. This might be a re-paint job, though. I find this problem particularly difficult to correct after the event.
- MUD, mud, glorious mud. If the painting looks muddy, step one is check the values. Perhaps there is just not enough distinction between darks and lights. Often, though the problem is using the wrong temperature colour, introducing warm colours when they should be cool or vice versa. I check for consistency in my use of cool and warm colours: that lovely sunny day where the shadows should be blue-ish (cool) but I have accidentally sneaked in a warm, dark earth colour. Correcting that may put the whole painting right. If there is a very sea of mud, though, it maybe a wiper.