Haunted Holidays Challenge: Looking Back

Haunted Holidays Challenge: Looking Back

Posted by Robyn Wall on

October through December
Read Time: 10 min

During the Haunted Holidays art challenge, my goal was to explore the style I had discovered over the summer. Painting with a minimal color pallet and using both loose and detailed watercolor techniques to create realistic subjects that blend into the smokey background and incorporate fine-line and gel pens in the final piece. This style lends a sense of ethereal, eerie magic to my paintings that I absolutely love.

I learned a lot about the bounds and limitations of this style and I am happy to say that it produced some interesting results.


The three-month art challenge spanning the holiday filled final months of the year began with the prompt Secret Door and immediately The Secret Garden came to mind. Ivy hides away a moss-covered door.


I knew exactly how I would incorporate my new style into this piece, painting the elaborate door frame in black and having it 'dissolve' into smoke at the top and right side. Then painting the ivy with abstract splotches of green blending into the smokey technique I so adore on the bottom and left of the composition. 

Week two was also enjoyable in my exploration of the Castle prompt. It had me mainly thinking of Castlevania as my inspiration. I love Dracula’s castle with the tall, pointed spires and strange ‘hovering’ towers. There were multiple sketches, and this was the only week in which I painted two pieces for the prompt.


The first one was a castle floating in my smokey magic and disintegrating into bats. I knew it would adapt well to the style I was developing.


The second allowed me to explore a paint application I had never used before to create a hazy look: the same castle but with layers of pine trees in front of it.

My favorite part about week two was how well the two paintings look together!

The third week, Ancient Tree, did not go so well. Sometimes you try new things and they turn out to be the best decision. And sometimes you get excited about something different and end up disappointed by the outcome.

Both situations are valuable. 

This was one of those that didn’t turn out so well. But you have to take risks to improve your skills and learn about what works and what doesn’t. The thing is... I can’t quite figure out what it is about this week's piece I don’t like. The sketch I chose was creepy and a little weird. Something different from the type of work I usually do. An ancient tree monster.


Most of the issues I had with this piece arose when I decided he (the tree monster) needed to have a fitting background, not just hovering in a cloud of smoke. I think this is the kind of concept that would be better suited for digital art where I can use lots of layers and non-destructive editing to get the right balance. Overall, though, I don’t hate it as much as I did at first and I still learned things about myself, my skill, and my style that I would not have otherwise.

Next, we have Graves. Beautiful, enchanting sadness is what I strived to capture in week four's piece. Emotions can be difficult to paint, especially for an Empath, as we live in the emotions of our artwork and this can be a struggle. But I find that's when I create my best work.


This piece is a wonderful example of that. The first painting I had done of a human since the challenge had begun and I could already see a significant improvement in my talents compared to all the witches I painted over the summer. It sparked an obsession in me I think will lead to some amazing things.

Hair has always been very difficult for me and the panting from week four really pushed that to its limits. The exceptionally detailed hair took me over six hours and it initiated a shift in style for two reasons.

One–I never ever wanted to spend six hours painting hair again so I began to use a more solid hair application.

Two–the highlights I added provided some much needed depth and texture to the hair.

We all have shadows that haunt us. Pieces of your past that linger, memories you can’t forget, habits you can’t break, things you wish you hadn’t said. They follow close behind, always at your heels. This was the inspiration for week five's Shadow prompt.


I enjoyed this concept as it really pushed me to explore the bounds of what I can do with the smokey background of this new style. That is the only thing I liked about this piece, though. It’s difficult to place my finger on it, but I just dislike the woman in this painting. It may be her facial expression or the pose and position she is in. I don’t know. She just feels very awkward to me.

Week six, seven, and eight are some of my favorites from this art challenge.


The prompt during week six produced The Raven eater, an eerie-looking male character who is on the run after upsetting the Queen of the Ravens. She sent her warrior birds to hunt him down and there is evidence of their battle all over his face. Three raven feather arrows stick in his cheek and he exacts his revenge by consuming one of the ruthless warriors.

An orange “cloud” which was supposed to look more like a fluffy coat on the shoulders of my character is the only disappointing part of this painting. Looking at it now, though, I am considering the addition of some white highlights in his hair.

Week seven is a favorite for the story behind the image but also because of how astonishingly well the Potion piece turned out.


Sometimes, you just wish you could drink a magic potion to solve all your problems. Like Alice, just eating and drinking things to get what she wanted, even though she had no idea what any of it would do to her. 

That’s how I imagine week sevens character ended up a confused hairless cat.

He woke up one day with a yellow potion next to his bed and said “hey, why not???” 

This is the piece that helped me realize Hot Press watercolor paper is the way to go for most of my pieces using this style. The smooth texture allows for nice clean pen lines and the option to add shading or definition using graphite or colored pencils.

Week 8 is the first time in the six months of doing weekly art challenges I did not finish the piece on time. 

However, it brought me a lovely little bit of wisdom that I will share with you. 

As someone who is intrinsically motivated with many things, including these challenges, not meeting a deadline has very few actual repercussions. Yet, these are often the things that cause the most distress for me when they are not accomplished. 

Being intrinsically motivated is important, but how do you prevent the self-pity, harsh internal punishment, and severe personal disappointment that often follows not meeting an intrinsically motivated goal?

Give yourself permission to be a little late.

Still push yourself to get it done, but don’t push past your mental, physical, or emotional boundaries. Allow yourself to accept that not finishing on time or how you wanted is okay. If you don’t give yourself this courtesy, then being intrinsically motivated can become obsessive and harmful.


The Amulet prompt during week eight did not develop such an elaborate story, but the execution of this painting is extraordinary. I achieved such a level of realism in this portrait, I was amazed it even came from my hands.

Week nine took quit the drive into shitstown, though.

This may be something that is experienced with other forms of creativity, but often a painting will go through an awkward or even a straight-up ugly phase. You’re applying paint, adding details, building up shadows and highlights as you usually do, but this time it just is not looking good. You have two choices, really. You can give up entirely or you can hope to whatever invisible sky person, that your painting gets better. And if you choose to keep going, things could eventually start looking good or…. take a turn for the worse. 

I almost always choose to push through the ugly phase. Either until I am happy with the direction it is going or until I have worked the piece into a muddy mess. 

Well, that happened to me with the Fae prompt.

This painting reached an ugly phase so fucking bad it is totally cringe-worthy.


I am happy to report it came through the other side looking….not terrible, but still super awkward. And yet I am very proud of this piece as I really pushed the boundaries of my mixed media application to create something completely unique.

The final three weeks of the Haunted Holidays Art Challenge were great. But I'll admit I kind of stuck to my comfort zone because of the issues I had the previous week and due to the burnout and fatigue I was feeling toward the weekly prompts and just in general, really.

Week ten gave me a lot of trouble trying to come up with a concept. I couldn’t think of a single interesting idea for the Coffin prompt. Then when I finally came up with the concept of a Coffin Bath, I could not for the life of me figure out how to draw something that looked even halfway decent. 


Yet when I did finally settle on a sketch, the execution of the piece was a breeze. My favorite part was that I got to try out a completely different use for the smokey paint application I had been exploring. I used this technique as both something that represented of an object–bath water, and as a “steamy” background that boarders this piece.

The eleventh prompt: Bones, was one of my absolute favorites as it combined the beautiful, ethereal, and surprisingly realistic completion of a portrait while also conveying a concept and message that resonates with me deeply.


Expressing feelings through art often takes the form of metaphors. Learning to explore this type of work can be difficult. Having a tendency to be literal it can be a challenge to produce a metaphor that conveys my message. 

The process began by thinking of as many topics related to bones as I could. A saying came to mind: “Skin and Bones”. This triggered a memory for me about when I was at my lowest weight. Struggling mentally with body image, financially with affording food, and psychologically with an abusive relationship, I was literally nothing but skin and bones. 

One of my very favorite things about this piece is the background. I used Dusk Green by Van Gogh watercolor paint, and it reacted strangely. Using a wet-on-wet technique, the paint appears an extremely dark green color when you first apply it. After spreading further into the water, it lightens up, like all watercolors. 

But as I began working the paint around the paper, some areas began turning black. The darkest parts of the background do not have added black paint. Something weird just happened to the pigment. Then, when the background dried, it appeared to have a cracked texture to it. 

Both things happened completely by accident, and I adore them.

Week twelve came as a complete surprise to me. I was somewhat hesitant at the beginning with the prompt of Ghost of the Past as it was a nod to The Ghost of Christmas Past. I hold no specific faith so, the added challenge of creating something festive without a specific denomination seemed like a good one.

Getting past the Christmas-y aspect of this prompt was a bit of a challenge at first, and it was all I thought about for almost two days. The night of the second day of pondering, I had a vision. Well, it was just a dream, but still.

In this dream, I saw a Ghost of the Past present herself to me, candles jutting from her shoulders like strange armor. She hovered toward me, and the flames flickered a little. 

I scarcely even remembered this dream when I woke, but I began sketching like a madwoman as soon as I did. 


Now, the thing about this piece is that I knew she needed to be completed with white paint on black paper. Not a big deal if you think about it in simple terms. I’ve worked with black watercolor paper in the past. No problem. 

But with past paintings, I have always painted a negative image. Meaning, all the shadows were painted with white, and all the highlights were translucent, letting the black paper show through. This doesn't take any particular talent outside the box, as you can use all the same techniques you would if you were using black paint on white paper.

I was not satisfied with that, though. I just knew painting negative wouldn’t bring this piece to its full potential. 

This meant that all the hard work I put in and all the skill I accumulated over the last six months of practice were essentially useless to me because I was going to have to turn everything I knew on its head!

For this piece, instead of letting the paper show through to be the highlights, I was building up layers and layers of paint for the lightest parts of the composition. It was complicated. But this piece is irrefutable proof of how much I have grown over the course of a year. She turned out completely, hauntingly beautiful.   


The twelve weeks of this challenge were difficult, thrilling, and rewarding. I loved experimenting and learning more about what this style could produce. One of the most profound insights this challenge brought me is that I love doing portraits. 

It should come as no surprise to me (although it did for some reason) because faces and portraits had always been a favorite of mine when I was exploring art in high school. I was one of those people who obsessively drew eyes and lips in the margins of my notes during class. Over the years, I gravitated away from portraiture because I was frustrated that my execution of them was not as realistic as I wanted. 

But this challenge has made me realize my initial interest and talent with portraits was no mistake. I just needed to work a little harder.  

So, What's Next?

After my one month break from weekly challenges turned into three months while I was fighting burn out and seasonal depression, I am really excited to announce I will be starting a brand new weekly challenge! You can read about it in my latest blog post Faces Fascinate.

Want first dibs on one of the pieces from the Haunted Holidays Challenge when they become available? Sign up to join the Collectors' Coven Newsletter to ensure you don't miss your chance to snag your favorite piece!

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