Learning to embrace failure
Updated: May 16, 2021
"The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars."
I love this quote from the book Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It's a great way of looking at failure: seeing it as an essential part of the process of creating our best work.
Here's something I learnt from doing physio after breaking my wrist last year: our muscles get stronger every time we attempt to use them, regardless of whether that attempt leads to success or failure. It simply doesn't matter. Trying is what matters. Even when I tried and nothing moved, my muscles got stronger - until, one day, they did move.
I think it's the same with pretty much everything in life, including art. What matters is that we keep going, and keep improving. Success and failure are just byproducts. Oh, if only we could see them that way! If only we could, in the words of Rudyard Kipling, learn to "treat those two impostors just the same"!
Well, here is something that I find helpful. I believe that increasing our output - focusing on quantity rather than quality - can have the paradoxical effect of helping us improve faster than if we tried to make every single piece "perfect". Life drawing classes with lots of short poses are great for that, as is a daily sketching habit. When I'm producing drawings at the rate of knots, I can't get too precious about any of them. Strangely, that's often when I make my best work. The image below is a 20-minute sketch from a life drawing class that I'm really happy with. It emerged, as they always do, sandwiched between dozens of rubbish ones.
One of my art heroes is Wendy Artin; check out her work on Instagram. I especially love her watercolour nudes. She paints fearlessly, directly from the life model, without a preliminary pencil drawing, going straight in with the brush. It's a risky approach with a high failure rate. According to Wendy, it can take days, weeks and months of trying before something good emerges. But when it does, boy does it soar!
So yes, practice is key, but not blindly repeating the same things over and over. It does needs to be reflective practice. We need to look at our work, analyse what went well and what didn't, and use that knowledge when we make our next piece. To quote from Art & Fear again, we need to ask our work what it needs, and then listen to it "the way a good parent listens to a child". I love that.