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August 10, 2007

You're making a mess of things - Good - Keep going

Erase what you don't like, or scrape it off, or work it into the drawing or the painting. If it still doesn't work out, start over again. The point is: Making lousy drawings doesn't make you a lousy artist. Think of it as a good thing if you mess up something, as long as you realize it - realizing it is key because that shows you're not accepting your present level of expertise (or non-expertise) as the best you'll ever do.

If you're making "mistakes" it means you're still trying to do better, not that you're a flop as an artist. It means that you're going somewhere. Now if you keep making the very same mistakes over and over and over again, perhaps (just perhaps) you might start to wonder if this is the field for you.

I keep wondering if Ingres ever used an eraser or crumpled up any of his pictures and threw them away. I'm sure he did. Surely he wasn't born drawing perfect pictures.

Self-Portrait, 1822
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
French 1780-1867

Did Rembrandt ever draw a line he wished he hadn't made?

Rembrandt van Rijn
Dutch 1606-1669

Durer? When he was a kid, just learning to draw?

Self-Portrait - Age 13
Albrecht Durer
German 1471-1528

Rubens? Were all of the great artists drawing and painting perfect pictures already when they were little kids? I don't suppose they were, at least not when they began and for years after that. They had to be enthusiastic about the subject, and dedicated, and work very, very hard at it for a long, long time. They had a talent for it, surely, but talent is something that needs to be developed. You need to be inspired, in "love" with art, have it become the central focus of your life, have some motivation that keeps you going in spite of the difficulties you will keep running into, and preferably you should be in constant contact, while you're learning, with someone who is already an accomplished artist (one of your parents maybe, or an uncle, or a friend of the family, or someone you're apprenticed to) who will be your earliest instructor and mentor. An artistic genius may produce wonderful pictures when they're, say, twelve years old, but that's because they started very early in life and have been hard at work since they began.

How about Vincent van Gogh, who needless to say had talent and even genius, but who didn't know he even wanted to be an artist until about ten years before he died at age 37. His first drawings and paintings wouldn't have been encouraging to me, but he was completely dedicated to what he was doing and just kept going on and on and on. Here's one of his first pictures, courtesy of the-atheneum.org:

Vincent van Gogh
Dutch - 1853-1890
A Digger - 1881
Pencil, chalk, and watercolor on paper

Less than ten years later, he produced this complex and beautiful painting:

Vincent van Gogh
The Church at Auvers - 1890

Surely no artist has ever been more dedicated and hard-working and persistent, nor have many faced more difficulties than van Gogh.

I'm sure that Picasso must have used an eraser when he was young, unless he just tossed aside his ugly messes and grabbed another piece of paper; since his father was an artist (and art teacher), there must have been a lot of paper available. And certainly the first pictures he painted were not framed and hung on the wall ... Well, maybe they were, who knows, but you know what I mean. I read a Picasso quote once where he claimed that when he was a boy he never drew like other children, but (rather) very perfectly ... however, pictures I've seen of some of his childhood drawings dispute that claim. They look like typical childhood drawings to me. (He may not have been aware that his family was keeping many of his childhood drawings and paintings, which are now available for all to see.) He did paint some beautiful pictures while a teenager, but this was after many years of dedicated hard work. "There is no need to follow the customary line of seeing Picasso as a miraculous infant prodigy. Still, the sheer wealth and quality of his youthful output are staggering." (Quote from book: Pablo Picasso - edited by Ingo F. Walther)

Bullfight - 1892
Pencil and gouache, 13 x 21 cm
Pablo Ruiz y Picasso
Spanish - 1881-1973

It seems to me that art is very seldom meant to be a test of one's ability to do everything "perfectly" the first time we try it, and it shouldn't be. It's the results that count. The idea is to have something in the end that is right for what you want it to do. If you need to start over because you have "ruined" it, then start over. Next time you'll know better, and maybe make some "better" mistakes.

If you're very lucky, you can still do something with the picture that you've "ruined," but it will take a lot longer than you had expected it would when you began. I have read many times about how artists have tried (and this seems like a good idea to me) to make their artwork look fresh and innocent as a newborn baby, as though they had drawn or painted with no difficulty at all; beautifully, intuitively, without hesitation. However, sometimes, in actuality, it has taken them many days (weeks, months) to do a drawing that looks like it was done in 3-5 minutes, or years to finish a painting that looks like it was done in a day. The important thing is that the result looks unlabored. It sometimes takes lots and lots of labor, and endless patience and much thought, to get a result that looks unlabored.

If we don't make a mess of things now and then it's because we're not trying anything new, and so we don't move forward - We get stuck in a rut with our art, doing what we do well over and over again endlessly. This may cause us to turn out an uninterrupted flow of skillful and lovely artwork, but we could never progress from the point at which we are frozen (the point where our fear - and perhaps laziness - takes over) and we could never find out what we could have accomplished if only we hadn't let our egotism and fear keep us from moving ahead.


"Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

"I tell you, if one wants to be active, one must not be afraid of going wrong, one must not be afraid of making mistakes now and then. Many people think that they will become good just by doing no harm - but that's a lie, and you yourself used to call it that. That way lies stagnation, mediocrity." Vincent van Gogh in a letter to his brother, Theo van Gogh, Oct. 1884

"I have learned throughout my life as a composer chiefly through my mistakes and pursuits of false assumptions, not by my exposure to founts of wisdom and knowledge." -- Igor Stravinsky

"Demand perfection of yourself and you'll seldom attain it. Fear of making a mistake is the biggest single cause of making one. Relax -- pursue excellence, not perfection." Lloyd (Bud) Winter (1909 - 1985) - college and U.S. Olympic track coach

"When I was young I observed that nine out of ten things I did were failures, so I did ten times more work." -- George Bernard Shaw

"Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan, 'Press on,' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race." -- Calvin Coolidge

"Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm." -- Winston Churchill

"Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently." -- Henry Ford

"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better." -- Samuel Beckett

"I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost more than 300 games. Twenty-six times I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life . . . . And that is why I succeed." -- Michael Jordan

"I've always made a total effort, even when the odds seemed entirely against me. I never quit trying; I never felt that I didn't have a chance to win." -- Arnold Palmer

"Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up." -- Thomas Edison

"I know the price of success: dedication, hard work, and an unremitting devotion to the things you want to see happen." -- Frank Lloyd Wright


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