Working with mistakes

Updated: Oct 2

Through education, we are generally conditioned into thinking that mistakes are bad and that we should avoid them. The less mistakes we make, the better. Is this the right way for us to be thinking? In one of his excellent TED talks, Sir Ken Robinson describes the detriment of a system that makes us scared to get things wrong [1].

After all, mistakes are how we learn. Moreover, in art, I think that mistakes are really how we progress...except I wouldn't call them mistakes.

When I was at school, the way I used to draw something was by getting each tiny part as perfect as I could before moving onto the next. So if I was halfway through a portrait, I would have half of a face that was as polished as I could make it, and the rest of the paper would still be blank. Even with that approach, there would still be a stage at the beginning where it wasn't yet clear whether it would be a good drawing yet...I liked to keep it hidden until I got through that stage.

With the except of realism artists, I don't see any artists drawing in this way of perfecting a painting 'bit by bit'. If you watch an artist create a piece of work, they almost always take a holistic approach and work over the whole canvas at one time, building it up layer by layer. And how do they generally start? By making a mess usually - throwing a lot of paint on the canvas or making some marks or creating a wash of tone in whichever manner suits them. Rather than worrying that it doesn't look good, they just enjoy that it doesn't need to look good because it's just an underpainting and may be mostly be covered up anyway. It is well accepted among artists that all paintings have this initial messy stage and no one ever feels like they need to hide it. It's far more interesting to see what you can do with a bunch of unplanned marks than try and start with a blank canvas.

It's not necessarily all uphill from there either. I personally find it really interesting to watch an artist make a piece of work where they appear to have reached a stage of stability - it's working together or beginning to look like something - and then they do something crazy like throw a massive splodge of fluorescent pink paint on it. Intentionally. Then, keep watching, because they then make it work - they add other marks, other colours and it somehow reaches a resolution.

So what would you call this pink splodge - a mistake? If so, making mistakes is practically how we make art. It's perhaps better to think of these 'mistakes' as a bump in the road that you have to find a way to climb over or go round. The difference is, that artists are the ones making their own bumps in the road so that they can create something impressive around it.

Maybe making art can help us learn to deal with bumps in the road, and see them as opportunities rather than setbacks?

I would argue that making art teaches us valuable life skills, it teaches us a mindset of working with what we've got and seeing what we can make of things. To try something new and see where it takes us. To adapt, to problem solve. When you make art, you make a mark and then you make it into something. You make something that doesn’t seem to be fitting with what’s happened before, and then you make it fit. You acknowledge the ‘mistakes’, you acknowledge the bits that are there, that are naturally there, and you don’t try and cover them up, or pretend they don’t exist. You work with what you’ve got, and that’s a good mindset to have. You are training your brain how to incorporate the new instead of fighting against it.

[1]. Sir Ken Robinson. Do schools kill creativity? Available at: Accessed September 2022.

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