Friday, August 22, 2008

The Value of Failure

Last night I decided to paint a self-portrait. Actually, I decided a couple of weeks ago, but that's a whole different subject. So, I set up my easel, laid out a very simple palette, and started blocking in.

I got lost in the creative state of mind and really had a good time. I didn't push the value range as much as I could have. I also didn't get into fine details. I did get the canvas covered and really enjoyed doing it.

Today, when I took a look at what I had done, I was really surprised. The drawing was awful. It didn't look much like me, well, maybe me as painted by Fernando Botero, but that would be extremely generous (or terribly insulting to Botero.)

self portrait in oil
(Please forgive the terrible photos. One of the things I am learning is that you really have to control your brush strokes to keep them from randomly standing out under bright lights.)

I decided I could fix it by lengthening the face. I scraped the bottom third or so of the canvas and took a nap.

When I woke up I was still disgusted with the painting, and frankly done with it. I kind of wish I hadn't scraped it now. Regardless, I only scraped the shirt and a little of the background and chin.

Now, I didn't start this post to talk about how horrible this painting is. (But I'm sure there will be some more of that before I'm done, in fact, I plan on it.) I started this post because, without actively forcing myself to, I accepted that the painting was a failure, but that this in no way defined me as a failure.

Whutchoo talkin 'bout?

This is something I've struggled with in the past. If I didn't perform something perfectly, I not only blamed myself, which is natural if unfair, but I took the extra step to apply the "failure" definition to my whole self. The distinction is key. Just because we fail, it doesn't mean we are a failure. Defining yourself by the outcome of one action is horribly detrimental to the self-image. If I convince myself I am a failure, I will act as a failure. I should know, I did it for most of my life.

A few years ago I learned about this distinction. However, knowing something intellectually and really believing it and making it a part of your life are two very different things. Today was one of the first times I noticed that I didn't have to convince myself that failing did not make me a failure. I feel I deserve to pat myself on the back a bit.

Back patting over.

So, what is the value in failure? How do we re-frame an unsuccessful attempt? The first thing to understand is that all experience is an opportunity to learn. I did not fail at a self-portrait, I succeeded in learning about some things that don't work. I also succeeded in putting several more hours on my brushes, gaining valuable experience in handling oil paints.

Actually, I learned a number of things. I learned a great deal about laying wet oil paint over wet oil paint. I also learned, once again, that I need to pay attention to my drawing from step one. I got more experience in mixing colors in oil. Even though I have been mixing colors in acrylics for years, oils do not behave exactly the same way. I learned that alizarin crimson does not dry quickly, but adding burnt umber to it (or maybe it was the ultrmarine?) causes it to set up well overnight.

I also learned an important lesson in detaching myself from the outcome. I knew when I started this piece that it was just a small study. It's a small canvas, 9" x 12", and I didn't spend much time preparing the surface. I prepared a larger canvas, to a nearly smooth surface, with the intention of painting a self-portrait. I started this study to work on the composition, color, and paint handling. I achieved that aim, no matter what else came of it. By not being overly concerned with what I was going to end up with, I was able to lose myself in the process and really free up my creative mind. I was able to play with brush strokes and see what happened when I tried the sort of background I did. I was able to paint the hat without trying so hard and that turned out to be the part I was most happy with.

self portrait in oil

In the end, this was no waste of time. I don't like the result, but I do appreciate the value of the experience. It was not a successful attempt, but I am not magically made an unsuccessful artist because of it.

(I do think I will do some charcoal studies before I attempt another self-portrait in paint.)

Another really important step is to interrupt any failure induced self-deprecation. If you have to, say "Stop!" out loud. Break the self-critical process and remind yourself that individual actions do not define you.

Finally, you must move on from the unsuccessful attempt and continue to try. Only through hard work and practice do we improve.

I mentioned before that there would be more moaning about this piece. Well, that's not totally accurate. I want to whine for a second about my frustrations with oil paints.

I have done so much with charcoal, and have refined that technique so much that I feel sort of helpless in the face of oils. I have decided that what I want to achieve with oils is to paint the way I draw with charcoal. I want to be able to do it directly, without underpainting and layering. Look at this detail from an unfinished charcoal drawing.

charcoal example

The freedom, the expression, and the painterly quality are very satisfying to me. Notice how my charcoal work has the effect of brush strokes. This is something I have been steering myself toward since long before I took my big break from art. This isn't even something I do consciously with charcoal anymore. This is just how it comes out of me, and I get really tickled with myself every time I come back to those drawings later.

I know that the answer is just to keep painting until my painting skills mature and expression becomes second nature. If this is what comes naturally with charcoal, then it will eventually come without conscious effort in oil paint. But the frustration, after spending hours working with paint and realizing that I might as well have smeared it around with my fingers and a paper towel, is often demoralizing. I don't have the frustration while I'm working. It's just as much fun as drawing now, which is a big improvement over just a few weeks ago, but when I review the work later, I feel sort of helpless to capture just what I want in paint. I will continue; I have to. But I still have a hard time getting started on the next piece.

I think next time I am going to do some drawing to warm up my eyes and creativity before painting. If I only approach the blank canvas after some "exercises" it might help me to get over the procrastination and get down to business with less internal struggle.


  • knittinandnoodlin

    I like this painting! Part of that liking it I am sure has something to do with the fact that I cannot paint a straight line. But the other part of it is this painting is strange and spooky (to use very technical arty terms). I wouldn't call it a failure at all. Maybe you missed what you were trying to specifically accomplish, but you accomplished something pretty cool. =)