Wednesday, 26 March 2008

The Art of Mistakes

One of the trends beginner artists have to fight is the will to achieve perfection here and now. They are impatient. The benefit of experience is, beside technique, a certain ability to see what the painting is going to look like when finished. It’s like being a seasoned chess player who can anticipate where the game is going. In reality, the painting will never be exactly what you anticipated it to be, but it saves you from giving-up too soon. It fosters enough confidence to build the painting over time because you know where you want to go; you have the map and you can see from the top of the hill your final destination.

How does that relates to mistakes? To make progress, you need to learn by trial and errors. “Trial” is a better word than “mistake”, because you always learn in the process.

Thomas Edison, who invented the electric light bulb, the phonograph, the motion picture camera and the microphone did not succeed overnight. He was in fact a firm believer of the virtue of failure as a path to success. Once, he was experimenting to find a better type of battery. One of his assistants came to Edison and asked him if he was downhearted with the lack of progress. Edison answered back: “Downhearted? We’ve made a lot of progress. At least we know 50,000 things that won’t work!”

You have to learn to see failures as a step towards success. Unless you stretch yourself, unless you explore new territories, you won’t make significant progress. The trick is to look at the positive aspect of your failure, as Edison did.

Next time you experiment and you are not happy with the result, have a close look at the effect you achieved and think how you could use it in other circumstances. This way, you will learn faster and develop your own style.

To avoid focussing on failures, you must reduce the cost of such failures: economically, in term of time and emotional investment. One good way to achieve this is to work on small formats. Undertake small studies that will only take you couples of hours and do it on a regular basis. Making it a habit should also reduce the preasure you put on yourself.

Le Chemin de Vertignol - Oil painting by Benoit Philippe

You will also encounter what I call “happy accident”. I was once painting a landscape in the North of France when it started to rain. As I was using oil painting (and had nowhere to get shelter), I just carried on. The rain made the surface of the canvas slipery and the paint formed a rough texture in some areas. I like very much this painting and I would not have rendered better the stormy and grey sky without the helping hand of the elements.

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