There’s a unique feature in visual art that’s easy to overlook. Artists frequently fail to recognize the deep power of the idea but it’s crucial to becoming the best artist you can be.
It’s simply this:
“Every attempt to make a single piece of art gives you information that can increase your chance of success in subsequent attempts to make art.”
So even if you make a drawing or a painting and it’s a total mess, a train-wreck, a failure, it’s filled with information that can guide your next attempt to be better. But only if you are honest with yourself and paying attention.
The people that really understand the power of this learning-from-failed-attempts concept are mountain climbers. Climber Reinhold Messner is among the best mountain climbers in the world, ascending peaks like K2, Everest, and Annapurna. More relevant is looking at all his failed efforts. Consider Makalu, the fifth-highest mountain in the world. Messner tried climbing Makalu four times. He failed in 1974 and failed in 1981 on the South Face. In winter 1985 he failed again on the North Face. In 1986 on a new route he also failed. But every failure informed the next attempt. Keep in mind that his attempts required a tortuous life-threatening climb above 8,000 feet in freezing conditions.
And how bad is it when a studio painting fails?
For climbers, analyzing what worked well and what went wrong is a matter of life and death. This is where climbers have a psychological advantage over painters. Every failed attempt to summit gets seriously analyzed down to the last detail of how many micrograms your climbing boots weigh.
But few artists scrutinize their completed painting with that same kind of intensity. Mostly, artists are relieved to be done the damn painting and happy to put a frame on it and get it out the door.
Yet painting offers a unique feature that does not apply to temporal long-form arts like writing novels or composing symphonies. You can make a painting and step back and quickly see in an instant (without a map or snow boots) how you are getting along. If you are analytical, the ability to recover from a mistake (paint it out, erase) is fast and you rarely need a helicopter rescue.
In painting, you can attempt an idea and if it fails, this is a great moment. Recognizing failure is crucial. That honest failure is loaded with information that can guide your next attempt at a better solution. And one of the biggest blocks to processing failure is when critics are too kind and generous and offer faint praise or polite smiles. And then the artist thinks: “Gee, I guess this is good enough.”
Your biggest job as an artist is deciding which information in your failed attempt is important. Why does it look so bad? Did you go wrong in composition? In color? A silly idea? Cliché? Too dark? A weak drawing? Identifying problems and coming up with creative solutions and alternatives — this is essential in making your “map” for a successful ascent, and it’s not the same for every artist.
Admit failure. Embrace failure. Extract useful information. Make a better plan. Try again via a different route.
Artists should never feel bad about failed attempts or disappointing results. These are gold mines of information and ripe opportunities for improvement. Brave failed attempts may be the only way to truly improve. You just have to pay attention and read the mountain. Stop trying to ice climb in the worst snows of winter. There are always better alternate routes to the top, right? Find your way.