Failure can be as good teacher, often better in fact than success. In success, you show mastery of something you’ve already learned. If you can get out of the shadow of ego, failure will teach you exactly where you’re lacking.
In painting, one of my big, fat failures is in drawing hands. Not boasting, but I can paint some things pretty okay. Yet when it comes to hands they are either mousy little walnuts planted on a tree-trunk arm or a pack of sausage fingers on a dainty arm.
Challenge accepted. My last project was a study of hands, dancer hands holding a partner in the moment before a lift.
Soon enough, trial and error, and error and (you guessed it) error, left me pondering how many layers can you build in acrylic before it becomes a sculpture?
First they were too small, then a moment when they looked about right, only for me to add one more touch and ruin the affect. Oh well, they were still too small (did I mention scale is a devil?). Then when they start to get the right shape, I realize I’ve used too much raw umber in the mix and the dancer looks to be wearing gloves.
You find that there comes a time when your optimism for what the painting is supposed to be begins to fight with what it is, and you start to question why you picked up the brush. That and fight the urge to call this one snake-bit and chuck it in the trash. Usually that happens just before there’s a breakthrough and it all starts to come together.
That didn’t happen with the hand painting. It got worse. The scale was all wrong, the colors were bad and the hands, the whole reason for the painting, were just not working.
It’s not like fingers are that complicated; I’ve got ten right in front of me.
And then it started to come together. Find what you like about what you’ve painted. It could be a small thing. For me, it was a shadow perfectly blended to shape the ballerina’s quad. And then the dancer’s forearm fell into place. These little dominoes started clicking into place and, with a major rework or three, it came together as a nice little painting. The fingers aren’t perfect, or even good, but not a total failure.
I have no illusions that I’ll paint a masterpiece, but that was not the goal. The goal was to face the challenge, to try and keep trying until I figure it out. Sorry NASA, but failure is an option, an ever-present shadow that threatens even the best of us, but the key is to try to learn from each one.