The Joy Of Failure — Learning To See Is Tougher Than It Looks

A stainless steel tea infuser.
Prettier than this one...Image via Wikipedia

I only have one more drawing class before this four-week session ends. This morning the teacher set up a still life so utterly daunting I sat there paralyzed while I tried — like some medieval warrior staring up at a very large castle — to figure out my point of entry.

It doesn’t sound like much: a 1940s floral print linen tablecloth, and on it a pale yellow Fiestaware teapot, a red tea tin, a dark blue mug with a spoon on top and a sterling tea-ball. Perspective! Scale! Color! All those highlights (reflections) on the glossy surfaces of the pot and mug and spoon.

The exercise was to work in primary colors: red, yellow and blue. Easy, right? Not when the yellow ceramic is soft, pale shade — and my pencils are all strong colors. I managed to get the teapot and the mug done in two hours, when the teacher finally came by to take a look.

The great thing with drawing is it’s immediately obvious when it’s lousy. The problem is — how to fix it. The pot was too small, the mug too large. There was no fixing it.

I started again. Do-over!

This time I focused only on the teapot and spent 60 minutes just on it. It was certainly recognizable as a teapot. It was just lopsided.

As the teacher helped me figure out how to do it better next time, she packed away the items, including the tea-strainer that I’d just spent three hours looking at — focused on it only as something I had to capture and portray realistically, as a problem to solve.

I hadn’t even noticed that this tiny elegant object was itself in the form of a teapot, sort of a sterling silver fractal.

“Sometimes you have to step away to see things clearly,” she said. Indeed.

The pleasure of my drawing class is that, for three hours out of my week, I get to make a big fat mess in my sketchbooks as I (re)-learn how to see and how to translate what I see into something that makes visual sense and might even be attractive. I have two stories due to The New York Times today; no “mistakes” welcome there.

Unlike much of the rest of my life, class offers me a safe place to “fail” — to try something new, to do it poorly, to take gentle and helpful instruction, to go away and think hard about why I couldn’t even see clearly that which was before my eyes for so long. My fellow students are planning to show their work soon, but I’m in no rush to join them. I don’t need or want that validation — or that pressure to do it right or well or good enough.

My lousy drawings, my “failures”, are giving me great joy. That’s plenty for now.

4 thoughts on “The Joy Of Failure — Learning To See Is Tougher Than It Looks

  1. john

    We have a sense for the discovery of beauty, and how rich is the world for those that make use of this ability. I had an art teacher once who used to say something like this to me, especially when I couldn’t get the correct shape. My only sense in art lies in the use of clay & sculpture. I have no sense at all for drawing and respect those that do. Several months ago I had the need to draw a blood drop for a project (an icon for a program) and I showed it to a companion I trusted. Mine was a flat miss-shaped approximation and so she sent me back a version she whipped up that looked three dimensional with the reflection of a light source and everything. It was gorgeous, and actually inspired me to keep trying. Sometimes a safe place to fail lies in the people you keep. I love the idea of a safe place to fail, especially in things like art and music. They always seem to be true sources of abundance for no mater how much you see and how much you hear, there is always more to be discovered, and who cares if your art is lousy? It is your art, so well done!

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    I’ve been drawing and painting since I was little and my father is very talented in a range of media. It was intimidating to see his skill until I just chilled out and began to enjoy my own less-accurate but more playful style. I’ve done sketches and paintings in Thailand and Africa and Paris and Mexico and NZ and they mean, pun intended,the world to me. I treasure those images even more than the photos I took there.

    I think in this insanely driven, “success”-focused culture, we really do need places — and people — that encourage us to take creative chances. The only creative “failure” is in not trying. And trying again. As you say, it’s about pleasure.

    It’s good to know how much you enjoyed your colleague’s talents and that it inspired you. I’m already noticing a looser hand and the nerve to paint larger images after only three weeks sitting beside a bolder artist than I in this class.

    And, as I wrote here last week — learning to see, to really look, is addictive. Tonight I watched the sky for an hour and it was totally different every 20 minutes. I wished I’d photographed it so I could try and paint it later. The final iteration, just at dusk, was spectacular, as though someone with a very wide brush had stroked a pale gray wash across the sky.

  3. john

    I think most people get intimidated when they see really great talent in the arts because they do not appreciate the process or the time it took someone to generate a decent piece. Put in words I used with my colleague, creativity is a process of constant revision. Like focusing your camera or your perception. Dali didn’t just drop something like Galatea Of The Spheres in an hour in one impossible long accurate brush stroke. He took his time, and refined it over and over and over until he saw it was done. Hell, the one we see today might have been his 10th version of it, but because all we ever see is the finished product we miss the process or the very thing you seem to describe here, which is simply the joy of being in the moment. I sincerely appreciate you sharing this experience.

  4. Caitlin Kelly

    Thanks. I grew up in an artistic family, so have watched my Dad many, many times at his easel doing a preliminary roughing-in of an oil painting and then weeks or months changing it.

    I think art — or music — or many creative endeavours are often seen as mysterious or magical or “something I could never do” — exactly because we only see the final product, and almost never see them in process. I often think of the artist’s proof, a version of an image (marked A/P) in the way I think of my essays or blog posts. Not as something I dash off without thought but often a rougher, quicker, first iteration of an idea that I will later develop, or change, upon revision and reflection.

    Taking that drawing class was scary for me, as I think I’m “good” but have been doing it with not technical training that would help me do it much better. It’s been interesting watching the teacher teach because she lets me do my thing then, quietly, points out its problems — which I see right away but don’t know how to fix.

    I love being creative and I never seem to find people who love it as much as I do, so it’s nice you’ve enjoyed hearing about it. Talking about creativity is, as they say, like dancing about architecture.

    One of my favorite books is The Creative Habit by choreographer Twyla Tharp, who is ferociously focused and driven. One of her suggestions is to put everything related to a project into one physical box. It contains the germs of what will happen and keeps it together.

    I found the early scribblings on a legal pad that turned into my first book many years later. It reminded me that we all have to start somewhere.

    The next step…that’s the scary part!

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