A long time ago, when I ran evening classes at the local college, I taught a student who only ever worked on scraps of paper.
Bernice could draw well, was blessed with a good sense of composition and colour and had an enviably loose style, but her pictures never quite came off. Every week, she would sigh and fret over them and castigate herself for being such a poor artist – or rail at me for not explaining things properly!
“Don’t blame me,” I’d say, “Blame your paper.”
“Not that again!” Bernice would retort.
We’d look down at her latest ‘failure,’ painted on some frayed and yellowing remnant (quite possibly filched from the bottom of her daughter’s school bag), with a crease down the middle and another painting on the back.
“Until you start working on a decent surface, Bernice, you’re never going to get a good result.”
“I told you, I’m not wasting money on decent paper!” Bernice would reply, irritably.
“It’s not a waste,” I’d say.
“It is until I’m good enough!”
“But you won’t be good enough until you do,” I’d insist.
“That may be so, but I’m not spending any money on decent paper until I’m a better painter,” came the inevitable response, “Look, it’s awful!”
And it was awful.
It was awful that Bernice wasted so much time and effort on something that was bound to fail. It was awful that every week, she sabotaged her art because she couldn’t give herself any credit for her ability. And it was awful that she was so consistently unkind to herself that that unkindness emanated from her like a cloud.
The work itself had potential, but Bernice never gave it (or herself) a chance.
We all of us have some sympathy with Bernice. Failure may always be at the back of our minds when we embark on a painting. And perhaps it was fear of failure that drove Bernice to try so hard, yet at the same time, take so little trouble over the essentials of her craft. For the writer, Samuel Beckett, failure was central to his:
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Sometimes, students will ask me, ‘Should I scrap this and start again?’ to which I reply that starting again is an impossibility. Once you have embarked on your creative idea, there is no going back; your ‘failure’ (for want of a better word) has moved you on to another place already. True failure occurs only when you refuse to learn from your mistakes, but if you can summon the courage to confront even your most eye-wateringly dreadful work, you can gain valuable insights into improving your practise.
Don’t miss two opportunities to fail better with me this summer!
Moorbath Creative Utopian Retreats
Visit the Art Holidays pages