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Welcoming Mistakes

I think that one of the best things I can allow myself as an artist is the opportunity to fail. There is a huge sense of freedom that comes with letting go of the preciousness of the unpainted panel, the stark white surface. In my own process, I work on birch panels, which I take time to prepare in a careful way. The longer it takes me to prepare the surface, the more energy I have put into it makes it more precious, as though having spent this much time on it, I had better paint something worthwhile!

We're taught in life to try not to make mistakes. But how freeing to actually try to make mistakes. In a photography book I have, called the "Tao of Photography: Seeing Beyond Seeing", by Philippe L. Gross and S.I Shapiro, one of the exercises is to go and shoot the worst photos you can. It brings a whole new outlook and a great sense of play. You lose sight of 'the product', or perfection.

When I was still in art school, I remember in an outdoor painting class, a student sitting in front of a beautiful piece of Arches Watercolor paper, completely frozen, unable to begin. The instructor came by each of us time and again to see what we were doing, to offer instruction. The student grew increasingly anxious, but couldn't begin. Finally, the instructor, in complete frustration, threw his cup of coffee on the white page. We all drew in our collective breath in horror! The student was livid. Furious! The teacher just walked away. The student eventually recovered and sat down to paint the best painting he'd done in that class. Well, what the teacher did wasn't exactly a mistake! But what he did, was destroy the 'perfection' that the student was battling.

In my work, I have found a way to allow for making mistakes. My method of painting is to cover the surface of the prepared panel with paint and then wipe away the paint to expose the light beneath...adding and subtracting until I have the image I want. But the time I can work on the paint is limited because some colours begin to dry within hours....others can stay wet for days. But working within those time constraints, I need the psychological freedom to work quickly and freely. If a painting doesn't satisfy me when it is dry I can only work back into it in a small way. I don't use white in my work so I can't work back into the whites. Once the light is gone, it's gone. My solution for this is that when the paint is dry, I do a light sanding then stretch canvas over the panel, gessoing and prepping the surface all over again.

Making mistakes is an important topic in any walk of life, in any discipline. We all make mistakes. They are necessary to learning. Taking risks is the important thing.

By welcoming mistakes in my work, I give myself the gift of freedom.

"If you have made mistakes, there is always another chance for you. You may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing we call "failure" is not the falling down, but the staying down." Mary Pickford

J.K. Rowling in her commencement address to Harvard graduates in June 2008, said that, "Some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all-in which case-you fail by default."

"It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best knows achievement and who at the worst if he fails at least fails while daring greatly so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat."

Theodore Roosevelt: From a speech given in Paris at the Sorbonne in 1910


  1. I enjoyed your post Welcoming Mistakes.
    Your reference to an exercise from the Tao of Photography reminded me of my own experience years ago in a painting class with that very same exercise. The value of that lesson was a turning point for me and one of the most important things I learned as a student.

    Our professor had us do the worst, ugliest painting we could paint. After shaking off the initial confusion about what purpose this could possibly serve, we all got into it. Paper and anything else that could be attached to canvas came out; thick, muddy colours were mixed and slathered on. It was great; we were all having a ball after all that tightness and fear. In the end what emerged were the best and, ironically, the most beautiful paintings most of us had done up until that point.
    Lesson learned and never forgotten.
    There was freedom in letting go of perfection and welcoming and embracing the chance of failure.

    There are times now when I think back on that lesson as I find myself paralyzed by a perfectly prepared birch panel or canvas or when I have painted something and am too afraid to continue it for fear of ruining it. That preciousness is the most paralyzing thing for me in the studio. Sometimes letting go and letting the painting make the decisions without the interference of my own misguided intentions in that moment in trying to produce a paintng is the saving grace of the piece and brings me to a stronger more solid place in my work.

    I enjoy your work Janice, especially the dark colours and patterning. Beautifully exquisite.


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