Van Gogh

Permission to Fail

While I was mailing a parcel the other day, the post office clerk commented on my handwriting and how readable it was. I made some reply about enjoying calligraphy and he said, "Oh yes, I tried calligraphy once but I wasn't much good."

I chuckled at the thought: like driving once and deciding to give up because you didn't make it out of the parking lot. As a necessity, driving gets more than one lesson. 

Our Expectations of Ourselves

For all artists though, professional and beginner, there is a frustration gap between what we intend to do and what we in fact produce.

If you are a hopeful sketchbook starter who hasn't drawn since grade school, you are up against a double set of expectations.

  1. You compare your efforts to others who've been drawing longer, and you are immediately discouraged.

  2. You dust off your grade-school-level skills, which themselves are rusty. Then you compare your efforts with the other adult-level skills you possess in abundance ... and declare you cannot draw. 

Of course not. Just as my teenagers can't proficiently drive the car the first time they try, as they creep in fits and starts around the grocery store parking lot. But art-making, once you put aside all the unhelpful comparisons, actually involves skills that can be learned, practiced and honed. That's good news, though reality says if you want to make progress, it will involve a lot of unsatisfactory pictures along the way. 

You need to give yourself permission to drive around the parking lot for a while, getting the feel of the vehicle. The road, and definitely the interstate, can come later.

Permission to Fail

Even top name designers do not arrive at a finished product overnight, but via a circuitous path of failure, effort and trying again.

The School of Design at Mount Ida College near Boston wanted to show their students not only polished finished products but the messy middle process. They recently put on the exhibition Permission to Fail: Sketchbooks of Graphic Designers, Illustrators, and Photographers. Fifty leaders in their field were asked to contribute rough drafts, mistakes, and thinking-it-through sketchbooks. 

Along with the sketchbooks, thumbnails, and production notes, the finished products they led to are on display. The exhibition ably demonstrates the messiness of the creative process and the importance of not giving up. And it has proved so popular, Permission to Fail has been extended through March 1.

Talent vs. Hard Work

Talent may be involved in making good art but not necessarily. In Art and Fear, authors David Bayles and Ted Orlund point out that "talent is indistinguishable, over the long run, from perseverance and lots of hard work."

This ... is about making ... ordinary art. Ordinary art means something like: all art not made by Mozart. After all, art is rarely made by Mozart-like people ... While geniuses may get made once-a-century or so, good art gets made all the time. Making art is a common and intimately human activity, filled with all the perils (and rewards) that accompany any worthwhile effort. The difficulties art-makers face are not remote and heroic, but universal and familiar.

To Get Quality, Try Quantity

In Art and Fear, the authors describe a pottery class in which the teacher divides the students into two groups. He explains that students in the first group will be graded on the quantity of pots they make. At the end of the course, the professor will bring in bathroom scales and weigh each student's total pot output: fifty pounds of pots earns an A, forty pounds a B, and so on. Students in the second group need to make only one pot. But to earn an A, that pot must be perfect.

So what happened?

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity.

While the second group mulled over the required perfection, the first got busy making and learning, making and refining, until they had, by sheer practice, improved greatly. The stalled thoughts of the perfection group did not get them anywhere.  

Your perfectionism denies you the very thing you need to get your work done.

So do not hold out for perfect. Be willing to have a go and make mistakes. You'll improve.

"Aufbaukeramik Wulsttechnik 7" by Poupou l'quourouce - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons

"Aufbaukeramik Wulsttechnik 7" by Poupou l'quourouce - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Commons

Vincent Tries Again

I am encouraged when I consider the awkward and stiff drawings produced for years by Vincent van Gogh, who of course is now known as the greatest Dutch painter since Rembrandt. I found a chronological group of them to show you.

At the age of 15, amid derailed family finances, van Gogh left school to work with his uncle at Europe's largest international art dealer, Goupil's Gallery in The Hague. By 1873, at the age of twenty, he was transferred to the company's gallery in London. Below are his London lodgings. Here he proposed to the landlady's daughter, was soundly rejected, and then fired by Goupil for stubbornness and arguing.

Vincent's Boarding House in Hackford Road, Brixton, London, c. 1873, age 20 (All works Public Domain)

View of Royal Road, Ramsgate, 1876, age 23

Above, van Gogh's drawing of this deserted Victorian English seaside town includes a wonky horizon line and unsophisticated windows.

Below, the same scene, but a more assured and pleasing—though still simple—attempt. 

View of Royal Road, Ramsgate, 1876

Back home, despite speaking four languages fluently, van Gogh refused to take the Latin entrance exam for studies to become an ordained minister, a calling he believed was his. Instead, he decided to meet the needs of the poorest, and chose to live in complete poverty among the coal miners of Belgium. And still he drew.

Miners in the Snow at Dawn, pencil sketch, 1880, age 27

In 1881, just nine years before his death, van Gogh, a failed and rejected minister, was now refused a position to continue among the miners by the mission board through whom he'd worked. He looked at the art on the walls of his miner's hut, and made a decision. He would still preach the love of God, but not through words. He would show the dignity of the poor through art. He would become an artist.

It was a seemingly impossible task but he did not give up, supported financially by his younger brother Theo, now a respected employee at Goupil's Gallery. 

Man with Saw, charcoal sketch, 1881, age 28

Peasant Sitting by the Fireplace (Worn Out), study in chalk and watercolor, 1881, age 28

Peasant Sitting by the Fireplace (Worn Out), ink and watercolor, 1881

Finally his work began to show promise, though it was not until 1885 that van Gogh painted what is considered his first masterpiece (The Potato Eaters). And it was not until 1886, just four years before his death, that van Gogh began plastering his canvases with the explosive color for which he would one day be famous. 

Van Gogh on the cusp of his greatest work; painted by his friend, Australian artist John Peter Russell in Paris, 1886

Permission to Fail

There is a vast gap between the manic and fervent desire of van Gogh to create art and my simple hope to enjoy sketchbooking. But I am encouraged to see the relentless determination to try again which characterize the pictures above. 

The process of making art is messy, frustrating and immensely worth it. The product is sometimes wonderful too. 

Be encouraged by the reality that all artists fail and have to work hard. If you would like to accept that skills take practice, and then do that practice, you will produce artwork that will improve and even satisfy.

Whatever the creative endeavor you wish you could add to your life, in 2016, give yourself permission to fail. But don't give yourself permission not to try.