In Art, Failure is Good

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The back of my head as I work diligently to paint my model.

Art is a discipline. Like every other subject worth studying, like every skill worth honing, it’s possible to fail.

For some reason,  the average person treats the arts (take this to mean writing, painting, sculpting etc.) as a a vehicle for their own personal validation. If one bothers to paint, praise is expected no matter the result.

The Italian painters in Florence have no time for such sensitive souls. If a student botches the drawing stage and moves on to paint over the top of it, they accuse that student of “polishing a turd.” Vulgar and harsh, but true. Drawing does all the work and painting gets all of the glory. The artist I studied with these past two weeks revealed to us that each of her paintings went through several rough drafts before she got it right. She’s an award-winning realist oil painter, and she fails all the time. The analogy to the writing process deserves some bearing out, I think: each story goes through multiple drafts, feedback is sought out and absorbed. In the end, the result is a work of art, or something set for the trunk.

Failure.

There’s such a stigma around failure. It’s so painful, but so necessary. I think the confusion is here: we conflate artistic skill with individual creativity. The skills involved in painting, the ability to think three steps ahead, to compose and set the color are tools set to the purpose of the creative vision. There are tools and there are standards, and these things must be learned. What each artist does with these skills is what’s unique.

Criticism is personal because my art isn’t something I can objectively separate myself  from. It’s ironic that this discipline requires a thick skin while demanding that I rip my heart out, splatter it all over a canvas or a page, in order to show others a vision I think is worthwhile.

Now I come to it:, I failed to complete my first portrait from a live model. I don’t feel bad about that. I know more than I did two weeks ago. My brain is exploding with new information: I’ve developed instincts, learned how to solve problems, learned how to be more deliberate with every stroke. I’ve learned how to fail.

And I feel just great about that.

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Stages of the portrait: Drawing, Underpainting, First Pass, Full Color

Art and Writing and Latin, Oh My!

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“After the Bacchanal” 9 x 12 Oil on linen

I’m prepping for an eventful summer full of painting, writing, and Latin translation!

I finished a still life (pictured above) in oils this week, hit 30k on the Fantasy novel (planning for 100k), and secured a Latin teaching position starting this fall that I’ll be prepping for.

Fiction writing is a slow business, but I have some good news to report on that front. I recently signed a contract with The Daily Science Fiction, and have a piece forthcoming this year. Every other story I’ve sent out is being held for consideration, so here I sit. Nothing to do but research for the novel and add to the word count! Wait, write another story, you say? HA!

I’m still reviewing short fiction for Tangent Online, and this May I reviewed Beneath Ceaseless Skies’ May 10th and May 24th stories. That magazine is one of my favorites. I envy people who can weave pretty prose.

I’m still painting, and the gallery is updated with recent works. I’m thinking about selling prints soon, and it’s turning out to be a rather complicated pursuit. This July I will be painting my first full size portrait under the tutelage of an artist who studied in Florence. I am intimidated but eager for the challenge. Excelsior!

In personal news, my children are growing like weeds. I gave them no such permission, the curs. My youngest turned 2 this month, and now I fight a trembling lip whenever I see her baby pictures. I was in a car crash yesterday, and while unhurt, I’m reminded keenly of my mortality.

It all goes by so quickly. Onward in virtue.

Why do People Treat Art Differently?

Learning a traditional method is hard: I spent six months on a graphite value scale where I had to master my darkest dark and get progressively lighter until nothing was left but the white of the paper. Six. Months. I have to do this every time I use a different medium and every time I decided to use a different kind of paper, and this has to be done before attempting a drawing.

Example of Value scale in charcoal

Example of Value scale in charcoal

Now, maybe I’m running into the wrong people, but art students can spot each other a mile away in the city. (It has something to do with carrying a large bag that’s holding 18 x 20 art board I guess!) Whenever I tell people what I’m working on, the reactions are usually in the following category:

“That sounds too hard!”

“Ick, I wouldn’t want to be bad at something before getting good.”

“I can’t take criticism. Art is subjective.”

Now, I’m sorry, but nobody would say this about music. If someone is in music school, and they tell you they are practicing their scales so many hours a day, we consider that right and noble. Once a musician learns the basics, internalizes them with HOURS of practice she then moves on to performing pieces composed by masters before branching out and experimenting with her own creativity. Art is the same: learn value, form, shadow-shapes, measuring, big form modeling, and then move on to master copies so that you can learn to solve the problems the great artists did.

You don’t just get to buy cheap acrylics and a canvas and decide you’re the next Kandinsky by pure power of the will. It’s so arrogant!