The Wisdom of Mistakes

Categories Blog

Sadly the lovely people at Make & Meaning have decided to call it a day, so I’m going to be reprinting the two guest articles I wrote for them. Here’s the first one:

The Wisdom Of Mistakes

Image by Orin Zebest, via Flickr

An artist who is afraid to make mistakes is an artist who is stuck.

I used to volunteer to teach art at a local primary school. Sadly, by the age of 10, the majority of children had already slipped so far into perfectionism that their ability to make art was suffering. They had a very clear peeking order of who was good at art and who wasn’t and their definition of what constituted ‘being good at art’ seemed to revolve around not making mistakes.

So I devised a little exercise.

I asked them to paint a quick, colourful picture and while it was drying, I led a class discussion. I asked them whether they thought artists made mistakes? They universally agreed that if you were an artist that meant you didn’t make many mistakes and the better you were, the fewer mistakes you would make. I explained that, in fact, the very opposite was true and that someone who wasn’t willing to make mistakes wouldn’t be a very good artist. I explained that ALL artists constantly made mistakes but that they simply saw mistakes as potential opportunities.

Then, I asked them to tear up their paintings.

Image by milomingo, via Flickr

They stared at me in horror and disbelief. ‘Rip them up’, I urged, ‘rip them up!’ Clearly still believing they would get into trouble, a few of the braver ones made tentative little rips. ‘That’s brilliant, do more’, I encouraged. Suddenly most of the class understood that they really did have permission to destroy their work and things dissolved into gleeful giggles and wild tearing. After several minutes of creative mayhem, I asked them to stop, take a few minutes to calm down and then to re-examine their pile of torn paper with a view to transforming it into a collage. The collages weren’t anything to write home about but it’s still the art lesson of which I’m proudest and in an age of constant exams and teaching to the test, I hope it stuck with at least a few of them.

“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”  ~Scott Adams

Imperfection can be the pathfinder that leads us to new places IF we are willing to let go of our ego and put our trust in the wisdom of the work.

New techniques, new directions, new ideas; mistakes open up so many possibilities.

Image by pygment_shots, via Flickr

That tricky yarn that just refuses to work with any knitting pattern – what is it trying to teach you? Patience? Not to buy that colour combination again? Or is it challenging you to come up with a new stitch pattern that will make the most of its variegated repeats?

Is the ceramic glaze that bubbles in the kiln and ‘spoils’ the pot really a disaster? Or can you repeat and refine the process until you no longer have ‘a mistake’ but a unique signature style? What sort of surface are you left with if you sand back the bubbled glaze? Or if you crack the bubbles lightly with a hammer, add another layer of glaze and refire? Can you think of ten different things to try with your ‘ruined’ pot?

The painting that went wrong might lead you to a whole new series of work if you listen to what its telling you.

Ruined pieces often lead to new directions because there’s nothing left to lose. You’ve already used the materials and many of them can’t be reclaimed: the ink won’t go back into the bottle, the paper will never be pristine again. So why not let loose with some wild experimentation – rip it up, overdye it, splash bleach on, paint over it in gesso, turn it inside out and sew beads on it! Baring freakishly bizarre crafting accidents, what’s the worst that can happen? You were going to throw it out anyway.

Image by LittleLexxis, via Flickr

Of course, all artists and craftspeople have their irredeemable failures that are fit only for the bin. The idea that seemed so great inside your head but wasn’t; the new technique that drove you up the wall; the brave attempt that was too far beyond your current skill level: our studios are stuffed with them!

But even these poor ugly objects have value. They were steps along your journey and they may have taught you far more than the pieces that went well.

Perhaps their only message is, ‘hmm, I don’t think woodworking is my thing’. But that is a very valuable lesson: now you have one less craft to master while you search for your ‘right thing’.

Or the lesson might be, “I am bad at this now but I enjoyed the process so much that I’m willing to invest the time, money and energy needed to become better.” And the second lesson might be, “so I shall keep this failed thing and in a year I’ll be able to see how far I’ve come.”

Image by carpocrates, via Flickr

“Creative people make a mess, clean it up and make another mess. There are no mistakes in art only happy little accidents.”  ~Timothy Leonard

So drag out one of your failures (come on, I know you’ve got at least one lurking!) and challenge yourself to see it with fresh enquiring eyes.

Even if it can’t be reworked, experimented with or recycled, hold it in your hands and ask it what it can teach you. Ask yourself why it didn’t work. Try to find some tiny part of it that did work, even if the whole thing is a failure. A particular piece may be beyond saving but it could still hold the answers to your current creative dilemmas.

Don’t listen to your inner critic, listen to the work. What subtle whispers have you ignored because your ego got in the way, loudly declared, ‘that’s rubbish’ and tossed the thing in the corner in disgust?

An artist humble enough to learn from their mistakes is an artist who is moving forwards.

What have you learnt from mistakes and failures? Tell me in the comments…

I am an artist & purveyor of obsessive projects based in Hebden Bridge, England. My work involves the accretion of large numbers of small objects - pins in fabric, knots in string or hundreds of envelopes - to make sculptures that deal with fragility, loss, repetition, obsession and time.

32 thoughts on “The Wisdom of Mistakes

  1. Brilliant post! As I'm one of life's more 'gung-ho' types I've had to embrace mistakes and mishaps or else I'd not make anything! One of the mantras I've created to comfort myself goes something like:

    'One unintended blob of ink / one tear / one wobbly line of stitching / one scratch might be a mistake … but three …. two of which you add on after the initial disaster …. can transform it into an intentional aesthetic design choice!' ;)

    Certainly keeps me moving forward!

    Julie [@notesonpaper]


  2. Great post. In a similar vein; if you are not prepared to take risks in your work, you won't achieve your full potential. It is vital to discover just how far you can push something, apparent 'failure' is a crucial part of success.


  3. I have only one magnet with a saying on it. I usually abhor such things! It says “Always make new mistakes”. One of the best rules for life I've ever known.


  4. What a great article. I have two kids and I hate to see what you described – the “I can't draw” and “so and so is the artist in the class”. I'd love to try this technique with them!


  5. I am a lifelong perfectionist, and it hasn't done me any favours. My mum says I was born that way, and I'm trying now to grow out of it. I probably won't ever free myself of it completely, but what I'm trying to do now is not delete and vapourise the things I create and hate. Not immediately anyway! I'm trying to keep hold of the 'mistakes' – (everything from blog posts to drawings) and in doing so I'm now finding that there's usually some little nugget of worthiness that I can dig out and work with. It's a relief, because it means nothing's wasted, and everything has value. It's a constant challenge, though!


  6. I like to call myself a recovering perfectionist. In my job I discovered that no one appreciates perfection but me. I have also found over the years that the fabrics that I felt were failures have become great in small pieces. The whole cloth didn't do it for me but when I need a small piece for a quilt, bookmark, greeting card or the like if I focus on smaller areas and they are really beautiful or perfect for what I need.


  7. How fantastic that you were able to recognise the qualities in the cloth, Diane. I find I often keep old work around for that reason, lately I've been into tearing up old drawings and sewing them together – could become a whole new series.


  8. It is a challenge, Carla, for sure. I find it helpful to put things away. Occasionally something is so bad that I'll just chuck it straight away but mostly, I stick things in a drawer or box. Eventually I'll unearth them again and then I can look at them with fresh eyes. Sometimes I'll remake or reuse pieces, sometimes I'll decide, no, that is very bad & I'll get rid of it. But I need that distance.


  9. Go for it Lesley but be prepared for the fact that some kids will have a lot of resistance to destroying their work. In that class, there were two kids that just couldn't bear to rip up their work, I had to get them to do a second painting with the knowledge that it was going to be torn up and even then one of them still found it very difficult to do.


  10. I was reading a great post from Havi Brooks recently that talked about how the only way you know where your boundaries are is by going over them, I think it's the same in art.


  11. Do you honestly believe this! Happy little accidents. Please I am so sick of this. There are people who have talent [in varying degrees] and there are people who make collages with theeir efforts. We have conned ourselves and buyers/collectors rich and poor into believing crap about crappy work being creative. Please. Give me a break! It is time we ARTISTS make a stand. We must set the bar. The day of believing the king has new clothes is over. PLEASE!!!!!


  12. Try a magnet that says Try, try again!
    Set a standard of worth and value for yourself.
    We have become far too complacent with 'whatever'.


  13. Hi Roslyn, welcome to the blog.

    You seem to be conflating my belief in the importance of being open to
    mistakes during the creative process with 'making bad work'. That is
    not what I said & it is not what i meant.

    At no point did I say that artists shouldn't constantly strive to be
    better & at no point did I say 'just put any old shit out there'. I
    was talking about being able to LEARN from the things that go wrong. I
    was talking about being able to circumvent the often stifling effects
    of perfectionism, which believe me, I am no stranger to.

    And yes, I do believe that. I find that inevitably this IS the way
    that I learn. It is often the way that new directions in my work
    develop. It's not about accepting lesser work, it's about seeing
    potential and finding things interesting.


  14. Roslyn, I find this extremely rude. You are making unwarranted
    assumptions about why k l m has that particular magnet. I don't mind
    people disagreeing with me but I will NOT have other my commentators
    treated like this.

    I will let your comment stand this time but consider yourself warned:
    if you continue with this sort of behaviour on my blog, I will ban
    you. I tolerate discussion and disagreement – I do not tolerate bad


  15. My grade-school art teacher was like you. She said that there's no such thing as a mistake to an artist, only an opportunity to be creative. I was 7 and I still remember it. She also said there was no need for an eraser (which is what started the conversation–I had a stray line on my drawing). Well, I use plenty of erasers these days but I still believe in creative accidents and the power of 'what if.'


  16. Thanks for commenting, Scraps – your teacher sounds great. Sadly a lot
    of adults have stories of crushed creativity, so it's good to hear a
    positive one.

    I should clarify that I do believe artists make plenty of mistakes &
    I'm not saying we should exhibit all our disastors. :) I certainly
    throw out as many drawings as I keep but I often rework failed
    drawings first because it allows me the freedom to experiment. And
    these reworked images sometimes end being my favourite pieces.

    However, I think that being AFRAID of making mistakes can result in
    the artist just treading water.


  17. As Mark Twain said, the best inventor is accident.

    We can only ever judge the quality of something AFTER we make it, which means we can't be afraid to make it in the first place.

    So Ros, calm yourself and go make something great. Even if it takes you a few/few hundred times to get it there. And even if the accidents aren't always happy.


  18. kirsty, what a brilliant lesson for those students! i was an art teacher for many years (all ages, all levels), so i really can relate to this post on two levels: as teacher and as artist.

    what have i learned from my mistakes and failures? that there are really no failures if you learn something from your art-making blunders. i've also learned that if you deem a painting hopeless, walk away. then go back later with fresh eyes, maybe turn it upside down/sideways, wipe away paint, whatever- and keep working on it. the outcome may be a real success. this very thing happened to me. i even entered the piece in a juried show and won a nice (cash) award. i was very glad i didn't give up on the painting. i still have it; it's a special reminder to me.


  19. Yes, I've done this before, Stephanie. I keep most of my disasters (and there are many!) for at least a couple of months because often I just need to look at them with fresh eyes. Sometimes you're too close to the creative process to be objective.


  20. Hi Kristy,

    Interesting stuff – and I totally agree.
    In fact, recently I've been intentionally creating “mistakes” in my music composition process. Specifically, I'm using random number generators, and them filtering the outputs of them and using them to drive musical sounds.

    Now, that said – I don't take the raw output and call it finished music – I use it as a way to generate a stream of ideas that I can draw from and make things from. It's a great way to get my music out of my head….

    Great post – thanks!



  21. Hi Kristy,

    Great post. I even make “mistakes” on purpose – I've been using random number generators in my music writing process – not to create finished music as much as to create a stream of ideas that I would probably not have thought of otherwise – I find it to actually be very powerful – and particularly since what I'm doing is mostly creating music for meditation, the random, drifty quality can sometimes be exactly what I'm looking for – a texture that I wouldn't know how to create any other way.

    Here's to happy accidents leading to amazing discoveries


  22. hi,
    what an interesting article that i have just chanced upon (not even sure how i got here!) – i love the idea of making them rip up the paintings, not just to purge the perfectionism but to open up new visual possibilities. i have a terrible habit of keeping everything i do (not that anything is a 'mistake', but a necessary part of the creative process), all of which goes either up on the wall or into a draw or box, to be re-evaluated or returned to at a later date. the concept of the 'happy accident' seems crucial to any creative development – think of the advancements in science and technology attributed to an unforeseen outcome! it seems to be about allowing/nurturing an open-ended process of thinking/doing to open up these possibilities, the eureka moment as it were, balanced with some critical judgement that makes it useful to pursue much further.

    great blog btw – i must endeavour to read more when i get the time!


  23. Hi Jazz, welcome to the blog. I think it's great to keep what you do. I do throw some stuff out but unless it's obviously utterly dire, I usually keep it for at least a few months first just so I can see it with fresh eyes.


  24. So… I finally made it to read this post. And I think it’s absolutely brilliant!

    Especially because I was one of those kids who, despite many artsy/crafty extra-curricular activities, was encouraged towards using what was described as my “great brain” for less creative pursuits. Apparently, those could be a hobbie, but not a career.

    So now that I’m getting back into the arts, I’m re-learning to leave aside the mind/ego that tells me it has to be perfect even before I begin.

    Your insights help. Tremendously.


    Kirsty Reply:

    Thanks Melody. I went through that same thing of being pushed towards more academic subjects. But the art won out in the end. :) And actually, having studied things like English, science and history in high school helps with my work now – a lot of my ideas come from reading non-fiction books.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.