As an artist, failure is something you need to learn to be comfortable with. The creative process is full of ebbs and flows and breakthroughs and setbacks. "Failure" is a pretty scary word to most people. It evokes feelings of disappointment, embarrassment, and time wasted. These feelings are valid, and failures can cause huge setbacks, especially if money was invested in the project that failed. We live in times where there seems to be no in-between for the discussion of failures. On one hand, there is the overly curated world of Instagram influencers who never make a wrong stroke in a painting and have sketchbooks full of fully realized, colorful drawings that could be put right into a best-selling comic book. Then there are those out there that see failing at something akin to never being successful. They may attempt to start a new method of creation but give up when the first outcomes are not deemed worthy of praise or publication. These people usually abandon any kind of creative activity because the reality of failure is outside of their comfort zone.
Many people believe that artists have an innate talent to create beautiful work. This is true in some cases, but it is definitely the exception and not the rule. It is easy to compare ourselves to others especially now. But what I try to preach in these times is embodied by the quote, “the master has failed more than the novice has even attempted”. And to add, “we don’t see the thousands of failures and toils behind the stroke of the master’s hand”. People that become the masters are those that can persevere through failures, mistakes, and look at their work with a critical eye. They stay humble in the face of criticism and seek to learn more. The only comparison the master is guilty of is comparison to his last work. David Bayles says in Art and Fear, “You make good work by (among other things) making lots of work that isn't very good, and gradually weeding out the parts that aren't good, the parts that aren't yours. It's called feedback, and it's the most direct route to learning about your own vision. It's also called doing your work. After all, someone has to do your work, and you're the closest person around.”
So how can we help to cultivate this mindset in students? Especially in school settings where they are constantly graded, compared to one another, shoe-horned into tight criteria and rubrics, and encouraged to compete with one another. There isn’t a lot of room for genuine growth. Those that can do the thing right away are the ones rewarded while those that struggle with mistakes are punished. It makes for a self-fulfilling prophecy where students who were initially interested but needed to fail more times than others eventually become disinterested in the task at hand, effectively failing altogether. I have discovered a few ideas that I feel cultivate an environment where failure is a necessary part of the creative process and even celebrated.
Be an example of failure.
This sounds counterintuitive and is something that is difficult to understand at first. I believe every art teacher should be an example of failure. I think that art teachers should make mistakes during direct instruction drawings and narrate how they correct them. At the Art of Education Winter 2019 Conference, Nick Gehl discussed that art teachers should help students to view artmaking not as a linear process but as a series of little mistakes that are corrected in succession. This was like an epiphany to me. What if I show my students a positive example of failure and narrate my own failures during my direct instruction? First of all, this took tremendous pressure off of me to make “perfect” direct instruction drawings and it gave students confidence to make mistakes. Each mistake is correctable. It also took the pressure off students to get their marks right the first time. They say me changing marks several times and this allowed them to do so.
Ask students about their failures.
Cultivate a conversation around failures in the classroom. Students are used to being graded or punished for their mistakes in school. Art teachers have a unique opportunity to reframe students’ beliefs about mistakes. Every mistake should be honored as an attempt to try something new. Teachers can discuss mistakes in their own work that led to new opportunities for their artwork. Teachers can engage students in discussion about their mistakes. This is especially helpful in showing that everyone has made a mistake at some point in their artistic journey, even proficient artists. Students can also write reflections about their mistakes and how they addressed them in their artmaking process. This helps them be metacognitive about their artmaking process, drawing attention to how students overcome obstacles in their work. This positive reinforcement will result in students taking more creative risks in their work.
Give broader opportunities for student success.
Nick Gehl discussed this idea in his Art of Education Winter 2019 Conference presentation. He said creating a lot of criteria for an art assignments gives students a smaller range of ways to succeed. If they have to consider value, composition, lighting, mark making, and scale, they need to get many things correct in order to receive a top grade on an assignment. What if we distilled assignments down to their essence, what do we open up for students? Multiple pathways for success, more creative choice on assignments, and more engagement as they see their success recognized. It is difficult to distill art projects down to the one or two skills that students really should be mastering. Projects often combine multiple skills and educators must recognize that students are at various levels of development within an art classroom. Giving students fewer criteria gives students broader opportunities for success.
Recognize the evolution of an artist.
There is a misconception about artists and their process. Many people believe that artists are all naturally talented and creating work comes easy and they can churn out masterpiece after masterpiece. In reality, artists toil over their work, almost obsessively, and create much, much more work than they show. Picasso created over 100 versions of his painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Hilma af Klint filled hundreds of sketchbooks with compositions that never became fully realized paintings. I myself have grown from a child artist and gained more skill in my artmaking as I practiced. Sharing this evolution with students is a key component of reframing their feelings about failure. I like to show students work that I’ve done years ago and show my evolution to my current work, especially with drawing. Teachers can also highlight this by keeping a log or GoogleDrive of student work to track their improvement over a year in the art room. I love the idea of having end-of-year conferences with students and highlighting the ways their skills have grown. This simple conference has the potential to change their feelings about failure for years to come.
As an artist, I am constantly confronting my own feelings about failure. Social media has made a big impact on the way I view my art and artmaking process. It is easy to compare myself to others and to see their successes with engagement as my failure. But I have learned to step away from that feeling and reframe it in another way. I would never want my fear of not making a perfect piece of art stop me from creating anything at all. There is also a stigma surrounding the idea of monetary value of art. I have sometimes felt like a failure for not selling any work at shows when artists around me are selling like hot cakes. Again, it helps to remind myself that monetary success is a cherry on top of my art and I feel blessed that my art doesn’t need to be my source of income. That really takes the pressure off myself to create things that other people like and create what resonates with me. I still struggle with these feelings of failure at times. It’s an ongoing process in my artistic practice and I have a long way to go. However, I believe having an open discussion about our feelings of failure and shortcomings can make room for a new conversation to be had and to reframe these negative feelings into something that is not only positive but pushes my art to the next level.
How do you deal with failure either in your own art practice or in your art classroom? Is it a topic you discuss or confront? I would love to hear your ideas for accepting this necessary evil in our practices. - Sierra