Updated: Mar 5, 2019
I’ve got a confession to make. I am not a talented artist. Talent is something you’re born with, and trust me when I tell you, I was not born with a talent for painting. And yet here I am, three years into a pretty successful run with my own YouTube painting tutorial channel and earning a living from my art. So, what’s my secret? It’s simple! I’m not afraid to “fail.”
Note: “Fail,” “failing,” and “failure” are different than fail, failing, and failure. But don’t be confused; we’ll go over that in a few minutes.
The fact of the matter is, anyone can learn how to paint. The only thing that’s required is the willingness to try, the willingness to learn from your mistakes, and the diligence to practice something over and over until you’re satisfied with the outcome. So many of us want to grab a paintbrush, sit down, and paint a masterpiece all in one go. If we “fail” at that, we feel like it’s the end of the world. But I’m here to tell you that “failure” is NOT the end of the line! Quite the opposite. “Failure” is actually the beginning of your learning experience!
Let’s think about it with an analogy.
When you were a very small child, just learning how to walk, did you fall down a few times? Did falling down the first or the 50th time mean that you were just no good at walking and should give up? (Hint: the answer is no.)
Even after you’ve learned how to walk and feel like an old pro at it, do you occasionally trip, stumble, or fall down altogether? If you're Mr. Jane (aka Vince), the answer is an emphatic YES! Does that mean that you never learned to walk properly and you should probably just stop trying to do it because you’re not very good at it even though you’ve been doing it for years by now? (Hint: the answer to that run-on sentence is also no.)
Now think about anything else that you’ve ever learned how to do, whether it was something necessary to your development or survival or whether it was something you just wanted to learn how to do, and ask yourself this: Did you expect to nail it on the first try, or did you expect to have to practice and have “failed” attempts? Why is making art any different?
As an artist, you can’t be afraid to make mistakes. Mistakes aren’t just ok--they’re imperative! I always say that the only way to learn how to do something right is by doing it wrong. That means each "failure" is an opportunity to learn something new! How exciting is that!? By continuing to try and doing it wrong even more, you’ll eventually figure out the right way to do it (which is a whole ‘nother topic, because what’s the right way for one person might be the wrong way for someone else, and that’s ok!). Not only will you figure out the right way, but you’ll gain something SO vastly important, and SO incredibly undervalued: experience.
Honestly, the answer to just about any question I get asked on a daily basis can be boiled down to a single answer: experience.
Q: How do you know what color to use for an underpainting?
Q: How do you know which brush to use?
Q: How do you know what colors to mix and in what proportions to get a certain color?
Q: How did you learn how to paint clouds?
Being willing to make mistakes and “fail” can take you to places you’d never otherwise get! And you never know when a mistake you’re about to make is going to end up being one of the biggest and most important learning experiences of your artistic life! But it really depends on the attitude you have when those mistakes happen. You have to analyze it. Throwing your brushes across the room and your canvas in the trash will never be helpful. In fact, the way you deal with mistakes is the defining difference between “failure” and failure. “Failure” means you did it wrong but you keep trying so that you can gain experience and eventually get it right. Failure means you did it wrong and gave up. Giving up is the only true way you can fail. So, instead of giving up, ask yourself these questions:
What about it is wrong? Was the line too wide? Was the color wrong? Was your perspective off? Figure out exactly what you don’t like about what you did, and then focus on gaining experience in that technique.
Would that result be useful in another painting? Maybe what you did isn’t right for the painting you’re working on, but maybe it could be useful in another way! Identify what it was you did, and then do it again! Some of my favorite techniques and color combinations are the result of “failing” while attempting something else!
Finally, I want you to remember that “failure” is a necessary part of growth. And I’m not just talking about growth in art, but growth in life, too! If you can name one person in history who nailed their life’s work on the first try, no mistakes, I’ll show you someone whose story probably isn’t very compelling. I mean, where’s the glory in stepping up to bat and knocking it out of the park every time? Give me the people who overcome adversity any day over those who do things with effortless ease. Van Gogh sold only one painting in his entire life; Walt Disney was once fired from a job for lacking creativity; Abraham Lincoln "failed" in business and politics before becoming one of the most important presidents in American history. These are the kinds of people I look up to, and if “failing” over and over is good enough for them, well, friends, it’s good enough for me too.