the art of making perfect mistakes

drawing little notebook

A friend said, “One of the biggest lessons to learn in art is to proceed fearlessly and to look at things in the light of making them more right.”

Why do we allude continually to our mistakes or to those things we perceive as mistakes?  There is always the disconnect between intention and consequence.  Though one uses the word “mistake,” and it carries all sorts of negative connotations, yet we need the word, we need to make mistakes, the mistakes are just the trace of however much striving an artist went through to get to a certain place.

You can guarantee that you’ll never make mistakes. It’s very simple. Attempt only easy things.  As long as you do only those things you know you can do, you’ll never make a mistake — or hardly ever.  Attempt that which you know to be challenging and you’ll be always making mistakes.  And yet you will be always doing something new, always gaining skill and steadiness.


I have learned over the years to suspend judgement about what constitutes a “mistake.” If you press on, continually working to sharpen both your perception and your skill in putting things “where you think they are supposed to go” then interesting things can happen. There’s some editing in art — as in writing — that can wait. It’s like a wine, you have to allow it some time to cure. I draw, I put things aside to work on other drawings, and later I look at things to decide what’s what.

In any case, you cannot escape alterations between what you thought you wanted to do and what afterwards you discover you did, so you might as well plunge ahead and keep learning.

flower theater

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The flowers are growing, though not as flowers normally do.  These flowers can’t grow at all because they’re fake, but they grow in other ways than botanical. I keep going at the ideas they hold.  Each encounter reveals something new and adds promises that I hope someday to redeem.

For someone who advocates approaching art with a free spirit, contrary to my own precepts, I find that I have such a complicated notion of the flowers that I need all sorts of rehearsals.  I ought to relax!  But, goodness knows, with the price of roses and my own procrastinating ways, I am not going to spend money on real flowers.

Some artists draw from plaster casts to practice for drawing human beings and I, more timid than they, draw fake flowers to practice for someday doing real ones.  Perhaps.  Or not.  When you consider it from a different angle, there’s so much theater involved in art.  The play’s the thing — or the picture — so what difference does it make, real or fake?

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And yet the forms and colors are an entirely different kind of reality.  I get inside the world of the picture and after a while the thing perceived has disappeared.

Shoot the arrow into the air

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I am drawing studies of flowers to help me think about them. My approach to drawing has always been very simple:  you look at something, you find yourself believing that a line describes an edge or shape in “this” way, you locate the line in “this” place in your mind, so you put it there.  You are either correct or not correct, but you’ve made a choice.  The drawing that you make as you go through many similar moments of decision becomes the record of all those perceptions, all those choices.  And for that reason I also don’t subscribe to any philosophy about what structures “should” go first, or how they ought to exist on the page, for the whole point as it seems to me is that you are cataloging aspects of your own perception.

I notice things in a certain order (held secret by my cerebral cortex) and I just go with the flow, essentially putting things down in the order that I notice them.

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Well, recently I met a guy who seems to ratify my decision with a very wise saying that he whispered into my ear.  Actually I was reading a book, but he expressed the idea so magically that I figure I ought to jazz the story up some — for it was very much like a whisper.  He said:  “Shoot the air into the air, and wherever it lands call that the target.”

Here’s how that works.

You cannot guarantee anything about drawing (the same is true of life generally).  You want to make a really swell drawing, but naturally you will make many decisions that you’ll afterwards decide to describe as “mistakes.”  You might tell yourself that it would be so nice if these mistakes could somehow be avoided in advance.  But, alas, it is somehow never possible.  And yet, wise folks know that to accomplish any deed you have to learn, that learning involves making errors, and that these errors must occur if you’re ever going to achieve the goal you set for yourself.

It can be demoralizing to contemplate mistakes.  In contrast it is intriguing to contemplate ideas.  I learned one day — don’t recall when it was — that the lines I draw are ideas.  Once they became ideas even the mistakes among them sometimes became quite interesting.

You have to start somewhere.  Especially if you’ve any hope of being inventive.  So sometimes you have to just “shoot the arrow into the air.” And where it lands — well, you not only call that the target — quite honestly sometimes it IS the target.

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When in doubt, draw

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I think the best way to learn how to draw is to copy the works of great artists.  The practice of copying is better than an association with any living teacher (as wonderful as that might be) because you can learn aspects of what the great artist knew without having the great artist standing there nagging you.  (Degas does have something of a reputation, deservedly or no, for being a bit of a crank.)

Many, many years ago I began my habit of acquiring art books so that I would have good reproductions of paintings to look at, enjoy, copy, and study.  And now the internet offers an added opportunity to learn that is so amazing that it’s difficult to characterize how revolutionary it really is.

I just learned, for instance, that the National Gallery has updated their website and it’s possible to see enlargements of their paintings now online.  I made my drawing of Edgar Degas’s “Girl in Red,” using the enlargement at NGA’s website.  So I am able to peer right into Degas’s girl’s face in a way that I could never do in front of the actual painting.

sketch 1

I made some fast sketches too because I enjoy just putting down the visual ideas as they occur to me.  It’s fun.  There’s something very freeing about looking at something and taking aim.  Some people go to the Carnival and toss balls at the bucket hoping to win a prize.  I throw pen lines at a notebook, and it’s Carnival all the time.

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The image changes in subtle ways.  Your hand goes to different places.  But then too, after a while, you have all these notebooks that you open, and have these faces that look back at you.

sketch 3

I make some drawings from memory too.  I think about the image after I have spent a long time drawing it, and the memory is physical almost more than it’s visual.  I remember the image in my hand.  Sometimes I draw with my non-dominant hand, though I didn’t yesterday.  Of course it’s easier to draw with one’s dominant hand.  My right hand has many more memories than my left hand.

sketch 4

I also think it’s good to draw late at night when you are too weary to fight yourself, when you can be persuaded simply to let a drawing be what it is, when drawing and dream meld together.

Can you imagine a person at the Carnival who just kept throwing balls at the target?  Someone would not give up!  There might be a hundred balls lying about that missed the target, but he was determined to win the prize!