This morning, Michael Epp of Bowen Island, B.C., wrote, “‘Just take away everything that doesn’t look like a horse.’ That’s what the sculptors say. Which implies that as long as you avoid all the obvious mistakes, you’ll end up with something good. By definition, perfection is merely an absence of error. Is there a list of mistakes for artists to avoid making?”
Thanks, Michael. Your note caught my attention because it had some wonderful assumptions. The horse concept is a vital one because it stresses creation by reduction, in other words the removal of material. This removal does not imply mistakes, but rather the vacuum created to disclose the horse in question. The other three prime suspects in your note are the words “good,” “perfection,” and “error.” In the art game, all are subjective and mighty arbitrary. Nevertheless, I’m on your question like a fat kid on a Smartie.
Don’t assume there is only one way. Don’t assume that mistakes are a bad thing. Don’t think for one minute that everyone agrees with what “good” is. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking perfection is attainable or even desirable. Don’t assume the existence of error. Art is not based on a catechism.
Art is something else. It is, for better or for worse, the bending of personal will. And while some artists may attempt standards such as academic standards, commercial standards or intellectual standards, there will always be significant creators who don’t give a hoot about standards at all.
The main thing you need to think about is process. Your process. Individual decisions cannot be taken from some list. They are the result of your previous moves, including your errors. They are also the result of your noted winnings. This is how you-as-a-person becomes you-as-an-artist.
Funnily, in youth, we are often rigid. We tend to think there is some secret, some Holy Grail that will have great art appear on our easels. We may even dream that fame and fortune will arise from this correctness. As we grow older, we realize just how limiting were our earlier conceptions. Art is something else. Art is fluid, transmutable, open ended, never complete, and never perfect. Art is an event.
PS: “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” (Scott Adams)
Esoterica: There are two kinds of students — recipe takers and recipe fighters. The former listen to the instructor, try to get it “right,” and often succeed in doing so. The latter strike out on their own, pay the price of rugged individualism, and fail often. In art, it’s all about failure. In art, the journey outshines the destination. In art, mistakes are golden.
Perfection is for the Borg
by Bobbo Goldberg, Orlando, FL, USA
I got stuck on that early statement: “By definition, perfection is merely an absence of error.” As if perfection, if it were objectively attainable, were only negative space! Surely something that strikes the mind and heart as perfect is much more than error-free. Some errors take mere competence and render an emotional perfection. The 1933 version of King Kong, groundbreaking in its day, is full of technical “errors” by today’s standards. Yet it outshines the visual “perfection” of the Peter Jackson version, because it displays a simplicity, a heart, an archetypal rootedness rare in any work of art. Perfection is for the Borg. We humans thrive on those deviations from what Robert calls standards, those dissonances that sweeten the harmony, the mistakes that touch us into companionship and confusion, discovery and delight. Perfection need not exist for there to be perfect moments between the artist and the art, or between the art and the audience. It’s a collaboration, and no sum of its mere parts (or difference following subtraction) will ever nail it down.
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Evoking the mystery
by Georgianne Fastaia, San Francisco, CA, USA
I believe that to make art with all the questions answered deprives the viewer of the joy of participating in the act of creation. I believe the self balances tenuously in the ambiguous, misunderstood spaces between people. Exploring the fragility of our connection to each other is the reason I make art.
The primary subject of my work is the existential condition. I use abstracted forms to explore the movement between the joy of kinship and our ultimate aloneness. Self-taught, the choices I make in creating each painting, exploring the border between figuration and abstraction, serve my subject: I want the viewer to feel unsure, pulled into the painting’s surface and left with questions.
My work is informed by the desire to “transform the mistake.” In my process, I re-use old canvases working into layers of paint, actively damaging and rebuilding the surface to give each a “history.” Through this process I seek to express a more authentic concept of beauty while striving to make paintings which retain an evocation of mystery.
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Painting in ‘the zone’
by John Pryce, Uxbridge, ON, Canada
One of my observations as a painter and teacher of art is the difficulty I have in explaining the creative process. It is particularly difficult to explain this phenomenon to people that have better developed the left side of the brain and need a logical reason for everything. The main reason that I cannot adequately explain the creative process is because I do not understand it myself. All I know is when I am in “The Zone,” that’s when things just “Happen.” This probably is due in part to the many years of practicing the basics, drawing, composition and colour mixing which are likely stored in the left side of the brain. This gives freedom to the right side functions which is more emotion based and is more likely to take chances with colour and brushwork. Interestingly your comments about the Horse is in line with my observations about painting the negative spaces and seeing what comes from it. It is a good practise to take note of those wonderful accidents and we may eventually develop a vocabulary of shapes, brushwork and color combinations that are unique to you. In Art, as in life, it seems “The most wonderful things happen when we least expect it.”
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by Candice Edwards, Turner Valley, AB, Canada
Your letter reminded me of the many discussions I have been involved with over the years regarding “What is art?” It also reminded me of the definition I was given by a drawing instructor I once had. She refined the discussion we were having in class down to the comment, “Art is always sincere.” I think sometimes, as artists, we spend too much time worrying about outside criteria, judgements, whatever, and we forget to go with what we are sincerely trying to create — which doesn’t mean it is good, bad or indifferent but, if it is at least sincere, it becomes an important and valuable part of the journey of our own art.
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Art neither wrong nor right
by Mike Young, Oakville, ON, Canada
Mistakes suggest wrongness. An Art piece cannot be wrong, or right. It can be liked or disliked, but that is not right or wrong. It can be poorly executed or well done, but this does not make it wrong or right. Art works simply are. There are no absolutes in Art.
I am reminded of Magritte’s This is not a Pipe. It is a painting. Only a pipe is a pipe. Then there is sculpture. A horse is a horse. A sculpture of a horse is a sculpture. And so on. None are wrong.
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Finding creative focus
by Marion Barnett, UK
I think it’s useful to arm ourselves with words, the evidence that other people have been there, done that, and found it hard (but not impossible). My favourite quote, though I don’t have an attribution, it’s one of these things that gets passed from mouth to mouth… ‘Perfection is the best you can do on the day.’ I recently wrote a book about finding your creative focus, and perfectionism, surprise surprise, got a bad press, along with procrastination. Both of which come from the same place, I think, a fear of some kind. And as my teacher said…’the secret is, there is no secret. There is only turning up and doing the work, every day, without fail.’
by Elizabeth Patterson, Hollis Center, ME, USA
Your last couple of sentences really struck a chord with me: “Art is fluid, transmutable, open ended, never complete, and never perfect. Art is an event.” These words could serve me well as an affirmation, spoken each time I declare a painting “done.” For me, working in a realistic… but not photo-realistic style, choosing a stopping point is not a clearly defined thing, but more dictated by a gut feeling. What I have come to realize is, once the piece itself gives me the same feeling that viewing (and being inspired by) the actual subject gave me in the first place, there really is not much more to be done.
The event is the joyful sharing of my perception, made even more joyful when others see and appreciate that imperfect, transmutable perception!
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Mistakes are golden
by Louise Francke, NC, USA
I always enjoyed printmaking because surprises ascend out of mistakes more readily than they do in painting which is more direct. When my children were young, I wouldn’t allow them to throw away a drawing with mistakes. My advice was, and is, make your mistakes work. Guess I follow my own advice and the infamous quote “Art is anything you can get away with.” Art for me is pushing the psychological and individual boundaries, testing and breaking the rules. There is no right or wrong. It’s just what works and what doesn’t in the mind’s eye. Sometimes we don’t even see it until months have passed.
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The artist’s perfection
by Mary Susan Vaughn, Charlotte, NC, USA
Although Art is subjective, and what is considered “good” or “masterful” art is what artists aim to achieve, I believe that if I, the artist, am not satisfied with the result as I want it to be, then I have to learn how to achieve that result. That is how we, as artists, grow. We reach out to other artists, living and past, who are telling us what it is we wish to know about attaining a certain “perfect” result in our paintings — even if that “perfect” result is our own opinion, that is what we aim to achieve. The mistakes are the ones that take away from the result we want to achieve. Every mistake and every perfection is as individual as the artist.
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Experiments in creativity
by Nina Allen Freeman, Tallahassee, FL, USA
When I was younger, I thought I would find a style or subject that I could rely on to sell and keep painting it endlessly. While on the side I could experiment with other media. I did find some paintings that served this purpose, but I finally realized that this is not me. I am bored painting anything endlessly. In fact, I change media and techniques so often I have no consistency — talk about your fluid and open-ended! As a result, I do experience failure a lot.
Your comments about process really hit home with me. I see this all as a process of my growth as an artist. Over the years, I have been learning what I can do and what I am made of. My experiments in creativity are bringing me slowly around to be that artist I am meant to be. Maybe the process of painting, experimenting, failure and success continues until I am no longer able to paint, never knowing where it will end.
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by Sandy Sandy
“Don’t assume there is only one way. Don’t assume that mistakes are a bad thing. Don’t think for one minute that everyone agrees with what “good” is.” ~ Robert Genn
WE All, as human beings and artists, learn from our mistakes. If you’re afraid to make them, you’ll never grow and evolve. Many, many paintings are redo’s of the previous one or an echo of, or a lesson from the past.
“As we grow older, we realize just how limiting were our earlier conceptions. Art is something else. Art is fluid, transmutable, open ended, never complete, and never perfect. Art is an event.” ~ Robert Genn
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Jill Brooks of MB, Canada, who wrote, “That was a great column with which to start off the week! Think of perfection as an affront to the gods and do away with it as a goal. Replication could also be jettisoned. T R A N S F O R M A T I O N is a much more fruitful and exciting objective!”
And also Roxanne Dyer, who wrote, “Often, I try to explain to my design students how important it is to make mistakes, and that failure is necessary and can be very liberating.”
And also Richard Mason of Pittstown, NJ, USA, who wrote, “Amen, or as the fat kid with the Smartie said, that was good…”
Enjoy the past comments below for A list of mistakes…