In Peter Sims’ book, Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries, we see the value of making lots of small failures as a way to get to large successes. While Peter’s book is mainly aimed at entrepreneurs, it’s also of real value to us regular creative types. These days, cutting-edge gurus are passing the word around: “Fail often in order to succeed sooner.”
But not everyone is pickin’ up what these experts are puttin’ down. Working from a dated model, many art schools currently expect foundation students to produce two or three major works per semester. The results are often big, poorly-conceived mishmashes of questionable value — either as vehicles for learning or as fine art. On the other hand, when students are encouraged to do volumes of small items they become accepting — even proud — of their failures and are more readily able to move on to ideas that work better for them. Simply put and perhaps surprisingly, less commitment widens opportunity. In a hundred small bets, a dozen or so often ring the bells. With this shotgun effect, even beginners are seen to produce gems. As the lady said, “It’s better to have a small diamond than a large piece of glass.”
Here are a few ideas for artists who might wish to quicken their progress:
— Prepare a hundred or more similar-sized small supports.
— Choose a subject, motif or series you feel has legs.
— Start bashing off everything that comes into your head, no matter how glib. Stretch your mind.
— Abandon bad ideas in a timely way. Don’t waste too much time or get hung-up on outright duds.
— Go from one to the other like a bee goes to flowers. Cross pollinate. Ideas breed ideas. Quality breeds quality.
— Keep your strokes fresh, creative and confident — then both you and your work will become fresh, creative and confident.
— Be always in a state of rejection and acceptance. Steadily sort your work like a deck of cards. To win — to get to the stuff that’s really worth enlarging — to evolve — you gotta love the little-bets game.
PS: “Life is an experiment where failure teaches as much as success.” (Peter Sims)
Esoterica: Curiously, in a world where imagination rules, roadblocks to the free flow of imagination are commonplace. Andrew Smith, author of The Dragonfly Effect wrote, “Incorporating core tenets of design thinking as practiced at Stanford University’s Design School, Little Bets shows us that many of the things we observe today as great are the result not so much of brilliance but of diligence, humility and empathy. Prior to building something great, it isn’t necessary (or even useful) to have a brilliant, buttoned-down plan, researched to exclude potential errors and risks.”
Loving art again
by Daniela Andersen, Sydney, Australia
Three years out of Art College where we worked, as you say, “doing gargantuan major works” (one would not even fit in the car) in limited time, I’ve discovered this style of learning which you mention in Little Bets. Not only do I now love art and find its exploration exciting again, but I am making the most marvelous color mix discoveries, with a few little gems among a pile of… less precious little works, and have time to travel this road of learning.
The freedom of little bets
by Melanie Peter, Gainesville, FL, USA
“Unit construction” is a term my husband uses for making jewelry. A chain is a good example. If a link doesn’t turn out well, it’s melted down or saved for a future project.
I painted more than 150 night scenes (oil on linen 8″ x 10″) since 2009. Fifty of them are an image mosaic that sold to a private collector; fifteen sold individually. Fifty-six are on exhibit at a gallery. Thirty were discarded and a few might become experiments. “Unit construction” paintings relieve me of egotism or perfectionism. A painting does not have to be a “significant” work. It can be simply an adventure. If I refuse to take each painting too seriously I have much more fun and, interestingly, more energy. I hate to stop working. And I don’t have to worry about wasting paint and time. I gain so much freedom from such little bets!
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Daily painting movement
by Kimberly Santini, Lake Orion, MI, USA
I propose that the concept of growth from many small failures is one of the main principles driving the current popularity of the daily painting movement. Making decisions – whether they be right or wrong – on a daily basis and a much smaller scale allowed me to wise up far more quickly than what a traditional path of larger paintings provided.
Five years ago I challenged myself to paint pet portraits on a daily basis, moving from my literally “Larger than Life” series to an intimate scale that better facilitated experimentation and growth. Over 1000 paintings later, I’m going strong with the dailies, painting smarter (still with failures, just of a more advanced kind), and building the confidence reflected in my brushwork and compositions. I don’t know that I would have reached this plateau at this point in my career without the discipline mandated by the project, and the knowledge that, regardless of what came off the easel today, tomorrow is always a do-over with a fresh panel and palette.
by Faith Puleston, Herdecke, Germany
Your letter reminded me of the book you recommended in 2008: Free Play: Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts by Stephen Nachmanovitch. The book starts with the story of a boy who wants to play the violin like the master he has heard and is constantly being advised by the master to go back and practice the same simple tune over and over again, which he finds very tedious. Then one day when he is playing it someone listening shouts that he is now the master. That’s a very reduced version of the story, but it does send a sound message to all who want to run before they can walk.
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Use of a timer in workshops
by Brenda Swenson, South Pasadena, CA, USA
I find some artists/students get so hung up on the end product that they can’t even begin. It is so important to keep moving forward, and make lots of small discoveries! I always start my workshops with warm-ups. When students arrive (especially the first day) I find they are hurried, tense and very self-conscious. This isn’t the mindset to be creative. My solution is using a timer. We start with multiple drawing exercises (3 minutes) and quickly move into color. The timer has a way of keeping the group focused and moving forward. It is amazing to see how quickly the group begins to relax and laugh. It only takes 20 minutes or less to feel the energy in the room become positive and creative. This is when get things begin to happen!
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Every day sketches
by Janet Austin, East Greenwich, RI, USA
I love this! Last year I kept a Tapestry Diary, in which I wove a small shape every day for a year. This year I’m keeping a Sketch Diary, and decided I did not want to feel like I had to produce a masterpiece every day, so I am using large sheets of paper, ruled into small blocks. Every day is a 4.25 x 4.5 inch square and there are 20 on each page. That makes it easy to ignore the sketches that don’t “succeed,” because each one is only 1/20th of the page, and 1/365th of the year.
Looking back at last year’s Tapestry Diary, I learned so much from it, and it contains so many good ideas for future tapestries. The same thing is happening with the sketch diary. It’s a great way to generate ideas, almost like brain-storming. I don’t allow myself to over-think what I’m doing. Although I choose a theme for each page, I try to approach each day’s sketch in a very spontaneous way, work quickly, and try to suspend my judgment as much as possible. By the way, I remember hearing a story on NPR years ago, about an inventor. He said it took about 100 ideas to find one that might be good, and then 100 good ideas to find one that would actually be marketable. He had worked in the research division of Apple, and one day his boss said “You guys are not failing enough. If you don’t fail at least 75% of the time, you’re not on the cutting edge!”
If you only have one big piece, it’s hard to take chances because the consequences of failure are unacceptable. If you have 100 pieces and fail 75% of the time you still have 25 successes!
by Bill McLaughlin, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Currently I am working on a canvas 24 x 48 inches of three university students, the kids of an elementary school teacher friend. I am relying on photographs. The composition of the painting features them together in winter skating gear with the Rideau Canal and Chateau Laurier in the faded background. When they smile they show a lot of teeth but when they attempt to keep their mouths closed their features and characters seem to disappear. They are in the prominent foreground with just head and shoulders. From your extensive experiences in art would you share your views on the benefits of painting radiant smiles, including teeth. From all my reference books of monsieur Renoir’s work I do not see any teeth. Any suggestions?
(RG note) Thanks, Bill. It’s conventional not to show teeth in portraits. This may have arisen in the early days when even beautiful young people often had crooked ones. Goodness knows what Mona Lisa’s were like. We never see George Washington’s wooden ones either. I’ve noticed in live model sessions, both the model and the artist start to feel uncomfortable when a mouth is asked to be left in the open position. As in the unpleasantness of the dental chair, there tends to be unmanageable drool. Further, an open mouth in a painting is generally a sure sign the work was done from a photo. So, by all means, be unconventional. Do what you want.
Take off to unknown destinations
by Gwen Ontiveros
I live in a small valley on the Pacific Ocean (pop 300) where I’ve been invisible here behind the redwood curtain. Having been a virtual hermit for the past decade plus, I am now on the verge of leaping out in big way (for me) by taking a trip to unknown destinations, seeking inspiration, zest, and exposure. I’ll be documenting my trip with paintings, photos and a blog. I’m taking my wide-format printer and will be offering cards, prints and originals. It is my plan to finance my travels with what I sell. I want to do all I can do to make this trip a huge success. I’m gleefully looking forward to it! I’ll be contacting groupings of artists wherever I go, as well as publications that follow artistic interests. At the present time, I’m working on 8 paintings that will be a 360 from what I normally do.
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Show the man how to fish
by Bill Skrips, Blairstown, NJ, USA
Guess I’m not the first to say this, but it occurs to me that you are one of the best teachers I’ve ever had — many of our thoughts are similar, but you give them voice and therefore a chance to re-emerge and again see the light of day. Frankly, I’m jealous. Although I’ve started writing short stories, the idea of “bringing the light” to so many artists whether they are old hacks, young upstarts or Sunday worker-types is the best. I can say that some of my happiest and most gratifying moments have been at shows when people “get” what I’m after and maybe even say that they are going home and going straight to work. What is that old phrase about showing a man how to fish?
Enjoy the past comments below for Little bets…
Mirabeau Bridge at Dusk
watercolor painting, 15 x 22 inches
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 Terry Stevens of Bolton, ON, Canada, who wrote, “Real art is Love’s impulse.”
And also Arno Segatini of Pisa, Italy, who wrote, “Little paintings find the big painting within.”
And also Debra LePage who wrote, “Working small removes the fear factor, resulting in more happy accidents.”
And also James Keith Lanier who wrote, “I’ve embraced failure as my soul bareth right. Must be onto something so incredibly huge, it’s ridiculous. Let me quick, get back to the failing!”