Little bets

Dear Artist, 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. Best regards, Robert 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  

“Boat in yard”
oil painting
by Melanie Peter

“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! There are 2 comments for The freedom of little bets by Melanie Peter
From: Jackie Knott — Apr 29, 2011

You have a delicacy in your values that is impressive. Such devotion to producing so many night scenes no doubt contributed to your handling of that with such skill. There’s a lesson there ….

From: Patsy, Northern Ireland — May 01, 2011

Do I see 10,000 hours here? ;-) Absolutely beautiful. Reminds me of the holiday cabins we saw along Lake Erie, not far from Port Dover, back in 2006.

  Daily painting movement by Kimberly Santini, Lake Orion, MI, USA  

“Ewe + two”
watercolour painting
by Kimberly Santini

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.   Free play by Faith Puleston, Herdecke, Germany  

oil painting
by Faith Puleston

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.     There is 1 comment for Free play by Faith Puleston
From: Tatjana — Apr 29, 2011

Good story, I think that we learn to walk because we want to run.

  Use of a timer in workshops by Brenda Swenson, South Pasadena, CA, USA  

“Forbidden Fruit”
watercolour painting
by Brenda Swenson

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!   There are 2 comments for Use of a timer in workshops by Brenda Swenson
From: Peter Eedy — Apr 29, 2011

Hi Brenda I’m not surprised your students respond, as you have very rare skill with the very challenging medium of watercolour … your painting reminds me of the superb work of the great Zoltan Zsabo Regards Peter

From: Brenda Swenson — Apr 29, 2011

Peter, Thank you for the wonderful compliment. Teaching is a privilege I take seriously. I am always looking for new and different ways to teach, inspire, and encourage. When I see the light go on in a students eyes…I’ve done my job! Happy Painting! Brenda Swenson

  Every day sketches by Janet Austin, East Greenwich, RI, USA  

by Janet Austin

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!   Smiling portraits? by Bill McLaughlin, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada  

“Burnstown shed”
acrylic painting
by Bill McLaughlin

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  

“Pacific Sunset”
pastel painting
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. There are 2 comments for Take off to unknown destinations by Gwen Ontiveros
From: M. A. Jorden — Apr 29, 2011

Or a 180?

From: Robert Hutchison, Luther OK — Apr 29, 2011

Good work, Jorden! I guess that there’s nothing quite so fun as using a trivial oversight (180 vs 360) to steal someone’s rosy enthusiasm from her anticipation of her pending great adventure. You go, Gwen!

  Show the man how to fish by Bill Skrips, Blairstown, NJ, USA  

mixed media
by Bill Skrips

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?          

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Little bets

From: Peter Sims — Apr 25, 2011
From: Faith — Apr 25, 2011

How true the above letter rings to me. I’ve been pursuing the described line of thought for the past few weeks! Now you have put it into words. Thanks for that. In music, an instrumentalist /singer does precisely that for years and years. All those scales and studies emerge as miniature artworks (e.g. the Chopin “Etudes”) – when you’ve learnt how to do them. Unfortunately – and I speak here for would-be vocalists and pianists I have experienced – most of them don’t want to go down the “road to perfection”. Of course, perfection is unattainable, but certainly desirable. For the last ten years I’ve been dabbling fairly seriously in painting. I started with quite accurate realism and then somehow moved into abstraction that was, however, driven more by the urge to paint “loosely” than an understanding of what I was doing. But a short time ago I realised that however long I have left (and I’m no chick), I need to go back and PRACTICE systematically. I’m about 30 canvases into my small format, traditional oil painting learning curve (mainly still life, largely fruit, mostly apples and pears) and really back where I started, but maybe (hopefully) with a different understanding of what it’s all about. I’m remembering the lonely road I went down to become a professional singer and the decades of keeping up those early vocalises which got me there. Going back again is not just starting small, it’s really being reborn.

From: Anna L. Conti — Apr 26, 2011

Or to sum up: Just do the work. Curate later.

From: Terrie Christian — Apr 26, 2011

Thanks for the comments on Little Bets. Working small, allowing freedom of experimentation and the mind to roam into places unknown is a form of play. Your recent letter “Just for Fun” fits with this idea. If artists can free their attitude into this creative area they will not only find breakthroughs but a kind of peacefulness that children get from intense play. At least, this is what I experience. I am finding more successes than failures, but the “failures” turn into success. The majority of my paintings are small and they become gifts, cards and fly out to those who love them. I know so many artists who have drawers full of big paintings that will never find another home. I do not have a storage problem!

From: Cheryl Moore — Apr 26, 2011
From: Mel Lammers — Apr 26, 2011

I think of Thomas Edison [although his credit for inventing is somewhat muddied if you read the bios]when he said invention is the result of persistence rather than inspiration. There is a resistance to this by humans who can become impatient, I am working on it.

From: Jim Lorriman — Apr 26, 2011

The lovely thing about failure is that there is so much with which to work. I have always said that when something goes right the first time, you don’t know what to fix!

From: James Keith Lanier — Apr 26, 2011

“I’ve embraced failure at my soul birth right. Must be onto something so incredibly huge, it’s ridiculous. Let me quick, get back to the failing!”

From: Karen Pettengill — Apr 26, 2011

This newsletter comes at just the right time for me because I’ve been painting small studies regularly for over two months now. A Facebook friend announced a month long, “painting a day”, challenge and I dove in not knowing what would happen ..or how often.. I have a full time job as a gallery manager but I’ve painted almost every night. Sometimes I’d finish and sometimes not . It is the act of committing to painting everyday that has changed my outlook about my own work and others work as well. The paintings are all 5 x 7 acrylics, the supports are panels that I’ve prepared in advance and are ready to go. I care less and less about mistakes made during the process but think more about new possibilities for the next piece. Attached is my favorite painting so far..a portrait of my husband Steve. I enjoy your letters very much..always an inspiration to reach a little farther.

From: Debra LePage — Apr 26, 2011

Also, working small does remove that fear factor resulting in more “happy accidents” -another good letter….Thank you!

From: Alan & Libbie Soffer — Apr 26, 2011

Robert, when you hit the nail you really do it right. This is an approach we have used in our teaching for quite a while and these ideas help to confirm our notions. In fact, we will be doing this better with your suggestions

From: Barbara Timberman — Apr 26, 2011

Reminds me of art school when the foundation instructor said we were to make this painting a major painting. I asked what a major painting was and she didn’t know! Always enjoy your letters.

From: Nigel Konstam — Apr 26, 2011
From: Mark Sharp — Apr 26, 2011

Is it the viewers of art that decide something is a winner or is it the artist that decides? What constitutes a throw away in the process you describe? I’m sure out of a hundred bets the 5 winners could be 5 different pieces for a group of viewers. Is it the artist’s gut that decides before artistic intellect decides?

From: Rick Rotante — Apr 26, 2011

Failing often is a wonderful tool. It gets you to rethink your mistake. Moves you forward faster and is one less mistake you have to worry about later.

From: Rick Rotante — Apr 26, 2011

Mark- You can’t always know why a pianting is a success, but you always know when it’s a failure.

From: Gavin Logan — Apr 26, 2011
From: Don Sahli — Apr 27, 2011

Learning what not to do is an important step to learning what to do! It is the failure that teaches that.

From: Melanie Kuzminski — Apr 28, 2011

Whole to part, or part to whole – how do we learn a new skill? As an infant, you learned to walk and to talk holistically. You learned the skills by practicing them, gradually becoming more proficient. You are probably an expert walker today, and you’ve never had a lesson! Toddlers learning to speak invariably demonstrate that their receptive language is better than their expressive language. They understand what is being said even though they’ve never had a single vocabulary lesson. They start to make themselves heard and understood before they can clearly pronounce words. Of course, their parents teach them new words, and monitor their language development, but all the parents are really doing is helping to refine the subset of skills that go into the whole larger skill known as oral language. As adults, we have to trust ourselves that we can still learn new things in a holistic manner. For painters, the workshop experience is a holistic learning endeavor. We set up our easel and paints and try to make art! In doing so, we are challenging ourselves to master a number of skills simultaneously. When you think about it, it’s not that different from learning to ride a bike. In a painting workshop, the teacher encourages and instructs, and often helps by identifying weaknesses. Sometimes, the teacher can suggest individual exercises and activities that the student can do to improve their weaker skills. For example, the student painter may be capable at composition and drawing, but unable to organize values and colours. It is up to the adult learner to take the responsibility to work on those skills that are missing. For many people, the workshop experience is a very rewarding way to learn. Part to whole learning, in which subsets of skills are learned in a pre-determined, developmental order, is how most of us learned such things as mathematics, map-reading, and computer techniques. The atelier, or classical way of learning to paint focuses on learning specific skills in isolation, encouraging mastery of individual skill subsets before incorporating those skills into expressive artwork. This style of teaching and learning places a great deal of responsibility on the teacher and the curriculum design, and is a clear example of part-to-whole learning. This kind of learning experience is becoming more available to student artists in North America, and it is undoubtedly the preferred choice for some. Some educators argue that it is your learning style which will determine whether you succeed as a holistic learner, or as a more traditional part-to-whole learner. Probably, the truth is that everyone is capable of learning through either method, because, probably, you already have!

From: Gilles Therriault — Apr 28, 2011

The educational value of this site is superb. Thank you to all who contribute from all over the world.

From: Nicole Haslett — Apr 29, 2011

Absolutely gorgeous, thoughtful video. Thank you for doing these.

From: Donna Jurovcik — Apr 29, 2011

Mr Genn, Thank you so much for the video on painting is tribute…it makes me feel so much better about the art I have created in my many years past and plan to do future. Some work of mine is on my facebook to share with anyone who might want a copy: donnajurovcik@hotmail. com I feel by sharing is the joy I get. My very first oil painting (which is in my living room) was of a Nevada sunset and I visualized an ocean across the plains. The art teacher said ” isn’t it wonderful to be guided by God.” The art teacher also was a former coach teacher in sports at the high school I attended….he loved the fact that humans with inner self control could do most anything! Best regards, Donna

From: Nancy Taylor — Apr 29, 2011

Thank you. A wonderful way to start the morning.

From: Patricia Griffin Brett — Apr 29, 2011

One of the most beautiful expressions of what art is I’ve ever heard! :)

From: Lorraine Khachatourians — Apr 29, 2011

Thank you for the lovely ‘tribute’ video. A trip back for me. I grew up in White Rock and we always bought our veggies from the farms near the Nickomekl and Serpentine rivers in the valley there. We’d walk along the dikes, and even skated on frozen fields sometimes. It has been over 40 years since last there – maybe time for a visit! this time I can bring my paints.

From: Mary Ann Fleming — Apr 29, 2011

Thank you Robert, Yet again you speak to my soul. Cheers Mary Ann Fleming Nanaimo, B. C.

From: Didi Foster — Apr 29, 2011

Robert, I love your newsletter and look forward to reading it. I always take away something possitive and at times it has helped me move on. This video is lovely.

From: Kay Christopher — Apr 29, 2011

Thank you for the most beautiful video, Robert. Was so nice to hear your voice — that is the first time. And the images and your words took me to a wonderful new place about art and living. Thank you for your continuous generosity.

From: Jeff Strain — Apr 29, 2011

thank you. I thoroughly enjoyed this video and your painting. inspiring.

From: Ellen Mahon — Apr 30, 2011

Thank you, that was lovely, Ellen

From: Ann Bennett — May 01, 2011

This is truly wonderful ! Thanks

From: Harriette — May 01, 2011

I found your video “Painting as Tribute” to be both inspiring and touching. The selected music added to the thoughtful presentation and I will give it much thought when I select subject matter for my watercolor paintings. It was very pleasant to watch on a Long Island Sunday spring morning. Thank you.

From: Rick Rotante — May 01, 2011

I wish to second Harriette’s sentiments. I found it most inspiring myself. Tthank you for sharing your wisdom and insights. I don’t paint many scenes from nature I prefer to translate life through the human image and pay homage to those who travel through this world. I find reaffirmation of my belief in the human spirit every time I paint someone. It’s rare that I get what I aim at, but when this happens, I feel I’ve made a contribution.

     Featured Workshop: Worldwide Art Movement
042911_robert-genn Worldwide Art Movement   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order. 

Mirabeau Bridge at Dusk

watercolor painting, 15 x 22 inches by Lou Jordan, New Orleans, LA, USA

  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!”