Monday, September 7, 2015

Embracing Failure

Hello readers,

I want to try something a bit different for me and for this blog, and start an open dialogue about art that I'll host here. I have a lot to say on the subject, and friends of mine know it is often hard to get me to shut up about it. My hope is that having this outlet to spew my thoughts into the void will reduce the amount of squawking they have to hear, and also that it will provide a place for me to learn as I teach. I use the term “dialogue” because I genuinely want to hear your comments, thoughts, and feedback. I want to know that what I'm writing makes sense, is accurate, and is non-alienating. My hope is that by engaging with all of you, the collective knowledge-sharing will bring us up together like a rising tide.

It is my hope you'll join me on this journey, give me your honest feedback, and help be a part of the process. Without further ado, let's jump in.


One of my most prolific failures, done for a gallery show and never finished, not even after nearly 2 years in the making. It was hard, but I've since moved on.

Before writing this inaugural piece, I asked my friends which topics they wanted me to cover. I got a lot of good data from it, but one in particular stood out to me. My buddy and former teacher back at Academy of Art, Nick Ross, wanted to see an article about embracing failure. I think it spoke to me because it's a thing I constantly harp about, but hadn't thought to write. Nick watched me fail every day for months in his class, and I think he knows how important it was for me to go through that.

Failure is an essential part in the honing of any craft. But especially in creative endeavors, the weight of continued failure can be damaging to our egos and to our creativity itself. This means most people bail on creative pursuits before they've had time to really learn anything, or make anything of value. We've all seen prodigies who begin kicking ass right out of the gate, and it can be extremely difficult for most people to put aside their pride and continue making crap in the shadow of that looming talent. If it's this hard, you might be wondering, why bother failing at all?

Not every idea is a winner. In fact, most aren't.

Failure Is Learning

When you learn, you are building connections in your brain that were previously nonexistent or underdeveloped. Every failure builds a new connection of what worked and what didn't, and fosters learning. There are plenty of pursuits where failure is literally painful, or in some cases even deadly, which makes failure terrifying to those of us who are risk-averse. However, most of these pursuits offer methods of risk mitigation—helmets, elbow and knee pads, safety nets, flotation devices, etc. Art does not. You're going to fail in creative endeavors. It's going to happen, and it is something you will have to overcome to become successful in any meaningful sense of the word. Failure in the arts is, thankfully, only mildly psychically damaging. You can fail an enormous number of times without doing any real permanent harm, even if the temporary pain still stings.

Learning is fun. I realize this is a pretty non-controversial sentiment for most of you, but plenty of people resist learning at every available opportunity. You might have noticed these people are usually assholes, and it's probably because they're not interested in having the kind of fun learning provides. Don't be one of those people. Don't be an asshole. Humility and being open to being wrong are arguably among the greatest traits a person can exhibit. But if you don't think learning is fun, don't take my word for it: many studies link humor and laughter to learning and knowledge retention.

All of this is to say failure can be fun, if you learn to accept it.

One of my first, and worst, watercolor plein air studies.

Learn From Your Mistakes

Making mistakes teaches you what not to do. By knowing what things didn't work, we can start building inroads to success and avoiding the potholes. We build rules, however flexible, that help dictate what we do differently the next time. There is no wrong way to get good at art, just ways that offer better or worse returns. I'd like to cover this topic more in my next post, but for now let's just say everything you do is mileage, and it all helps.

However, I want to offer some caution. Many of the failures I weeded out of my process early on were only failures because I lacked the skill to properly execute them, and were actually avenues worth pursuing more as I developed. Do your best to distill the root failure in each piece you make, and be careful not to accidentally throw out something important to your growth. Years ago, I experimented with type, with graphic composition, abstraction, stream-of-consciousness drawing, and with various styles. At some point I settled into a comfort zone, and my work suffered a lot for having done so. Even now I am rebuilding that sense of playfulness, and it is taking more time than it would have had I continued to nurture its development from the onset. Embracing failure means learning to accept that just because something isn't working, it doesn't have to be something you cut out. It means learning which things are worth cutting out by putting in the experience and time.

Failures can happen even when we finally get a win. Every successful piece I've ever made has had a mistake I only saw in hindsight. Don't be afraid of this happening. Learn to become objective about your own work, and take into account what you would do differently next time.

Some of my first professional work. Ouch.

Learn From Your Successes

Just as successful art can have valuable failures in them, failure can have small wins worth taking on to the next piece. A small patch of brushwork, the lighting or value design, or any number of things you find fascinating and beautiful in a piece could be worth taking away from your work. Likewise, when you make good work, allow yourself to be okay with accepting those few places where things aren't perfect. If the piece was ultimately successful, take the win with the confidence boost it might yield, and use that to keep your momentum going. Again, I caution you to examine these successes carefully to understand why they are working. The last thing you want to do is start incorporating the same exact elements haphazardly into all future work just because it worked once.

This is the first traditional painting I did for a client, and my first time using gouache ever. It took a monumental effort to bring this through to final. Though I am proud of the result, I would have done it completely differently the next time around.

Failing Is Easy

Despite the toll it might take on your psyche if you get too attached, failing can be relatively painless and easy. Learning to be objective in your work and see it for all its flaws allows you a distance that can be freeing. Trying something and failing has a relatively low cost, but especially so if you fail privately. This is why artists are recommended to do studies, thumbnails, and sketches well before bringing anything to clients. You have a lot of crap ideas floating around in your head, and a lot of the easiest, often worst executions bumbling around up there too. Getting all of them out forces you to be creative in non-obvious ways. It forces you to grow and to become a better artist. If you go for the obvious idea first and see it through to final, you run the risk of failing very publicly. Ultimately, what matters is the end result, and as long as you're honest in your approach people will not care if you needed a ton of reference or a 3D model or what have you. Fail until you've gotten all the failures out, then succeed.

The first and last days respectively of my first Still Life Painting class in college.


All that practice is, is reducing your rate of failure. Even masters mess up, but years—sometimes decades—of practicing, studying, and learning means they fail less and less. But failure never goes away, and that is why continued practice, foundations, studying, and learning are essential. You can see when an artist stagnates because they continue to fail at an even rate. The goal is to keep moving, and keep pushing down that fail-rate, keep increasing your number of wins. The first step is to embrace that failure will always be with you, and learn to welcome it for the opportunity it is. Keep trying new things and building on them to make everything you do that much better.


  1. Awesome article dude, and so critical.

    There is one thing I would caution against though. Don't be too quick to make a value judgement on those who fail to learn either. Usually, the asshole behavior that you perceive is a cover for insecurity, the same insecurity that feeds the fear of risk taking.
    It's a state of being trapped because you're not ready to accept the enormity of the path in front of you, and that happens to all of us from time to time. (I've def been there many times before)
    While having that understanding is important to be tolerant of those around you, there's an even more important reason. When you frame the behavior in that way, and one day find that you yourself have slipped into that, it will make it so much harder to accept, pivot and move on, because in your mind it's a failure of character rather than a failure of mindset.

    1. I think the difficulty in that is that it's a Catch 22. Being unable to accept you have been an asshole can make it hard to move on in order to not continue being one. I agree the root of that behavior is insecurity, and especially in severe cases the cure is compassion. But even being compassionate toward somebody doesn't unmake their asshole behavior, nor does it absolve it. There needs to be the initial spark on behalf of that person to be willing to change, which generally requires an opening of the mind to outside ideas. When I look back at the person I was as a teenager, I was a tremendous asshole. It was only through confrontation about that behavior that I changed my thinking and pivoted. I have no doubt that even today I am an asshole in some way, and when I find out how I will also try to pivot to correct it.

      I guess what I'm saying is that you are absolutely right, and I agree completely with any approach to teaching that is informed by empathy and compassion. But I also think sometimes the easiest or only way to get through the thickest stubbornness is to hammer a point home, rip that band-aid off. You don't have to be a dick doing it, of course, but it's probably going to hurt no matter the smile on your face or the softness of your voice.

      I'm really interested in any approaches you have to mitigate the pain in that transition if you have any, because I know you come to problems with a particularly nuanced, soft touch that seems to work well for your communication. It would be excellent to hear how you handle hard truths and feedback to maximize understanding. :)