On making mistakes (or: why no kittens will die)

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Autumn Squash #2, 8" x 10" oil on canvas, unframed © Sarah Marie Lacy 2014

Autumn Squash #2, 8″ x 10″ oil on canvas, unframed © Sarah Marie Lacy 2014

Sometimes when I’m working on a painting or drawing, I’ll jokingly say something like, “Hey, this doesn’t suck!” or some other tongue-in-cheek joke about the quality of the work. Or maybe I’ll bring up that something in the piece isn’t working – I’m frustrated with an aspect of it.

And the person I’m talking to will inevitably jump in and defend me from me: “No! It doesn’t suck! There’s no such thing as bad artwork!”

Aside from the fact that there is a logical fallacy in saying this – people often go on to tell me that I’m super talented, but talent resides on a spectrum and if someone is talented that means that someone else is not talented, ergo, there must be bad artwork somewhere in the world – aside from this, there’s the fact that it just doesn’t matter.

I think we all get a little too hung up on making mistakes. We invest too much meaning into screwing something up. We decide that good work means we’re good and bad work means we’re bad. We think that it says something about ourselves.

I think that to survive as a creative person, you have to have a certain amount of separation between yourself and your work. Your work is an extension of you but it’s not you. If I make a mistake in the work – draw the eyes poorly, lose the grace of a line, misinterpret the light direction – that says nothing about my worth as a human.

When I turn a critical eye upon my work, I am not turning a critical eye upon myself, and that’s an important distinction to make. Because at the end of the day, it’s just a painting. I am not a brain surgeon. As I used to say as a student: no kittens will die because I made a bad painting.

I think that having a healthy critical eye on your own work is important – my teacher told me that great paintings can hold their own in an argument. They survive for hundreds of years because they argue for their own existence.

If you never challenge your own work – never ask the question, “Can this be more?” – then you’re letting your work down. You must separate the wheat from the chaff, and the chaff says nothing terrible about you.

I shock people when I tell them that making a bad painting doesn’t matter. When your self-worth is attached to the outcome of a creative project, this perspective can sound rather blasphemous.

But if you focus on that, then you’ve missed the most important part – there is endless freedom that comes with knowing your results aren’t about you.

To improve at anything, you have to practice. You actually have to make bad paintings (or sing bad songs, or write bad words) to get any better at it. So many people give up because they think that these bad things are a reflection of how they’re bad.

The only thing it’s a reflection of is inexperience. And if a bad painting says nothing bad about you, then you get to make thousands of bad paintings.

And then one day you’ll turn around and realize that you’re making good paintings, maybe even great paintings.

And the quality of the paintings still says nothing about your worth as a human, except that you were persistent and dedicated to the thing that you wanted to learn.

And that actually says a lot of things about you.