The Success of Failure
The Success of Failure


The first time I did a toned drawing… it sucked. And I’m not talking about some distant point in the past, back before I wrote the bestselling The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Drawing. I’m not talking about when I was in art school. Because I never attended art school. In fact, I’ve never had a single day of art instruction. Ever. (This is an important point. I’m not just bragging. Read on!)

I’m talking about a toned drawing I did just a few weeks ago. Here it is:

Now, some of you — a very kind few — will think this looks pretty good. And while I know that we are always most critical of our own work, let me tell you why this drawing isn’t any good.

  1. The face is too long. This is a common problem I have. If you look at the distance from the bridge of the nose to the chin, it’s about 50% longer than it should be. If I was aiming for something stylized and cartoony, I might get a pass. But if I want my work to improve, I need to have a take-no-prisoners attitude. (I only hold myself to this standard. I suggest you be much, much kinder to yourself.)
  2. What’s up with her hair? It’s ridiculous. I was even working from reference and this didn’t come close.
  3. Is she a giraffe? What is up with her neck?!
  4. The collar is flat and two-dimensional.
  5. You can see a line on the right side of her face. (Her right, your left.) If I had done that properly, the shadow would have formed the shape of the face for me.
  6. The worst error I made was using a black charcoal pencil on a tan paper. It’s a little hard to see in this iPhone picture, but in real life it looks just horrible. It clashes.

Now, my darling wife, who loves me, kept telling me that the drawing was really good. She liked it. And I think she believed that. But I kept looking at the thing and I wanted to punch myself in the nose. I was really disappointed.

In days past, I would have just written this one off as a failure. I would have gone on to something else and tried to forget this ever happened. But, instead, I decided to use this one as a learning tool. After all, I reasoned, if I could look at this and so easily say what was wrong with it, why couldn’t I make it right?

The first problem was that there was no clean way to erase all the black charcoal and replace it with brown. If I was going to fix this, I was simply going to need to do the whole thing over again. But that was okay. It was my first time using a new medium and I really enjoyed some of the effects it produced. (Her lips, for example.)

So I took another stab at it, paying particular attention to what I didn’t like about the last effort:

I don’t know about you, but I like this MUCH better. And, ultimately, unless you’re being hired by an editor to illustrate a project, the people we most need to please are ourselves. It was great that my wife liked the original. But I knew it was wrong and I knew I could do better.

So why did I point out that I’ve never had a day of art instruction in my life? Because this — this — is my art school.

The truth is that you don’t need to spend $40,000 to go to art school. You just need to develop a critical eye and be willing to fail.

The fear of failure is the biggest hurdle I’ve overcome. I face it every time I sit down at the drawing board. The blank page is perfect, and while I sometimes put out a piece I’m proud of, I’ve drawn enough duds to give me the artistic equivalent of performance anxiety.

But if you look at every drawing as a day in art school — a day in which you get to be the teacher when you’re done — then you can start to relax and realize that every piece you do has an automatic do-over built in. Watercolor is especially stressful, because you can be very happy with your work and then a single slip of the brush can ruin everything. But the more good work you do, the more you learn to trust yourself and your own instincts.

So relax. It’s only paper. And heck, if you’re working digitally, there’s a whole slew of “Undo” options!

Remember: The fastest way to your next success is through your last failure!


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