Are you willing to fail?
I teach an art class on Wednesday nights to several young students. It’s great fun for me. When I first started doing it, I wasn’t sure, but I have found that I learn as much about life and art as I teach.
Above is a photograph of paintings my students and I completed tonight. In keeping with the season, I thought we’d do an autumn landscape. The paintings are in acrylic.
I am not an acrylic artist. My medium is watercolor. I sometimes play with India inks on yupo paper or do sketches in charcoal or pencil. But mostly I paint watercolors.
I’ve never really been fond of acrylic because I don’t think they are as pretty as either watercolors or oil. Watercolors are luminous, organic, delicate — like flowers. Oils are rich, deep, vibrant — like jewels. Acrylics are… well, they’re not my thing.
But, I’m teaching youngsters. I like to mix it up with them and try different things. While I think in the end watercolors and oils give the most beautiful results the reality is that they are also more difficult mediums. Acrylics are the most forgiving of the three.
So I did something I don’t normally do. I took a risk.
I decided to try a technique I don’t normally do. I didn’t do a practice run. I just winged it. I knew I might fail. But that was OK. If I failed, I would still teach my students a valuable lesson.
One thing I’ve noticed with new students — they are constrained. They are so careful to color within the lines, to place their paint exactly where it needs to be. They hesitate, they focus, they spend long minutes deciphering exactly where color should go.
It takes a lot of effort for me to teach them to let go.
Art is not about control. Art is about expressing emotions. Emotions are not theorems or objects that fit in neat little boxes. Emotions are like wild things. They want to be free. So does art.
When I teach my students, I see the world in a different way. I try to get them to try new things, to let them know it’s OK to fail, because they will learn and stretch themselves, and maybe the next time they will succeed.
But in order to teach them these things, I have to be willing to fail. I have to show that example to them.
So I try new things. I don’t do a practice run. And I let them know I’m doing something for the first time, too. So they can see me make mistakes. They can see me recover from it. They can see that I’m comfortable when I feel, and that helps them be comfortable too.
I teach my students art. But I also teach them something even more important. I teach them how to fail.