The Role of Failure in Your Art Practice

Failure. It’s a loaded word.

It’s hard to pick out an image for a post about failure without offending someone, so I went straight to the source – without judgment: The Museum of Bad Art. Seen here is Reclining Nude from their collection. Oil on canvas. “Acquired by Scott Wilson from the trash.” ©The Museum of Bad Art

Lisa Call attended a panel discussion at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design that I couldn’t attend and thought this question asked to panelists had a lot of merit for consideration.

Deep Thought

Since I wasn’t there, I don’t know who asked the question, but maybe it can provoke some good dialogue here.

Is failure in your art practice something to be embraced, managed, or forgotten?

What do you think?

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48 comments to The Role of Failure in Your Art Practice

  • Sometimes I think failure can push you in a new direction. I have a saying (I’m sure it is not original) that there is “no such thing as a wasted effort”. Even failures can be used. Don’t let failures define you. Use your failures to show you a new direction in your work and life.

    • I agree, Debora. A few years ago, one of my paintings wasn’t going the way I wanted it to and I considered it a failure. It was large and I’d spent considerable time with it. I took my palette knife to the painting in frustration and, much to my surprise, actually liked the result. My painting group said it was a “breakthrough painting.” I now paint exclusively with a knife, have developed my own distinctive style and happily, am having good success selling my paintings.

  • As we speak, one of my failed attempts is enjoying a stint on a lawn chair in the woods.

    I tried to love it…tried to like it, even…but no good is just no good. I’ve had to trash some things in my time but I thought I’d try something different with this one and have decided to leave it outside for as long as it takes for something interesting to happen to it and even though the something interesting most likely won’t make it any better, it could provide useful information for future art…y’never know! Experimentation is the soul of invention!

    I got the idea to do it from a college assignment back in the 60’s in which we had to illustrate the effects of time passing. To do that to my satisfaction I felt that time needed to literally pass, and that it needed to be a part of the work, so I cut out decreasingly smaller squares of differently colored tissue, pinned them down with a tack to a heavy piece of gessoed board and left them out in the weather for about a week. The end result was nothing like I expected and gorgeous.

    I’m not expecting gorgeous from this, just satisfying my curiosity about what will happen to the work, which is glazed layers of collage. (Oh that reminds me, I should go out and get a shot of it…it’s only been out there a week or so; I hope to leave it out all winter!)

  • Failure is absolutely critical to growth.

    As an artist and a teacher I have found that no failure means stretching, exploring, or trying new things. If every piece is exactly as you expected it to be than you are more than likely following a formula for success that you have developed over time to avoid failure. At some point, for me, that would gt boring. I now believe that true learning only takes place when you have exhausted all the options of prior knowledge. Trite as it may sound, failure really is an opportunity for learning.

    By way of example…in my paintings every now and then I have a piece that just sucks. I just know its not working. It may be on the edge of working but its not quite there. It becomes one of my ‘what the heck’ pieces. I am not happy with it anyway so, what the heck, why not take a chance on completely destroying it by trying something wild and new? I have learned so much doing this.

    In art making, failure is an opportunity.

  • Failures have been my invaluable teachers, I embrace them with an open mind, each failure is a stepping stone towards my goal!

  • I cannot not think of a situation I would describe as a failure. It is not a word I attach to my work in the studio. Frustration or dissatisfaction I have often used to describe my experience or my products from the studio. But failure? No. I have heard that the only failure is the failure to show up. Maybe that is true, but for me, I have experienced important times of “gestation”. As to the work….some paintings just take longer than others!!! Failure implies giving up.

    Joan Fullerton

  • I don’t know how to define failure when it comes to creating a piece of art. The impressionists were considered failures by the critics of that time since it was a radical departure from more traditional art techniques. Wasn’t Van Gogh considered a failure? It is an interesting question to debate but I think the word “failure” is too subjective in this case.

    • Hi Laurie…y’know I didn’t take this as anyone else considering my work a failure…just me. I’m who counts. I could give a darn what other people think of my work. The people who ‘get it,’ get it, the people who don’t get it probably all think it’s bad. I, on the other hand, know that they don’t know what they’re looking at.
      But if my work looks bad to me…really bad…un-salvagable…that’s a failure and sometimes ‘saving it’ just doesn’t work…but it’s always informational!

  • Pat

    If it’s a technical failure, then it’s a learned lesson. If it’s a design failure, then it’s a learned lesson. If it’s a personal failure, it’s a learned lesson.

    While I don’t embrace failure, I don’t let it paralyze me. I move on. Failure is something to be managed.

  • “Fail forward fast.”

    That’s a phrase that’s resonated with me for a while now.

    All artists deal with failure on a regular basis, but I believe those who know how to embrace those failures, learn from them and move on, are the ones who will come out on top. I’m not suggesting this comes easy… In my case it’s taken some number of years for me to realize that failing along the way to my goal of becoming a great artist is part of the process.

    As artists we have to accept that failing is not fatal.

  • Everyone’s answer here resonates with me much more than the panel discussion that I attended where this question was asked.

    The artists on the panel essentially denied they ever failed and for the most part avoided discussing the topic at all. It ended up being a rather academic and uninteresting panel with no one willing to be vulnerable or admit that failure happens.

    I personally think I fail all the time and it is something to be embraced as it is a sign of forward movement. We tend not to fail if we aren’t pushing ourselves. Safe is great but it also gets boring.

    • What is safe and boring to you Lisa? Perhaps it is possible that the Artists in the panel did not experience failure or they may have a totally different outlook on the word itself?

      • Obviously safe and boring are subjective terms – every artist has to decide that for themselves.

        Instead of addressing their own failures, one artist said that he views the only failure in art to be the failure to be motivated to make art. But he pointed out he didn’t have that problem.

        That was about as interesting as this panel got. At least that was admitting to some crack in the veneer that artists aren’t perfect because most of the time they just talked about how awesome they were.

        Another guy said the failure he experienced was when his technology didn’t work (he made videos).

        There wasn’t much of a feeling of authenticity from this panel and had I not been sitting in front I would have left as they completely failed to capture my attention.

        • Hmmm…did you miss my entry? The one where I said that I flat out threw things away? Or the response I put in that suggested that ‘failure’ was something only I could dictate for myself…and do?

          And, what, exactly is wrong with thinking yourself awesome, anyway? It’s a plus in my book. Even if I think you suck, good on you for thinking that you rock. There are too many people who think too little of themselves already…and in a career where rejection is the norm (as in any art) a person needs to be strong to keep going in the face of it.

          But, hey, thanks for this entry…it did make it more interesting!

          • Victoria – I get the feeling you didn’t read both of my posts.

            —lisa

          • I have a few more minutes to answer the question “what wrong with thinking yourself awesome, anyway”…

            Nothing at all. But these artists were invited to be on a panel to have a discussion in front of an audience. And while spending the entire time talking about yourself and how awesome you are might sound like a really good thing for self promotion that isn’t what the audience wants to hear.

            The audience is there because they want to get something out of it for themselves.

            Nancy Duarte have a fabulous TED talk on how to give a great speech (http://www.ted.com/talks/nancy_duarte_the_secret_structure_of_great_talks.html ) that this panel of artists would do well listening to.

            Just because it was a panel doesn’t give them free range to bore us. The audience should be the hero – not the speaker. And in my opinion they completely failed to engage the audience in any meaningful way.

            PS – I think the points Nancy makes are also why most artist blogs are so uninteresting. Yawn – sure you are awesome as is your newest work of art but why should I care? What do I, as the reader, get out of reading your blog?

        • LOL…not until I’d already posted this one!

          Someone else did that to me yesterday…afterthoughts! Gotta love ‘em.

          (I remain serious about your post making things more interesting.)

        • re: the panel, I agree. My response had more to do with the upbeat responses of the folks responding here.

        • I take it that in this case then a Painting that falls short of the Painter’s standard or expectation should be considered a failure. Right? I believe I am finally beginning to understand the question. The odd thing is that my paintings which I consider as “failures” usually tend to be the ones that my Collectors rush to buy. So you see my dilemma here? Yes, it would be correct to say that I have learnt from my “failures” but are they REALLY failures? That is perhaps where I am stuck in and confused out of my mind. For example, the Paintings that I created as I imagined them to be (are perfect to me…rhythm, balance, color, concept) are the very ones I have not sold yet. Which I am quite happy to keep it in my own Collection, however, that is just weird to me. What I am concluding from this blog and the comments I have read so far is that “failure” is basically a matter of the beholder’s perception. The bad art photo “Reclining Nude” used for this blog for example is quite creative and delightful to me as well as to Shari for example. So is that really a failure?

  • The only time I would experience “failure” is when I will stop creating Art. Perhaps I don’t quite understand the question? In Art or Painting, I have not experienced failure so far (but in personal life – that is another story). I may even add that I have not experienced an Artist’s Block either nor do I understand it. Perhaps part of it is because I paint when I have something compelling to share that comes as a concept as well as my personal experience regarding that concept/experience so failure has no room. I say this not out of arrogance, but simply what I deal with as a Painter. I recently took a test to see if I am a Left Brained or a Right Brained person besides being an Aspie (Asperger’s Syndrome). It turned out to be 50% Left and 50% Right which helped me a lot in understanding why it is that I cannot just go with the flow like most creative people but have a visual outline of what I want to do and how it is suppose to look like fully finished before I even put my brush to the canvas.

  • I think of failure in this question as ultimate failure-that is when I quit. When I quit letting that be an option for myself, then failure can’t be an option either. There was a time when (if I had continued the same way) it would have been an option and I do think it could have been built in because I was constantly looking around for someone to approve of my art. When I quit looking for that (so much, I still do a little) I actually started getting more affirmation, but it no longer defined to me whether or not I would continue. So, I think, yes, there are attitudes that can be built in for failure, but when they are recognized they can be corrected. They don’t have to doom you.

    Another thing I see often on Etsy is people asking for advice, but when they are told they need to take better pictures or learn SEO, they respond with “Don’t want to, don’t have time, etc.” and usually they eventually quit because they aren’t willing to take the time to learn new skills. It may be that they go and find another venue (internet isn’t the only way after all) but if they take that unwillingness to learn everywhere they go, then yes, I think they will fail.

    Another attitude is (especially in the beginning) unwillingness to work without immediate compensation. People who spend a month on etsy and make no sales but have invested a lot of time start complaining. They want some immediate compensation for all the time their pouring in, or at least some certainty that there will be some compensation in the near future. Since nobody can give that they quit.

    These are the things that, when I see them, I think “Hmm, if this person doesn’t change their attitude, they aren’t going to go anywhere.

  • Am busy reading the Eric Fischl memoir (thanks for that tip Alyson, it’s riveting) and I was curious to note the role of accident (also the role of just messing with materials) in his work. I’ve just read the bit about how the armature for a sculpture capsized because it wasn’t built right – but the artist thought it actually improved the piece.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/sarigrove/9627467543/ Gee, I liked my image of a beet! Looks like I have found a new museum prospect for my work! I wonder if being in the Museum of Bad Art will be like being in the Salon des Refusees? (Am I the only one who likes the reclining nude from the trash?) Just goes to show you, failure is really only a state of mind…(& don’t ask people what they think about your art-ignorance is bliss)…

  • Failure is only a negative success and without wishing to offend, my grandfather had an adage that summed up failure…

    Treat every event in life like a dog. If you can’t eat it…If you can’t hump it…Urinate on it and walk away and try something else!

  • I’ve always embraced the idea of failure like in the saying, “Mistakes are a Buddhist gift”. They are always learning opportunities. There are small ones and big ones, and you get to choose where you go with them. Ultimately a failure can stop you dead in your tracks if you let it. Yes there are epic failures. And I am much more curious, and frankly happy, with the idea that goofs/mistakes/failures take me down a different path. Sometimes the better question is not how is this piece failing, to what does the painting need? Its the theory of happy accidents.

  • All three. Failure ought to be embraced the first time, the second time, failure needs to be managed in order to plot a different course, and if it happens a third time, just forget about it.

  • One of my favorite Winston Churchill quotes: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts”…

  • Defining failure, like defining success, is subjective and nebulous because we’re artists, not athletes.

    Athletes have concrete, widely substantiated goals. The whole success/failure paradigm is based on a GOAL.

    If your goal is unclear, your success or failure is also unclear. In creating art, many things are accomplished and revealed that are not necessarily an intended goal.

  • I’m not sure there is really such a thing as a failure in painting, or really, in anything. A failure in painting is an incomplete painting. A failure in making a light bulb is discovering a way not to make a light bulb, in other words, really a step toward. It’s viewpoint and perception.

    I use “failure” or for me, not liking where a painting is going, as an indicator that that session on that painting has continued long enough, and some time apart is needed. Many, many times the stuff I had attention on and “hated” will turn into either a good turn in the painting tomorrow, or the launching place for a solution to the problem presented.

    Maybe failure is the decision not to persist in finding a solution, whether by choice or by external influence, and maybe that view of failure in that moment is exactly that – failure from that point of view and not failure at all if you step aside from it, and take a different point of view…

  • I could have given you plenty of example images, lol! I think failure is important. And I think allowing yourself to fail is the only way to recognise what could be done better and where the painting went wrong. With failures you get a great chance to really analyse your colours, composition, etc and see what was weak. An artist who only creates successes is probably quite stagnant because they know their formula, stick to it, and never take risks.

    • “An artist who only creates successes is probably quite stagnant because they know their formula, stick to it, and never take risks.”

      My questions to you are: How do you think they have learnt the “formula” in the first place? Just like you I am sure they also analyze their colors and compositions in depth and have discovered what works and what does not through practice and taking risks starting out in their careers. Perhaps those Artists have put a lot of thought creating their “formulas” and they stick to it because it works. Some Artists work in series to fully explore and exploit their train of thought. Since when did an Artist’s “formula” became such a terrible thing?

      Non creatives cannot come up with formulas at all. That may perhaps be the reason they learn through trial and error or “failures” and also because they have not yet attained mastery and confidence in their craft.

      • Thank you for this response, Roopa…it’s so insightful…and helpful to my current peace of mind.

        • LOL!! Anytime Victoria. As long as you are creating, having fun and have found your niche, that is all that matters. I wrote on this topic in my soon to be a published book “A STRATEGIC PAINTER”…and with illustrated examples…and in color. (wink).

  • I was just looking through new course offerings on coursera and came across a class called Creativity, Innovation, and Change

    Part of the syllabus:

    Week 1: Creative Identity

    The Importance of Failure

    Creative Diversity

    Establishing and Building Character

    https://www.coursera.org/course/cic

    I signed up as I was most interested in what they were going to say about failure after this conversation.

  • I agree with many of the previous posts. I totally embrace a “failure” as it forces me to do something drastic and take a chance. I have a rule that I have to finish a piece no matter what. It is freeing knowing it can’t get worse. Most of my best pieces began as “failures.” In fact my most recent “failure” has been accepted into the latest 500 figures book and will be published this February.

  • Of course, one might ask more specifically, is it a failure, in art, to not make a profit?

  • My failures almost always teach me something, although it may take me a while to recognize that they are failures.

  • I used to hate producing a painting that was a failure, that was uninspired, off-looking, just not right.

    But over the past year, I’ve learned to come to grips with this as an important part of the process of developing as a painter.

    Yesterday, I went out painting en plein air. The lighting was overcast and uninspired. Consequently, the painting was uninspired. The lesson learned? I need to be inspired by nature as that is the energy that puts the magic in my paintings.

    THe lesson learned also was that back in the studio, you can continue the learning process on ‘failed’ paintings to try to resurrect them. I was able to move the field piece from boring and blah to better. Again, more lessons learned.

    I still don’t like it when I have a painting for the campfire or trash heap. But now I am wise enough to know that these failed paintings shape my learning more than the successful ones. They are a bitter sweet gift. No, I won’t be a successful artist trying to sell these failed paintings. But they DO teach me critical lessons that drive me to learn and to do better.

    Failed paintings are a gift.

  • Failure is a very loaded word when it comes to art/artists, etc. I guess that depends on what your objective and goal is from the start. If you create something and intend to sell it for a million bucks and don’t – well then I guess you failed. If you set out to create something for simply the fact you wanted to spend time creating and maybe it wasn’t what you envisioned as a result, but you did what you said you were going to do – you win, that’s not a failure. Maybe you don’t love it – but you moved forward doing something you love. (If you didn’t love it – I don’t think you’d spend time doing it). With each “failure” lessons are learned, thoughts are provoked, skills are honed – at least for those willing to “fail”. For each art experience represents time creating – a limited resource for me – so I’ll take what I can.

  • Failure HAS to happen – it’s the face-palm of learning, at least in my book. I learn what NOT to do, and I remember the life lessons of my failures much more powerfully than the successes of those few paintings that magically fall from my brushes.

    But embracing and admitting to failure was at first a difficult thing to do publicly. I am a daily painter of nearly 8 years, and when I first started painting daily, if I was having a rough run, it got grim in the studio pretty quickly. What the heck was I supposed to post? I feared going public with my failure, thinking it was bad PR. But the reality was, when I finally ponied up and confessed to having a suckey day at the easel, the response was overwhelming.

    My readers saw the human side of my work/struggle/commitment and respected me all the more for it. We engaged in conversations about falling short and shared coping mechanisms, no matter our calling in life. And we laughed over it.

    Failure = courage to try something new.

    And those who are afraid of it are busy stagnating!

    Bummer that the panel didn’t recognize the power of admitting failure happens, Lisa!

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  • First things first – Great topic..!! Many encouraging words by all has become my real inspiration and I have started painting again. Thank you all..!!