A Series of Bad Decisions

Every painting is a series of decisions.  From the first inkling of inspiration, sparked by an image, a color, a daydream, a wish; in our minds, our idea is perfection.

Ideas are like unicorns; beautiful, sparkling and ideal, but out of reach.

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All I ever wanted as a new painter was to paint something that looked like the picture in my mind, and every time my brush touched the paper, I was either moving closer to the dream or further away. And it was so hard to know! 

I’d put down a brush stroke and be stricken by doubt and immediately dab it up again. My left hand held the brush to apply the paint; the right hand, a wad of paper towel to lift it out again. So much uncertainty and fear of getting it wrong! 

Focus & Training

We’ve been watching American Ninja Warrior; those athletes are amazing! The obstacle courses set up for the competitors combine strength, agility and timing, and the slightest mistake has the athlete in the water and disqualified.

I like to study the body language of these athletes; the overconfident ones strut and pose and then rush into the course and make a foolish mistake, miss a foothold or make a timing error on a moving target, landing in the water, shaking their heads in regret. 

The best athletes have intensity of purpose; they have trained too hard to make a foolish mistake. They have not only trained their bodies, but they have mental focus. They pause to breathe between challenges, they observe the movement of the obstacles and time their movements with grace. There is no room for overconfidence, but hesitation is an equal adversary. They are steadfast; both fixed on their goal and attuned to their surroundings.

Timely Choices

I think there are parallels here to painting. As a new painter, my lack of experience meant I didn’t know how to make great choices in my paintings, and this led to hesitation, self-doubt and a lot of wasted brush strokes. I didn’t know a lot about what made a good painting; I had to trust that I would know it when it emerged on the brush, which left a lot of the outcome to chance. 

The good news is that painting is a lot like athletics; training makes a difference! Every time I exercised my decision-making skills in watercolor, they added to my body of knowledge about what worked (and what didn’t) in my paintings. I was filling a toolbox with strategies to serve and inform my future work. It didn’t feel like it a lot of the time; like an athlete, I couldn’t see progress by looking at the day’s training, but only by looking back could I see the accumulated gains and feel encouraged. 

We can learn a lot from these athletes. They set goals that their bodies cannot achieve except through hours, months, years of training, and they miss their targets many times before landing on the platform. I believe that a misconception about the origin of artistic talent is to blame for many artists giving up on art; rather than realizing that art is a skill that can be developed, we see failure as a sign that we just don’t have what it takes, and we quit. 

Believe that your mistakes are teaching you, keep making decisions. Even wrong decisions! We win at art when we keep showing up, looking for that next progress marker, looking back to see the tracks of growth that we can’t see in the work of today. 

Remember that like elite athletes, growth happens on a curve; rapid and easily visible when you are just starting out, but incremental and subtle at the higher levels. Elite athletes are measuring growth in fractions of seconds, while beginners see gains of minutes, so the further along you are in your journey, the harder it becomes to measure and evaluate growth.

Bad decisions happen. Mistakes in art are a sign of growth; you are working outside of your current skill level, outside of your comfort zone. Ugly duckling paintings are precursors to the swans of tomorrow. 

I remind myself of the goodness of mistakes with these affirmations:

“This painting taught me so much.” 

“This subject is not for now (it didn’t turn out today), but it’s informing my future work.” 

“I’m going to keep painting on this scene (despite an undesirable outcome) because it has so much learning to offer.”

My fearless artist community members are training all this month with exercises designed to teach watercolor techniques in a heart-led process. Join us!

Angela Fehr2 Comments