I have returned to painting recently after years of concentrating mainly on my guitar making and drawing. As I walked through the studio today, I noticed a painting I had been working on yesterday that, today, looks dreadful to me. Yesterday, I had been in the early stages of the painting and didn’t have any idea of what I wanted to do. My motivations seemed fragile, random, or nonexistent. I’ve never let that stop me in the past, so I just started throwing all kinds of random actions at the painting. When I saw the painting today, I found that there were many things I wanted to do to it, many qualities and characteristics that I wanted to struggle with, react to, embellish, and/or change. The motivation that I found today would not have been accessible had I not made the crappy and often random choices that I made yesterday. That dynamic relationship between less than stellar choices and motivation is what I want to discuss.
One statement that I often make to students about my own process is that it takes me a while to notice what I notice. I have to make, to learn more about making. In the early stages, my understanding and motivation aren’t clear. If I have to wait for clarity, the process doesn’t begin. I certainly have found over the years that drawing and painting are physical disciplines. By that, I mean that I can’t solve problems in my work by thinking about them. The only process that really contributes to my understanding problems in drawing and painting is to engage them physically, to engage them through making. The kind of painting and drawing I love just can’t be done in one’s head.
So, there is an inherent dilemma for those makers among us who struggle with perfectionism. What we would prefer to be a one step process of figuring out what we want to do, then doing it, is inescapably, and in fact, a multi-stage process that begins with not knowing. The absolutely beautiful core of this process is that its soil is failure. If I learn what I want to do by trying things, then the process simply has to begin with crappy choices. Mark Bornowski, an excellent drawer, once told my students a story of his having been in artillery in the military as a young man. He described how, before the advent of smart bombs, people manning canons or mortars could only aim the artillery precisely by first firing essentially a throw away shot. They would take their best, but unavoidably not all that great, first shot, notice where that lands, then make adjustments so that the second shot lands further left or right, deeper or shallower. Mark shared that story because of its analogies to drawing and painting. One’s early choices can’t be very well informed, so it makes little sense to expect much of those choices. What’s exciting about those early choices is that their very “wrongness” gives us huge amounts of information. In terms of observing an external subject like a model, the early clumsy version can be compared to the subject observed and one begins, right away, to notice more than one could without the not so hot early version as a referent. With an abstract painting, like the one I was working on, its physical characteristics elicit all kinds of reactions and provide the soil of physical interaction from which deeper motivation emerges over time.
My point is simply that the clumsy early stages are the essential foundation of later discoveries. The clumsy early stages are not to be avoided or condemned, but rather, should be exuberantly embraced because they contribute so much. In fact, without them, nothing can happen and, the fact is, they are unavoidable. I saw a film last year in which the musician, Nick Cave, suggests that good ideas start out as bad ideas, that good ideas are essentially bad ideas that have been tested, challenged, enhanced to the point that they mature into much more satisfying possibilities. The point is that without the bad ideas, the good ideas can’t emerge.
This issue is one of the reasons that the early stages of a painting or drawing are so fun for me. I know that their specific content doesn’t really matter. I just need some making to react to. It doesn’t need to be good making and, in fact, can’t be good making at the start of the process. There is no way to catastrophically fail in the early stages. Failing is, in fact, one’s job. It informs and makes possible all the subsequent stages of making. What is so fun in the beginning is indulging my skill at failing. I’m great at it! What is needed at the beginning is not something over my head or beyond my reach. What I need to make in the beginning is something I am always capable of, mediocrity, garbage, “whatever” kind of stuff. Not only that. That very stuff is an important and necessary foundation of the work’s later stages.
To a wider frame. As a recovering perfectionist, I am often embarrassed by making mistakes in front of other people. I’d like to internalize that human interaction follows the same processes I know so well in art, that clarity emerges through just starting, engaging, in whatever messy way one can begin. I hope to, over time, begin seeing behavior I deem embarrassing in others as simply a brave beginning rather than something to be avoided, to see others’ failures as encouragement for me to take similar risks, that mastery comes from what one learns by being willing to be not so good at things.