Failure Hill

Almost every drawing I do starts as a punishing failure. There’s a point at which the winds change, however, and it moves into the success category. It’s a palpable feeling, but I can’t predict when (or if) it will happen when I’m drawing. It’s a bit like Russian roulette in that I have no idea if it will ever go from failure to success, leaving open the possibility that the entire exercise will yield nothing. I should be ok with that, chalking it up to being “part of the bigger process”, but I’m not. Failed drawings are disproportionate hits to my confidence and while rare, I’ve had some that never came around no matter how much erasing, noodling, coercing, or fiddling I did.

Despite these rare setbacks, most of the time I can wrangle them into something worth looking at, though this wasn’t always the case. As a younger lad, I struggled with overcoming artistic adversity. Only in recent years when I returned to drawing after a nearly decade-long hiatus did I start pushing myself through those struggles and continue working despite the numerous failure alarms going off in my brain.

As I learned how to ignore those poor instincts, I discovered that inside of every visual abomination, there is a not bad drawing waiting to come into the game. And I use the phrase not bad with care and due respect in this case. Some creative works are masterpieces we never grow tired of admiring. Some are minor achievements - maybe we learned a new skill or medium, or finally drew a hand that didn’t look like a spider crushed in the door of a phone booth. Some, of course, are unrecoverable disasters as I mentioned above. But if we’re lucky, most of our work will fall into the not bad category, which is the space just over the crest of Failure Hill.

The "Not Bad"

This means I can look at the drawing. That’s the end of that sentence. Not, “this means I can look at the drawing and not cringe” or “this means I can look at the drawing and hold my head high”. No. If I make something that doesn’t quite reach the top of Failure Hill, I can’t even look at it. GET IT AWAY.

This isn’t to say that my studio floor is like brainstorming sessions in movies, with crumpled up ideas strewn about (can these people seriously not hit the basket from two feet away?), but I’ve ripped a few pages out of sketchbooks in my time.

Hindsight is such a pain in the ass, sometimes. Having uncovered my ability to rescue drawings from failure only recently, I can’t help but look back on the many agonies of defeat I experienced in art school with a sense of missed opportunity. Not because I would have gotten better grades, although that is certain, but because I believe those small triumphs spill over into every aspect of life, creating a feedback loop of resilience that compounds over time. In short, the earlier that loop starts, the more it yields.

Lately, my impulse to give up too early has given way to the insidious “quit while I’m ahead” credo, which is the enemy of all things exquisite. Luckily I can use my recently acquired resilience to fight it off, since ruining something good while trying to make it better is the same as fixing a bad drawing. And I can do that now.