The Importance of Making Mistakes

Today’s art project was a disaster. Luckily, I learned early on in my art explorations that making mistakes was an important part of the learning experience. When they happen — and they happen frequently for me — I don’t allow myself to become too discouraged. Instead I evaluate the process, look at what went wrong, and figure out what I can learn from the experience.

I’ve been working recently with oil pastels. My first attempt came out much better than I’d expected:

River Scene, Oil Pastel on Strathmore Gray Toned Paper, 9 x 12
River Scene, Oil Pastel on Strathmore Gray Toned Paper, 9 x 12

The pastels I used for this first landscape were very inexpensive. Manufactured by Daler Rowney for their “Simply…” brand, they were available in a 25-piece set at Wal-Mart. I don’t recall the price but definitely a bargain, well within my artist’s budget.

The inspiration for this first landscape — which I poetically titled River Scene — came from a lesson at The Virtual Instructor. You’re going to hear me singing the praises of Matt Fussell, the virtual instructor, over and over again. Becoming a member of his site was one of the best things I’ve ever done. Not only have I learned a great deal from Matt’s teaching videos, I’ve also enjoyed the process immensely.

Encouraged by my initial results — and buoyed, too, by comments from my husband and Facebook friends — I eagerly looked forward to doing more oil pastel works, especially landscapes. First, I had to purchase a new set of oil pastels. OK, I didn’t have to; I wanted to. After all, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about art and art supplies it’s that the better quality your materials, the better results you’ll achieve. Not to say that the Daler Rowney oil pastels aren’t good tools. They are. Mostly I just wanted to “be a real artist” and use the same materials shown on The Virtual Instructor. In this case, that meant Cray-Pas Expressionist Oil Pastels by Sakura. I quickly ordered a set and it arrived two days later, thanks to the online wonder that is Amazon.

Under Matt Fussell’s tutelage, my first oil pastel attempt had been a satisfying experience. Trying to do a landscape on my own, however, proved to be anything but satisfying. Oh, there are a few things I like about the piece, but for the most part, it’s one of those awful attempts I’d prefer to keep hidden, one of those “misses” I’d rather pretend never happened.

Forest Dawn
Forest Dawn, Cray-Pas Expressionist Oil Pastels on Watercolor Paper, Flat Yellow Wash using Grumbacher Opaque Watercolors

What I liked was the yellow wash. I loved the “sunlight” effect I achieved. I also liked the coloring of the bark on several of the trees. But that was all I liked. The rest was horrible. Worst of all was the realization that I really had no idea how to actually use oil pastels. Was I supposed to apply them heavily? Use a light touch? Was there a way to blend the colors?

Off I went on a search for answers. Several days later, armed with a bit more knowledge, I returned to The Virtual Instructor’s Secrets of Drawing course. Once again, this time with my Cray-Pas Expressionists in hand, I began following Matt’s step-by-step approach to landscape drawing with oil pastels. I worked for a time on it, felt very good at the progress I was making, and then put the work aside when my husband returned home at the end of his day.

Today, still feeling confident, I resumed the project. My results were not good. The problems I have are  creating depth, placing objects in the middle ground of the picture, and creating realistic pines in the scene. I also find it impossible to apply white oil pastel over existing colors. When Matt does it, it looks so easy. When I do it, it’s just a mess.

Frustrated by the disaster I’d created, I looked for constructive ways to use the project. What could I do differently — better — next time? I pinpointed the weakest areas, and I’ll devote a bit of time to improving those.

Another question I asked was whether or not anything could be salvaged. When evaluating our art work, it’s important to assess what’s wrong, and important, too, to appreciate what’s right. I identified a small portion of the painting that I liked. Focusing on that encouraged me. My projects won’t always come out right the first time, but I can keep getter better with consistent practice.

A third question was “Is there anything I can do to fix the problems?” Knowing that the piece wasn’t one I wanted to show off meant it was time to get adventurous, time to play around, time to give myself permission to make an even bigger mess.

Out came the Daler Rowney Low Odour Thinner. I’d previously learned to use the solvent to “finish” colored pencil drawings. Could I use it to blend oil pastels as well? Could I, in fact, use the solvent much as I use water when doing watercolor paintings? Hey, why not?

I played around with the thinner, softened a few edges, and had a lot of fun trying out different brush strokes. While my efforts weren’t enough to “save” the landscape and turn it into a decent work of art, I did learn from all I did.

And at the end, I found a little portion of the painting that I truly did like. Following my habit of choosing poetic names — that’s part of the fun of being an artist, don’t you think? — I titled this little landscape as “Bend in the River”.

Bend in the River, Cray-Pas oil pastels, Daler Rowney thinner, Canson Mix Media paper
Bend in the River, Cray-Pas oil pastels, Daler Rowney thinner, Canson Mix Media paper

Sure, it’s embarrassing to post my mistakes online, inviting criticism and laughter. Making mistakes, however, is one of the crucial steps in learning to draw or in mastering a new medium or technique. Seeing what we’re doing wrong is a huge step toward improving our work. So, go ahead and tell me how awful these oil pastel landscapes are. Even better, tell me where I went wrong and how I can do better next time.

There will be a next time. I love learning and discovering art, and I hope my experiences can encourage others.

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