Why We Learn More From Mistakes

I just finished a “quick study” a short time ago. I know… you’ve been seeing a lot of “quick studies” lately, and be forewarned: you’ll be seeing more. This one is quite a mess, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to post it or not. I learned so much from it, though, that I wanted to share the experience. As I thought about the painting and the principles I was working with, I had a startling realization. We really do learn more from mistakes and failures than from our successes.

What can success teach us? Nothing, really. A successful work of art is simply an affirmation of who we are and where we are. A failed painting — or even a quick study that doesn’t work — can teach us many different things. We recite that adage often, but I’d never really thought too deeply about it until this morning as I wondered why it was that I felt I’d learned so much from this quick study even though it’s not an especially pretty painting.

Here it is: Moonlight Nocturne — Quick Study on 9 x 12 Canvas Paper — Oil

This is a simple painting, very much like the “primary school” painting I used in one of my art journals. This time, though, I hoped to approach it more seriously, to actually create something beautiful even though it was only a quick alla prima study.

The purpose behind it was to focus on — pun intended — a focal point. Accordingly, as I browsed through my collection of reference photos, I chose one with a very, very definite focal point. No mistaking that full moon in the night sky.

As I took out my canvas paper and prepared to paint, I considered a few other factors. My painting — like the reference photo — would be monochromatic, all based on shades and tints of blue. What about key? Definitely low-key using the darker values of the scale. What about that bright moon? No, it’s not pure white, but I have learned that when painting low-key, artists occasionally use small strokes of a very high-key color to provide interest and contrast. Since the moon is clearly the focal point here, I wanted strong contrast, so I did add a touch of lightness to the moon.

I’m learning now, too, about “temperature dominance” and how warm and cool colors work together in a single painting. While one temperature should predominate, we need both in our paintings. Putting this all together, I set out to create a quick study that would be: (a) monochromatic, (b) low-key, and (c) predominantly cool. See how much I’ve learned already!

At this stage of the process, all of that “learning” was purely intellectual. How was I supposed to actually apply all of those principles? I didn’t think it would be too difficult, especially since I’d selected such a basic landscape scene. A night sky. A full, bright moon. Distant trees. A pine. A bare tree. All elements that I can paint without too much trepidation. Simple enough even for primary school artists.

I sketched out my basic shapes and then, yep, indeed, I went for that phthalo blue! There is much discussion from website to website about the “temperature” of phthalo blue. I consider it a cool blue; some artists claim it’s warm. To me, it seemed perfect for this painting. I also put ivory black and titanium white on my palette.

Now, what about warm shadows? I decided that even though this is “monochromatic” — all in blue — I would use a cadmium red to “warm up” the dark blue shadows.

Initially things went well. My night sky was near perfection — for me, at least. While I had a bit of trouble with the moon, I managed to get a bright white (relatively speaking) orb in the sky, and my distant trees were looking very good. I was happy. I could feel the coolness of this moonlit night.

Things started going wrong when I painted the trees. Even though I’d originally sketched out the basic shapes… well, as I started painting, those shapes shifted a bit. The limbs of my bare tree were going in the wrong places, and as always, I struggled with getting thin, fine lines.

And what an awful job I did adding that pine sitting at the edge of the frame. As so often happens, it “kept growing” as I painted, getting bigger and bigger until it threatened to obliterate the moon.

I did try wiping a few bare branches away, ended up making a big mess in the upper right corner of the sky, and finally I just let out a big sigh. I’d started with such good intentions, and I’d ended up with a big mess.

But wait! I wasn’t even finished yet. How about those warm shadows? Ah, yes. I mixed a little of my cadmium red into my black-blue mixture and ran it down the trunk of the bare tree. After all, I couldn’t make things any worse!

To my surprise, I felt the shadows come alive. I added more “cool, pale blue” to the lighted side of the tree, and I nearly shivered from the cold. How about that distant line of trees? I needed shadows there, too. Again, I mixed in my cadmium red, laid in the shadows, and oh, my goodness, how the tree line took on new dimensions.

You might not see it too well in the painting, though, because that’s when I really started to learn-by-doing. I experimented. I put lights in the trees. I put shadows in the tree. I experimented with my warm color in places and my cooler hues in other places. And here’s where the simple truth hit me.

WE LEARN MORE FROM MISTAKES BECAUSE WE’RE NO LONGER CONCERNED ABOUT MAKING MISTAKES. With this practice piece, my thinking was “Well, I can’t hurt it, so let me try this… and this… and this.” Each time I tried something different, I saw the results. I learned from every brush stroke I made.

I got out several different brushes and played with those fine lines for branches. I played more with shadows. I played with different brush stroke techniques. It didn’t matter what I did, I couldn’t go wrong because the painting was already “wrong” — so, again, I had a wondrous sense of freedom. I could try anything I wanted, just to see what would happen.

So I came away from this quick study with a picture that’s not very pretty, but which helped me see how to use warm and cool colors, how to consider the relative values of lights and shadows. It showed me too where I really need to work — tree branches, better compositional planning, more control over the brushstrokes I make.

Had this quick study turned out “perfect” I wouldn’t have learned nearly so much. It’s the “hands-on”, practical knowledge that truly helps us understand how all of these principles of art actually work. A perfect study would have resulted in a bit of “intellectual know-how”, but by making mistakes, I opened up the door to true understanding.

14 Comments

  1. At first glance, you certainly do not see any of the work that you did in the shadows and with the light. After reading the blog, I could actually see each part that you talked about. Annd I can see where this one was a real learning tool. Hate to have those ‘mistakes’ in our work, but we truly do learn from them!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Yes, I did learn from this. Once it started going wrong, I was free to keep trying different things, and that’s how we learn the most, I think.

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  2. I particularly like the tree’s shadow, and the trees in the distance — they blend very well with what’s around them. And you described a good benefit of making mistakes. I used to despise them, being too focused on the image in my head of what a drawing should look like. Thankfully, I’ve come to ease that. Mistakes can lead to surprises, as cadmium red did with you. And those surprises can lead to more creativity.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You are definitely over one of the biggest humps an artist has to conquer. The next one is to transfer this newfound freedom to your (I hesitate to use this word, but I trust you to know what I mean) “real” paintings. Approach every painting as just a study, something to be explored and learned from. And BTW, I see you have also discovered that painted trees like to “grow”. Mine do that too. I have learned (mostly) to rein them in. 🤣(mostly) to rein them in. 🤣

    Liked by 1 person

    1. LOL.. yes, my trees grow and grow and grow… I have to laugh, and I hope someday I’ll learn to rein them in. You’re right about applying this freedom to “real” paintings as opposed to “practice” paintings. That’s excellent advice!

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