Many times we’re told to “do what we can,” and that’s good advice. As a general rule, doing something is preferable to doing nothing, and if we’ve been procrastinating because we’re not sure how to do a particular thing, just “doing what we can” is often a good way to get back on track. Once we get started, we can figure it out.
The idea of “doing what you can” is similar in some respects to “just do your best,”. Doing our best is, presumably, enough to get us through a rough spot. We’re often assured that “doing our best” is what really matters. I’ve probably said that many times here in this blog.
True enough, doing our best, or at least “doing what we can”, is a good approach — most of the time. But it’s occurred to me today that there are a few weak spots in this otherwise sage advice. If we only do what we can — what we’re capable of — we aren’t really going to learn, grow, and improve. If we focus on “doing our best”, we’ll be less likely to make mistakes and, therefore, less likely to have the opportunities we need to develop our skills and abilities to their fullest.
Of course, I understand that the real meaning of “doing what we can” or “doing our best” is based on questions and doubts about our proficiency. You’ll notice that the advice is usually prefixed with “just” — “Just do what you can. Just do your best.” It’s a nice-sounding way of saying, “Yes, you suck and we both know it, but just do what you can. Yes, indeed, you really do suck, but just do your best, and we’ll say that it’s all right.”
“Just do your best. Just do what you can.” Well-intended words, of course. But not really all that encouraging if we think about the unsaid sub-text.
Sometimes, though, the idea of “doing what we can” or “doing our best” is meant as a starting point. It’s akin to Maya Angelou‘s suggestion to “Do the best you can until you know better,” which is followed up with an injunction that “When you know better, do better.”
But something has to happen in-between “doing the best we can” and “knowing better”. We have to learn. We have to practice. We have to work to get better and bridge that gap.
For a self-taught artist, practicing has a few pitfalls. I may read dozens of books and watch countless art videos, but that’s not always enough to help me see and understand proper techniques. I don’t have a teacher standing over me to suggest different methods or to assist me in developing specific skills. I’m left with a “trial-and-error” approach that can lead to a lot of frustration.
There are many things I can’t do well in art. My weakest area is my inability to paint thin, fine lines. For a landscape artist, this is a serious problem. I want to paint trees, branches, twigs. I want to paint thin blades of grass. I need to develop the skill, yet it continues to elude me.
Earlier this morning I took to my easel to create an “imaginative” quick study. I had a reference photo — a lovely waterfall surrounded by lots of leafy trees. But my assignment — part of my 100-day creative adventure — was about using artistic license to change a scene in some way to better reflect a specific mood.
I gave it a bit of thought and made a few decisions. I would not paint the lovely summer scene but would instead transpose it to winter. I liked the idea of trying to create a “frozen waterfall,” but what about all those bare trees?
First things first. I gave a little consideration to other factors I’ve been studying. My intention was to create a “winter afternoon” scene using warm light, cool shadows, and a somewhat complementary color scheme of reds and greens. Yes, snow is usually depicted with cooler tones, so this sounded like a fun challenge.
But again, what about all those bare trees? Well, they didn’t turn out very good, but it was not for lack of trying. Here, see for yourself.
I did, indeed, have lots of fun with the rocks and the waterfall. I liked the somewhat unusual — or at least unexpected — color combination of the warm red with the cool, dark shadows. But, oh, those trees!
I no sooner began adding the trees when I wished I hadn’t even attempted them. I liked so much about the painting. Those horrible trees simply ruined it all. That’s when I realized that maybe it’s more important to do what we can’t do than to stick with what we can.
“I can’t make these thin, fine lines, so I need to practice them, over and over. I need to keep trying different things until I figure out what I’m doing wrong and how to fix it.” In other words, while I was doing the best I could with what I knew, that wasn’t getting me anywhere. I needed to learn more so that I could do better.
And so I stood at my easel painting branches, branches, branches, branches. I tried several different detail brushes. I thinned my paints with water. I thinned my paints with medium. I tried holding the brush with different grips. I tried painting twigs upward and downward. I kept painting lines until I’d reached a point where there was nowhere left to paint any more.
In the end, I did get a few fine lines in there, but not enough to say, “Yes, I know how to do this now.” But I learned something very important. When there’s something we can’t do, shying away from it and trying to avoid it isn’t going to help. So I’m changing my philosophy now. I’m no longer going to advocate “doing what we can.” It’s much more important, I think, that we do what we can’t, and that we keep doing it until we finally can do it.