On Art and Failure

What I’ve learnt about failure through art


As an artist, one of the first things I hear people say when I mention art or drawing is "I'm really bad at drawing", and here I will let you in on a secret: in the best possible way, nobody is good at anything at first. Of course some people do have natural talent in areas that others don't, but for the most part, we all start at square zero.

If I picked up a saxophone and tried to play, you can bet that whatever I played would not be pleasing to the ears. But that’s not because I’m a bad musician or even a bad saxophone player. It’s because I’ve never learnt to play the saxophone! If I was taught and practiced every day and learnt the necessary skills, then there’s the chance I could be an amazing saxophonist! 😉

Maybe you’re reading this thinking I sound out of touch because I’m someone that can draw and create art. Well, I actually failed my degree in Illustration upon first submission - I was told by one of my tutors that my work was boring. The education system is an entirely different conversation, but I do find it difficult to understand how you can judge, mark or grade something that is inherently subjective.

I saw many fellow students - amazingly talented artists - crying or upset because they received a Second or Third Class Honours degree instead of a First. Perhaps their dissertation brought down their grade, or maybe their unique way of creating art did not meet the marking board’s specifications. There are also artists like Frida Kahlo who never actually attended art school, but this doesn’t mean that their work is not valuable. I think it’s important to know that you are not your degree, you are not your grades, you are not your education and you are not your work. Those things do not define your talents or who you are, despite the pressure we may have from society and the people around us.

As a result of crippling self-doubt around my art, it's taken me two years to start drawing and creating again. Thanks to some amazing support from the Vivo Life team, I’m starting to have more confidence in my own abilities again. I recently lead an art workshop for my colleagues and was shocked by the positive reception I received. Truthfully, the first thought in my head was “People are lying to be nice, they don’t actually mean what they say” but I made a conscious effort to ignore that thought. I’m a bit rusty and out of practice, and it can be incredibly frustrating when you have an idea in your head but can’t get it onto paper quite how you imagine it. But, there are some things I’ve realised that have helped me to overcome that critical voice.

1) The process of learning can be embarrassing at first.

Using the saxophone as an example again, I’m sure nobody starts by playing Baker Street, but instead builds their way up through learning notes, scales and rhythms and then progressing into basic songs and getting gradually more complex with the knowledge you’ve gained over time. The same goes for art: you start with basics and the more you practice, the better your skills will be. But in the beginning you may not be proud of your work, you may find it cringey or embarrassing and the instinct can be to tear up the paper and throw it away. But this is just part of the process- it’s okay to be bad at first!

2) Being watched can feel intimidating.

As we’ve just established, when learning something new, it’s likely you’ll make mistakes, or you won’t be very good in the beginning. But if someone is watching our process, we may feel pressure to perform far above our natural level. Often just the fear of being judged is enough to make you not want to try. The unspoken feeling imposed on us by society to be productive 24/7 can mean there’s also pressure to turn hobbies into a practical skill or even an additional source of income. But it’s important to take time for yourself. When it comes to art, feel safe in the knowledge that you don’t have to show anyone your work if you don’t want to. You can create things for you and you alone and that is a perfectly valuable use of your time.

3) Comparison is one of the worst things that you or someone else can do when you’re learning a new skill.

Maybe you started something new at the same time as someone else; they’ve really picked it up and you just haven’t. It’s incredibly difficult not to draw a comparison and ask yourself why they can do it and you can’t – but the reason is, people learn in different ways and at different speeds. As I mentioned before, some people can pick certain things up really quickly, whereas for others it may take years to hone and develop a skill. Instead of judging others or judging ourselves, we should try to allow ourselves the space to practice, develop and learn without comparison.

4) If you’re struggling, try a different approach!

Art is so much more than being good at drawing. Personally I am not very good at printing. I really struggle to wrap my head around creating art backwards/inside out/upside down for the image to be displayed correctly when printed with ink. I’m sure if I practiced more I would improve. However, I’ve found different ways of creating that I am naturally more skilled with; I love photography for example! Maybe you’re not a natural born drawing expert- but have you tried sculpting, painting, embroidery, collage or pyrography? You may find a new talent, or exploring a different area may help you to better understand your chosen discipline!

5) Making mistakes is how we learn.

If you look at children and even animals - making mistakes is integral to learning how the world works. For some reason, as adults we hold ourselves to higher standards and feel that we should be above mistakes. But by making mistakes we learn what doesn’t work, and we can try a new approach, or even on occasion we might accidentally find a better way of doing things! Accepting flaws can be difficult at first, but our imperfections make us human.