Saturday, March 7, 2015

Beyond Failure....

The word "failure" carries with it the implication that no success has been achieved in the act of what has been attempted. It has always remained my opinion that such a definition in itself... is more accurately a true failure. - a failure to incorporate more than one standard upon which to base success or learning in the process.

In my classroom, as in my own life... I have tried to view each "failure" more as a "learning opportunity." Hence, at the conclusion of the initial process one's duty is to evaluate what was learned, both positively and conversely... negatively. In subsequent attempts to improve, one can use both components learned to elevate performance and improvement... based more upon one's own standards and expectations.

I put this theory into practice within my painting process as well. As with all creative projects we undertake, our goal is to succeed. That is, we hope to end up with a product which lines itself up comparatively close to our original vision. In my own experience, complete perfection is a rarity... and a "pleasing painting" is most usually the general result to be expected.

Then... there are those frustratingly dark days of painting. Those discouraging days when nothing positive seems to happen. Or... the product is but a blurring resemblance to the inner vision in the end. I used to call them "Frisbees"  because... quite literally, Frank and I would simply Frisbee them (no signature)... to their final plein air final resting places. A good number of them even today... await re-discovery in many remote areas north of Kingston.

I no longer continue this negative recycling practice. I save them... turn them to the wall, so that I can forget them. I occasionally sand them and paint over them. But for the large part, I find that I "rediscover" them... and when I do, most of the original disappointment and angst over the perceived failure to hit the bulls eye has disappeared. It is then that I find myself inspired to come at the original "Idea" from another angle.

The process that I employ... I fondly call "Imagineering". By that, I mean that I totally ignore the original concept... choosing only certain strong aspects of the painting that I believe have merit and could lead to a better solution and outcome. It takes courage to risk "wasting time" on a failure.... but in my teaching career... some of the many perceived "failures" who landed on my doorstep along the way turned out to be the benchmarks of success (their own) because they were able to be encouraged to "imagine"... and then commit themselves to work towards another reality.

My artistic rationale for reversing perceived failure is based upon that same template for success. Give everything your best shot. If you lose the pathway... take a break from it. Do something else. Then return... re-evaluate... re-vision and work outside of the box that you created for yourself in the first run.

I have chosen such a project to share with you today that I had great hopes for... even prematurely posted (in all its ugliness) on this site. I can't relate to you the embarrassment that I felt when I noted one day in the gallery that several things didn't add up... even visually make sense.

Here is the process that I just completed to recover my dignity and a true sense of joy in creating what I feel is a very good oil study. Trees have long been a strong subject interest in my plein air work. We can learn so much from trees... and about how they interact in the landscape that they share. They are elegantly dressed... ever-changing in appearance and firmly rooted in life. Even in death... they defy giving up and maintain dignity. I admire all trees greatly... and love to study and paint them.

This particular winter willow study had its origin in a jpeg that I had garnered just down the Parkway. It touched a nerve in me because our summer cottage had a humongous and ancient weeping willow that afforded our family gatherings shade  and a place for children to climb and dream. Sadly..., it is no more.

Here is the digital image upon which I based my version of "Winter Willow" on a 24 x 20 inch canvas. The reference photo was rather ordinary... without character... or worse interesting detail.  I began using the process of "Imagineering" by cropping the original image and zooming in on the trunk and ground area. It helped (some) to gain a starting point.

This is the end result of my first attempt to create a painting. At first glance it might appear to have been reasonably successful. However... closer attention shows glaring assumptions and unresolved visual miscues. In the trunk of the willow itself branches appear to cross over front to back awkwardly. The tree more closely echoes a snake-like Medusa... and less a lithe willow personage. More myth than truth.

In the background... young fir trees create an impression of an iron gate marching in equal intervals and thicknesses across the very shallow and indistinct middle ground. In summation... the painting violates too many necessary truths to remain believable. An embarrassing disaster for certain!

During the past week, I was preparing to go upstairs for some lunch when the painting caught the corner of my eye as I passed. There was "something" that resonated for me... so I set it beside my easel while I completed the current project. Upon completing that painting... I placed this "loser" on the easel and decided to "putz away" at it using the last paint on my palette... just for the fun of it. This is what appeared out of ... I don't no where... Honestly!

"Winter Sunscape"... now presents a white pine against a more clearly defined and open middle ground field of snow covered granite in shadow. The richly lit white pine trunk against the muted blues and purples creates a greater sense of depth. Gone is the incongruity cause by the flailing arms of the earlier willow.

 I believe that this painting better represents the feeling and mood that I wished to convey previously.

Did I fail initially... or did I simply build upon and eliminate the earlier flaws and make better use of the stronger elements of composition that are still present in the second effort? You be the judge. I am satisfied with the new version and will include it in my fast-approaching exhibition. I believe it worthy of inclusion.

Hopefully, my experience here will encourage some of you to give some previous "failures" a second look. I will close this evening's post with a relevant quote from the American existentialist philosopher Rollo May which I believe lends itself to understanding the value and the importance of overcoming failure by further searching and risking... and not in simply giving up.

"There is a curiously sharp sense of joy - or perhaps better expressed, a sense of mild ecstasy- that comes when you find the particular form required by your creation."

Taken  from: 
No More Second Hand Art / Awakening the Artist Within 
by Peter London

 May you feel the true joy of creation by your own hand...
Good Painting... to ALL!!!!!!!


  1. Bruce, this is beautiful, truly.

    Wanted to haggle the philosophy you posted in response to last post. Please know that I take nothing away from your years of hard work and dedication. Nothing. And I want you to know that I've been playing with art for most of my 55 years too. Never have managed to please myself with what I accomplish but I do know that I've improved markedly over the years. But I also believe that some people are truly born with a gift. My oldest daughter has been drawing since she was about 2 years old and she is so talented, so gifted. One of my own favorite artists and yet she is not driven. At all. I am driven and get frustrated way too easily.

    I believe you do have a natural gift and I would suspect there isn't much you've painted/drawn that isn't phenomenal, even at your outset. This is what I crave for myself and obviously isn't going to happen. Your words do sting a bit and do lend to discouragement, though I know that was not your intent. Here is what I have discovered...the pieces I like the most that I've done are when I choose a subject that I have a passion for in life. My style is never going to mimic your own or anyone else's because it is from my hand. I want it to be from my hand. I do believe that good drawing is the true foundation and that is what I really need to focus on and work on. Once I get settle in a new place, I think that will be my focus. A good drawing can have watercolor added after the fact and this is the way I really want to go.

    Thanks for always being willing to listen and talk, Bruce. You are a true friend.

  2. Good morning dear Friend Sherry!... Your comments come in a bitter-sweet fashion to me this morning. But I can assure you that your comments evoke nothing more a bit of sadness for me... and surely not anger.

    The intent of my comments to you (past and present) are meant to encourage "You"... and all others who choose to read and contribute to this blog forum to share their feelings and ideas without fear of judgement... or my increasing or imposing a feeling of "failure" on you for your life... ideas... or painting goals.

    The only reason that I continue to think... plan and create these blog posts is to inspire people to value themselves and their creator-ship. "My way",,, should never be construed by you or anyone else to be "the highway to success and happiness". It is merely... the path that I have followed to arrive where I am... and that keeps changing.

    I honestly avoid taking part in the not so infrequent on line practice of back slapping and false praise in return for the same back. I do not surf to collect Followers.

    I view that a mentor owes it to his " follower" to be transparent and honest. That means challenging a repeated pattern of mistakes, or what comes across as flaws in attitudes that run against the grain in trying to improve.

    It is both difficult and painful to hear and see someone that you value caught in a vortex of frustration... which can become self-pity... UNLESS... someone who one can trust over time... simply... "tells it as it is"... and offers a second perspective.

    You have every right to "haggle the philosophy" that I consistently present... and live by Sherry. I honor you right to say that. However... I will assure you that the philosophy I speak of and live under... is indelibly etched in my ethos and practice.

    I'm deeply sorry that the words in my response stung you. I did not intend hurt. But you know my dear... we are each in charge of... and responsible for our own Destinies. The opinions of others can encourage and soothe us... but only positive and sustained actions... coupled with a true belief in one's Self... can insure Happiness down the line.

    Your final lines make everything "right" between us for me at this end dear Friend. I hope it is truly so at your end!

    Much Peace and Happiness!
    Warmest regards,

  3. Hi Bruce, I completely agree with what you say about not immediately rejecting paintings. I don't have so much scope for reworking in watercolour, but it's surprising what can be achieved sometimes.

    I think you could perhaps have done something with the original version, by cropping a third off the top and creating more variety in the background. However, I like the increased tonal range, and reduced range of colours, in the new version.

    All the best,

  4. Good morning Keith... Thanks for visiting... and for the accompanying useful critique! Much appreciated!

    What you describe in your suggestions speaks to the very point I maintain. We all have our unique vision... and process for deciding and changing paths. Your well founded observations and suggestions would have worked too. But I plodded through the maze... didn't give up... and voila! A better and more palatable solution that I am proud to include in the exhibition.

    Let the cards fall... where they may!

    Good Painting!
    Warmest regards,