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Learning how to draw means learning to see. A good art lesson teaches us not only to create but to look at, think about and understand our world through art.

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Sunday, April 17, 2016

On 'Messing Up', trial, error and the creative process

Trial and error is essential to the creative process. When I draw, my eraser is as important an instrument as my pencil. In the classroom I teach my students to work through their mistakes and never give up. 

If a student tells me they are dissatisfied with their drawing and they are willing to point out specifically the part that is frustrating them I will be happy to use every resource I know of in order to help them work through their difficulty. If, however, they throw their paper away or bring me a blank page I will send them back to try again because I don't know what they can do on their own. In other words, your mistakes and frustrations hold the key to your future learning. Don't throw away your 'mess ups', use them to learn. 

I'll let you in on a little secret: famous artists mess up too! They erase and they get frustrated as they try to draw new things. Instead of throwing their paper away they keep working until they get it right.  

Édouard Manet, The Bullfight,1864
"In 1864 Manet exhibited at the Salon a painting entitled An Incident in the Bullring. The work was savagely caricatured and criticized, one writer describing its subject as “a toreador of wood killed by a horned rat.” After the picture was returned from the Salon, Manet cut out two separate compositions from the canvas, possibly because he accepted the criticism as justified. The lower, larger section, now known as The Dead Toreador, is in the National Gallery, Washington. Both sections of the original canvas were subsequently reworked by the artist, the head of the bull being added to the Frick segment after the painting had been divided."*

"In 1864 Manet exhibited a large painting he called Episode from a Bullfight. Critics complained that its image of a fallen matador was out of proportion to the bull that had just gored him. "A wooden bullfighter, killed by a horned rat," one sneered. At some point, Manet cut the painting apart, creating two smaller, more powerful works: The Dead Toreador, here, and The Bullfight, now in the Frick Collection, New York.
Although Manet may have acted in response to the harsh criticism, it was not uncommon for him to rework compositions. He repainted the background, extracting the figure from the context of the bullfight, and in so doing changed the nature of his painting. The fallen matador is no longer part of a narrative but is instead an icon, an isolated and compelling figure of sudden and violent death. From the now featureless background the man's body is dramatically foreshortened, thrusting toward the viewer. Its proximity and isolation are startling. Only the man's costume informs us about him, traces of blood the only signs of a painful death."*

How would you respond if art critics made fun of your work? 
How do you think Manet felt after so many people made fun of his painting?

Let's take a look at how well Vincent Van Gogh was able to draw in 1880

Now let's look at a drawing of his from 1882

Here is one of his paintings from 1887

And another drawing from 1888

There is no question that, over the course of those eight years, from 1880 to 1888, by drawing from life and copying from pictures every single day, Vincent Van Gogh's skill improved dramatically. Your drawings will improve too, if you never give up. 

 From 'The Natural Way to Draw by Kimon Nicolaïdes

Before plunging into major projects or wasting expensive materials, most artists will develop their ideas by sketching. An artist may change his mind many times as his thoughts evolve. Take a look at these preliminary drawings from Leonardo da Vinci's sketchbook:

In the first picture, da Vinci plays around with the position of the horse's leg

The drawing above, from da Vinci's sketch book, shows the guidelines he used to determine the facial proportions. 

 The picture below has smears and finger prints on it but that didn't stop Leonardo from keeping his artwork. 

Leonardo da Vinci and Vincent Van Gogh both used their sketches to develop ideas for some of the most famous and beloved pieces of art the world has ever known. How are you going to use your sketches? Click here to explore the sketchbooks of other famous artists.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606 – 1669) was a Dutch painter and etcher. He is generally considered one of the greatest painters and print makers in European art and the most important in Dutch history. His most famous painting is the Night Watch

Like Da Vinci, many of Rembrandt's paintings were inspired by biblical stories.

Rembrandt admired Da Vinci's last supper. It inspired him. When he was just 23 years old he painted this painting:

It shows the repentant Judas, his face wracked with pain, attempting to return the 30 pieces of silver. You can learn more about this painting by clicking here and by watching this video:

Below is a sketch by Rembrandt, inspired by Da Vinci's famous fresco, The Last Supper. 

Because Rembrandt was in Holland and the original fresco is in Italy, he was copying from an engraving by Pieter Soutman, who created HIS picture from a Peter Paul Rubens  etching, who in turn created HIS painting from Leonardo Da Vinci's  original. The red chalk picture was never meant to be displayed. Sketching is how artists learn how to draw new things. This drawing is a rough draft, or 'sloppy copy'. He blocked in the forms lightly and then drew more details using darker lines. He erased. He changed his mind. He worked out his ideas, trying different lines. He even painted white paint over his 'mess ups' (but over time that paint turned transparent).

Here are two other sketches Rembrandt created of The Last Supper:

Because Rembrandt could not go to Italy to see the original fresco (and there were no photographs back in the 1600's), he used an etching by another artist as a reference. Here is the etching by Pieter Soutman that Rembrandt copied:

Pieter Soutman used an etching by Peter Paul Rubens to create his own picture. I don't have a picture of that etching but here is Rubens painting, The Last Supper, which was also inspired by Da Vinci:

Rembrandt never painted 'The Last Supper'. He did however use some of the figures from the sketches in later paintings.

What would have happened if Da Vinci had given up? What if he threw his sketch of Judas away after spilling the ink on it? What if he never painted 'The Last Supper' at all? Would Soutman, Rubens or Rembrandt have ever created their pictures without Da Vinci to inspire them? 

What lessons can we learn from this story?
Don't throw your paper away, even if it contains multiple corrections. Working through mistakes is how good artists become great ones. How you struggle through and solve problems will determine how skilled you become. If you never make any mistakes it's likely you aren't challenging yourself. 

You will never know where an idea might lead unless you take the time to pursue it. 

Some final thoughts:


  1. Thank you...many of these ideas could well be applied to life itself.

  2. Thank you...many of these ideas could well be applied to life itself.