Embrace Failure

Here the other night, I was visiting an artist friend of mine. He wanted to discuss early artwork he has created years ago and have rejected, to see if some of the paintings were worth keeping or make changes to in order for them to become complete.

My friend is a successful artist. His paintings have been bought by national galleries and museums, but are quite different from these early works.

We had a constructive and good discussion, talking about reframing, or cropping as we would say in the world of photography, or adding elements or do other changes to the paintings. A lot of the early work came out as really good, and those paintings that weren’t, could be worked into something that would make them great, too. However, quite a few there were no hope for.

All these paintings represent a time when my friend was experimenting a lot with materials, techniques, approaches and artistic expressions. Although they are very different from his later and much recognized work, it was clear, seen in retrospect, that they were necessary steps towards his maturity as an artist and the level that made him renowned and successful.

What stroke me, while it’s something I have often enough emphasized, is the necessity to be willing to experiment and take changes if you want to develop your artistic expression, be it as a painter, a photographer, or anything else creatively. If not, you won’t develop, you will languish as an artist.

However, by taking chance, you risk making something that might become a failure. That lies in whole idea of taking a risk or a chance. If not, there wouldn’t be any risk involved, you wouldn’t be taking any chances.

I think this is so fundamental to acknowledge for yourself if you want to develop as an artist. It means embracing the idea of failure, not as failure in fact, but as necessary steps towards higher artistry. Failures are only failures if you seen them as such. If you take them as possibilities to learn and expand, suddenly they are only part of the process to become ever better.

If you don’t fail, it means you are not developing. If you do fail, it indicates that you are trying to become better or more profound in your skills and artistry. A positive, rather than negative, adaptation.

It’s easy to feel miserable when you fail, whether you don’t achieve what you had set out to accomplish, artistically, or don’t get the recognition you think you deserve. I know, I have been there plenty enough.

The important point is to try to turn it around, so that what you see as failures do not stop you, but rather encourage you to keep on trying. Failures are not failures. But necessary steps in the learning process. No renown artist has gotten his or her recognition overnight, without any prior trying and failing, without labouring and taking chance. The only thing different between them and us is you don’t see all those mistakes and disappointments that they had to prevail.

So embrace failures. They are much more important for your artistic development than your successes. That has been confirmed as well in cognitive behavioural research.

54 thoughts on “Embrace Failure

  1. All that you say is true, but there’s something else that occurs to me. One person’s failure may be another’s success. More than once I’ve posted a photo that I felt was rather pedestrian, even though I wanted to post it for its documentary or other qualities. Imagine my surprise when viewers respond far more positively than I did! Sometimes, we need to dare posting work we’ve rejected, just to allow new eyes to see it. Sometimes, that experience opens our own eyes.

  2. So very true. I look back on my past photos, and can see how far I’ve come. But if I didn’t have that experience, I would never have learned.

  3. This is indeed very encouraging, Otto. A lovely, well-written post.
    How we handle failure is more important than how we handle success. This is something I have watched happen to close friends and photographers; they have been very successful and then a failure or a rejection shatters all hopes and it comes to a complete stop. We are all going to experience failure at some point in our lives, and our attitude about that failure is what determines whether we bounce back or fall hard.
    Have a good weekend❣️
    The Fab Four of Cley

    1. Thank you for a poignant comment. It’s like that in all aspects of life. Anyway can handle success (mostly that is), but it’s how you deal with failure that separates the good from the bad,

  4. Excellent blog Otto. I find I get bored if I keep doing the same thing over and over again. That is when I employ some techniques that may not be that great, but I find I have to try it. Sometimes it feels like a slip backwards. But there have been some successes also so for me it has to be done.

  5. Experimentation and risk are essential to self-expression and the creative process. Lovely to see you back. I am in the throes of deep introspection and thinking about my next series. Stay safe and well.

  6. Thank you Otto for this post. I believe embracing our failures , is a gift to review the intensions of what we want to express. Well on anther note , ” How do we determine what is a real failure, what is that based on? Who would be the judge on that, of course it us, but yet what does influence us to think we are a failure??? Well I am just throwing in all those questions since your great post and I thank you for that. Maybe more to come ..

    1. Your comment makes me think that it is important to distinguish between making failure with some task and think that means you are a failure. That’s why any critique of anybody else’s work will have to be compassionate and humble.

  7. That is exactly! One of my bosses said to me when I told him I messed things up that if you don’t do any work then you do not make any mistake. I still keep these words till now even that was over twenty years ago.

  8. Agreed Otto. A reluctance to take chances ultimately produces sterile, lifeless work. A bird only learns to fly when it leaves the nest.

  9. Wonderful words, Otto, and not just a key to creating art but to creating life as well. The ability to accept the necessity of experimentation and willingness to take chances and then to make changes. Failure is the home to happiness I believe, for the very reasons you mention here. Wishing you well and, I guess, to more failures too 🙂 Cheers!

  10. I like your thoughts. You have to fight a lot. Some struggle a lot while others just slip forward. And some just give up. Then you can also ask: what is a mistake? In whose eye?

  11. This is such a very important message, Otto, and applies to many aspects of life even beyond art. I found your words encouraging.

  12. Being willing to risk failure by pushing past the usual boundaries is important and I like the way you led up to the idea, bt talking about your visit. I love that photo, too, it evokes the artist’s intense involvement with the work. And I like the works that I see on the wall!

  13. I agree and many successful people in all walks of life attribute their success on failure! I think it is good to lay out your goals and then experiment with those goals in mind. I hope the photo you show is his later work because from what I can see it is intriguing!

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