Respect Your Mistakes

The process of learning means you do something before you actually know how to do it. In other words, it’s just fine to make a mess. And messes I’ve been making. In my drawing course, I’ve been drawing an ankle for over 15 hours. Not all in one go, but during intense intervals of concentration. An ANKLE people! Which at one point looked like a cankle, but okay…and it seemed so simple at first. But now that I’ve spent ALL this time seeking total perfection, on an ankle, my view of drawing has changed everything; I mean everything. I’ve learned something, and it’s not just about drawing an ankle. I’ve learned I’ve got to respect my mistakes.

Mistakes are the starting point. They’re necessary–not figuratively, but in reality. When drawing, the artist has to make some initial marks on the paper in order to find the point of measurement to affix the plump line. The plumb line is the line that runs through the middle of the drawing and never, ever, EVER, changes. All the other points and marks originally made…they change. Those original marks are erased and adjusted hundreds of times. By definition they’re mistakes, but they’re not because you needed them. You get what I’m saying? In order to begin, you had to begin. The artist doesn’t just start the sketch at the perfect point, not usually, no way, it’s guess work and after years of training the eye, it goes faster, but it still starts with guess work.

“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” –Scott Adams

The drawing technique I’m referring to is the genius of Charles Bargue, a French artist who introduced his Cours de dessin (drawing course) in the late 1800’s. Since that time, his method for learning how to draw has been the standard used by countless artists, including Van Gogh.

The process is a very slow one. You can’t rush things. Seeing takes time. The artist’s eye must notice every curve, contour, slope, angle, turn and trajectory, while keeping in mind that anything can be changed. Every mark is a chess piece. Make a move and it sets off another. Draw and redraw. Match after match.

During the final stages of my sketch, I realized something about my ankle wasn’t right. The angle of the bone protruding from the tendon was a millimeter too narrow. How had I missed it? In a fit of frustration, I erased a long portion of my line just before my instructor came to critic my work. The first thing he asked when he sat at my easel was, “What happened to your line?”

I explained. It was “off” so I’d erased it. His response was a moment of clarity for me: “Always redraw the new line before you erase the old. Use the former as a guide. You must have respect for the lines you put down. That is what you chose to create, so respect it.”

Without the form of the bone, it was difficult to judge what else was going on in the picture. I needed the line as a reference point for the other distances and relationships. As I began to fix it, I considered my rush toward perfection, my frustration, and the word “respect.” Had I ever thought to respect the lines, the ones I’d been erasing? Had I seen the process for what it was—the objective—helping me become the artist I want to be?

That question led me to other questions. What else in my life had I drawn and what parts had I erased? Did I have respect for my choices, the ones I made using the skill set I had and the judgment I was capable of at the time?

And what about the lines I was drawing now with my actions–the path I was creating. Where was my plumb line?

The answers have come slowly over the past few days. What I’ve concluded is that living in an imperfect world doesn’t diminish my faith, it strengthens it. I can believe in a God who trusts in the process, a God who allows imperfections to exist so we can master the art of living. God never changes so we can. His love is constant. We aren’t. God doesn’t hold the measuring stick; He is the measuring stick…we chose where to plot the points.

My guess is that too often we view our mistakes as weaknesses, as something that is wrong. We think if we were better, more talented, gifted, intellectual then mistakes wouldn’t happen to us. Instead of respect, we regret the decisions which have shaped our learning process. But in the big picture of who we are, the mistakes are part of the final product—they’re beautiful.

“Have no fear of perfection—you’ll never reach it,” said Salvador Dalí.

Perfection takes time, if it’s even possible. I don’t know. Maybe it is achievable in some aspects of life, but if it is to be achieved, then it can only be reached by making mistakes. One of my favorite artists Monet, once remarked, “My life has been nothing but a failure.” If that is true, then your greatest triumphs might just be your biggest mistakes. Respect where you’ve been. Use it as a guide for where you want to go. Erase and adjust. And so on…





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