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Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Mistakes- Guest Blogger, Katie O'Neill

I am posting a friends recent blog because...
1. I owe all of my classical painting ability to her.
2. I think her writing is worth the read. 
3. She is one of the smartest people I know.  So listen to what she says!


It happens about once a month.  A new student, elementary school age , will proudly tell me “There are no mistakes in art.”  And I know they are quoting a mantra they’ve heard at school or in another art class or maybe from their parents.   I usually come back with something like, “Well, just in case, we have erasers” and move the conversation on to other things.  I know whoever told them “there are no mistakes in art” had all the best intentions. I know they thought they were fostering self-esteem and creativity.  But I’ll take Big Bird’s wise words over those any day of the week. “Everyone makes mistakes so why can’t you.”
    A couple weeks ago I went on a field trip to the Getty with my son’s second grade class.  The volunteer docent was enthused and helpful and showed us a variety of portraits in the collection.  After we studied Joseph Ducreux’s self portrait, “The Yawn”, she invited the kids to make their own self portraits in oil pastel.  Now oil pastels are not my favorite medium - sort of glorified crayons - and almost impossible to correct if you should..... make a mistake.   When one of the kids felt he had, well, made a mistake, he asked the docent what he should do to fix it.  The very well-meaning docent said, “Just go with it.  That’s what this artist did.  There are no mistakes in art.  When artists make a mistake they just go where that takes them.”  I believe I was successful in keeping it mostly under my breath as I muttered, “No, that’s not true.” 
Joseph Ducreux-The Yawn
    For, dear reader, let’s examine Mr. Ducreux’s impressive
study of himself yawning.  Are we really to believe he did
this all in one go with no mistakes or revisions?  Do we
really want our seven year-olds to think that you need to be
some super-naturally gifted, mistake-free, demigod to even
hope to create Getty-worthy works of art?  I say, “Nay!”
    Now, let’s look at Michelangelo’s sketch of the Madonna
and child at the top of this post.  It’s a beautiful drawing by
one of history’s best draftsmen.  But if you look closer you
will find dozens of mistakes, revisions, whatever you want
to call them.  Look how many times he moved around
baby Jesus’s leg for Christ’s sake.  When he had the leg in
the wrong place did he just “go with it”?  No.  He fixed it.
And fixed it again and again until he had it where he thought
it suited his purpose.
    I propose that it’s a much more creatively liberating and
empowering strategy to teach kids (and adults) that mistakes are not only correctable but  an inherent  part of the process.  How much more relaxing is it to lightly put down where you think the eye might go on your self portrait, knowing full well you have the magic power to move it around, than to be forced to commit to a spot on your first go.  It doesn’t matter how much that very well meaning art teacher praises the creative placement of facial features - “Just like Picasso!” - if deep down the student wishes he or she had done it differently.  Being able to fix things also encourages creative risk taking because you are never in danger of mucking the whole thing up.
    Of course there are mistakes in art.  Just like there are mistakes in every aspect of our lives.  But you will never find a realm where mistakes are easier to acknowledge and correct.  Most of the time no one else even has to know you made them.

If you want more of Katie, visit her blog at www.oneillsfineart.com

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