Failing Forward


It was dawn. I could just see a trace of sunrise sneaking in under the window blind. Had I really stayed up all night?


I had been painting the same painting, again and again... and then again. I was leaning deep into a commission that had me excited. I did not hesitate when the patron showed me a beautiful photo of herself. She had been admiring some large sensual art pieces I had in my studio when she asked, "Can you do this?"


I'd love to do that, I answered without barely blinking. Such was my confidence. I had been using photo references for my other sensual watercolor works, surely I could create something for her representative from the photo.


That confidence began a steady dissolve as I made attempt after attempt to create a painting that was pleasing like my other ones.


"Maybe you're being too picky," a friend said when I told them how I was struggling.


No, it's not that. My daughter, who has a keen eye for art and design, had wandered into my studio and saw two of my failures. "Um...., yeah... not gonna lie, these are not up to what you usually do," she said.


After staying up all night painting and redoing, I felt the weight of defeat. I imagined myself giving up and messaging the client and giving her the deposit back. But I could not accept that. I am Pamela Sue Johnson, Taurus, born year of the Dragon with Scorpio rising and Gemini moon.


I do not give up.

And so, I reached out to Barb, a friend and mentor who has been an artist all of her seventy plus years. "Yes, come by and show me what you have," she offered.


She advised me to draw it differently, let go of this line, don't be tied to the photo. "She already has a photo," said Barb. "It doesn't need to look like the photo. Paint it your way, fast and loose."


Barb then told me the rooster story about an artist in Japan. "Someone came to the artist's studio and hired him to paint them a rooster," she said.


"Give me two weeks," said the artist.


After the patron left, the artist painted a rooster on a piece of paper, and then another one, and then one after that. Pretty soon he had a pile of painted roosters. Two weeks later the guy comes back."


"I'm here for my rooster painting," says the patron.


The old artist reaches for a clean piece of paper and within moments has painted a new and final rooster.


"Why did you make me wait two weeks and charge me so much money when you can paint a rooster so fast like that?" complained the man.


Go paint your rooster, Pam, said Barb. Go paint it fast and loose. Go make the painting your way.

Ain't Never, watercolor and ink on 8x10 Coldpress paper

And so, I kept at it. I drew the composition over and over letting go of lines, adding this, erasing that. When I felt satisfied, I would paint it, and then it would fall apart. So I would start again. Draw, erase, draw some more, paint it again.... and then tear it up muttering to myself, Why can't I get this?


I watched Youtube tutorials. I ordered new supplies, better paints and nicer brushes. I bought art books to heighten my skill. I was in a self-imposed Artist Boot Camp. I was determined to Slay This.


The rest of my art making was neglected. I became obsessed like Beth Harmon from

The Queen's Gambit. I had to win this. HAD TO. Failure was not an option. Not for a second.


I estimate that I drew the composition... or rather attempted.. to draw (and trace) at least fifty times over a matter of weeks. That doesn't count how many times I actually painted it, on small and large paper, upward of two dozen times.


I was O B S E S S E D.


More commissions were coming in, yet I could barely focus on anything else. I had become blind with an insistence to create an artwork that was beyond my skill. I was too stubborn and too proud, tenacious to a fault, to admit I was in over my head.


One late evening I was down to my last piece of paper. I thought about getting more watercolor paper if I needed to. I had been to the art store a few times already to restock. But then it came to me, the clarity that I had been unwilling to admit : this composition requires more skill than I possess today. One day I will have it, but that day is not today. It is time to let it go. Do not keep the patron waiting any longer.


I felt a sense of relief as well as deep disappointment. I do not fail easily. I often tell my students, "Be willing to fail and mess up the art in order to discover and delight in the creative process."


I was having to swallow large doses of my own medicine.


As I went to sleep, I determined that I would message the client the next day. I would be professional and honest, my integrity intact if nothing else, and let her know I could not pull it off.


Several days after, I was with Barb and some other artist friends. "How's that commission going?"


I had to let it go, I said. They consoled me, especially Barb who told me there had been a time or two when she, too, had to let go of commission work she could not produce. "It happens," she offered. "Learn from it and let it go."


I've signed up for a drawing class, and I'm getting a private lesson or two from Hannah who is an accomplished watercolor artist.


"You're failing forward then," said Hannah, "You are learning and growing from this. It's all good."


Failing forward, yes... this reminded me of the story of famed advertising agency Wieden and Kennedy, who in their office have a large sign that reads,


Fail Harder.





On the day I finally pulled out of the commission, I was reading a new book by master watercolor artist,

Bev Jozwiak, Painting Life with Life. I happened upon this bit of insight on the very day I needed it the most :


No painting is a failure, if you have learned something from it... when you push yourself and don't play it too safe, these failures are bound to happen. Then, the failures turn into change and growth in your work.

I definitely have felt the growing pains with this one. And though I feel a bit bruised up for not having pulled this painting off, I also see this as a marker in my creative journey. This is the kind of challenge that once upon a time could have shattered me into quitting my art path. Instead, I am choosing to Fail Hard and Fail Forward. This fuels my tenacity to stay the course and Keep Painting. To just keep painting and making art and selling art despite the setbacks. If it were easy, everyone would be an artist.


Two Lips, watercolor, charcoal and ink on 8x10 Coldpress paper













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