drawing lessons on failure.

I wanted to start this out with a direct quote from Dave, my favorite drawing professor at Ball State. But even as I sat here with my head down and eyes squeezed shut trying to remember how he’d worded things, I couldn’t for my life. The thing is, he says things so darn funny I wish I’d recorded all of his classes.. although that might have been slightly weird. Regardless, I can’t do him justice.

Dave is a brilliant man. He’s lived and stuff, so he knows things. You know?
Freshman year, 8am MWF. My best friend Casey and I would drag ourselves to the 4th floor of AJ and into his class… Drawing 1. We’d sit on the high stools at the drawing tables that formed a circle around the pedestal in the center of the room, and sit and wait for Dave to start talking.

At first I was sure I was going to hate that class. Dave would just sit on his stool near the corner of the room for the first whole 30 minutes of class and read from our drawing textbook, which I thought was lazy. Why couldn’t we just read it ourselves? But I think Dave knew. We wouldn’t read it. And he wanted us to hear it. I’m so glad he did, because the drawing book he read from was a work of art in itself. It was poetic and its curriculum derived from a drawing philosophy I now understand was the one Dave wholeheartedly subscribed to. It was a philosophy of drawing as recording information, and not striving for photorealism, a concept new to many young art majors. A concept extremely new to me.

Dave would also tell stories. Crazy stories, sometimes, but usually just random things that he lived. He had a way of making the mundane seem fascinating, or amusing, at the least. It took me a few weeks to catch on to his dry sense of humor, as it did for most people. In the subsequent semesters when I repeatedly enrolled in his other drawing and printmaking classes, I’d look around the room on syllabus day, exchanging knowing glances with the Dave veterans, suppressing a giggle at the confused looks of the newbies.

His stories always held an application, or some sort of imparted knowledge. They were characterized by long pauses, subtle looks, husky whispers, impassioned rants, straight-faced impersonations, pretending to be a sculpture he saw at the Met, and then finally, indifferent body language and the quiet punctuation as his eyes drifted from one face to another — “questions?”

His extensive knowledge of art was astounding, his idiosyncrasies unique, and the skills he transferred to us were valuable. I loved his classes, so I took one of them almost every semester of undergrad. But as much as I enjoyed the classes and the work, it’s Dave’s philosophy of drawing as recording information that stuck with me and helped me to learn one of life’s most important lessons.

“Nine out of ten times I draw and it’s okay, but it’s nothing special,” Dave would say, in effect. “But every now and then I get something really good. And that’s just how it goes.”

He’d say things like this only every now and then, but the way he judged our drawings reinforced the idea. Dave’s standard of “good” was vague at first, but I came to understand it as this: authentic expression of a form in your own hand, free and uncalculated. He loved when you could see the preliminary lines from an initial rendering of a figure, before it’d been moved and developed. The textbook he read from talked about drawing from the elbow — using your whole arm. Wide, sweeping motions. Drawing was more about looking, he’d say. The goal was simply to record the information our eyes were taking in. It’d come out our fingers as our unique interpretation. You’ve gotta move around the whole composition, never working too long in one place. If you get all scrunched up and focus on one square inch your drawing will be cramped. If you think too hard about it, you’ll mess it up.

But mostly what stuck with me was this idea of failure as necessary for success: the more you draw, the more often you’ll fail. But without the failure, there was no excellence. We had to embrace failure as part of the process.

This was really new to most of us, especially those who had done art their whole lives and had a tight, realistic, developed and defined style. I wasn’t one of those, though. I’d never been trained, so this idea was attractive to me. It was a drawing philosophy full of grace, full of second chances, and I wouldn’t have grown as an artist if I hadn’t internalized it. Realism was not the goal. Looking and trying, trying, trying again to record information was. Breathing and loosening up was the goal. Relaxing and enjoying the process was the goal. Accepting the result.

And this, as I’ve come to realize, is just what life is all about.
I tell you the truth: if you go through life with your shoulders up to your ears in tension and self-scrutiny you’ll miss out on the journey. If you strive for absolute perfection and never accept grace to fail you just may never strike anything truly good.

It’s true in visual art, but it’s also true in music, in theatre, in yoga, and in life. Ultimately this lesson rings true for me because I’ve seen it play out, told to me again and again. These are culturally-accepted truths in each realm:

“Release your tongue tension!” If you are tense you won’t sing well.
“Loosen up!” If you are afraid to look stupid, you won’t be true to the character.
“Breathe.” If you don’t relax you will struggle to hold any difficult pose in yoga.
“My grace is sufficient for you.”

If you don’t give yourself grace in life, you are missing the entire point.

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weakness, [awkwardness, incapability, inadequacy, failure,] so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” -2 Corinthians 12:9-10

I fail constantly. I am more often than not awkward or forgetful, I make mistakes and communicate poorly, on a regular basis. But I am thankful for the lesson that’s been engrained in me, that these failures are necessary for every valiant attempt to do something good, lovely, or true in this world. That my failures don’t disqualify my successes, praise God! But that instead, God is able to do MORE in me when I am weak.

I really can’t imagine a better truth for the nitty gritty of every day life. I don’t want to live my life walking on eggshells and hoping with all of my might that I don’t fail. Here’s the thing: I WILL ANYWAY. We all will. So we might as well live large and fail noticeably.

I’m preaching this to myself today… even with these blog posts. I haven’t been posting as much this year because subconsciously I want my writing output to be PERFECT, my tone consistent, the content politically, theologically correct for all the “diverse audience” that may possibly read… when in reality probably ten people actually read my blog. Ha. So today I haven’t even edited this that much, but I’m just gonna post it. I only post when I feel God’s put something in my heart to say, and I always hope that it reaches someone who needed to hear it. To me, and to God, that would be success for my little teeny inconsistent blog.

It’s hard to remember it’s alright to fail, when the general population of the world doesn’t seem to think that failure is an Okay thing. But speaking for the Church, I hope that people see our failures and internalize that we are flawed people. Then as a result I hope they will profoundly understand that any good thing we achieve is not by our own power or on our own merit, but by the grace of Jesus Christ who lives in us and redeems every shameful, uncomfortable, or inadequate moment of our lives.

So hey, go out and draw with big, wide, unselfconscious strokes. Breathe. Relax and work hard, get up and try again. Go forth and fail. You are covered in grace, and it is sufficient for you.

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5 thoughts on “drawing lessons on failure.

  1. I needed to hear that this week. Thank you. This weekend has been one huge failure after another with the job I’m trying to complete. It hasn’t even been my fault…I had everything planned to the best of my ability prior to coming out to Colorado. Then so many things out of my control turned it into a disaster and now I have to leave on Wednesday with it only being half completed with no knowledge of a completion date given that the weather has turned extremely ugly for the foreseeable future. Men, sin, laziness, incompetence, apathy, greed, selfishness, immaturity…these are a few of the reasons that my job didn’t start and end a month ago and why it took a dive bomb this weekend. However, I was able to spend an evening shooting pool with the crew leader who’s had a very rough life and talk to him about the love of God and the role of Jesus in and for humanity. So, thanks God for failures to show your strength, your consistency and immutable nature, that you’re still using me in the lives of others and for my daughter who has a gift for the written word. Thanks honey – I love you – keep up the awesome 10 reader blog :). Today 10, tomorrow 1,000.c

  2. Loved this post. Such a hard concept, but so true. “It’s hard to remember it’s alright to fail, when the general population of the world doesn’t seem to think that failure is an Okay thing.” …Amen.

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