Happy Little Mistakes

Hurry up and make mistakes!

— Lennart Anderson

Bob Ross famously said of painters, “We don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents.”

I might dampen that to say, “We don’t learn, unless we make mistakes.”

With learning to paint come countless mundane mistakes.

Rookie mistakes.

Stupid mistakes.

Messy mistakes.

They’re aggravating.

But then, upon occasion, come mistakes that lead to breakthroughs—those happy little mistakes that amount to “teachable moments.”

My biggest breakthrough to date came the moment I realized, with enough time, patience, and detachment, there was no mistake I couldn’t correct.

I’ve had that lesson particularly reinforced through my work every week with realist painter Neil Carlin, who’s guiding me to paint tonal studies of plaster casts.

When it comes to mistakes of any kind, Neil enforces a gentle, but firm zero-tolerance policy, a no-nonsense teaching approach that forces you to revise and revise and revise, until your merely “passable” realist painting becomes a relatively accurate one.

It’s an academic approach to painting instruction that means I spend 30 hours painting a nose; 35, an eye.

The discipline of spotting and fixing your mistakes is good for you.

No wonder the realist master Lennart Anderson encouraged his students to “Hurry up and make mistakes!”

Mistakes are inevitable.

And good for you—when instructive.

That’s because the secrets to observational painting can only be uncovered by working.

The only thing a painter can do to improve is paint.

If recklessness results, so be it.

As Samuel Beckett said, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”