Archive for February 13th, 2021


If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.

-W.C. Fields

I wanted to play another song, I Don’t Mind Failing, from the late folksinger Malvina Reynolds and thought a replay of this post from a decade ago would fit well with it. Not much has changed in these past ten years from the standpoint of failure. The post below, from 2011, was titled Failure, of course


In response to yesterday’s post concerning a very large blank canvas that is waiting patiently for me, I received several very interesting questions from my friend, Tom Seltz, concerning the role that failure and the fear of failure plays in my work. He posed a number of great questions, some pragmatic and some esoteric, that I’ll try to address.

On the pragmatic side, he asked if there is a financial risk when I take on large projects like the  4 1/2′ by 7′ canvas of which I wrote. Actually, it’s not something I think about much because every piece, even the smallest, has a certain cost in producing it that, after these many years, I don’t stop to consider. But a project such as this is costlier as a larger canvas is more expensive right from the beginning simply due to the sheer size of it. The canvas is heavier and more expensive and more of it is used. I use a lot more gesso and paint. The framing is much more expensive and the logistics of shipping and transporting become more involved and costly. It’s larger size and price means the audience of potential buyers is much more limited which means more time trucking it around or storing it.

And while these cost of materials and handling are the larger cost, the biggest financial risk comes in the time spent on such a project. It takes longer to prepare such a large canvas, longer to paint and, if it works out, longer to finish and frame. This is time not spent on other projects. Wasted time is by far the biggest risk in facing such a project and that is something I have to take into consideration before embarking on large projects.

He also asked whether I can reuse the materials if I don’t like what I’ve painted. Sure, for the most part.  Especially canvasses. Actually, the piece shown here on the right was once such a piece. There’s a failure lingering still beneath its present surface.

I had a concept in my head that floated around for months and I finally started putting it down on this 30″ square canvas. I spent probably a day and a half worth of time and got quite far into it before I realized that it was a flawed concept, that I was down a path that was way off the route I had envisioned. It was dull and lifeless, even at an early stage.

It was crap and I knew that there was no hope for it. I immediately painted it over, mainly to keep me from wasting even more time by trying to resuscitate it, and the piece shown here emerged, happily for me.

Tom also asked if I ever “crashed and burned” on a piece or if the worst sort of failure was that a piece was simply mediocre. Well, I guess the last few paragraphs say a bit about the “crashed and burned” aspect, although that is a rarer event than one might suspect. The beauty of painting is that it’s results are always subjective. There is almost never total failure.

It’s not like sky-diving and if your parachute doesn’t open you die. At least, that hasn’t been my experience thus far. I’m still here.

Mediocrity is a different story. That is the one thing I probably fear most for my work and would consider a piece a failure if I judged it to be mediocre. I have any  number of examples I could show you in the nooks and crannies of my studio but I won’t. Even flawed and mediocre, these pieces have a purpose for me and some have remaining promise. The purpose is in the lessons learned from painting them. I usually glean some information from  each painting, even something tiny but useful for the future. Each is a rehearsal in a way. But most times, the mediocre pieces teach me what I don’t want to repeat in the future. A wrong line or form here. A flatness of color there. Just simple dullness everywhere.

But, being art, there are few total failures, and many of these somewhat mediocre pieces sit unfinished because there are still stirs of promise in them.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come to what I felt was a dead end for a painting, feeling that it was dull and lifeless, and set it aside. Months and months might pass and one day I might pick it up and suddenly see something new in it. A new way to move in it that brings it new life. These paintings often bring the greatest satisfaction when they leave the gallery with a new owner.

Sometimes failure is simply a momentary perception that requires a new perspective.

Sometimes you need to fail in order to succeed later.

Okay, that’s it for now. I’m sure I have more to say about failure but it will have to wait until a later date. I’ve got work waiting for me that doesn’t know the meaning of the word failure and I don’t want to take the risk that it might learn it.

Tom, thanks again for the great questions.  I’m always eager for good questions so keep it up!

Now here’s I Don’t Mind Failing from Malvina Reynolds. It’s from around 1965 and was written after hearing a sermon called The Fine Art of Failing. Lot of great lines in this one:

I don’t mind failing in this world,
I don’t mind failing in this world,
Somebody else’s definition
Isn’t going to measure my soul’s condition,
I don’t mind failing in this world.

Give a listen and if you fail today, don’t worry about it. You’re in good company.

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