10 Things...Failure

Painting a demo portrait at the IMC, of Nux from Mad Max

Greg Manchess

Here’s the short list of these 10 Things. You already know them all.

1. Failure is: cruel 
2. Failure is: embarrassing 
3. Failure is: complete 
4. Failure is: suffering 
5. Failure is: brutal 
6. Failure is: mean 
7. Failure is: ruthless 
8. Failure is: adamant 
9. Failure is: ruinous

"I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."
~ Michael Jordan

In recent years, I’ve given a lecture about the term ‘talent’ at the Illustration Master Class. It’s really a lecture about failure, why to use it, why to embrace it. The lecture entails understanding this thing we all experience, must experience, in our lives, especially involving our artistic skills. Lately though, I haven’t given the lecture because I believe there’s a genuine lack of interest. Either the idea of failure seems unimportant to the process or artists are afraid of encountering it.

I think it’s the fear. This year I spoke about failure several times in my other lectures about composition and my own struggle to survive as an artist. I know the students in the room understand it and I know they have to experience it, but as much as they say they can handle it, they’ll do whatever it takes to avoid it. Including failure to recognize it when it happens.

"Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm."
~ Sir Winston Churchill

Nobody wants to fail. Failure is what you get on the way to succeeding. It is a necessary component of success. One cannot avoid it or there simply is no growing from it.

My own growth is dependent upon it, even now. Perhaps even more so at this stage of my painting. Because I’ve painted so long, the failures sometimes need to be overwhelmingly huge in order to keep up with the level of success that I’ve attained. To gain new insight, I have to push against my own ceiling of security. Train for success.

"Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time we fail."
~ Confucius

Palette knife: built-in failure tool. Inconsistent strokes keeps the paint direct, authentic, and real.

Unfortunately, there is no comfort level with failure. An artist mustn’t see it happening and blithely accept it as part of the process. It has to hurt or it’s not really, actually failing. Failure is complete and utter. It’s awful and it sucks. But if you honestly taste the sting, then you are tasting the clues of success.

"The harder I worked, the luckier I got."
~ Ben Hogan

Learning to become an artist is all about training, and training is all about embracing your failures, to learn from them and press on. Generally, my lecture to the IMC students is to implore them to utilize the failures that are inevitable and necessary to the process. During the week, they fail in different ways, and in different quantities. In small ways and in large, devastating ways. Some of the students fail again and again and they keep going after it. Other students bury themselves in self-doubt and have a hard time recovering.

"There is no failure. Only feedback."
~ Robert Allen

What’s hard to grasp, but so important, is that designing a picture several times is supremely good. Training to understand the perspective, values, and depth of composition takes repeated effort. I watched one student this year change his work every day, all day long, doing whatever I told him to do. He kept after it, constantly. By the end of the week, his painting was becoming successful, his best piece yet. And he gained renewed energy and attitude about picture-making.

Several students started painting early, only to scrape the paint off, redraw and repaint by the end of the week. A few barely made it through the pencil sketch. I watched another student bring in a sketch that was ready to paint from day one. Composed well, they had created interest in a very average scene of multiple figures. Talent? Hardly. This person had been coming for 5 years already and was only now beginning to understand the practices and concepts we teach there. After they’d heard my composition lecture every year.

(Sadly, I may have inadvertently put more pressure on this artist to succeed by my gushing compliments about their composition! But they had reached this stage and that may be enough for now.)

"If you have made mistakes, even serious ones, there is always another chance for you. What we call failure is not the falling down, but the staying down."
~ Mary Pickford

Our great institutions of art are not interested in dealing with this most precious teaching tool as they are all about discovery, and not about the process of finding. In short, they are only interested in the talented, as if this springs forth out of nowhere in only the ‘Gifted Ones.’

10. Failure: continues.

No matter where we are in our training to be excellent creative painters, failure follows us like a lovesick puppy, as if it knows we need it. It never goes away, but it does get satiated from time to time. My lecture is most certainly not a pep talk. In fact, it’s about how painful the process can be. It isn’t fun, until you’ve been through it, survive it, and keep going.

"Talent and all that for the most part is nothing but hogwash. Any schoolboy with a little aptitude might very well draw better than I perhaps; but what he most often lacks is the tough yearning for realization, the teeth-grinding obstinacy and saying: even though I know I'm not capable of it, I'm still going to do it."
~ M.C. Escher, in a letter to his son Arthur, 12 February 1955

I recently heard another of my favorite quotes, this one by Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. I hope you embrace it:

“Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

The annual IMC photo, with me and Brad Kunkle kinda failing at a combined effort to make the IMC hand sign...