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The Anxious Artist: Embrace Your Mistakes

It is not unusual for an artist to embark on a piece of work with a rough idea as to how they envisage it will eventually turn out. This idea is developed through photographs, preparatory sketches perhaps, Or sometimes, this ‘vision’ may appear to purely through some sort of light bulb moment that appears in the middle of the night and propels the artist out of bed towards their chosen tools. Although, I would argue that the unconscious mind would have been hard at work in order to reach this moment of inspiration.

As an art student, I was taught the importance of keeping a sketch pad, or journal of ideas. This was usually graded, along with the final piece. I often found the collecting and sketching out of ideas more interesting than the ultimate outcome of it all. It felt as though, at this point, an idea may have lost its energy, resulting in a lacklustre effort. Perhaps because I had become too preoccupied in conscientiously ticking all of the boxes required in order for me to achieve my degree.

I have noticed, when visiting exhibitions, that it is also often the preparatory work made by the artist which I am more intrigued by, as I feel I am invited into the artists creative process at a stage when their creative energy is palpable. I appreciate the pencil scribbles and rubbings out because I see the human beneath the polished façade that the white walled gallery often demands. Great art is not conjured up from nowhere and divined purely from some God given natural talent. It is hard work and involves a great deal of trial and error and even the best artists are capable of producing some real duffers. They are human after all!

Since my student days, sketch book keeping has been less of an interest to me. The best I achieve in the preparatory department are some photos stored on my camera phone taken from exhibitions or whatever has inspired me, some scribbles on scraps of paper and my frenetic mind, which spurs me into action, often when I least expect it. I have no tutors to please and so I am free to work the way I choose. As always, trying to surrender to the process of creating, with minimal expectation. An artist needs to also accept that the destination may turn out nothing like the pre-concieved idea and that this should be seen as part of the joy in creating.

High, or very specific expectations can often result in perfectionism, the death of creativity. Where the 'P' word gets involved, I often end up deciding that whatever I'm working on doesn't meet the mark. How could it possibly be right, with such high demands placed on oneself? When this happens, I can respond in different ways, but all with the goal of putting the ‘mistake’. what ever I percieve that to be, right. This generally doesn’t end satisfactorily as the result often results in the artwork being disposed of, as I can’t bear to look at it a moment longer. I have frantically worked and overworked the piece until it has become a chaotic muddy mess. It is understandable to try and desperately solve the problem, as the alternative is the existential reflections on what on earth I am doing here and what am I good for. It can be hard not to take it personally.

I’m telling you all of this because such an experience has happened to me recently, as I have attempted to develop my skills and wander a little out of my comfort zone. In this particular context it has been with screen printing. There is much room for error when creating stencils that form the layers which are eventually transferred from screen to paper. It demands a lot of concentration, which I struggle with. Furthermore, a keen eye for accuracy is needed when lining everything up and here patience is required (my downfall).

After spending so much time producing the templates, I often fall foul when they come to print because I am so eager and excited to see the end result. This is where things can go wrong; layers get misaligned and the end result, in this instance, was a series of wonky prints. I was devastated, as I had worked so hard and knew I had let myself down. My temptation was to bin them all, walk away, hide and re-emerge when I was ready to start something new, but what would I have learned? Instead, my lovely and ever-encouraging printmaking teacher, at Core Arts advised that I return the following week and complete the final layers of the prints and to see what emerges. She suggested that my mistake may, in fact, turn out to bring something new and unexpected to the prints. So I have taken her advice. I feel quite proud of myself that I am enduring the discomfort of ‘failure’, embracing the unknown. Time to practice what I preach and be process, instead of outcome led. Of course, it has not helped that the print I refer to is one I had talked of creating in a previous blog, so I felt pressure to get it just right in order to show all of you. However, I think my experience offers something much richer for me to share and to learn from. Perhaps wonky screenprints could become my trademark style, as I embrace my slightly askew, possibly dyspraxic self.

‘Whipps Cross Hospital’, a work in progress. Silk screen print. 2022. By Naomi Elfred-Ross.

Victorian photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron was mocked by her contempories for her photographic technique which produced blurred and blemished images. However, whether or not she came by this aesthetic by mistake or intention is unclear and irrelevant. What matters is that she discovered, that through adjusting her lens, she could observe and find the very point which captured the beauty which is enjoyed and celebrated today. In fact, she paved the way for future photography to be less defined by technical accuracy, thus transforming it into to a form of high art.

‘Hosanna’, 1865, by Julia Margaret Cameron

Of course, when something doesn’t go to plan, the option to rip it all up and start afresh is still an option. For some artists, it has been a creative decision to destroy their work. The act of doing so has enabled them to enter into a new and more mature chapter of their artistic career. This can be said for Jasper Johns, who destroyed all of his work in order to stop ‘becoming’ an artist, but rather to arrive at ‘being’ an artist. From this point his American flag paintings were developed, which are what he is most remember for today.

‘Three Flags’, 1958, by Jasper Johns

Robert Rauschenberg erased an artwork by Willem De Kooning and retitled the piece ‘Erased De Kooning’, thus igniting conversations about the limitations of art. Can art be created through erasure? This act also raised as questions about authorship. I should add that De Kooning had agreed to this!

Conceptual artist John Baldessari sought to comment on the cyclical nature of the creative process by burning his entire body of work and storing the ashes in a bronze urn, conceptually recycling his deceased works. In one instance, he gave them a new life by baking the ashes into cookies. Having conceptually wiped the slate clean, he made the oath never to create dull work again.

John Baldessari’s studio with works gathered in preparation for ‘Cremation Project’. 1970.

Monet was also known to have slashed many versions of his waterlily paintings. This was also true of Francis Bacon, who saw his paintings as an emotional exorcism, so it would make sense that as part of said exorcism, there may be the need to destroy. This act of catharsis became part of Bacon’s artistic process and true to form, given his emotionally turbulent nature. I really do get it, especially as I look about myself and see piles of artwork, produced over the years, taking up much needed space. So much of what artists make is for themselves, as part of a journey and if these pieces have served their purpose, what need is there to keep them? Could I take a leaf out of Baldessari’s book and bake a cake from the ashes?

‘Waterlilies’, 1906, By Claude Monet.

I think often that in the making of art we often act out how we live. That being said, art can also provide a safe means to explore a way that we aspire to live. In fact, the nature of creating, destroying/erasing and then recreating/mending has been something of a preoccupation in my own artistic practice. In this way, I have explored my own tendency to self-sabotage, then demonstrating creatively the opportunity to heal, albeit baring scars. It is, in fact, those very scars and blemishes that hold true beauty.

‘Wounded Healer’, 2022. Watercolour, ink, bleach and embroidery thread on unstretched/unprimed canvas. By Naomi Elfred-Ross

So, I encourage any artist to not be disheartened when things don’t go to plan. Every mistake offers an opportunity to learn and develop, once the initial pain subsides. Keep exploring and enjoy the journey.

By Naomi Elfred-Ross

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