When You Mess Up, Just Keep Going

When You Mess Up, Just Keep Going June 1, 2021

I just keep going on this pastel drawing of the lily pond at Gethsemane, where Thomas Merton lived in Bardstown, Ky. Artwork in process by Susan E. Brooks.

I learned a valuable lesson from an ink splat in the middle of a portrait drawing class. After the professor’s action shocked me, he taught me to just keep going in spite of mistakes.

The Ink Splat

I’ll never forget the ink spill day in drawing class. I was attending a liberal arts university, majoring in fine art. Day after day we studied by drawing from a bust of the “David” by Michelangelo. We sketched in charcoal, pastel, pencil, ink—I produced one portrait after another. My style was careful and detailed, and I felt I could compete with the other students. They were my tribe. I fit in with these young artists, in my quiet, intense way.

One day, I had a good drawing going, and then I dropped a blob of ink right in the middle of David’s face where it was supposed to be left white. I panicked and thought all was lost. Our professor, who happened to be a double of Elton John (no kidding, he would go to parties as Elton John), strolled over to my drawing and smeared the ink splat across my paper and said, “Now fix it!”

Making the Most of Mistakes

Shocked and on the brink of tears, I piled on the white in an attempt to cover the blotch. Next, I built up layer upon layer of colored charcoal until I had a drawing that was far from perfect, but there was something unique and interesting about it. The professor said, “That’s the best you’ve ever done!” and he hung it on the wall with the work he liked. That day was a turning point for me, and I learned to experiment and keep going even if it might mean messing up an otherwise good drawing.

Though I taught high school art for years, I never had the guts to do that to any of my students. It would have seemed a bit harsh, I’m afraid, but I did tell them the story. From the ink smear, I learned not to despair over mistakes and unexpected turns in art and in life. Sometimes mistakes turn out to be serendipitous, leading to better outcomes than we might have imagined.

Just Keep Going

More recently, an artist mentor gave me some encouraging advice of a similar vein. I was working on a pastel, and it was looking good, nearly finished maybe. “Should I keep going and maybe ruin it?” I asked my mentor.

“I always keep on working. With your talent it would be almost impossible to ruin it, and if you do, you can set it aside and come back to it later,” he said.

A God of Second Chances

Romans 4:17 speaks of “the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.”

In life, as in art, keep going. You have what it takes, and if you mess up, you can work on it again later. God is a God of redemption and new life. He can take our mistakes and makes them into something good.

Any thoughts or examples of mistakes that turned into successes? I’d love to hear them in the comments!

One of my favorite authors, who is also an artist, wrote a book entitled Keep Going. If you need more motivation for creative endeavors, this book is for you!

I’m an artist who loves to write. If you’d like to get to know me better, please follow me on social media.

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