THE WISDOM OF NO MISTAKES: DRIPS CAN BE FUN (or at least not total torture)

by | Apr 29, 2009 | Articles, WHTTO | 15 comments

In my intuitive painting classes the first thing that I tell people is that there are no mistakes when you are painting. Everything that shows up on the paper is something that needs to be there.

This idea that you really can’t do anything wrong is a concept that most people agree with in theory. But when it comes time to practice it, and a perceived mistake appears, almost everyone acts like they have been hit on the head or maybe developed a mysterious case of spontaneous amnesia.

But what is a mistake, really? It reminds me of the way that gardeners think about weeds. A weed is still a plant. It’s a green and growing thing with roots and leaves and photosynthesis.

But what makes it a weed is that the gardener doesn’t want it. The gardener has an opinion about it. The gardener thinks that this particular growing thing is bad or is a problem somehow. So it becomes classified as a weed and is attacked with pesticides or chopped off and thrown into the compost heap.

That’s what happens when people are painting. They have opinions about what is spontaneously bursting forth in their painting. They start to have preferences. And they start classifying things. Putting them in categories.

There’s the good category and the bad category. There’s the things I like and the things I don’t. There’s the things that belong and the things that just shouldn’t be there.

Which leads to tremendous anxiety.

When you have the world divided up into these two different groupings you have to be constantly assessing. And wondering. And trying to figure out if something is valuable or worthless, right or wrong. It keeps you in a hyper vigilant state of mind because you are continually on the look out for the intruder. You have to be prepared at a moments notice to whip out the round-up and the weed whacker.

And that is really, really exhausting.

The whole idea of viewing your painting process as if you couldn’t make a mistake is actually a way to be creative with a lot less suffering involved. But when I encourage someone to consider letting go of trying to fix that drip that has just shown up in their painting they often react to me as if I’m trying to steal something precious from them.

They are convinced that their happiness lies in being able to make things right again, ignoring the fact that standing there glaring at their painting and being caught up in a frenzy of obsessive hatred over a yellow dot that is now marring their perfect blue landscape is what is actually making them miserable.

Most people will get very preoccupied with the tiniest mess or perceived screw up. My students will often tell me that once a smudge appears on the paper or the mouth they just painted is even the littlest bit crooked that they literally CAN’T move on to the next thing. They become completely mesmerized with this damage, this error, this lack of perfection. They become fixated and consumed.

And once they become frozen in this way they are no longer capable of being creative. The creative flow just stops.

The bottom line is that believing in mistakes is just not very useful. And because it IS a belief it can kind of become like a religion.

According to The Church Of Mistakes it is possible to do something wrong and mess it up to the point where you may as well just give up and forget about the whole thing.

One thing that I know for sure is that the doctrine associated with The Church of Mistakes is not a belief system that I want to ascribe to. I am a very pragmatic girl. I am a big fan of doing what works. And when I am doing something creative, what works is to continue to create.

The best way to deal with a mistake is not to spend your precious time and life energy beating your self into a bloody pulp (psychologically speaking) so that you are too bruised and battered to move on to what could happen next.

You can’t fix a mistake. You can’t go back in time and make something better. What’s done is done and all you can do is to continue on with the next brush stroke.

We often approach painting and the creative process thinking that we are in control. We have a fantasy that we are going to create a perfect little world here on this paper in front of us. And often that fantasy of perfection and mastery is not even very conscious until the dreaded mistake happens.

If a smear or splotch makes an appearance in your hoped for masterpiece, it’s always a useful practice to stand back a bit and just give yourself some space to be upset.

It’s also a time where you can try and be tender with that part of you that SO wants to have things turn out in just the right way. Give that part of you a hug. Tell him or her that no matter what, you are being creative and that is all that truly matters.

Remind yourself that seeing your creative process as a place where mistakes are just not possible is actually an opening into a place of incredible creative freedom.

And to try and remember that the drip is never the problem. A drip is just a drip. What gets you in trouble…. ALWAYS…. is what happens inside of your wacky judging mind!



  1. Oh, I love, love, love this post. There are no mistakes? But how can that be?! When clearly there are examples of my unworthiness in my writing right there (pointing emphatically to the monitor)! I see them! Staring back at me and sticking their tongues out at me. (They have such poor manners.)

    Oh, you mean I don’t have to obsess over them? I don’t have to get out my weed whacker and obliterate them? Because they’re still words and thoughts and stories, too? Living, growing things with roots and blooms?

    Oh. I see. Maybe I can try that. Here’s to letting the weeds run wild. :)

  2. Blotch. Splosh. Splotch. Mess. Gurramph. Entwined hair. Deliciousness.
    You are a miracle, Chris :)
    I adore you!

  3. What a great post, Chris!! A great reminder to let go of our need to control and simply enjoy the process. That’s so what it’s all about!

  4. Chris,
    I’ve been painting digitally for the last 15 years or so, and you can fix mistakes there. Not always of course, but a lot of the time. It’s so easy to create multiple versions, and try all sorts of experiments since you can go back and forth so easily. The big downside is the images can easily get lifeless and stiff.

    Starting to play with paint on paper again has been interesting. I find a lot more hesitation to put the brush down…but when I do, there is so much more smoothness and freedom with the stroke. The bounce of the brush is much more alive. I still have a pretty tight style, but it’s starting to unwind again. Maybe I need to make a whole painting of ‘mistakes’. A gallery of ‘mistakes’, an entire shows worth….

  5. This is great. I don’t paint but I love it anyway. (came via a tweet of Leah’s)

    I live with a gardener. We EAT dandelions. I know another gardener that PLANTS dandelions, so she can eat them. This might be useful knowledge the next time you are using your (very apt) weed metaphor to explain this concept. What is the painterly equivalent of making salad with dandelion greens? Or stir frying them with garlic and lemon.

    Also, the smudged mouth gave me a very vivid memory. Of a children’s book (but worth reading by adults) called The Five Sisters (Margaret Mahy). It is about a series of paper dolls. Each painted/drawn/brought to life by someone different. The creases and smudges become part of their personalities. Very interesting way to think about that smudged mouth.

  6. This is a wonderful read for someone (me) who was raised hearing things like, ‘Why bother doing it if you’re not going to do it right?’. That “philosophy” caused me to equate imperfection with humiliation and kept me from attempting a great many things, including painting. Your post is a wonderful reminder that mistakes and perfection are beliefs not facts. (I also found this post via Leah’s tweet.)

  7. Diane….just so you know how COMPLETELY I adore you. I laughed so hard at that image of your bad mannered mistakes sticking their tongues out at you! Yes, yes…. let those weeds run wild!!!

    Goddess Leonie…. I always so appreciate a visit from your wild and wonderful presence here at my blog! Garrumph it is !!

    Leah… I so appreciate your enthusiasm for all aspects of the creative process, my dear!

    Christine….. yes, yes, YES…. I can’t WAIT to see your whole gallery of mistakes! That is an absolutely BRILLIANT idea!!

    JoVE…. Thank you for the dandelion recipe and the memory of the smudge mouthed dolls! I love that whole idea that what is often perceived as a mistake is actually essential to the spirit of an image! Thank you!

    Liz….. Thank you for stopping by! Yes, so many of us were raised with that experience of imperfection = humiliation which gave us such an unnatural fear of mistakes. I’m glad you found my post helpful!

  8. Thanks so much for this inspiring message. My drips often lead the way if I am not afraid of them.

  9. I wish more art teachers knew about this stuff! :) I used to garden this way — lots of happy accidents and fortuitous combinations and somehow it all worked out in the end, explosions of color in a jungly yard and it was altogether (im)perfectly heavenly. A weed is merely a plant in the wrong place so I just made room for them, too. Like the delicious paint drips!

  10. Chris, what a beautiful post! You know, I’ve always wondered the same thing about weeds. Why did someone(s) arbitrarily decide these were the plants we *didn’t* want? Dandelions are just as pretty as other flowers, f’rinstance, with their bright yellow heads, and what other flower can you blow on and watch it float away on the wind once it’s past its blooming stage?

    I was going to post something a bit later today on my own blog, and now you’ve changed my mind on what to write about! ;o)

    Thanks for a lovely and thought-provoking post.

  11. I love this post Chris. Thanks for holding up the mirror and showing me what I already know but tend to forget.

  12. I need to like, tattoo this to my forehead or something, because I keep forgetting it!

  13. Love this. Love.

    It’s so easy to get blinded by the way something “should” look or should turn out, when, with creativity, there just isn’t any should.

  14. “We have a fantasy that we are going to create a perfect little world here on this paper in front of us.” And also in this *garden* in front of us, which is why I’m continually frustrated by gardening and why the weed analogy is so apt!

    Mistakes as creative freedom. Verrry different from my default approach. Thanks for this.

  15. I love this article. I had to come learn more about you and this is great. If we can just accept that things happen – and go with the flow more, we will have so much less stress.

    I’m looking forward to getting to know you more.

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