The Beauty of Failure

“The real test is not whether you avoid this failure, because you won’t. It’s whether you let it harden or shame you into inaction, or whether you learn from it; whether you choose to persevere.”

-Barack Obama

I dedicate this blog to all of those who have said to me in the past, “It is easy for you!”

(Hint: It. Is. NOT.)

None of us like to fail. Most feel more comfortable with tasks that we are pretty certain of being successful in completing. Or at least moderately successful. I can’t imagine anyone going into something with the attitude of looking to fail. While some things may be more intimidating than others, we still usually hope that we will get through these things without too much difficulty. Or at least learn something new along the way.

In my previous post, I spoke of the many types of mediums I love to create with and why I am always open to trying something new. In a nutshell, I feel that I benefit in many ways from trying new mediums and techniques. Not only does it expose me to new materials and supplies that I would like to try, but it also gives me more techniques that often can be used with other mediums and help me be more creative with them. There are always more plusses than minuses in experimenting.

But everything doesn’t always work out the first time we do them. Frankly, I would be quite astonished if they did. It would certainly be the exception rather than the rule. That or just dumb luck.

With that said, I decided to be adventurous this week and try both a new medium and paper (new to me, that is) that I haven’t used before to create a painting. I donned my “cloak of bravery” and decided to dive in.

So what triggered this adventure, you may ask?

When browsing through one of my favorite groups – Jason Morgan’s Patreon Art Group on Facebook, I saw a beautiful photograph of a raven that was donated by one of the members, Terence Porter. Mr. Porter has some absolutely stunning photographs and he is wonderfully generous in donating them to artists to use as reference photos. he has his own Facebook page here: Terence Porter. When I saw the stunning photo, I knew I just had to paint it. It was a lovely profile with stylized highlights and a rather ‘misty’ background that added to its beauty. It immediately went on my ‘short list’.

I could have played it safe and painted it using pastels. That is a medium that I am very comfortable with, and I may still try one using them in the future. But I had recently obtained a pad of Stonehenge watercolor paper in black that I was dying to try.

It took a bit of thought to decide which medium I would use on the paper, though. Not everything shows up well on black. Since the paper was watercolor paper, using wet mediums on it was optimal. I didn’t want to use gouache paint though (opaque watercolors) because I feared that with all the blending and shading I would wind up with something that looked out of focus and muddy. I wanted this to be “crisp and clean.”

I decided to go with my sets of Bombay India inks by Dr. Ph. Martin’s. I had acquired these inks about two years ago and have used them from time to time and I loved the clarity of their rich, deep pigments. I also loved their permanency. I would be able to wash over them and layer them without disturbing the layers underneath.

But how would I get those beautiful, clear colors to show up on the black paper? Hum . . .

I thought it over for a day or two and I decided to try to lay down an underlayer using the white ink first as a kind of ‘greyscale’ layer and then applying the washes of color over them. Much like a grisaille painting is done. The more I thought about it, the more I thought it would work.

I cut my 9″ x 12″ paper to a 9″ square and used the extra scrap for some experimenting. I applied the white ink first. It dried very quickly. Then I washed several colors over it to see how it would look.

Success! It came out just how I envisioned it would!

I gathered my supplies and was excited to begin:

I made copies of the reference photo in color and I also inverted the colors so that I could better see the shadows and highlights:

I then traced just the bare basic lines I would need to replicate the design on the black. I used the inverted photo for this because it was easier to see the shadows and highlights. I used white graphite paper and a stylus and very light pressure.

After the lines were transferred, I used my kneaded eraser to make them even lighter. Instead of using the ‘normal’ erasing motion, I found that making it into the shape of a rolling pin and gently rolling it over the paper picked up much of the excess that I wanted without tearing or compromising the surface of the paper in any way. I use this trick often.

The result is very faint lines without any damage to the paper whatsoever.

I wanted to mention the brushes that I was trying out for this project. They are the 12-piece detail brush set by ZenArt. You can see them here:

I recently got this set because I had seen them being used on YouTube. They came up on my Amazon ‘suggestions’ at a ridiculously inexpensive price and I thought – what the heck? My Prime account also offered free shipping, so the investment was very small. When I received them, I was really impressed with the feel and quality of them. I will certainly be sharing more information on them in the future. I have to say though, that I am really (really!) impressed with them. They are so nicely made and they hold a lot of paint/ink and they have the perfect amount of ‘snap’ for ultimate control. I just ordered some other sizes for trying, too. (PS – I am NOT being compensated by the company at all for saying this)

Also, when I received the brushes, they came with a card for a FREE sketchbook. I ordered that, too, and received it very quickly. It is a nice grade of paper for DRY mediums and maybe lighter inking and has a leather soft cover, back pocket, and elastic to hold it closed. It is a beautiful bonus that made my purchase even more economical.

It is nice to find a company that has such great service, too, as I had some questions and was answered very promptly and fully.

So – back to the raven . . .

I began painting in the underlayers using only the white ink:

It really looked striking on the black watercolor paper.

I then started washing in the colors. I used blue, purple and some brown here:

I finished him up and was delighted with the result. But there were a few things that were bothering me about him, though. While he looked pretty nice in himself, I had painted (or TRIED to paint) some lighter washes around him so that his back and beak and dark areas would show up nicely. Now that he was finished, I thought they looked too obvious and I wasn’t happy with them.

So in my brilliant mind, the solution was to float some black ink around his body and beak to minimize this brightness. I did that, but it changed the color of the paper. While it is not really apparent here, you can see on the lower left that I now had a shiny area along the edge where the black ink soaked into the paper. So I tried washing the entire background with a LIGHT coat of ink, and the result was an overall streaky background. I was sad.

It was now about 11pm and I was starting to panic. So instead of doing the smart thing and going to bed. I continued to try to “fix it”.

Genius that I am, I thought the only solution was to actually add a full coat of ink over the ENTIRE background to smooth it out. This result was more disastrous than the last. As a last-ditch effort around midnight, I decided to spray the painting with Matte finish to try to unify it. It was after that when I finally gave up and knew it was completely lost.

I cried. I pouted. I was mad, sad, and frustrated all at once. Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep. I thought of how nice it looked prior to me fiddling with it and was just angry at myself for falling down right before the finish line. I had shown the painting on all of my social media sites after the initial inking was done and I had ‘a lot’ of people waiting to see the outcome.

How could I face them?

After mourning the painting for a few hours and tossing and turning, a thought occurred to me: The only way I was going to ‘fix this’ was to paint it again. From scratch. I didn’t only owe it to my followers to see a finished piece (after all – aren’t “I” the one who is always saying to “try new things” and “don’t be afraid of failing”? What kind of teacher would I be if when I failed, I crawled in a hole and gave up? Not a very good one. After all – I grew up on the south side of Chicago and we are made from tougher stock than that. And we are NOT quitters!

Besides – now I knew more and had a better idea of how to use these materials and achieve these edges WITHOUT having to make a light halo around the figure. This time I would go into battle with better tools. The tools of KNOWLEDGE that I gained from my experience.

So I started over again.

I decided to use the full sheet of paper this time and make the drawing a little larger. This also gave me the opportunity to show more of the wing and lower body, which was beautiful and impressive.

I inked in the underlayer in white as before, but this time I made the head a bit smaller, which would allow me to add the fluffy feathers on the perimeter without making him too fat. (This is why his head looks smaller now)

Once this was done, I started to feel good about myself again. It may sound funny, but I feared that I wouldn’t even be able to get to this point again. I thought to myself, “What if it was just by chance that it came out nice? What if I was unable to replicate it again? What if I just got LUCKY?”

But once the underlayers were completed, I began to regain my confidence. I added in layers of feathers as well as some of the layers of ‘fluff’. I started toning here very subtly with purple and brown ink:

He was filling out now and looking pretty good. I continued to add in colors and shadows and adjust his tones.

By about 9pm last night, I finally called him ‘finished.’ To me, he looked even better than the first one!

This felt good on so many levels. It really boosted my own feelings of confidence in my abilities and I feel that while the experience was quite painful for me at times, it was well worth the discomfort.

When I put the two paintings together, there is no doubt that (even disregarding the background) the second painting is better. There is more shape and fullness and detail to the second painting than the first. I am really thrilled.

I apologize for having such a long post, but I feel that this was one that is important to anyone who is a creator of any type. We can’t look at our failures as negatives. We need to embrace them and look at them as opportunities to learn. Not only is it important to know what to do with our supplies, but also, what not to do with them.

There is no greater teacher than experience. While that may sound a bit cliche, I believe it to be true. Because our own experiences are created from our souls and are fueled with our emotions. The impact of failing or succeeding is directly tied to those important feelings and because of that, the impact is the greatest.

I hope you enjoyed seeing this painting come to life – even if it took two tries. I also hope you always remember that there are lessons and beauty that can be found in just about any situation. Sometimes you just have to look a little a little harder to find them. For within many of our failure are valuable lessons.

Thank you for reading my LONG post! πŸ˜‰

Until next time . . .

20 Comments Add yours

  1. Vera S. says:

    He is MAGNIFICENT! I am thrilled for you for your success! He is truly stunning!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! ❀ I was devastated when I goofed the first one. What a dope I am! But after spending yesterday on the re-do, I felt much more confident as I went along. I am happy that I stuck it out. (PS – try those brushes! You will love them! I just ordered a couple of the larger sets. They were really surprisingly lovely. You know I don't say that about a lot of brushes! πŸ˜‰ ) Thanks for your kind comments! ❀


  2. Looks great. Yes, we learn more through failure than easy success. I hate to think of the number of my projects that failed before they were finally finished.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah – but think how much you learned from those fails! πŸ˜‰ I have had my share, too. We all have, I think. πŸ™‚ Thanks for stopping by.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Robin R. says:

    Sheila, I was very impressed by the first one, but holy cow! The second one is magnificent! I envy your skills and tenacity! Just beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Robin! I was really discouraged at one point. But I am really glad I did it over. I do like the second one better. I hope it inspires others. πŸ™‚


  4. Sheila, GREAT post! You really made a much better painting the 2nd time around….now get that framed and under glass before something happens to it like a kitty chewing on it…….Nice work!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Judy. πŸ™‚ I am going to put it in a safe place. I truly was so scared that I wouldn’t be able to replicate the quality of the first one I did. I think the second one was more terrifying because the first one ‘was’ turning out so nice. But even though they differ slightly, I feel the second one does look better. Fuller and with more shape and detail. Perhaps because I was already starting to feel a bit of comfort from the exercise of figuring things out on the first one. I had the road map of what to do and when to do it. I appreciate your kind comments very much. Thank you! πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Mickey Randazzo says:

    Oh, Sheila, he IS beautiful. I really appreciate your taking us on your journey. I know so many folks might say that even your ” failure” is gorgeous. But I know how it is when you have a vision of what your finished piece should/ could look like, and you just have to achieve that . We are always our most stern critics. Look at all you have learned along the way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your kind support, Mickey. ❀ I do like sharing ALL sides of things with those who are my followers and friends. (Most are one in the same!) It wouldn't be fair to just share the triumphs. I think that would give others unrealistic expectations and make so many things 'too scary' for them to tackle. On the other hand, watching others sometimes trip (and even fall!) and showing how we take something negative and positive will hopefully inspire others to take a chance. I hope I do that. I know I have great company in you, my friends!


  6. Such a STUNNING, beautiful Creation…beautiful Art! Loved the read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Amy. πŸ™‚ It was heart-wrenching when the first one was ruined. At least I was able to do an acceptable replacement.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. The second painting is a beautiful improvement on the first though if I’d only seen the first I would have said it was beautiful too. Life is about learning from our mistakes. Thank you for sharing this experience.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Anna. It is nice when we actually DO see improvement. Sometimes re-doing something we worked so hard on is like scaling a mountain. But once we are back in the process, it isn’t so bad. We focus on the outcome like we did the first time and forget about the times we stumbled. Thanks for your thoughts as always.


  8. Pat says:

    He is absolutely beautiful! I am often afraid that a do over will not be as good but usually it turns out a lot better. After I photograph the original, I can see things that need β€œfixing” or changing completely. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Pat. πŸ™‚ Thank you so much. So often I see things when I post to social media that I don’t notice when the piece is right under my nose. I recommend this to my followers, as it is amazing how different things look on the screen. It really is a great way to fine tune your art. Thanks for stopping by and thank you again for the comment. πŸ™‚


  9. Margo Ferrera says:

    This Raven of yours is absolutely striking & wonderful. I had seen a picture you posted but just saw this new one. Thank you for being a generous Artist/creator that you are! You also know how to express in writing your journey to help others! Taking a picture of your painted piece is a game changer for me as it does show where you need to fix that you don’t see just looking at it! A big Thank you Sheila for your continued teaching & sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for that, Margo. I by no means feel like I know everything, but as I try things and some succeed while others fail, I do like to share because I hope it helps others not make the same errors that I do. I think the best part of art and being on the internet is sharing with our peers. ❀ I appreciate your kind words.


  10. Barb Sappington says:

    Such a fabulous piece! Thanks so much for sharing your process and what went wrong. I find that I learn more from something that didn’t go according to plan, than if it went swimmingly. When I teach, I learn more from bailing students out of errors that occurred. Your raven is masterfully painted!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Barb. πŸ™‚ Sharing our journey is much of the fun, as I mentioned above. I am so glad you like him. ❀


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