Thursday, March 8, 2012

Failing with ambition

At the beginning of the year, I began an illustration under Tyler Jacobson's mentorship. I had just finished my summer of painting project, and had no way to tell whether 123 quick still life paintings would translate into better illustrations - so I decided that I would find out in a trial by fire.

This was the sketch I wound up with:

This was already miles ahead of anything I'd done - or even attempted - before, and I had absolutely no idea how to paint it. Here was my process, over the course of... about two weeks, I believe:

And the final, with Photoshop post-work.
For reference, this was the last illustration I'd finished previously:
From the spring, four months before.
A big jump, right? A huge amount of improvement in composition, value structure, drawing, painting - in short, proof that my crazy summer project had been useful.

I went around calling it a failure.

People were justifiably confused and sometimes strident in their efforts to tell me I was clearly insane. I'm pretty sure some people were annoyed, assuming I was fishing for compliments. What I meant, and was not explaining properly, was that I had failed with ambition, a la this quote:
"There's more honor in over-reaching and failing with ambition, than in limited success. And if we measure our goals by the best of the best, at least we're unlikely to run out of challenges."
-Elizabeth Bear
 I had reached absurdly high with this illustration; I had produced a sketch I had literally no hope of executing to the standards it demanded. It was better than I was, and so I became better than myself in my efforts to paint this impossible thing. It's easier to show than to tell:

One of those things is not like the others. And get this: these three paintings are arranged in chronological order. The latter two paintings are where I was actually at, skill-wise, but the first painting is so much better because I presented myself with a monumental challenge and rose to it.

I called it a failure because it didn't actually meet those sky-high expectations: I still didn't quite understand paint handling, or color mixing, and my referencing wasn't that good so certain things (the candles, for example) were just incorrect, and my value structure and composition were both just okay, not really good. So I failed - but because I failed with ambition, the painting itself was more successful than anything else I'd do for another month and a half.

I have experienced an astonishingly intense period of growth in a short time, but as each painting improves upon the last, I try to keep my goals a step or two ahead of my ability. I have that hunger to thank for my growth, and for that hunger I have to thank the constant knowledge that each painting is a failure in terms of my ambitions for it.

It's an effective system.

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