The Fear of Failure

No one was allowed to see my sketchbook in junior high. To be honest, no one is allowed to see my sketchbook now. It is a collection of halting starts, experiments, some hideous failures and a few hidden gems. Even though we are professional artists and educators we still make mistakes.

The problem is our students rarely see those mistakes. We show the work we are proud of, our curated artist identity. They don’t often see the canvases in the back of closets, the cracked pottery, or the overexposed photographs. Be honest. It still happens to you. A trained professional. Our students are new to their craft. It may even be their first day trying this whole art thing for real. We see all of their trials and errors. And so do their classmates. I still remember drawing with a hand shielding the paper from anyone who might look over. I would freak out if I were them.

The students are not going to show up day 1 and paint the Sistine Chapel. They are going to mess up. Or even worse, they aren’t going to even try their best out of fear of messing up. They may compare themselves to their peers and feel defeated. Often when I compliment a student’s work they don’t believe me. Because it isn’t how they envision it in their head, or how they had hoped it would be. So how do we get our students comfortable with failure? Especially when there is the pressure of only 10 classes to get it right?

I’ve been thinking about it and come up with some ideas, some of which you may already utilize. Since I’m based in painting and drawing they are biased towards those mediums, but I hope it inspires you to think about more strategies for your own practice. Hopefully a conversation can start and continue between each other as we share our successes.

What if we:

  • Bring in our drawings from junior high or high school when we were first starting out? Or even more recent mistakes? Knowing that their teachers aren’t all knowing experts can help them relax.
  • Let them see the initial sketches that were eventually turned into a final work? Show our process so they see we don’t conjure our work through sorcery.
  • Make mistakes in a demo and turn them into teaching moments? I do this without even trying.
  • Not emphasize their final project too much? I have seen students deflate when they realized their piece was to be exhibited. Being on view means being evaluated. It is also another moment where their work is next to that of their peers, creating a comparison.
  • Try a technique you aren’t comfortable with yet and learn it with your students? As teachers we know we are always learning, it is important that the students know that too.
  • Create moments of experimentation without expecting an outcome? This emphasizes process over product.
  • Make sure to give specific praise? They see through the generic “Good job” and “Looking good”, especially if you have something more to say to the next student. Shifting focus off their mistakes and onto a very particular success can encourage them into working to their strengths.
  • Look at the evolution of famous artists? This isn’t so much about failure as much about showing how artists continue growing.

We all know our students are talented, the goal is for them to believe it as well.

Age 8 & Age 35

Age 8 & Age 35

Lyndsay Murphree About Lyndsay Murphree
Lyndsay is a botanical artist working in watercolor and colored pencil. She has been affiliated with Marwen since 2010.

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