When I teach children (and for that matter adults) I often get asked “Is this good? or good enough? My first reply is always “Do you like it?” or “What do you think?” I’m now wondering if this is the wrong question.

You see, I have always felt that students asking this question are really asking me to validate what THEY think is not good enough. Are they really fishing for compliments on what they don’t think is very good? If I say it’s good enough, am I just encouraging them in mediocrity? So iI usually don’t reply with a yes or no. I want them to think about what they want to make and how they want it to look.

When I am developing a new work, I am often led by what the work wants me to do. While I’m making characters, either Quirky Birds or Crazy Faces, I can ‘blame’ them for the way they look and how they turn out. Jane Davenport often talks about her girls ‘dropping out’ of her pen. I find the menagerie I create name themselves and tell me about who they are as I make them. They have a backstory by the time they are finished. So I am led by the questions that I get asked by the work during the making process. They are usually ‘What happens if I…?’ or “‘I wonder what this would look like?’ or something similar.

That’s what I want my students to do – take their work in the direction they want. In this world where we believe in talent rather than a work ethic, most students expect that every step of the artmaking process will be easy and flow. If they put down a wrong line or brushmark they have ruined whole piece. They need to throw it away and start again.

But what if the ‘mistake’ is seen as an opportunity? What if the ‘error’ is seen as a new direction to take the work? I would like my students to ask themselves “Do I find this interesting? Is this an interesting idea for me?” This is the question that an artist asks themselves at every stage of a work. If the answer is no then another layer of paint or a different shape, colour, texture, shade/tint or line might make it better. If it’s gone too far and there is no ‘saving’ it, put it aside for the moment and look at it again later. Sometimes much later. Never throw it away!

Meet Sybil: this was a painting I did 7 or 8 years ago. I wasn’t really happy with the whole thing but it was on a canvas so I couldn’t throw it away. That would have been wasteful! So I hid it in my wardrobe – literally. Last year I was clearing stuff out and found her. (She wasn’t called Sybil then.) As I looked at her I wondered what would happen if I changed the proportions and colours on one side of her face. As I worked with her more and more, I liked her a whole lot more! She has a new colour scheme and character and she comes off the canvas more confidently. The old work is underneath and only I know what she looked like before.

So ask yourself: is this interesting to me? rather than Is this good enough?

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