Two Basic Things To Do When A Creative Project Fails

Well, I thought that I’d talk about failure today. This is mostly because I finished a failed creative project the day before I wrote the first draft of this article. It was my first attempt at writing a novella in quite some time and, although I completed it (it was about 15,600 words long) it wasn’t exactly the best thing I’ve ever written. I mean, there’s a good reason why I haven’t mentioned it in previous articles.

Yes, it started out well. Yes, I felt inspired at first. Basically, I tried to write something similar to the old second-hand 1970s/1980s horror novels (in particular, the sub-genre of monster-based novels inspired by James Herbert’s “The Rats”) that I used to read when I was younger and rediscovered when I got back into reading regularly a couple of months ago.

Since giant rats, evil scorpions, carnivorous beetles, giant evil crabs and monster slugs were already taken by actual ’70s/’80s horror authors and because I wanted to write a slight parody of the genre, I ended up choosing adorable badgers – albeit ones that have become immortal, and very hungry, thanks to a mutant version of the rabies virus.

Here’s a short extract from one of the more dramatic and well-written parts of the novella: ‘In an instant, Wilson saw everything. The cattle stalls were a disorderly mess of steaming offal and buzzing flies. In the eaves above, Jerry sat on a beam with a pitchfork in his arms and a look of abject terror on his face. A low chittering sound echoed through the air. Wilson spotted movement next to one of the beams. At first, Wilson thought it was a stray dog. But, as his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he noticed that it was a badger. Crimson foam frothed around the creature’s mouth as it stared up at Jerry and clawed at the beam.

However, large portions of the story really aren’t as good as this short extract. If I was reviewing the novella, I’d probably only give it two or three out of five. It was, in short, a failed project.

So, I thought that I’d give you a couple of basic tips for what to do when a creative project fails. And, yes, you’ve probably heard these before – but they’re well-known pieces of advice for a good reason.

1) Do a post-mortem: This one is fairly obvious, but it can be a bit of challenge if you’ve never really done anything like this. In essence, you need to take a step back and look at both what went wrong and why it went wrong. This might sound like a rather depressing thing to do, but it can teach you what to avoid in your next project. In other words, it reduces the chance of making the same or similar mistakes again.

In addition to teaching you general lessons, this also helps you to get to know yourself better. Because one of the best ways of finding out what your strengths and weaknesses are is to actually make something and then see what parts of it do and don’t work. Once you’ve found this out, you can play to your strengths and/or focus on your weaknesses in your next project.

For example, with my failed horror novella, some of the major flaws/lessons I found included:

– There were literally too many characters for a story of this length. Not only that, since I knew that all of the main characters were going to be eaten by badgers, I instinctively skimped on the characterisation since I’d find it too depressing to put too much emotional effort into developing a well-written character who was going to suffer such a tragic fate. So, the lessons here were to include fewer characters in my next project and to ensure that the characters have a good chance of surviving the story.

– A lack of pre-planning (resulting in somewhat uneven plotting) and the fact that I tried to write it relatively quickly (in about 18-19 days) meant that, whilst I was able to stay motivated, the writing would often get somewhat repetitive. I’d often re-use descriptions (eg: when describing the sounds the badgers made etc..) and many of the story’s dialogue segments would also sound incredibly repetitive too. The lesson here was to spend a while longer planning the story and to focus more on quality than quantity.

– The narrative voice throughout the story was incredibly uneven. Some chapters were supposed to be a parody of bad writing (which quickly turned into actual bad writing), some chapters sounded very “modern”, some chapters read like something from a thriller novel, some chapters had a more American-style narrative voice etc… A lot of this stemmed from the fact that I’d used third-person narration, and I’d had more practice with first-person narration in the past.

I could go on for quite a while…. But, working out what failed and why will help you to improve any future projects.

2) Remember that it happens to literally everyone: When a creative project fails, it can be easy to make the foolish mistake of thinking that you are a failure. That you’re not as good as the writers, artists etc… who inspired you to start your project. Well, I’ll let you into a secret. They’ve failed before, just like you have.

In fact, it is impossible to get really good at anything without failing. The only reason that the people who have inspired you seem like talented geniuses is because you haven’t seen their failed practice projects. They’ve failed just like you have. And, after they failed, they learnt from it and then tried to make another project. Eventually, they got better at writing, making art etc… because they refused to give up.

I mean, there’s a reason why – for example – pretty much every piece of writing advice out there will tell you not to publish your first novel (or first three novels or whatever). It usually takes quite a bit of writing practice before someone can produce a publishable novel. It’s not something that most people can get right on the first try. And, that’s ok. After all, you wouldn’t expect to be able to – say- play the guitar perfectly after picking up the instrument for the first time.

In other words, if you’ve tried to create something and failed horribly at it, then you’re doing exactly the same thing that the people you look up to have done in the past. In other words, you’re doing the right thing. At the very least, you’ve actually created something. Most people don’t get to this stage. So, consider your failure to be one of the steps on the road to greatness.

So, yes, failure happens to literally everyone. It is how you think about it and what you do afterwards that really matters.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Why A Failed Painting Is Never A Total Failure – A Ramble

The afternoon before I prepared this article, I made a failed painting. It was meant to be a memory painting/self-portrait which would show me sitting in a room I used to live in. It was to be illuminated entirely by the streetlights/headlights outside the room, in order to create a cool “film noir”-like look.

Unfortunately, the final digitally-edited painting looked nowhere near as good as I’d hoped. Here’s a preview of it:

This is a reduced-size preview. The full-size painting will be posted here on the 17th October.

Still, as annoying as this was, it wasn’t a total failure for a number of reasons. After all, a failed painting is never a total failure. But, why?

Firstly, failure means that you’ve tried. This isn’t a “participation medal” motivational statement. It’s a fact. If you’ve failed at making a piece of art and you feel bad about it, then this means that you care about making art. It means that you want to make good art. It means that you have intrinsic motivation. So, your failed painting isn’t a total failure because it can remind you of how much you care about making good art.

Secondly, failure usually means that you’re trying something new or different. For example, the painting I showed you gave me a chance to try out a slightly different technique for painting light and rain. If you look at this close-up of the window, you’ll see that the raindrops surrounding the headlights are the same colour/brightness as the headlights.

The raindrops surrounding the headlights are brighter and/or more yellow than the raindrops in the background. I’m surprised I didn’t think of doing this before…

Although the painting as a whole wasn’t great, it gave me a chance to experiment with new lighting techniques. Which means that, when I make a good painting, I’ll be able to make it at least slightly better by using this technique (if I remember to use it). So, failed paintings usually mean that you’re learning new stuff.

Thirdly, a failed painting is never a total failure because failure is relative. If you’ve been making art for a while, then there’s a good chance that your current “failed” paintings will still look better than the “good” paintings you made when you were less experienced. In other words, a failure can remind you of how far you have come as an artist (and how far you still have to go).

Fourthly, a failed painting is never a total failure because you actually made it. Seriously, even a failed attempt at painting or drawing something is much, much better than just thinking “I can’t do that” and doing something else instead.

So, even if the painting turned out badly, you still made it. You still followed your inspiration or tried to challenge yourself or something like that. In other words, you did more than 99% of people probably would have done.

Finally, a failed painting is never a total failure because it can teach you what not to do. If you’re able to work out why you failed, then you can use these lessons to improve your next painting.

For example, in the failed painting I showed you earlier in this article, it failed because I got the composition wrong (eg: I should have used a “camera angle” that included two windows) and because I was a little bit over-enthusiastic with my use of shadows in some parts of the picture.

Yes, it can be easy to forget the lessons you learn from a failed painting. But, even if you have to fail ten times before you learn something, each failed painting you make will teach you something.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three More Ways To Deal With Failed Paintings (Emotionally)

Well, although I’ve written about the topic of failed paintings a few times before, I thought that I’d return to it today.

This was mostly because, despite attempts to salvage it with various digital effects, the heavy metal-themed painting that I’d prepared a few hours before writing this article was something of a failure. Seriously, it looks like a piece of badly-made abstract art! Here’s a preview of it:

The full-size painting will be posted here on the 30th July.

So, how do you deal with the emotions that can appear when a painting you had high hopes for ends up turning into absolute rubbish?

1) Don’t judge yourself: Although it’s always useful to think about the reasons why a painting failed (so that you can try to avoid the same mistakes in the future), try to remember that you are more than just one painting. In other words, don’t judge yourself.

One failed painting, or even a hundred failed paintings, doesn’t mean that you are a failure. All it means is that you either had a bad day/week/month/year, that you need to learn/practice more or that you made some kind of technical mistake in that one painting. It doesn’t make you any less of an artist. All artists make failed paintings (even if many don’t show them off). Failure is an essential part of being an artist.

The fact that you actually finished a painting, however badly it turned out, means that you’re more of an artist than many people. The fact that you care about the fact that your painting didn’t turn out well means that you’re more of an artist than many people. So, don’t judge yourself. You are an artist! Just work out what went wrong and then get on with making the next painting as soon as you can.

2) Remember, it won’t last forever: One of the good things about practicing art regularly for several years is that you start to see patterns and trends. The main one of these is that periods of failure and/or uninspiration don’t last forever! In my experience, they usually only tend to last a few days or a couple of weeks at the very most.

So, if you keep making art, there’s a very good chance that you’ll end up making a good work of art again. In fact, that chance increases with every subsequent “failed” painting that you make – for the simple reason that repeated failure will prompt you to either try new things or to work out a way to get around the failure.

The only way that a period of artistic failure and/or uninspiration can last forever is if you give up and don’t make art again. But, if you keep making art, then – even if it takes a while – you’ll start making better art.

3) Congratulate yourself: After you’ve made a failed painting, it can be easy to feel that you aren’t very good at making art. Ironically, if you feel this emotion, then it probably means that you are at least slightly good at making art.

Why? Because you’re probably comparing your failed painting to other paintings that you’ve made, some of which are probably reasonably good. And, if you made those good paintings, then that means that you are good at making art. If you weren’t, then you wouldn’t have made those other paintings.

Think about it this way. If you’re an absolute beginner at making art – then failure doesn’t usually feel too bad. Since you’re new, you don’t expect to produce something great instantly. So, although failure can be annoying, it doesn’t feel too bad because it’s an expected part of the learning process. However, if you’ve been making art for a while, then failure can feel bad… because you’ve made good art before. So, feeling bad about failure means that you are already good at making art.

The other important thing to remember is that everything is relative. A terrible painting that you make today will probably still look better than a good painting that you made a few years ago. Feeling bad about making a failed painting just means that your painting is a failure in comparison to the good paintings you’ve made within the past year or so.

So, if a failed painting makes you feel miserable, then congratulate yourself. It means that you are a good artist – even if you’ve had a bad day or an uninspired moment.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

The Benefits Of Making Terrible Art In Less Than Optimal Circumstances

The night before I wrote the first draft of this article, I was in that terrible combination of being in an awful mood and feeling extremely tired. Plus, I still had to prepare one of the daily paintings I’ll be posting here next month.

Although I was able to salvage the painting a bit after scanning it and editing it extensively on the computer the following morning, it ended up being predictably terrible. Not only are the shading and reflections slightly wrong, but (due to covering up a few mistakes) it’s also about a million miles away from the vivid, heavily saturated art that I normally make. Here’s a reduced-size preview of it:

The full-size painting will be posted here on the 18th March.

So, why have I mentioned this? Well, it’s to do with why making terrible art under less than optimal circumstances can actually be a good thing sometimes. Yes, you heard me correctly. It can actually benefit you. I’ve mentioned all of this stuff before, but it’s always worth repeating.

There are several reasons for this. The first is that comparing it to bad art (or even good art) you made a few years ago can show you how much you have improved as an artist. This can be an invaluable motivational tool if you’re in the kind of mood or situation that results in bad art.

For example, in the painting I just showed you earlier, I probably wouldn’t have thought to add falling leaves to it (to give it a sense of momentum and depth) or to digitally desaturate it (to cover up a few imperfections) if I’d made it a couple of years ago.

The second reason is that it’s a test of your artistic skill and motivation. If you manage to churn out a painting, however terrible, in less than optimum circumstances then this shows that you still have some kind of artistic motivation. It shows that you’re still determined to be an artist.

Not only that, if you’ve got limited time or energy available to make a painting then it can also be a test of your skill in the sense that you have to find a sneaky way to make the least-terrible terrible painting with the resources you have. Likewise, if you’re feeling extremely uninspired, then working out how to make a painting (however terrible) despite this can be a great test of your artistic skill.

The third is that it can actually increase your artistic confidence. If you’re in a situation where making art feels more difficult than usual, then even producing a bad piece of art under those circumstances means that you’re more dedicated to making art than some artists might be. After all, if you still have the confidence to know that you can still make art under adverse circumstances, then this is always a good thing.

Likewise, having the confidence to actually show off your failed artwork can help novice artists too. There seems to be this misconception that even vaguely good artists are people who only ever produce great works of art. This isn’t true! All artists make crappy art every once in a while.

Yes, even the artists who are so good that they make you think “I’ll never be able to make something as great as that!” will make terrible art occasionally. The main difference is that many artists tend to hide their failed pieces, to give the impression that they only produce great art all of the time. They don’t.

Finally, it gets you used to failing sometimes. Being able to handle failure is one of the most important parts of being a creative person, since it’s the only way that any artist, writer etc.. improves. If you want to get better at making art, you have to fail sometimes. So, making terrible art occasionally can be a good way to get used to it.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Remember, It’s Ok To Fail At Making Art Sometimes

Although this is a motivational article, I’m going to have to start by talking about a failed painting of mine. But, don’t worry, there’s lots of uplifting motivational stuff in the rest of the article. And, yes, I’ve almost certainly said all of this stuff before, but it’s worth repeating every now and then.

Anyway, the day before I wrote this article, I made the first daily painting that I’ll be posting here in January. Due to being uninspired and being in a slight rush, it looked more like something from 2015/16 than anything I’d make these days. In other words, it was a painting that I considered to be a “failure”. Here’s a reduced-size preview of it:

The full-size painting will be posted here on the 1st January.

But, why have I mentioned this? Well, it’s to show you that it’s ok to fail at making art sometimes. It happens to every artist. Every artist has uninspired days, rushed days or any other type of day that results in low-quality artwork. If you see an artist who never seems to fail, then all this means is that they aren’t showing you the failed paintings that they’ve made.

If you fail at making a piece of art, it doesn’t mean that you’re a bad artist or that you aren’t a “real” artist or anything like that. In fact, if you keep making art despite the occasional failure or uninspired day, then this probably means that you are a better and more real artist than someone who gives up on art after failing at it. Remember, all artists (even the really good ones) fail every now and then.

What failure means is that you tried. It means that, despite not feeling inspired or knowing exactly how to do something, you still tried. It means that you still have the motivation to make art. It means that making art still matters to you. It means that you want to make better art. In other words, it means that you are an artist. If you weren’t an artist, you probably wouldn’t even bother to try making a piece of art if failure seemed possible.

Failure is also, of course, a great learning tool. If you decide to try something new and you fail at it, then you can see where and how you went wrong. If you need to rebuild your confidence by making a few pieces of art that you can make before you return to the thing you failed at, then this is fine. The important thing is to keep trying and to keep experimenting, since you’ll get it right eventually.

Failure also exists to make the inspired times seem even more inspired and to make the good paintings seem even more satisfying to make by comparison. In other words, you can’t have good paintings without the occasional failed one. So, it’s ok to fail every now and then.

Likewise, if you keep making art despite the occasional failure, then even your failures will get better. When it comes to something as subjective as art, failure is a very relative term. For example, the “failed” painting that I showed you earlier in this article looks terrible by my current standards. But, if I’d made it in 2012-14, then I’d have been extremely impressed by it. I’d probably even consider it one of my “best works”.

So, if you keep going despite the occasional failure, then you’ll get to the point where even your current failures look better than the “good” artwork that you made a few years ago.

Yes, making a failed painting or drawing can be incredibly annoying or dispiriting when it happens. But, it’s ok to fail sometimes. It means that you’re an artist.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Learning From A Failed Project – The 1990s Stories

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When you write or make art, then you’re going to make mistakes and fail sometimes. It happens to everyone. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Not only does it mean that you’ve tried something a bit different, it also means that you’ll be able to learn from your failures too.

So, in that spirit, I thought that I’d give an example of learning from a failed project. If you aren’t interested in reading about the many ways I failed at a writing project, then just skip to the final paragraph for some general conclusions.

Earlier this year, I posted a series of short stories set in the 1990s here. In contrast to the previous two short story collections that I’d written (which can be found in the “2016” section of this page), this one only lasted a mere five stories before it ran out of steam.

The first sign that it was something of a mistake came from the fact that it took me a few days to work up the enthusiasm to start the project after I’d had my initial idea for it. Usually, when I have an idea for a project that is going to go well, it’s the sort of thing that I have to start working on right now. But, this was different. It was a cool idea and I wanted to make it, but it didn’t really have the impetus that these kinds of projects usually have.

At the time, I didn’t think to refine the idea until it provoked these hyper-enthusiastic feelings in me. Instead, I mistook my mild enthusiasm for technical problems. After all, I was writing historical fiction – a genre that I haven’t really written in before. So, I thought that I’d have to spend some time working out how to write these stories. For some writers, this sort of thing leads to good stories. But, for me, too much slowness tends to drain the life from a project.

Another problem was the fact that I’d tried to write relatively ordinary stories about ordinary life. This is a genre that I usually consider to be “extremely boring”. But, I’d thought that the historical nostalgia elements would help to keep it interesting. They didn’t. Yes, ordinary life was slightly different in the 1990s, but it was still fairly.. ordinary.

This, of course, made coming up with interesting story ideas surprisingly difficult. One of the main advantages of genres like science fiction and horror, and stories that are set in stylised versions of the real world, is that you can use your imagination to come up with all sorts of strange things to add to the story. You can create entirely fictitious settings that are more imaginative than realistic. You can add futuristic technology, unrealistic events etc… and see how your characters will react to them.

I’d always known that there was a reason why I preferred to write in “unrealistic” genres and this failed project reminded me about this. It gave me an actual physical example of what happens when I try to write the kinds of stories that don’t often interest me as a reader.

The other problem was probably the research. As fascinated as I am with the 1990s, I quickly realised that most of what I knew about the decade came from second-hand sources. After all, I was only a young child in the 1990s. So, whilst struggling to come up with story ideas, I ended up focusing more on things that are related to the media than anything else.

After all, since my preferred writing style tends to be fast and regular, I pushed myself to write one story per day. This didn’t leave a huge amount of time for research. So, I ended up setting many of my stories in fairly generic locations, with only a few subtle details that implied that they were set during the 1990s. So, again, this reminded me of how much easier it is to write stories that are set in entirely fictional locations.

Likewise, it reminded me of the difference between writing and other forms of creativity. Whenever I’d made art or comics that were set in the 1990s (like this one), I’d always gone for a stylised version of early-mid 1990s America, because it looks cool. Of course, fiction is a non-visual medium that relies a lot more on descriptions.

So, I actually ended up relying on my childhood memories of mid-late 1990s Britain (and things from that time and place that I’d watched or read) quite a bit. This led to the project having a totally different style and tone to what I had expected. Most of the stories were set in 1996-9, which didn’t really seem as fascinatingly “historical” as I’d originally expected. If I’d paid more attention to the differences between visual art and the written word, I could have come up with a better idea for this project.

The common thread in all of this is that you tend to produce your best work when you know yourself well and know where your strengths lie. But, on the other hand, you’ll only learn about this if you fail a few times. So, don’t be afraid to fail!

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Failed Paintings Happen. Here’s What To Do.

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At the time of writing this article, I was extremely tired. I’d also tried to make an experimental painting, which was originally supposed to be a “traditional”-style painting (without any underlying ink drawing).

The original painting looked terrible and it was only after some extensive digital editing that I was able to make it look even vaguely ok. Here’s a reduced-size preview:

 The full-size painting will be posted here on the 12th October.

The full-size painting will be posted here on the 12th October.

It was a failed painting. Failed paintings happen. Here’s what to do after you’ve made one:

1) Keep painting: If you stick to a regular practice schedule, then failed paintings will soon become less of an issue than you think. Yes, you’ll still make them every now and again but they won’t have the same emotional impact that they might have if you only make art occasionally.

Why? Because you’ll have a chance to make a better painting the next day (or three days, or week). Because, if you make art regularly, then your feelings of “failure” only last until you start the next painting. After all, you’ve probably learnt from your mistakes and will soon have a chance to make something better. At the very least, you can restore your confidence by painting something that you know you can paint well when you make your next painting.

If you practice regularly, then you’ll also get used to occasional failure relatively quickly. At the least, your regular practice will mean that you’ll have made a few good paintings in the past. Looking at these can reassure you that your failed painting was just an anomaly and that you shouldn’t judge yourself based on just one failed painting.

Likewise, sticking to a regular practice schedule means that you can’t be a perfectionist. It means that you’ll learn to leave your failed painting (after putting some effort into salvaging it) and move on to the next painting.

2) Remember, it happens to everyone: Even your favourite artists fail every now and then. Even the best artists on the planet make failed paintings every now and then.

However, the reason why you probably don’t think about the fact that your favourite artists also make failed paintings is because they rarely show them off. If an artist hides their failed paintings and only shows off the good ones, then they’ll be able to give the impression that they only make good art.

But, this doesn’t change the fact that every artist fails every now and then. Failure is an essential part of the learning process. There’s no such thing as a “perfect” artist who never produces a bad painting. There are just artists who show off their failures, and artists who don’t.

3) Salvage and post: The definition of “failure” is a very subjective thing. To use a musical metaphor, even a bad song by an accomplished band like Iron Maiden will still be miles better than a good song by a much more inexperienced band. Likewise, if you’ve been making art for a while, then your current “failed” paintings probably still look better than the “good” paintings you made a few years ago.

So, the best thing to do with failed paintings is often to try to salvage them as much as you can (either through traditional methods or through digital image editing) and then to post them online. This might sound counter-intuitive, but there’s a chance that your audience might have a different opinion about your painting. I’ll never forget the time in 2014 where I posted what I thought was a “failed” painting on here, only for it to receive more “likes” than many of my good paintings had.

Finally, if you’re worried about criticism, then don’t be. Generally, if someone is a fan of your work or another artist, then they’ll probably give you constructive criticism that can sometimes be useful. If someone doesn’t like your art, then they’ll probably just ignore it and look at something else instead. If someone leaves a non-constructive critical comment below your art, then just remember that it is one person’s opinion about that one piece of art (eg: such comments are best ignored or at least not taken personally).

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂