Mistakes: The Best Learning Opportunity

I have caught more than a little criticism when I’ve said things in internet groups that are less than flattering about my own sketches.  Mostly those comments come in the form of ‘don’t be hard on yourself’ and ‘there are no mistakes in art.’  I often wonder if these comments don’t say more about the people writing them than about me.  It’s always seemed to me that the best opportunities for learning come from when I’ve made a mistake.  If I don’t acknowledge my mistakes, I can’t learn from them.  One thing is clear, I NEVER learn anything from my successes.  They are but a reflection of what I already know.  It’s the mistakes that expose what I don’t know or things I’ve yet to master.

Maison Alphonse-DejardinsI study my mistakes often (I’m comfortable enough with myself that this doesn’t bother me) and I thought I’d share one such analysis.  This sort of thing doesn’t see the light of day very often, though, in this case I did post the sketch as documentation of a sketching session I did with Yvan at Maison Alphonse-Dejardins.

When doing a sketch like this I would normally draw, very lightly in pencil, a series of cubes to locate and proportion the two cabinets and the table.  I didn’t do that in this instance.  I just “went for it” as some would advocate.  Not bad advice but when the drawing becomes more complex, it’s far better to start with a bit of scaffolding for two reasons.  The first is that it lets you compare that scaffolding to what you’re looking at and allows you to correct it before continuing.  Second, once the scaffolding is in place, you can stop worrying about proportions/locations and just have fun drawing.

My approach started with “Simple enough, I’ll just draw the high and low angles of the scene and proceed from there.”  With those two lines in place and a horizon line, I felt everything else would fall into place.  You can see that decision reflected in the red horizon line and the two blue angle lines that frame the scene.

This is where things went haywire.  Notice the two  green lines.  I drew the left-most line first.  I’d let my vanishing point wander left quite a bit.  Then, wanting to nail down the table edge, I drew that line.  Notice that my brain pulled it back towards the proper vanishing point somewhat but as I drew it I’m sure I was looking at the countertop line and “saw” the relationship between them and my brain struck a compromise, trying to accommodate the proper vanishing point as well as the relationship between table and countertop.

In my opinion, THIS is the sort of frustration that comes from not doing preliminary scaffolding. You’re constantly chasing your last error, trying to accommodate it into the drawing and one thing is certain, two wrongs don’t make a right in sketching.

Notice that when I drew the doors on the lower cabinet (orange line) my brain had returned to the vanishing point and while these look the worst when it comes to alignment to the rest, they are actually more accurately drawn.

So, what did I learn?  First, the power of early scaffolding (or blocking in if that’s the terminology you prefer) is invaluable.  I actually know that but I guess I needed a reminder.  Sadly, this step is so under-reported when people teach sketching that I didn’t learn it until I’d been sketching for a couple years and it seems that too often I revert back to my pre-scaffolding days, generally with the results you see above.

The other thing I learned is that while my brain tries to accommodate for an error, even without my knowledge, it doesn’t do a very good job of it.  In this post-analysis, I’m not sure what could have been done at this stage as long pen lines are hard to move, so maybe I should forgive it for not finding a solution.

In the end, by actually thinking about what I did wrong, no emotional trauma occurred but I did learn something.  Maybe this will reinforce my brain to insist on locating objects and getting their proportions correct, BEFORE I start drawing rather than trying to fix errors as they occur.  Hope this short analysis has been helpful to some.

11 thoughts on “Mistakes: The Best Learning Opportunity

  1. I find perspective drawing extremely facinating and it at times really boggles my mind. I enjoy drawings and paintings of this sort very much. I see and understand your your learning experience and from that as usual you are able to educate us.
    Thank you for sharing larry. Very very interesting
    Merry Christmas

    • Lynne, any drawing that involves depiction of a 3D object requires “perspective drawing”, though many seem to think it’s all about buildings. It’s simply a way of capturing the reality that objects look smaller as they get further away. Glad you followed the explanation of my error(s) and I hope it helps you in some way.

  2. Excellent and informative analysis! I’m sure I would learn more from my own error-filled sketches if I took the time to analyze them this way. More often than not, I just turn the page and move on to the next sketch.


    • The trick isn’t to be good at it but rather to check that it’s right before you start actually drawing. The more we do it the less we need preliminary analysis (scaffolding) which is why very experienced artists do it without thinking, need few or no marks and also that they fail to mention it when teaching people how to draw. But it was part of the curriculum in the 18th and 19th Centuries.

    • I’ll see what I can do, Susan. I owe another person a discussion of scaffolding another drawing so maybe I can get that together over the holidays. I try to avoid teaching art simply because there are so many people better at it than I am.

  3. Very helpful! Thank you! Perspective is a constant battle between my eye and my brain [that thinks it knows best.] I often do scenes with two vanishing points and really confuse myself. Just recently I had to remind myself that verticals are always vertical regardless of the vanishing-point-angles of the ‘horizontals’ attached to them. I assume that I will eventually master these basics with practice.

    • Robin, I’m going to spout some heresy – beware 🙂 I think vanishing points and their ilk are far more valuable when you’re sitting in a studio trying to make up buildings. When you’re on location, looking at a building there is a Catch-22.

      It is that you must determine your vanishing points by estimating the angles of, say the roof line and the ground line. If you can do that accurately, you don’t need vanishing points. If you can’t, your vanishing points won’t be correct for the building you’re looking at and there will be a “battle” between what you see and what your brain has determined from its vanishing points.

      When on location, I prefer to estimate the angles and then certify them as correct by measuring the vertical corners of the building, ensuring that those dimensions match where the angles fall. This also avoids the problem of the vanishing points being well outside the paper of your sketchbook. Now, I must stop talking so I can start ducking the slings and arrows that are bound to come my way by the straight-edge wielding perspective folks (grin).

      • Yes! Thanks. My best efforts happen when I do just what you say – estimate the roof line and ground line. In landscapes it’s the ‘top of the trees -ish’ line and the road line. It’s amazing what good effects you can get just with those as a starting point. The nice things about buildings and barns is that that if they’re standing, then you know the verticals are plumb and the ‘horizontals’ are excellent guide lines for other things in the composition.

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