What’s More Spontaneous Than a Mistake?

Some of my most spontaneous adventures have started with a mistake. A wrong turn, a forgotten step, knocking on the wrong door. A taxi driver, unloading my wet palette and smearing beautiful paint all over the bag that held it, prompted the paint miser in me to wipe that fresh paint onto a sheet of paper and try to make a painting out of it. “If You Want to See the Forest, Let Go of the Trees,” my favorite painting of 2018, was the spontaneous expression of that taxi driver’s mistake. What started in dismay, ended in delight and a beauty that I couldn’t have planned on my own.

Abstract Watercolor Painting by Angela Fehr What's More Spontaneous Than A Mistake?
If You Want to See the Forest, Let Go of the Trees

Every Painting is a Problem

All of art making is an exercise in problem solving. We start out with the problem of the blank sheet of paper, staring at us with “that idiotic stare” as Van Gogh said, and the unfathomable mystery of how to get the painting that is locked in our heads out onto the paper.

Then, from that first brush stroke, we add to the problem; now that we have touched the paper, how do we continue? When do we deviate from our plan to adapt to what is happening on the paper? How do we respond when we invariably make a mistake?

Identity Crisis

As we struggle through a painting, mistakes keep accumulating, and, alone in our workspace, perhaps we feel that we are the only ones who have ever had to spend our entire painting session in damage control. There is no evidence of similar struggle in the paintings we see from other artists, and it is easy to feel like our struggle disqualifies us from being confident in our work.

You are in good company! Even after two decades spent painting, I confront that blank page every time I start a new painting. Its stare is no less accusing than it was the last time. “I have no idea how to paint this,” is always my first thought. But if I knew exactly what to do, where is the creativity in that?

Creativity is Found in the Unexpected

I’m becoming convinced that inherent in creativity is the element of surprise. Inviting and welcoming the unexpected into your work means the process of problem solving becomes less about fixing mistakes and steering the painting back toward your anticipated outcome, and much more about discovery; new paths that are greater than what you could have planned in your conscious brain, but spark beautiful possibilities when you let your creative inner soul direct them.

I may not know what to do next, but maybe the adventure is not found in knowing what’s going to happen; maybe it is the detours and missed turns that lead to the discoveries that change us and impact our art forever.

Learning to See Possibilities in Mistakes

When that taxi driver squished my lovely palette and wasted all that paint, I felt the pain of loss. It was past years spent realizing that my painting time was better spent turning mistakes into possibilities (instead of trying to erase them) that caused me to see a possibility in the smears of paint on the plastic bag and think, “what if?…”

You may not have a taxi driver to mentor you in this way. I am hoping they are rare! But you do have opportunities every day to create a mindset that is adaptable and open to possibility in the uninvited and unexpected.

One way you can do this is to open a painting session with some time spent playing in the realm of “mistakes.” What you fear most, do! For most of us, the blank page challenges us to achieve perfection, so why not see what happens when you kick off your painting with a big, bold “mistake?” Load your brush with delicious color and then just…drop it on the page! Let that big mistake direct your next step and allow your imagination to chart a new path, seeing instead of a mistake, a new possibility and a chance to invite the unexpected creative into your paintings.

I’ll start: watch the video demonstration here:

I’d love to see what you create as you practice your spontaneous skills! If you post your work on social media, tag it with #worldwatercolormonth and #angelafehrtutorials and share the beauty of your own unique and unexpected magic!

Recommended1 recommendationPublished in Tutorials, World Watercolor Month
8 Comments
  1. Karen Fortier 4 weeks ago

    I love when spontaneity makes a painting come alive!

  2. Susan Cuss 4 weeks ago

    I enjoyed watching a mistake turn to magic!

  3. Sharon Bonin-Pratt 4 weeks ago

    Not only applicable for painting, but a positive way of approaching life. Thank you, Angela.

  4. Marilynn Christensen 4 weeks ago

    Inspires me to be more spontaneous.

  5. Nellie Nellie 4 weeks ago

    Hmmmm Angela! I haven’t quite decided what mistake to start in on today, but I feel encouraged to get started!😁😄😆 Thank you as always for blessing us with teaching graciousness for ourselves in the process!

  6. Sandra Strait 4 weeks ago

    Having spent my life as a klutz (and proudly owning it), I can get behind this philosophy. It’s could for many things in life beyond painting, as well!

  7. Mugdha 4 weeks ago

    Hello Angela,

    Thank you so much for this post and for making a mistake sound magical. I love the name you gave to your 2018 creation!

  8. Monica De Wit 4 weeks ago

    Ok, I was spontaneously inspired. I actually picked up my Loose Goose of course!

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