Art – Learning the Value of Failure

When visiting artist Douglas White spoke recently about his working process he triggered a conversation about the value of failure.  Describing how he set out to make a series of small figurative sculptures using wax he explained to the pupils how he was frustrated because they were not working.  Discarding them into a slop bucket of warm water, he left the studio in a huff and went for lunch early.  When he returned he discovered the wax had formed a beautiful crust on the surface of the bucket.  This then became the basis for a successful series of abstract pieces, and later a work currently on show at the Saatchi Gallery, London.  Ultimately, he was successful because he recognised that he had an idea superior to his initial intentions.

The concept of accidental discoveries is not new.  Alexander Fleming’s ability to recognise what had occurred whilst he was away from his messy laboratory over the Summer holidays, resulted in the discovery of penicillin.  As he describes, “When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer, but I guess that was exactly what I did.”

It was the company Kutol, specialising in cleaning products, which saved itself from bankruptcy by realising that their failing wallpaper cleaner paste was in fact being used by schoolchildren to make arts and craft projects and it became known as Play-Doh.

These stories of how discoveries were made by accident are fascinating and evident throughout all aspects of our lives.  They remind us of the importance of reconsidering and reassessing our initial ideas.  What turns an idea from good to genius is recognising the opportunity to adapt and evolve.  As Picasso stated, “I begin with an idea and then it becomes something else.”

It seems a popular notion to encourage schoolchildren to ‘embrace failure’ which sounds in itself ludicrous.  No one sets out to fail; no one wants to fail.  As human beings we do not enjoy failing and we do not seek it out.  However, when faced with something not going as one initially intended, rather than be overwhelmed or disheartened, we are embracing the ability to react in a positive way which leads to a greater outcome.  Rather than being held back by feelings of self-doubt and failure, we should recognise the chance for something new. So have the confidence to embrace opportunities and let your ideas evolve into something far greater than you could have ever thought possible.

By Imogen Vickers, Head of Art