“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”
-Scott Adams

I often start off my art classes with the following story:

A long, long time ago in Russia, there lived a family. The family was known for making beautiful matryoshka dolls. The great grandfather, Vasily had taught the grandfather, Uri who had taught the father, Anton who was going to teach his twin sons, Sergey and Sacha. Both of the boys loved to paint and were eager to please their father.

They had worked hard to carve their very first set of dolls and had sanded them as smooth as river stones. The boys both decided to make the dolls look like their mother and to give them to her for her birthday. Their father got out a set of dolls he had carved and taught them to paint the circles for the faces and to wait for them to dry. He had shown them how to paint tiny eyes, noses , and mouths on all the dolls. But when he was called out on an errand, he left the boys alone to get started on their own dolls.

Sacha boasted to Sergey, “My dolls will be the best! I will make them look exactly like Mother and Father will be so pleased!” Sergey just rolled his eyes and both boys began to paint. It was more difficult than Father had made it look and it wasn’t long before Sacha became very frustrated. Suddenly, he sat upright and shouted, “I can’t do this! This is terrible! ” Then, in a fit of anger, Sacha smashed his doll to the ground and stormed out of the room. Sergey looked at the broken doll and saw what made Sacha so angry. The doll’s face had smudged, making the nose look like a long line across the side of the head, but Sergey thought to himself that the work had been good before the accident.

Sergey had made good progress on his dolls. The largest one looked very much like mother. He was working on the next to the largest with a fine, circle for her face and two round eyes. He had gotten to the nose when the families’ cat, Klara hopped up onto the work bench and bumped his arm making a great, fat blob where the nose should be. “Oh no, Klara!” Sergey said looking disappointedly at his doll. But presently he had an idea and he set back to work.

When Father returned to the shop, the boys had gone. He noticed Sacha’s doll on the floor and shook his head, but then, he turned his attention to Sergey’s dolls lined up on the table. His face took on a smile of delight as he noticed that  along with his wife, there was large dog, a medium sized duck, and a tiny cat.

Sacha grew up to keep the books for the shop, but he never made another doll. Sergey, however, became a world renown toy maker, famous for his creative doll families and animals.

Now boys and girls, what do you think is the moral of this story?

Generally, the children will say, “Don’t give up.” We then go through the following Socratic dialogue (a Socratic dialogue is a conversation that is led through a series of questions designed to point the students to arrive at the desired response. So, what follows is the shortened version of the dialogue without the trails and offshoots that the students will inevitably take and that must be pursued in order to steer the conversation back to the desired outcome).

Me: Why do you think Sacha gave up?

The Children: He was mad.

Me: What do you think made him mad?

The Children: He messed up?

Me: Have any of you ever made a mistake and given up?

The Children: Yes

Me: Me too. Why do you think it made him so angry to mess up?

The Children: Because he wanted to do it right.

Me: Did you know that when people get angry, it is usually because they are feeling something else? Sometimes people have their feelings hurt. Sometimes, they are afraid they will lose something. Sometimes, they are sad or nervous. Maybe he had a feeling about making mistakes. Do you ever have a feeling when you make a mistake?

The Children: Yes. Sometimes I am sad or afraid.

Me: Me too. Why are we afraid to make mistakes?

The Children: Because sometimes we get in trouble.

Me: Yes sometimes we do. But, would Sacha have gotten into trouble for making a mistake on his doll?

Children: No.

Me: Do you think he was afraid to get into trouble?

Children: No. Maybe he was afraid of what his dad would think.

Me: Well, you know when paint dries, you can always paint over it. Or you can do what Sergey did and use your mistake to make something new. Sometimes mistakes aren’t bad, especially if you learn from them. I have a saying, “every wrong line is a lesson learned.” Maybe we could learn something else from this story. What do you think that is?

Children: Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.

Me: Very good! Something I want you all to know is that fear is a great, great enemy to art! If you get discouraged and give up, then fear has won. You have to recognize the feeling and push through it and beat it!  If you promise to learn from your mistakes and allow yourself to make them, you will go very far.

Is this not true of life itself?



A penny for your thoughts...

  1. Beth
    Dec 14, 2012

    thank you for your kind words and for sharing. A little concept I hold dear is that of “remothering ourselves.” I believe there is a way to get rid of your fear and it is a process that involves being the voice you needed to hear growing up – encouraging yourself, letting yourself make mistakes. It has to be a conscious effort of pressing through the negative emotions you encounter and allowing your creative voice to emerge. It is not easy. We shut down because it is painful to experience the fear and if we open it back up, it is a lot of hard work to coax your voice out. But, when you do get in touch with that sound- what your creative spirit sounds like, you learn so much about what you were created to do and it brings focus and honor to your values.

    I still have the handmade potholder you gave me proudly on display in my kitchen. I love to look at it. And then, who could ever forget that penguin you made for baby Rosie?? I totally encourage you to move forward in the arts. It will bless your children to see you freeing your voice up. It will help them to be free with theirs. Much love to you!!

  2. Jenia
    Dec 14, 2012

    Beth, this is a wonderful lesson. My attempts at art were so rarely praised and so often criticized when I was a child, that I stopped trying and have a very conscious fear of drawing or painting now. There’s got to be a way to get rid of it…

  3. Kristi
    Nov 17, 2012

    this is a really beautiful lesson – for art, and all of life.