Art Life - Susan Mackay
The Perfection of Imperfection
By Susan Mackay
Mar 31, 2007 - 5:53:30 PM

" In art, there are no mistakes...   So says the pretty student I am listening to as we work on a piece of 'commissioned' graffiti on the school forecourt, as she observed her friend's line skew to the left.

My son's fabulous teacher, Miss Waterhouse has had the idea of this after school club.   The kids have designed on paper and now are using large paint brushes and spray paint cans to make their vibrant designs on the concrete ground.

The space- the quadrangle- around which both my children's classrooms adjoin to, is now alive with graffiti art spelling out the student profiles the children are encouraged to strive for.

Trying not to breathe in the fumes of the spray paints I am struck by the wisdom of this young girl.   She tells me her grandmother told her this important lesson - In art there are no mistakes...

Tonight, my kids have half an hour unexpected quiet time in their rooms before bed.   My six year old son, asks me to pose for him.   He wants to draw my face.   I am a little nervous at the honesty of the pen of my child, fearing that he will articulate with his drawing what my daughter so eloquently put in words. "Mummy why do old people like you, have wrinkles".

As he draws, we discuss the surprising proportions of the head. How the eyes are in the middle, not the top. How shoulders are generally straight and broader than you'd expect. How eyeballs are not complete circles in the almond shaped eye, but are slightly hidden by the lids. I am impressed by his observation, as he carefully draws in eyelids and 'charming' smile lines.

He is pleased with himself, up until the point of my noise!

Then he becomes frustrated at his perceived lack of talent.  

"It's bad, Mummy.   It's wrong."

As a child my mother would take me to the National Art Galleries of Scotland.    An ex-teacher, cub leader, beaver leader, Sunday school teacher and mother of 3 'delightful' children, she never believed in wandering aimlessly around galleries or zoos, with small children, preferring to select one or two paintings or animals to focus on. As a result I have indelible images of penguins, bears and certain paintings; a magnificent one by Gaugin with a vibrant red ground (Vision after Sermon [see image below] Jacob wrestling the angel. 1888.); a vast painting filled with entrancing fairies; and 'Rev. Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch' by Sir Henry Raeburn.

I was mesmerised by these three paintings. The colour of the Gaugin scared me and excited me at the same time. The fairies were beautiful and seduced my dreams.   However the paining of the Rev. skating on Duddingston Loch, with its sombre colours and austere composition was on the surface a strange choice to capture my attention. I was unimpressed until my Mum pointed out the mistake. You can clearly see underneath the white ice of the loch, close to the Reverend's hat, another rim of hat- a mistake, slightly hidden underneath the paint.

Not quite the "happy accidents" that we discussed in the ceramics department of Edinburgh College of Art - ceramics, being particularly susceptible to an accidents happy or otherwise in the furious heat of the kiln.  Then our tutors encouraged us to take the disasters and breathe new life in them.  No pages in our sketch books were to be ripped out. No paper wasted - no mistakes.  A coffee spill on the page was transformed into a sketch of a flower.  The tool dropped onto the latest ceramic creation becomes an exciting mark to be emulated in subsequent pieces.  Or even, as a fellow artist confided to me at the recent show at Freeport Art Centre - a blob of paint on his brush - an unexpected colour, creating the effect needed to finish his painting.

All these are a perfect example of a blend of trial and error - happy accidents becoming a learned vocabulary of experiences.   It is through the very process of allowing and a freedom to push the boundaries of a 'mistake' that the artist learns.   And allowing those mistakes with unprejudiced eyes and seeing the potential beauty in them is the key.

In Raeburn's beautiful painting, the error that he made and attempted to cover up does not in anyway negate the power of this painting. The 'mistake' is actually irrelevant in considering the overall message and feel of the work.

So I encourage my son to keep looking and keep working and learning, that in time with his patience to move beyond his 'mistakes' and acknowledging the successes in his at present immature renderings, then he will master his art.   Tomorrow, I will show him the many different ways of expressing the human face, to see that no one image is 'perfect'. We will see how from the Renaissance to Primitivism, through Abstract Expressionism there are a multitude of answer to the question of expressing the human face. And that perfection is often found in the land of mistakes and imperfection.

I think it is a beautiful metaphor for is in our mistakes we learn and grow, by accepting them without judgement, understanding, we can strive for a new solution. It becomes the perfection of imperfection- a thought, this society so obsessed by perfection and image, could use remembering.  

Fear of the blank page or fear of life - neither brings experience. Life is messy and art is messy, so I say, there are no mistakes in art and no mistakes in life...just wonderful opportunities to learn and live.

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