From the Blog

Failure is an option

I blame Gene Kranz.

Who? I hear you ask.

Gene Kranz was the flight director of the Gemini, Apollo, and Space Shuttle missions. During the infamous Apollo 13 mission, Kranz first uttered the phrase “failure is not an option”.

Except, he didn’t. Fail! (As the kid’s say.)

It was actually said by Ed Harris, playing Gene Kranz, in the 1995 film Apollo 13. The real Kranz never said these words. Despite that, the phrase entered the popular psyche and we now know that, categorically, “failure is not an option”.

Or is it?

Other options are available…

None of us are prefect.

Mistakes happen.

Once we accept that failure is an option, we can better prepare ourselves for its inevitable arrival.

A confidence trick

I am an illustrator. I am not a surgeon, nor a nuclear engineer. I do not hold lives in my hands when I go to work. I hold pens.

Therefore, my mistakes tend not to have far-reaching consequences. They still hurt, though.

I will freely admit that I am a confidence player. I’m like a Premier League striker in that regard (and in that way only). When I dash off a great drawing* I find my spirits are lifted and the next piece flows from my pen with ease. When I struggle through a picture, the doubts set in again.

(*To clarify, I have never “dashed off” a drawing in my life. Oh, but I wish I could.)

This does not mean that I can’t take criticism. It is a crucial component of being an illustrator, and I am very happy to have my clients ask for changes, or to tell me when they don’t like something. That sort of criticism is good, and constructive, and helps make my artwork better.

What I do not enjoy is criticism that exposes my failures as an artist. Valid criticism about valid flaws in something I have created.

Let me give you an example…

Is she stabbing herself in the head?

A few weeks ago, I decided to try something a little different. Nothing too revolutionary, just a style of digital painting I don’t usually employ.

I painted a warrior, sword and shield in hand, against a mist-filled forest backdrop.

With it being a slightly different style, I found myself drawn into the details. I spent far too long working on textures in the clothes. I tried three hundred different colour combinations for her outfit. I played with lighting until I was happy that the glint on her shoulder was just as I wanted it.

I felt pleased with these individual elements, but the warm sense of satisfaction I get at the end of a job well done, that was missing. Interested in other people’s opinions, I posted it in a facebook group and waited for the admiration to arrive.

The feedback soon rolled in. And it wasn’t complimentary.

The pose was odd, the face strange. It appeared that she was trying to impale her head upon her own sword. I was starting to know how she might be feeling.

So what had gone wrong?

The bigger picture

There were two clear problems with this picture and they both involved an inability to see the bigger picture.

Take the face, for example. It was not judged to be particularly good.

But wait! I wanted to cry. If you zoom in to my hi-res original, the details are really quite fine. The curl of the lip, the pores of the skin. The trouble was, at full size, uploaded to facebook at a lower resolution, those details did not show up. And the overall effect was, I’ll admit it, nothing to write home about.

I had been working at too small a scale, concentrating on how it looked at a magnification at which it was never going to be viewed. Not only was this a little unnecessary, but it prevented me from seeing how it would truly look when viewed at a normal scale.

Secondly, I had also been drawn into the details of the painting technique I was using. I worried about the texture of a cloth and the light on a shield strap, and I forgot to step back and think about whether the overall picture itself was any good.

Even when I did zoom out and consider the overall scene, I had developed a selective blindness that drew my eye to the little details I liked and obscured the weaknesses in the overall painting.

Trust your gut

I realise now that while my eyes were selecting the parts they liked, my gut was responding to the whole thing. That warm sense of satisfaction that I was missing? Yep, that was my gut telling me that something wasn’t right.

Look for feedback

Posting the picture to facebook was the best thing I could have done.

The feedback I received was critical and highlighted exactly what was wrong. It was good feedback. In a few taps of a keyboard, they removed the blinkers preventing me from seeing the problems with my painting.

Good god! What is wrong with her face? Why is she standing like that? What was I thinking?

It wasn’t a nice feeling, but it was very educational.

If failure is an option, what do we do when it happens?

Firstly, you thank those who have commented and you quickly remove the picture from facebook. Then you delete all record of it from your hard drive. Search the cloud, it might exist there too.


With all traces of that painterly abomination removed from existence, you can settle down with your disappointment and your embarrassment and decide what to do next. Once again, it helps to look at the bigger picture.

What is the normal reaction to your work? How do you usually feel when you finish a piece? How do others respond?

I found myself thinking about this painting in the context of my wider body of work. I am never 100% happy with anything I produce (is any artist?) but I am satisfied with the majority of it. I believe them to be well executed. The reactions I receive from others tend to support this.

No one will ever like everything I do, but I could console myself with the thought that most of my other paintings and pictures have been better received that this one had.

That gave me some perspective. One bad painting does not a bad painter make.

So, in that case, what had gone wrong this time?

Thinking about it (okay, okay, brooding over it), I gradually came to the realisations I laid out above. Too much focus on the details and a lack of appreciation for the whole. Concentrating too hard on the technique and losing sight of the overall effect.

Silly mistakes, really. But also reasonably easy to rectify.

Zoom out. Think about the overall effect. Give myself time to walk away, sleep on it, and reappraise with fresh eyes. These things were quickly slotted in to my (highly informal) workflow for future illustrations.

It’s [not] the end of the world as we know it

Ultimately, this drawing debacle was of little consequence.

This had been a personal piece I had painted to try out something new. It didn’t work. But the world didn’t end, no clients were affected, no jobs were lost because of it, no relationships ruined.

I felt like a bit of a prat for a couple of days, but I got over it.

Get back on the wagon…

The best thing I did in the aftermath of this embarrassing experience, was to paint something new. In a style I was comfortable with.

And when it was finished, I zoomed out, checked it over, and I was pleased with what I saw. I came back the next day and it was still pretty good. My gut seemed to agree.

I felt better about things again.

public service broadcasting go! alternative tribute fan poster

…And go!

We started with Gene Kranz, and that is where we shall end.

For no better reason than the fact that I love this song, here is the video for Public Service Broadcasting’s ‘Go!’, featuring the voice of Gene Kranz (he’s the one shouting out the list of flight controllers for a go-no-go decision).

You’re welcome.

See my more-successful work in my online portfolio

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