“Accidentally” painting our grandest design

Just before my daughter set off to school today, a barrel-full of nerves, to “sit” the first part of her 10 hour Art GCSE, there was one thing I felt really compelled to say to her (though I know I had said it before…) In that moment when it all feels like its going wrong, when the water tips over or the splodge of dirty grey paint runs all over the porcelain-toned face you were drawing, do what you have to do to mitigate the damage but stay really calm and breathe through the urge to panic…and then be open to this…

The very “mistake” you just made might be the most perfect thing that could have happened to you…no, really; this very circumstance has happened to me a thousand times before. I’ve watched in despair as that greyish smudge smeared right across the portrait or the accidental arm jolt struck out all the pristine work I’d been noodling over for hours, as the easel collapsed and the canvas fell face-down on a pile of dust and dog-hair. More times than I can remember, that thing (or the work necessary to remedy it) has turned out to be the very best new ingredient the painting needed to take it up a level; to add that injection of a colour I might never have otherwise considered, the new layer of texture or depth, the more flamboyant brushstroke or just the whole new direction as a result of being forced to HALT and consider where I was going.

The words from Kate Bush’s song “An Architect’s Dream” always come to me when I think about this:

Watching the painter painting
And all the time, the light is changing
And he keeps painting, that bit there
It was an accident
But he’s so pleased
Its the best mistake he could make
And its my favorite piece, its just great

First time I heard that many years ago, yes, I was painting and it made my heart jump out of my chest to hear the confirmation in song of this thing that I was coming to know for myself; that painting was busily teaching me at the time…about art…and about life itself.

Aren’t we all just the architects dreaming our life into being, thinking (at ground level) that we know just what’s best for us, for this project we call life…but there’s always a bigger plan, a divinely inspired blueprint our higher-architect has in mind for us on the much much broader, more ambitious and daring canvas of things. True inspiration is when we are already tuning into that grand design but sometimes it takes that nudge or jolt, that so-called accident or something (even ourselves!) tipping over before we get back on track towards the very masterpiece of ourselves that we might otherwise miss out on.

Happy accidents have been the most inspired portals of my life and art taught me to see and appreciate them; to allow that they were possible and that a higher, better informed version of me had something else in mind for that thing I am always so busy creating. If my daughter can open up to that possibility today, I know the finished piece will be even more inspired than anything she has planned for!


On this topic, exams are a toughie where it comes to art and I’m really not sure how enthusiastic I feel about the idea of them as an appropriate way of assessing artistic ability. The outcome of my own art exam, at my daughter’s age (which was an unmitigated disaster – no teacher support, no adequate materials, no pep-talks or planning; years later, I came to realise just how unprepared my school made me for what was expected) changed the course of my life in the space of a day. Disappointed at not even nearly achieving the top grade I was predicted, I dumped my ambitions to go off to art college and only came back to my art-practice twenty years later – though, actually, I have come to thoroughly appreciate the perfection of the way things unfolded for me (following one of those divinely orchestrated tipping points I just talked about…), ensuring that I came back to art at exactly the right time for me to develop it as my own unique practice, without commercial pressure, undue “training” or, indeed, any significant outside influence to speak of. Had this always been my grand design… now realised?

When pressure of any kind is applied to the artistic process, it stops being inspired art – and there’s no getting around that – which is why I remain deeply uncomfortable around commission work of any kind. As soon as another person applies deadlines or expectations to the process, the artist is no longer truly at liberty to pursue the unexpected meanderings of the creative impulse or to follow the most inspired threads of their ever-unfolding, usually endlessly surprising, creativity. In our schools, it feels like a cruel and unusual form of torture to suddenly turn the flamboyant art process (when it really counts; at exam time) into an adrenalised pursuit within a rock-solid timeframe, with an unforgiving  list of “do”s and “must not do”s against a long list of titles, themes and criteria;  and then for the super-relaxed environment of the art studio to be converted (amidst terrible nerves; the kind that can close down the right side of the brain) into somewhere silent, austere and laboratory-like (my daughter’s biggest concern today was that she might get disqualified for her usual trait of singing outloud or audibly whooping at her most exhilarated moments…).

All of this seems so contrary to everything that art is about and I can distinctly remember this awful, alien feeling of rigidity and fear descending on the art room that day, floundering and knocking the artistic stuffing out of me. I can vividly recall that, as things started to go wrong with my piece, I was far too terrified to indicate to the teacher that I was struggling with the materials I was using and spent the whole day in tortured silence, trying to force out this awful piece of artwork with my stomach in tangled knots…well-and-truly enough to put anyone off pursing an art career at such a tender age as all the joyful associations had been frightened out of it!

That’s my topical thought for the day; one that I owe it to my sixteen year-old self to put out there (since I notice things haven’t altered much in thirty years…) as part of the dialogue about the future schooling of art and the possibility of considering more enlightened ways of evaluating (recognising, rewarding and celebrating) artistic achievement that don’t completely ignore its fundamental differences to other more left-brain subjects.

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