In recent years I have been trying to be more conscious about how exactly I make art, and one of the things that I managed to change significantly for the better in my creative process, is how I feel about fixing and redoing things.
Until recently, I would often not only ignore things in my art that needed more work to get right but also choose on purpose not to fix technical errors. I would do this to have a cleaner-looking painting with no visible fixes or do-overs.
I think this approach stems from my overall perfectionist mindset but also from how I was told making art should work when I was young. I’m sure that if you have tried to make art, you have met with the “a real artist doesn’t need an eraser” thing. I was told this when I was a kid, and Kana, growing up half the world apart, was told a similar thing too! I don’t know where this myth of an artist producing only clean-looking, perfect works comes from, but I think it’s very destructive to everyone’s morale. Especially that it’s very easy to think that this doesn’t mean “don’t mind the mistakes, try to learn from them and do your drawings as well as you can,” but “if you can’t make things perfectly without mistakes on the first try, you are not a real artist!” What does that even mean!
The internet and social media especially did not help either. Artists upload their best, finished, polished things to their portfolios, so I often looked at a literal stream of only blemish-free, edited versions of what everyone was doing. I also wanted to make and show only such great pieces to the world!
So, of course, I would do everything not to have any blemishes on my art in the first place. No glued-on pieces of paper, no opaque paint, no white-out, and no wasting time on redoing anything either! But, of course, I would feel miserable about my work because I would know that the mistakes were there. I could see that the results could have been better. It might seem weird, but this clash of values would torture me a lot. For example, when I painted a watercolor piece and messed up a fragment, I would get really frustrated: to fix this part, I would have to redo the whole thing from scratch or paste a piece of paper on top of the error. Most of the time, I would do neither. Repainting would make me feel like I “wasted” the time on the first attempt, and fixing would make the piece look imperfect with a paper patch.
What changed my mind about this and, in the end, made making art back into a more fun process than a stressful chore was getting used to making mistakes and taking time and effort to fix them. Talking with my wife, Kana, and fighting my perfectionism were part of this process, but what hit me the most was seeing how other artists’ original pieces looked:
Seeing in Tokyo, at an exhibition of original manga pages, how full of fixes and comments some of them were.
Watching the manga documentary Manben and seeing an artist use tons of white-out fluid to fix his lines over and over again. He actually painted more with his correction fluid pen than with the ink!
Counting in the “Ponyo” documentary, how many times did Hayao Miyazaki draw a concept art of the same house before he got it right. Reading in a book about the Ghibli Museum how he cut and pasted over frames of his comics or even how he trashed already half-colored pages to fix mistakes.
Watching on Instagram how artists just use post-it notes to cover and re-draw fragments of their pictures without even minding the yellow color.
Reading about classic painters that did tons of preparations, sketches, and studies before they even started on a painting and still failing and redoing things repeatedly. (Scientists can nowadays uncover these failed, painted-over versions using x-rays and such, google it – it’s fascinating!)
Seeing how other artists’ process (and especially of those artists that I admire) is full of fixes and do-overs helped me realize that I was way too idealistic in my way of thinking about my paintings.
Once I started to consciously choose that for me, the goal was not to produce a clean, “perfect” art piece (whatever that means) but to show something with the medium, it became a lot easier to start fixing things.
Sometimes I choose to use white paint to cover mistakes, but as this produces completely different textures and brush strokes, I will usually just paste a paper fragment on the offending part and paint again on that. The added bonus of this method is that if I mess up again (which sometimes happens), I can swap the piece of paper for a new one and repaint it until I get the part right. I have done this in the New Storefronts series a few times already – some of the originals have pasted paper fragments and some white paint too.
Yes, in some cases, this would be unacceptable (if you are painting a watercolor piece to sell it, for example), and it’s necessary to produce a clean final work. In my situation, however, you will almost certainly not be able to spot these fixes on the digitally edited files that I will upload online or use for my next book. So why be bothered so much?
And either way, the weirdest thing is that when I saw these fixed and flawed pages at the manga exhibition or the Ghibli Museum, rather than being disappointed, they made me feel friendly and warm and somehow connect deeper with the art and the artist. They met with difficulties and mistakes too. I guess these fixes that let us see a bit of the back-story of the work itself somehow make it feel more precious.
So if I make a mistake that will require a fix, and the piece I’m making will no longer be “perfect,” I can always choose to see this as an advantage and an important part of the process that will, hopefully, make my art better. It also means that I’m good enough to see my mistakes, and learn things while fixing them, which is also very, very important when trying to make one’s work better.
I still don’t like making mistakes – who would – but I’m trying not to mind them so much and to use them to my advantage.
6 thoughts on “True artists don’t erase!”
As a working artist, you know that it can be a hard and frustrating job. So does any other artist. There are so many myths about the artist as genius – thats so wrong. Like most things in life almost all artists have to work damn hard to be as good as they are. The myth of artists being inately talented was spread, I think, by people who werent prepared to do the work to get better at their art.
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I had the exact same issue with my art, which prevented me for improving, as well as making drawing an anxious experience. But in Japan I visited the Snoopy museum in Tokyo and saw that Schultz’ strips are covered in white ink and glued paper. I felt a lot relieved and decided to fix my mistakes too, without raging because it was not “perfect”.
Another way to fix things that led to improve my art was: instead of redoing it with white ink or glued paper, I tried, when possible, to change the mistake into something that looks intentional. Integrating a “mistake” to make something I wouldn’t have thought of in the first place. Sometimes the mistake is too big tho, but it’s worth trying to transform it into something new and learn from it.
Thanks for this article, I hope it’s gonna help artists struggling with the exact same issue.
What does “a mistake” mean? Whatever you consider as a mistake is in your own mind and not visible to the eyes of the final viewers of your artwork, who don’t know what was your initial intention and what you’ve manage to make in your final artwork. Unless you throw a whole bottle of ink or a bowl of noodles on your painting, nobody is going to figure what exactly is what YOU consider as a mistake.
Yes, I’m starting to think in a similar way about “mistakes” – but I guess for me these are steps that take me further from my ideal vision of how I would the piece to look. Enough of such steps (or one big one) and it doesn’t “work” anymore in the way I would like it to, I guess.
Certainly but you should think also that your ideal version of your artwork, might be quite stereotypical. I’m talking about the way that YOU assume how the final viewers would like your artworks to look like. If you don’t challenge your “ideal” you don’t move forward, even if you challenge it by accident. Sometimes we are reluctant to get out of our comfort zone and try something different.
My point is that sometimes these so called “mistakes” make your work look different and more interesting because they add something, a detail or a change in your illustrating style that the others wouldn’t expect to see.
The biggest discoveries and inventions happened by accident or by miscalculations and errors. Columbus for example didn’t cross the Atlantic to find America. He crossed with the intention to find China!
I’ve had a different approach in recent months, but only in my sketchbook when traveling. I go in directly with ink drawing, no pencil+eraser step.
I started doing this to build up my confidence, but also to be more careful of what I see and try to “get it right” the first time. It’s also a real time saver.
That being said in my “proper artworks” I keep going back and forth, fixing and readjusting until it’s “right” 🙂 you don’t see that in the end though.
On a side note, I have been enjoying your work for years now, but have never commented 🙂 so thank you for your work!