The Art of Slow Art: Encouraging Failure and Slinging a Pot of Red Paint at Doggy Death Row

Recently I came across the following and thought it worth sharing. It’s targeted at writers, but applies to all the creative disciplines. It’s an extract from American writer Louise Desalvo’s The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity.

“According to Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, “Everything can look like a failure in the middle. At the beginning of a project, we feel hope; at the end we might feel confident. But in between “there is a negative emotional valley labeled ‘insight’,” according to Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO. During this phase, it’s easy to become downhearted because it’s immensely difficult to figure out what to do next.”It’s hard to take a mountain of manuscripts we’ve written  –– starts, false starts, finished work, half-completed work, fine work –– and turn it into a book. Brown insists it’ll be easier to weather that trough in the creative arc if we anticipate, even expect, failure in the middle of the process. Brown encourages people to “seek out failure” because it’s the only way for genuine growth to occur. Without failure, our work stagnates. Without failure, we’re not frustrated enough to seek new solutions to the challenges we’re confronting.” ” ––  Louise Desalvo. The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2014

I empathise with this sentence: “During this phase, it’s easy to become downhearted because it’s immensely difficult to figure out what to do next.”

I was developing a painting from studies made in a plant nursery run by the university, probably for teaching purposes. It was a first-year assigned project. The nursery was situated, however, next to the city’s dog pound and I found myself in the peculiar situation of sitting in a polytunnel sketching plants to the accompaniment of the incessant and piteous howling of the captured, caged dogs, a good number of whom, I suspect, awaited euthanisation. So there I was, sketching plants next to doggy death row. My activity seemed trivial; I felt futile.

At that time, I was suffering from debilitating anaemia (that got progressively worse throughout my degree years). I can’t help thinking, looking back, that that diluted red paint had something to do with doggy death row and my wishy-washy blood, that I wanted to be loosened from the pain of both.  The painting was, of course, a disaster. Oh, how I wish I’d had, then, the tiny modicum of insight I have today. What a non-futile painting I might have made. I wonder what it would have been like? Plants or condemned dogs? Or somehow, both?

I was also being poisoned on a daily basis by turpentine and other toxins widely in use in the art department. On one occasion, after a session in the life room, making charcoal studies of the model, a number of the other students sprayed their drawings with fixative. It was a stuffy little room and the air became thick with chemicals.

A couple of hours later I developed a gnawing pain in the stomach and a headache. I had to take to my bed. I never set foot in the life room again. It was the same with the printmaking department: after a couple of hours inhaling God knows what, I was sick.

From WikipediaFixatives are more often than not highly toxic and potential health hazards to the respiratory system, hence should only be used in a well-ventilated area. Such fumes may also cause irritation to the eyes.


Shortly after leaving university I took part in a themed exhibition and during the painting process I felt the urge to cut holes in the canvas. I recall  a sense of relief, but had not the insight then to understand why I had done that; nor my relief. The work barely addressed the theme of the exhibition. In this, it was a failure. Now, I see that cutting into the canvas was an attempt to engage with the ground I was working on. I had to get through to it. (I had to get through it!) I had to initiate some kind of communication with my materials. It was a significant step, or would have been, had it not passed entirely over my head. And so I couldn’t figure out what to do next.

I’m not sure it’s necessary to seek out failure. I’m not sure it’s even possible. Failure is an inevitability. But maybe throwing a pot of red paint at a canvas qualifies as seeking out failure.

It seems to me that the way out of the negative emotional valley is insight and experience tells me that you can’t get it before you get it. Pennies only start dropping after developing an ability to read the signs.

Can one seek out insight? Yes, of course. That’s what you do when you recognise a sign. You follow it through, aka research. Knowledge can be actively pursued. For instance, were I to do that first-year assignment today, I’d have noted and acknowledged my sense of futility and investigated it. Maybe I’d have gone to the dog pound and made studies there, too. I might have recorded the wails of those poor dogs.  My painting would have reflected the clash of realities. In a way, the flung red paint was as valid a communication as anything else on the canvas, more valid, perhaps, in that it came out of my sense of compassion. And my anger. Distress at my state of health, in which I felt powerless.

I have not painted on stretched canvas in a long time. I rarely draw, in the traditional sense. It seems futile. Ha! Instead of painting, I have been drawn to dye, to stain, to boil, to steam … Fabric is yielding, yet enduring. Like people. So in a way, ground is sentient being. Ground is me. In this sense, ground, therefore, is also form.

Curiously, I’ve been thinking of painting again. I won’t be using oil paints; likely it’ll be some sort of eco colour. I might not use brushes. It won’t be on stretched canvas (or if it is, likely I’ll cut holes in it). I might stretch whatever it is after it’s done. I might even throw red at it; less watery red.  It is likely to be red from madder root, or blackberry, or pomegranate.

Here’s another curious thing: when I looked up Louise DeSalvo, of the books she’s written is one about the poet and painter Marcus Reichert (Marcus Reichert: Selected Works 1958-1989). It is described as “… an essential resource for anyone interested in the instincts of the prodigy and how those instincts are transformed over the course of childhood, adolescence, and maturity.” What’s curious? The foreword is by John Milner and there’s an introduction by William Varley. Prof Milner was my art history tutor at university and Bill Varley my first-year tutor; it was he who packed me off to paint next to doggy death row!

I think I’m emerging from that valley and my “… mountain of … starts, false starts, finished work, half-completed work, fine work …” (yes, I have done some very fine work but which has remained finely unintelligible).

Note:  it’s taken over 30 years. That’s very slow art indeed …

I’ve just bought the Kindle version:
Louise DeSalvo: The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity
Louise DeSalvo, John Milner, William Varley: (Marcus Reichert: Selected Works 1958-1989)

About AnnIsikArts

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