The Myth of the First Try: why your artistic path should be littered with dead bodies


If there aren't a few corpses on your desk, you didn't make art.

No, this isn't a Halloween post but I guess my macabre humor is timed pretty well.

I'm sitting here typing this message on table littered with abandoned attempts.

I tackled a project that sounded like fun a month ago... now I'm beating my head against the wall over it.

I've been working on this cursed project for over a week now and I'm still trying to draw it right. I counted this morning. I have 31 different sketches, scribbles, and studies sitting here and not one of these sketches is worthy of paint.

Yeah, that's pretty bad for me. That's about double the number of pre-sketches I usually do.

Hey. Please go back and read that last sentence.

"double the number..."

Yes, it really does mean that I lock in about 15 sketches, mocks, and drawing attempts before I take a project into production mode. For class curriculum using a manufactured stamp image, I might color it about five times before I'm satisfied... but if it's an original drawing, something out of my own head, 15 studies is about average.

Edison Lab at Greenfield Village |

Learning from The Wizard...

One of the benefits of living in south-eastern Michigan is way back when I was growing up, our elementary classes would make a yearly pilgrimage to the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village.

"The Henry Ford" as it's known in these parts is pretty much the Disneyland of historical museums. The original Henry Ford (yes, the car company guy) paid to have the Wright Brother's shop moved to Michigan from Ohio. He also purchased the entire Menlo Park labs of Thomas Edison, every single piece of equipment they could find, and brought them over from New Jersey.

I like to think Henry did it just for me.

I loved the Edison Lab. They called Mr. Edison the Wizard of Menlo Park and his lab (accurate down to the labels on the jars, placed on the correct shelves) is a place where serious magic happened. Steampunk heaven. It's a bummer that you have to stand behind ropes, looking at it all from a distance.

... I swear, if I ever win the lottery, I'm making a big, fat donation to the museum so that I can jump the rope to spend hours gawking at all the flammamabobbers and whooseywhatsits on the tables. I'm guessing they can't say boo to big donors for breaking the "stand back" rules!

Anyway, as a kid I remember being quite impressed with the tour guide's speech about how it took the laboratory team more than 1,000 tries to get a working light bulb.

1,000 tries to get it right?

I decided to look that fact up this morning. The number is based  upon a second-hand quote of Edison which might be apocryphal. A friend of Edison's related the conversation:

'Isn't it a shame that with the tremendous amount of work you have done you haven't been able to get any results?'  Edison turned on me like a flash, and with a smile replied: 'Results!  Why, man, I have gotten lots of results!  I know several thousand things that won't work!'"

Apparently, they were talking about batteries at the time, not light bulbs.

Edison himself claimed 3,000 tries for a light bulb.

Francis Upton, Edison's lab assistant puts the number much higher. The incandescent lamp took 10 years to develop. Less than halfway into the process, after just three years, Upton had counted 2,774 experiments.

So yeah. My 31 sketches are child's play compared to the Edisonian scale of idea development.


Want to hear something pretty dumb?

Many colorers color an image only once.


If it doesn't turn out pretty and perfect, you get upset. You scrap the project and move on to something easier.

And the ol' self-esteem meter takes a big hit each time you abandon a project for something less challenging.


Listen up: Art ain't easy

There's a reason why people think artists are nuts. Artists have a long history of tip-toeing off the deep end of sanity. Depressives, bi-polars, addicts, suicides, ear chopper-offers.

It's normal to close your eyes and see the art clearly and yet be stuck with 5 thumbs on each hand when you try to make it happen.

The artistic drive is really hard on a person's psyche.

No one makes the art they envision. No one really ever makes it into the end zone.

It takes guts to keep trying.

And trying.

And trying.

And trying.

So if a student comes to me and says "Hey, I colored this once and it's not very good..." I'm always a little puzzled.

Where are the other 12 attempts?

How can you judge after only one shot?

I'm not sure who started the rumor that artistic talent means you have magic flowing out from underneath your fingernails, that real art happens on the first try in a moment of sunbeams and inspiration...

Because that person needs to be shot.

About 2,774 times.


If it's not a challenge, if it doesn't tax every single one of your brain cells, you aren't growing.

It's that simple.

If Michelangelo wept over his own lack of talent, what right do I have to give up after only 31 sketches?

And perhaps you need to re-evaluate your own One & Done theory.

Because real growth happens on the third or fourth pass. Or on the fifteenth. When you've gone over something so many times that you're considering chopping off your own ear, that's about the time you start progressing.


I'm not trying to scare you off

I really do want you to keep coloring and to enjoy the process.

The pope isn't paying you to Copic his ceiling, so there's less pressure here in Crafty Stampland.

But still, I want my students to understand that what I bring to class is absolutely, positively, not, not, not the first time I've colored an image.

I've got a freekin' degree in art and I still color simple stamps a half dozen times before I make a class out of it.

So if you're expecting to duplicate my project on the first attempt, that's a completely unreasonable expectation.

It's going to take you two or three shots, and that's on a project where I've done all the thinking and experimentation for you. I've tried 14 wrong markers so that you can color from a functional color palette. I've stared at the image for hours charting the danger zones and trouble spots so that I can warn you about them in class.

And if you're coloring a brand new image at home, one where you're starting from scratch, do not expect the Mona Lisa on the first try.


If you're a colorer and you're just coloring for fun...

... stop reading now. This is not the blog post for you.

But if you're really into this hobby, if you really want to grow and stretch and get ever so much better than you are right now...

Well, that takes work.

I can't sugar coat the process.

You can absolutely do it. You CAN learn to do this. It is not impossible.

But it takes hours.

And practice.

Your desk should be littered with the carcasses of half finished, failed, and not up-to-snuff projects.

Thirty one dead bodies. And that's just a good start.


Now I don't mean to go all Debi Allen on you here.

The price of fame... and good coloring |

Fame does cost and I suppose you do pay for it... in sweat... I guess.

But even if you're not shooting for the spotlight on Broadway, even if you're just trying to color a digi image with a little skill, you do need to spend time practicing.

Any teacher, any instructor, any tutorial that promises you otherwise is lying.

There is no quick fix.

Skill comes from practice.

Art comes from development.

The divine light of inspiration doesn't waft through the room carried upon the burps of unicorns.

Malcom Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to get really good at something. On days like today where I'm looking at 31 miserable failures, I'm thinking Gladwell may have underestimated the price of progress.

It's an ugly process.


But it's also incredibly rewarding.

Stick with it.

No matter how many dead bodies fill the trash can.

Color it. Then color it again. Color until it looks a little bit like what you wanted it to.

Then put it away for a few weeks.

Then pull it out again to start the process over again.

That's how you'll improve.

Skill doesn't come from finding tutorials on Pinterest.

There is no tutorial in the world that's going to develop your technical tool belt and instinct.

You can read and research and color one-offs for years but you're not going to get it until you put marker to paper, one time, two times, twenty times on the same image.

It builds a little with each pass.

And you will see growth with each attempt.

You will get a little closer to the goal post every time you sit down to practice. 

keep trying. keep practicing.

And yes, that was 2,774.

I'm humbled and laid-low at the drive and determination.