I took art classes in high school with an amazing teacher. Several of my classmates became illustrators.
I didn’t. I studied journalism instead. But I never forgot the most important lesson from Mr. Hess.
I messed up an art project during my senior year. I’d spent weeks outlining a harbor scene in pencil, then shading it in colored pencil, and I’d just done something immensely stupid. I zig-zagged a dark red pencil across the sun’s rays because I wasn’t paying attention. It was ruined.
Mr. Hess didn’t seem upset. He was zen calm. “Just keep working on it,” he said. I tried to explain that it was a waste of time to keep working on it, because it was ruined. He wouldn’t listen.
“Find a way to integrate it with your artwork,” he said.
I didn’t want to integrate it. It was a mistake, that giant red slash, and I wanted to go back in time and remove it and have my beautiful sun rising over the ocean, serene and perfect.
That was impossible. So I sat down in a chair and picked up my pencils and tried to figure out what the heck to do now. I started doodling around with the red slash, tracing a pencil lightly over it. I shaded a nearby ray darker, the one most affected by the slash, until it was nearly red. I traced some letters into another ray of the sun, erasing where I could and blending where I couldn’t.
In the end, my art project won an award at the year-end show. It was much better than my initial, bland vision of a serene sun rising over a serene sea. It was a chaotic scene, with dark orange and red and yellow rays alternating, and messages engraved in them spiraling out toward the edge of the canvas.
Mr. Hess was right. It’s impossible to mess up an art project if you keep working on it. Even if you tear the paper in half, that’s just a new starting point. You always arrive at another place. Sometimes it’s better. Sometimes it’s worse. It’s life. And it doesn’t become great through perfection and planning.
This post also appeared in Medium’s Coffeelicious publication.