Try Again, Fail Better

group of hand painted bird ornaments

Last month, I had this itch to make some ornaments. I’d seen some that were made with wood slices and loved the way they looked. It looked like fun, a new challenge, and something that would ease me back into painting. (Full disclosure: I have two wood panels in my house that have been painted over at least four times. I had these ideas for paintings, and completely psyched myself out, and then shoved them under my work table, at the bottom of a pile, where they have languished for over a year. )

So when I saw painted ornaments floating around on the interwebs, I thought that something miniature might be a good way to warm myself up again. It’d be something low stakes, maybe a way to unwind and keep myself doing something creative. I thought it might work better if I gave myself some parameters, or made a game out of it. 

The rules were these:

1. Have fun.

2. Loosen up. No serious planning. Pick a color, sketch a bird, fill it in. 

3. Don’t be precious about them: no obsessing for hours on one tiny painting. 

I bought 25 wood slices on Etsy. The seller was kind enough to include a bonus one. One was split, but this little packrat didn’t throw it away—oh, no. I practiced on the split one, did a rough little painting. I didn’t like it much. I thought on it for a couple of days and very nearly psyched myself out of doing them at all. The inner critic emerged and said things like This is not a good painting. What will you do with all of these? Who would buy these? This is a waste of your time. 

This inner critic and I go way back. If she were a bird, she’d be a grackle—puffed up, noisy, annoyingly persistent.

Then I thought, “What on earth will I do with all of these wood slices?” And also: “I made a deal with myself. I said I was going to make something every day. Stop being a chicken and get out the damn brushes.”

So I sat down, and I painted another one. And I didn’t dislike that one as much. 

And the next day, I painted another one. And it wasn’t too bad, so I did one more. 

Then I laid down a background color on five at a time. I painted over a couple I didn’t like very much–but I left the broken one, the one I didn’t like at all. 

Nearly each night for a month, I painted little birds. I used my trusty Stokes guide, and I painted a few birds I see in the backyard most days—cardinal, titmouse, goldfinch. I painted a couple of elusive warblers that I catch a glimpse of every now and then. I started to loosen up more, and have more fun with color. I put a few in my Etsy shop, and they sold, so I made a few more. Friends said they liked them, and that made me want to keep going. I looked forward to painting a little each night after work. I got so much encouragement from my friends that I wanted to pay it forward in some way—this project had helped me through a difficult time, and it had given me something positive to focus on and something to bring joy—and it was that nudge from other folks, sometimes strangers, that helped keep me inspired. So I decided to donate half the proceeds from the sales of these ornaments to Feeding America. (And that made me want to finish faster, but I made myself slow down and enjoy the process. Hurrying wasn’t in the rules.)

 

And then I got to the bottom of my stack of wood slices. I told my fella that I liked them now, and sort of wanted to keep a couple just for me. “You can do that you know,” he said, in his calm midwestern way. “You can keep one for yourself.”

When the last stack was gone, I listed all but two in the shop. I decided I would keep a couple for me, mainly as a reminder that I should keep trying, and keep failing, and keep failing better. Not everything works out the way we like the first time around, but that doesn’t mean we should stop. We should keep going, and learn from the process, and grow from the experience. You see, I first thought of these as Christmas ornaments, but then realized I’d want to display mine all the time (I’m a serious bird nerd after all)—and especially now that it will serve as a reminder when the inner critic emerges again.

A few days after I thought I was finished, I found that first practice piece on the work table–the one that nearly made me stop. I studied it for a minute, and then I filled the crack, and then I painted over it. And this time I painted it with a particular person in mind. My uncle is a painter, who delights in the layers of memory and experiment and folly that go into making a piece of art. He, too, seeks the wonder. He, too, finds beauty in the imperfect, the misshapen, the unusual. He also delights in the process: the trying, the failing, the discovery. He’s always encouraged me to keep making art, even when I thought I didn’t want to, and even in this year, when it felt so impractical. There have always been times when the harpie inner critic emerged and said “What’s the point? Why bother?”—and this year it happened a lot in the beginning. It’s hard to spend time on art when your heart feels too heavy for joy, and the world seems so broken. But it seems that’s when we need joy the most, and we need those people who encourage us to keep going, and keep seeking the joy.

And so the last bird, with all of the memory of the first and the twenty-four after, had only one place that it could go. 

🐦 🐦 🐦

As of this posting, there are still some birdies available in my Etsy shop. If one strikes your fancy, maybe it can serve as a special reminder for you, too. I’ll be sending 50% of proceeds from the sales to Feeding America each week until this edition is sold out.