Recently I was talking with my good friend and fellow artist-illustrator Erika Beyer on a Zoom call, as we shared works in progress with each other to get feedback and encouragement. She showed me a painting she’d been working on for a little while, a new piece in a series of bird folklore paintings. She had transferred sketches to watercolor paper and blocked in color, as well as painting a detailed geometric border (decorative borders are one of her hallmarks). To my eyes, it looked good—but then she started telling me things that she wished she had done differently, things she wanted to add and textures she thought would add depth. She asked if she wouldn’t be better off starting from scratch. “I hate to say it,” I agreed, “but I think you’ll be happier if you start over.”
Erika knows that sometimes you need to call it a day and start a project over, or completely rework part of a piece. It’s advice she’s given her own students in her many years as an art professor. But in her own life—and in mine—this can feel like an impossibility. Like me, Erika has a life crammed full with family obligations, a dog that needs walking, laundry and dishes and grocery shopping and all the rest of it on top of her teaching load. Any time she can squeeze in some of her personal work is hard-won, and it can feel crushing to feel like that precious time has been wasted on something that didn’t result in a finished piece.
Of course, all creatives know that wasting time—or, at least, spending time on sketches that don’t go anywhere—is part of the process. When I was an undergrad student in a graphic design program, I learned to take the time to do research and several pages of thumbnail sketches before presenting ideas to my professors. At my staff job as an illustration editor for an academic journal, I’m accustomed to going back and forth with scientists, doing several rounds of revisions if necessary to make sure their illustrations are as accurate and polished as they can be. But with my personal work, it feels different—it’s hard enough to carve out time to do my own drawings and paintings, and it can be disheartening to realize that something I’ve drawn is the wrong species, or doesn’t fit, or that maybe my idea worked better in my head than on paper. Still, it’s worth it in the long run to do things the right way. Sometimes it’s good to let go of ideas or sketches that aren’t really working, and either revamp them or try something totally new. And besides, time spent drawing isn’t ever wasted; even a drawing that turns out terribly helps keep my eyes and my drawing hand working in sync.
I checked in with Erika about her bird painting, and she said she’s happy that she started over—she’s been able to rework the layout so that she likes it more, and has redesigned the decorative border so that it suits the subject matter better. As a bonus, because she was already so familiar with her subject, the redrawing and new layout went much more quickly this round. I can’t wait to see this new version of her piece.