Blog / 2024 / Mistake #20: Failing to Appreciate My Mistakes

May 16, 2024

On this day last year, my art career turned twenty and, to mark the occasion, I started blogging about everyday mistakes, sharing about:

Today, to wrap up a year of mistakes, I want to talk about how beautiful they truly are.

[video transcript]

Carmen is hardly the first person I’ve had to paint more than once in order to get the likeness the way I wanted it, but, generally, I don’t share the mistakes publicly—though I did in this vintage video from my early days of vlogging. This year, I’ve learned that talking in depth about messing up is fascinating—because it forces you to really dig into the topic—and a little tiring—for the same reason. As I celebrate my 21st artiversary today, I’m definitely ready to shift my focus.

For more about Carmen and her work, check out her site, and see the full video by here.

Carmen Machado portrait painting by queer artist Gwenn Seemel
Gwenn Seemel
Carmen Maria Machado
acrylic on canvas
36 x 24 inches

I started painting the author Carmen Maria Machado soon after I met her in Lambertville, New Jersey, where I’d just moved and where she was at a writing residency. At the time, I was living in an apartment with a fairly large studio space, and so I decided to make a big painting of her, on a canvas that measured three by three feet.

This is the very beginning of that painting. By the time was making this video about my art in late 2022, I’d moved to a much smaller—but, for many reasons, much better—apartment. This footage gives you a glimpse of how working on this large canvas in this newer, tighter space presented challenges.

Still, I kept at it for the next year. Even as I struggled with the emotional fallout of my dad’s death and worked on other big projects, every month or so, I’d discern the Carmen I wanted to portray among the thatch of brushstrokes, and I’d try to draw her out and bring the portrait into focus.

By early 2024 though, I knew all I’d managed to capture was a cutesy version of the author that didn’t show anything of who she is. It certainly wasn’t what I’d started out trying to paint.

So I began again, choosing a three by two foot canvas and a very different reference photo. In this case, I decided to lean into the author’s sense of play more. Suddenly the piece started coming together.

And, while I’m so pleased about that, I also think it’s worth showing you the initial portrait, because, even though I threw out the first painting, it’s still a part of the second one. I couldn’t have painted this final version of Carmen without making all kinds of mistakes in the initial version.

All of which is to say: the messing-up is part of the doing-it-right.

It can be hard to remember that when you’re toiling away at your mistake, sinking ever more time and energy into something that ultimately won’t work out. But messing up is often a vital part of creativity.

For one thing, it’s important to remember that, when you’re making a mistake, you’re at least doing something. And plenty of times we don’t even have the courage to start doing the thing badly, so I think that the doing of the thing—even poorly—is notable. Plus, if you got to the place where you knew that what you were doing was a mistake, that means you kept at it for long enough to figure out what you actually wanted the thing to be.

Mistakes are proof of perseverance. They’re the evidence of your evolution. Mistakes are beautiful.

detail image of a portrait of white person wearing glasses and giving you a wry smile
detail of Carmen Maria Machado

Maybe this post made you think of something you want to share with me? Or perhaps you have a question about my art? I’d love to hear from you!


To receive an email every time I publish a new article or video, sign up for my special mailing list.


If you enjoyed this post, Ko-fi allows you to donate. Every dollar you give is worth a bajillion to me!