Posted by on 2010/11/08

Using mistakes as a source of  inspiration can open up a world of possibilities that our tools of correction often negate.

Dumping Erasers.

I fondly remember a drawing lesson I received in Art School in which our teacher outlawed the use of an eraser.

Such a simple restriction caused havoc for us all.

Using an eraser to correct and control is so ingrained, so integral to the pursuit of excellence and perfection that we did what any mature, experimentally leaning artists would do, we started whining like a puppy farm on fire. Our teacher would hear none if it, and to further “complicate” matters he forbade us to hold our pencils in our conventional grips, further ensuring we would make a slew of those dreaded uneraseable mistakes.

The Eraser has a god like power, rub-rub swipe-swipe, and voila history is altered, time is erased and a new cleaner better evolved line appears where a scratchy dirty mark once lay.

The eraser, although an essential tool,  herds our sensibilities and artistic expression, and more often than not facilitates errors on a much larger scale. It allows us to micro-edit and lose focus on macro issues such as arrangement and composition. It keeps us on the straight and narrow path of what we think a picture needs, or “should be like”, and locks us into our own standardized patterns of artistic ideals.

This situation is like a creative sheep pen.

The eraser then is a sheep dog to sheepish creative desires – it keeps ideas in line and chases away the wolves, and trust me, all interesting creativity runs with the wolves.

This is why our art teacher told us to throw the damn thing away.

So what transpired in the art lesson was a cacophony of groaning and moaning and complaining and the crick-crack of pencils snapping like ship masts in a great storm.

Murmurings of mutiny quickly spread through all decks.

Throwing away the eraser rocks the boat you see, hard enough that some, or all of your sheep will fall out. The sheep dog is marginalized and the wolves can swim in and do some creative hunting. (These wolves have scuba gear and are always following the boat.) At this point the sheep have to start swimming for their lives and desperate creatures can be very, very creative.

That is why not reaching for the eraser when you have drawn an erroneous line and rather watching the sheep flail about in the water as the wolves paddle in can lead to more interesting things.

It is a form of losing control and it works wonders. Suddenly that accidental line across the face you are trying to sketch can’t just “disappear”, it has to be incorporated somehow, turned into a workable aspect of the composition, used against itself in a kind of workflow Aikido, which can, and does, lead you to creativity you would not have consciously reached.

In workflow, mistakes are inevitable and arguably even necessary, and learning to cope with and use these “mistakes” to our advantage is a key step towards unlocking a creative monster that once unleashed eats erasers for breakfast.


  1. Rhythm Droid

    Awesome post! So for us audio producers…there are so many ways to try this idea out: Use knobs to record automation without listening to their effect. Or never correct automation once recorded. Program drums without ever quantizing, hah hah (that’ll be the day). Quantize death = ego death. There’s a t-shirt for ya.

  2. Shane Berry

    Switching hands is so simple and powerful.

    It reminds me of another lesson we did. The exercise was to place the drawing pad behind our backs and then sketch the outline of our other hand without looking at the pad and without erasing any errors.

    Of course the outcome was erratic and uncoordinated but what emerged were very powerful images. Without the mind auto correcting “mistakes” the drawings were animate, fresh and tender – and undeniably, though wonky – hands.

    Not being able to look down and self correct really opened up a whole new level of observation and character and showed us how inhibiting to expression control can be.

    This is where I think modern technology is a bane on creativity; this depth of control, especially DJ tools like Traktor and Ableton.

    They create a path of least resistance to modes of operation and process that undercut skills that previously took years of practice and experience to achieve.

    But there is an interesting inversion in this.

    Mastering any form of art is essentially the transcendence of technique, so is it possible that modern technology is facilitating mastery of a new kind?

    Once technique has been mastered, real creativity starts to happen.

    One begins to ask creatively rather than technically of one’s work. Questions like “What can I make?” and “Where can I take this idea?” become more challenging than, “How do I make this?” and “What tools do I need?”.

    Distinguishing between the two paradigms, creativity and technicality, is so important and often overlooked.

  3. proteuskim

    i like this. the contour drawings we had to do in studio art courses always brought forth interesting results. i also liked the drawing with your opposite hand exercise. how do you think this affects users of traktor and ableton? for example, i haven’t picked up a headphone during any of my DJ sets in over a year. i compensate with loops, EQ, and effects. doesn’t work so well when i have to mix melodies or match keys though… kinda worries me that i’m relying too much on the software rather than improving my ear. like i’m practicing the wrong thing and becoming a worse musician because of it.

Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>