Allow Mistakes

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I think sometimes we strive too hard for perfection that when mistakes happen, we’re too hard on ourselves for not achieving perfection.

As a wildlife and landscape artist, I learned early on to plan out my paintings to avoid mistakes. My sketchbooks brim with the many plans I used to reduce mistakes in my finished work. Planning is an effective method I use when writing stories too, to eliminate weaknesses and to build the final product on strengths. However, sometimes when my paintings are framed and hanging for the public to see, and my stories are published for the public to read, I still may find a mistake or two.


It hurts because mistakes are blows to the ego. They say to the world that I didn’t achieve perfection. But the truth is: None of us do. We can only practice, practice, and keep practicing to eliminate the number of mistakes.

I always wanted to be a plein air landscape painter when I was a college art student, but I never did well enough to eliminate the number of mistakes I made. Plein air is the technique of direct painting, introduced by the Impressionists. They painted their landscapes in a single session taking only three or four hours to begin and finish a picture. Some of them used an alla prima style by mixing their colors directly on the canvas itself without waiting for the paints to dry. They tried to capture the impression of the moment by painting directly. They didn’t allow themselves to go back over what had already been done.

Fast forward thirty years later and I can manage to crank out a plein air painting that has fewer mistakes than when I was at college. Better, but still shy of perfection.

Tree sketch, oil:

plein air oak tree sketch
Oak tree sketch, circa 1999. Image copyright © 2022 Steven Leo Campbell at – All rights reserved.

Cow painting, oil:

plein air cow pasture painting
Cow pasture painting, circa 1999. Image copyright © 2022 Steven Leo Campbell at – All rights reserved.

Deer painting, oil:

plein air field with whitetail buck
Field with whitetail buck, circa 2000. Image copyright © 2022 Steven Leo Campbell at – All rights reserved.

Goldfinch painting, oil:

plein air goldfinch painting
Goldfinch with thistles, circa 2000. Image copyright © 2022 Steven Leo Campbell at – All rights reserved.

“No one ever masters the art of perfection,” an art professor once told me. “Anyone who tries is only battling windmills.” It’s been good advice that has kept me humble as an artist and a writer.

I had the pleasure of meeting professional landscape painter William Alexander years ago. He became well-known in the PBS television community for his art instruction programs. He called his painting mistakes “happy accidents” and claimed they sparked his creativity and urged him to try new methods. One of his students, Bob Ross, took up his expression and turned it into a catchphrase as he became evermore popular on PBS television.

Anyone who does anything in life comes to know that accidents are not failures but are lessons to learn from instead. This happened to me when I mistakenly used the pronoun “she” instead of “he” during the second draft of a short story. That simple error changed my feeling about the story, its characters, and its ending. It was a happy accident and I wound up publishing the story as “A Night of Hellhounds” for the first book of my Luminary Magic series.

Other times, accidents can be unhappy ones that make us look unprofessional. From my experience, those mistakes are there because I and my production team didn’t see them, usually because of the mad hurry of meeting deadlines. Norman Rockwell was a popular American illustrator who ended up painting a three-legged boy for The Saturday Evening Post because of a deadline.

norman rockwell 3-legged boy

As you can see, the boy in the red shirt has three legs: two with their knees locked, and a third with the knee bent so he can rest his hand on it. Rockwell was embarrassed, naturally, when the error was printed for the multitude of Post subscribers to see.

It’s human nature to be the best we can be. But to err is also human. None of us are perfect … and never will.

Never stop learning.

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading.

Steve, 9/30/2022

This post “Allow Mistakes” copyright © 2022 Steven Leo Campbell at – All rights reserved.

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