The "Happy Accident," "Beautiful Oops," and Creativity

Beautiful Oops book by Barney Saltzberg
BEAUTIFUL OOPS, by Barney Saltzberg. Courtesy of

"Artists who seek perfection in everything are those who cannot attain it in anything."

These were the wise words of Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), French novelist of the realist period and author of Madame Bovary (1857).  They apply to all people who strive to express themselves through creative means, for creativity is inherently messy. Creativity is not linear, or logical, or predictable; rather, it is irrational, messy, and unpredictable. It is not achieved when striving for perfection, but perfection is sometimes achieved when space is made for making mistakes and for the messiness of creativity.

Beautiful Oops

A wonderful children's book that explores this concept is Beautiful Oops. It is a book that speaks to the child in all of us, the child just beyond the exuberant stage of unfettered toddlerhood, the child just beginning to understand that there are "right" and "wrong" ways of doing things and becomes diminished by the fear of "making mistakes." The book speaks to the small, scared person in all of us who is afraid to "make a mistake," showing us how to look at our perceived mistakes in new ways, opening up new avenues of creativity and possibilities. It is as much a book about navigating through the trials and tribulations of life as it is a book about making art. 

The book shows how, using your imagination and creativity, you can turn accidental tears, spills, rips, and smudges into something new and beautiful. Rather than being discouraged by accidents, accidents can become the portal to a new discovery or a new masterpiece.

Watch: Beautiful Oops video 

More:  The Educator's Guide to Celebrate Oops 

The Happy Accident

Seasoned artists are well aware of the "happy accident."  Although no doubt skilled in their medium and materials, a good artist lets the medium and materials take over to some extent as well. This can lead to moments of happy accidents, some might even call grace, those beautiful unplanned and unforeseen passages of paint that are "given to you" without effort, as though a gift. 

Beginning painters are often afraid to make "mistakes." But no matter what, mistakes are educational. Either they teach you how not to do something, or they teach you a new way of doing something and expand your creativity.

Ways to Promote "Happy Accidents"

  • Let the material do what it is meant to do. Don't try to control it too much. If you're using fluid paint, let it drip. Don't feel compelled to wipe every drip away.
  • Try not to correct every perceived "flaw" in your painting. Let the marks show the influence of your particular hand, your unique handwriting. This is what gives your painting character. Sometimes efforts to correct what is an irritation to you, the artist, only make matters worse.
  • Stop yourself from overcorrecting and ask someone whose artistic judgment you respect to assess your work. Get a trusted and valued second opinion. If you can't do that, put the work away and come back to it the next day with a fresh eye. 
  • Change the orientation of your painting. Turn it upside down and on its side.  You'll see it in a new way - literally and figuratively - and may decide on a different orientation. 
  • Start with a disturbed surface. Go wild. Paint randomly on a surface before you start your painting. Let these marks show through as you continue to paint your subject. 
  • Paint over an old painting. Turn it upside down and start a completely new painting on top of it, but avoid completely covering it up. Or, if you do, scrape and draw back into it with a pointed tool so that the layers of color beneath the fresh coat of paint on the surface are revealed and pop through accidentally.
  • Paint with your non-dominant hand.
  • Paint with an over-sized brush, or a brush taped onto an extra long handle, like a broom handle.
  • Do an experiment and paint many small paintings quickly of the same subject. The point is to begin to lose control so that accidents occur that you can learn from and build off of creatively. Earl Grenville Killeen, author of The North Light Book of Acrylic Painting Techniques says, "By painting one painting after another as fast as possible, not only does the work get better, but every accident becomes an opportunity to experiment. Sometimes one accident can be combined with another."
  • Apply the paint in a way that is unfamiliar to you. Use a palette knife, or paint like Jackson Pollock, laying the canvas on the floor or a table and pouring the paint onto it. 
  • Learn from your mistakes. In your creativity and experimentation you will no doubt discover things that don't work. Remember those. Don't repeat them the same way, but do repeat them with variations. This is when you will discover the "happy accidents."
  • Practice a "beautiful oops" moment such as spilling some coffee or ink or turpentine on a page and creating some drawings or paintings inspired from it.
  • Make the practice of painting a discipline but be free in your approach. Try to paint everyday. Read A Painting a Day
  • Keep trying new things - new techniques, new mediums, new supports, new materials. Stay fresh!
  • Look at other paintings, study technique, learn about your materials, and know what you like, so that when the "happy accident" occurs, you know enough not to paint over it!