When I was little, I would spend Saturday mornings at art class, eager to master all the techniques, excited to draw what was before me as faithfully as possible. It was only a matter of practice and effort.
Imagine my surprise the day we began watercolor and my teacher warned us of “happy accidents,” the blotches and mistakes that we would have to work with as the water weaved its way across the page once it left the tip of our brush. For the perfectionist that I was in my precollege era, this was horrifying. There was no way to correct mishaps, no way to predictably build layer upon layer to construct the desired product. Instead, the water and colors would bleed together, little tendrils of one running into the other, sometimes swerving, sometimes taking on shapes completely different from the intended borders. It’s a process of patience more than anything else—you must wait for the water to dry, allowing it to do half of the work in covering the page. It is an exercise in letting go and accepting “happy accidents” as part of your creation.
Encountering error as a part of what you hope to achieve is perhaps one of the hardest lessons to learn. As seniors tend to do, I’ve been reflecting on my past four years here, and sometimes I find myself fixating on the regrets: the blotches, the unfinished pieces, the blotted feelings, the soaked edges, the erasure of forms. There are parts of the page splattered with tears of disappointment, frustration, depression, and confusion—the heartbreak we all experience through living and hoping, striving to create ourselves in the world. My mistakes line up in isolation before me, a series of missed brushstrokes all pointing to my inadequacy.
And yet, I am increasingly realizing that when I look at the picture in its entirety, there is a wondrous, sprawling beauty to it. It is a beauty I could never have achieved if everything I had ever wanted had gone according to plan, if I had never slipped up and done wrong, forgotten things, been hurt, hurt others, felt out of control, or felt lost. It is easy enough to say that our mistakes are things to learn from, that we must embrace the bad to move forward. As true as those age-old adages are, I think the real challenge is to carry that sense of peace with ourselves, that sense of patience with our own lack of control, as we move forward in our lives.
The unpredictable force that makes watercolor so challenging is also our life force, the element we cannot live without. It is us, uncontained and uncertain. It is existence, in all of its undefined glory. Acknowledging that force helps us to view our mistakes, regrets, and flaws as something closer to happy accidents—imperfections that are the very essence of life.
Emily Neil is a Barnard College senior majoring in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies. She is a former Spectator theater associate.