Only Idiots Learn from Their Mistakes

‘Only idiots learn from their mistakes, I learn from the mistakes of others’

– Otto Von Bismarck

Often while correcting students, they inform me that they would rather make their own mistakes, as a sort of learning tool. Since I’ve usually already made that exact mistake myself, I always reply with that quote.

I know sketching a small landscape painting in oils isn’t the same thing as baiting France into unifying Germany for you.  And part of the beauty of oil painting is the ability to change things at a later date.

But the truth is, plein air painting requires you to think about a lot of things studio-painters don’t have to deal with: “Am I blocking traffic?” “How many tourists am I going to have to talk to standing here?”, “Could I freeze to death in this cold?”… etc, and it is very easy to get distracted and make simple compositional errors that one normally wouldn’t make.

Here are a few of the recent snowscapes from Limburg with before and after images, showing my initial mistake, as well as the later-in-studio correction.

The Unfortunate Tangent:

Unfortunate tangents are when a line describing one element in space is tangent with a line describing an element in a completely different location. In the case below, the snow on the hedge on the left  is in front of the windmill yet it lines up precisely with the line of the hill on the right, which is behind the windmill. In the studio I raised the hedge a little to remove the tangent.


The Unfortunate Tangent.


In the case below, the trees in the original sketch were positioned at the same distance from each side of the panel, which is generally considered poor composition. In the studio I moved the left tree slightly to the right and added one behind it, to not have them look so symmetrical. (To be honest, I’m still not convinced about the trees as they’re a bit busy for such a small panel and might take them out entirely).

Also, the path through the snow was parallel to the base of the panel, so I raised it a bit on the left.


Parallel Lines:

Lastly, in the painting below, I put in too many parallel lines (also considered poor composition) to describe the plowed fields below the snow. In the studio later I removed a few, and tried to make them more randomly placed.

Parallel Lines.


  1. Okay-I’m an idiot….I would NOT have seen the things you pointed out in these. Even in the last one I rather preferred the parallel lines of the plowed field. Wish you would do a workshop in Maine sometime. Think about it…..

  2. Love your work Marc! On the sketches…the unfortunate tangent- nice pick up on that. Raising the hedge holds that space nicely now. Fine assessment. The symmetry- my inclination would be to eliminate the tree on the right, enhancing the movement and flow of the composition, opening up the space. Parallel lines- I did like the first arrangement of those lines and felt they enhanced the space/composition, echoing the movement of the hedge row in front of then windmill. But it’s easy to look as an observer of someone else’s work, difficult to see one’s own. All beautiful work Marc.

  3. seems to me there are *so* many art educators and students out there who are under the mistaken impression that you cannot learn by watching someone else paint, but if you pay attention, there’s *so* much there.

  4. Hi Marc, thanks so much for showing me those critiques. I am novice artist and would not have seen such things. So thanks for the quote and the experience I just had. Cheers, Brenda

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