Fighting Art Perfectionism

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Productive over Perfect

Fact: Perfectionism crushes creativity. 

An effective way to recover from perfectionism is to start creating. That might seem counter-intuitive, but it follows the same contrarian path towards recovery as other challenging situations.

Heartbroken over the end of a relationship? Go volunteer, and give of yourself. That outward act of generosity can backfill your internal noodling of sad thoughts. The good light of giving that you’re shining on the world contradicts the dark weight of your heart’s woes.

Car broken into, and something stolen? Buy yourself a cup of tea and a scone – or a similar “micro-pleasure” to contradict the loss. 

In the same vein, slay your perfectionism by making stuff. A LOT of stuff. Not just a sketch or a little watercolor once every six weeks, but make piles of stuff, as often as you can, over and over. 

Perfectionism doesn’t stand a chance against the herculean foe of Productivity.

a pencil sketch of a figure in front of a huge door in italy, ready for watercolor washes
Ready to add pigments to an already prepared, un-perfect sketch drawn last week. Finished sketches are a lure your watercolor brushes can’t resist. 🙂

Perfectionism has a Place, but it’s Not in the Art Studio

Nicholas Wilton is a painter and an art encourager. If you don’t know his work and writings, visit his blog and watch a couple of his videos for a dose of creative-courage.

Nick wrote a beautiful essay for Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly, and he describes the categories in life where perfectionism is appropriate, and even required, compared to the rankings where flawlessness doesn’t work at all.

Nick says: “I always felt that someone, a long time ago, organized the affairs of the world into areas that made sense – categories of stuff that is perfectible, things that fit neatly in perfect bundles.

The world of business, for example, is this way – line items, spreadsheets, things that add up, that can be perfected. The legal system – not always perfect – but nonetheless a mind-numbing effort to actually write down all kinds of laws and instructions that cover all aspects of being human, a kind of umbrella code of conduct we should all follow.

Perfection is crucial in building an aircraft, a bridge, or a high-speed train. The code and mathematics residing just below the surface of the Internet is also this way. Things are either perfectly right or they will not work. So much of the world we work and live in is based upon being correct, being perfect.

a meme about the importance of being productive, instead of perfect
Perfectionism in the art studio has a place as it relates to following directions on art supplies, and sequential steps towards building a painting , but beyond that, art-making should be more playtime than perfection. If it’s not fun, you won’t crave it.

Nick continues…

But after this someone got through organizing everything just perfectly, he (or probably a she) was left with a bunch of stuff that didn’t fit anywhere – things in a shoe box that had to go somewhere.

So, in desperation, this person threw up her arms and said, “OK! Fine. All the rest of this stuff that isn’t perfectible, that doesn’t seem to fit anywhere else, will just have to  be piled into this last, rather large, tattered box that we can sort of push behind the couch.

Maybe later we can come back and figure where it all is supposed to fit in.” Let’s label the box ART.

Perfectionism in Art is an inspiration killer. This is a meme about keeping perfection for sharpening pencils, and locking it out of the art studio
Loosen your grip on pencils, brushes, sticks of pastel… practice a lighter touch, and a more meandering line of movement. Just to see. 🙂

The problem was, thankfully, never fixed, and in time the box overflowed as more and more art piled up.

I think the dilemma exists because art, among all the other tidy categories, most closely resembles what it is like to be human. To be alive. It is our nature to be imperfect. To have uncategorized feelings and emotions. To make or do things that don’t sometimes necessarily make sense.

Art is all just perfectly imperfect.

Once the word Art enters the description of what you’re up to, it is almost like getting a hall pass from perfection. It thankfully releases us from any expectation of perfection. In relation to my own work not being perfect, I just always point to the tattered box behind the couch and mention the word Art, and people seem to understand and let you off the hook about being perfect and go back to their business.

Thanks, Nick. That was a lovely excerpt on an important topic for so many artists!

a black cat is curled on a pillow sleeping next to a lap desk on a couch with a watercolor painting of a door in process, and a watercolor palette and brushes
Painting a small watercolor study of a giant green door in Italy, while sitting on the couch with good company

Lock Perfect in the Cupboard

And then go make something with your art supplies. It’s important to have fun, so you’ll want to keep coming back to making things with your hands.

If you strangle the creative experience with perfection, you might as well be folding the laundry with your hands, because it’s not fun anymore.

How do you slay your perfection dragon? If you have tips and tricks for more fun in the art studio, please leave them in the comments.

Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you in the next post!


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a watercolor sketch of a figure in front of a huge green door in Florence, Italy
In the Land of Basil 8.5 x 8 ” pencil and watercolor sketch
The poet Mary Oliver passed away this week at age 83. Her words have been part of the internal soundtrack on my creative journey.
Thank you, and Rest in Peace, sweet heart.

An expert cat, looking straight out at the viewer, with an earnest expression, to encourage more frequent art-making with six tips on a free video course.
Click the kitty to visit this free online mini course – Six Tips to Paint More

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14 thoughts on “Fighting Art Perfectionism”

  1. Love your work, and love post this Belinda. I have been thinking this way lately because some kind of bug flattened me, and I am trying to get back to normal. So even though (I think it’s pleurisy) made my energy low, I kept doing
    some art — drawing, and working on small paintings. When it is all gone. Hallelujah, I think I’ll have a party.

    XOXOXOXOXO Barbara

    1. Hi you, I’m so sorry you’re sick! I hope it dissipates soon, and you’re dancing around your canvases and pigments in short order. Good, hearty, healthy wishes to you and your family! XOXOXO

  2. I echo those who are inspired by this post. It warms my spirit. Your words put art, perceived errors, the constant and ever-changing urge to make something new, and human existence into perspective. Quite a feat! And I thank you!

    1. Hi Anne, Thanks for weighing in here, and letting me know you understand this quandary. Perfectionism is not an easy thing to step over, but I’ll give you a leg up if you’ll do the same for me, and when we get to the other other side, we’ll celebrate our productivity, and thumb our noses at the perfectionist tendencies we stomped over to get there. 🙂

  3. What a lovely post, Belinda. Your blog is a complete breath of fresh air and your videos so calming and helpful. As a perfectionist whose self-criticism sends me flitting from one half-finished endeavour to another, there are some valuable messages for me to reflect on here. Thank you.

    1. Hi Julia, Thanks for the kind words. Could you please tell your perfectionist monster that I banish it to the cupboard! No peering over the shoulder, no whispering admonitions after each stroke of the brush. Seal its mouth with Stopitt Tape. Sending giant waves of uninterrupted focus in your next creative endeavor. Fingers crossed.

  4. Nice to know a saying from the programming world is also one of the art world: “Perfect is the enemy of the good.”

    Welp, after Googling, I see the phrase is a bit older than that! 😉

  5. I love this post Belinda. And thank you for the beautiful Mary Oliver quote at the end. I used to tell people not to pass judgement while they were making their work, save that for when the spell has broken and you are outside of your “making” time. Then sit back and behold and make your judgements then. It won’t be too late to apply it to your next creative push. This blog that you have written is beautiful Belinda.

    1. Hello there, love,
      You’ve put such a smile on my face. Thank you for sharing that great advise. It’s so true. Stay in the making zone as long as you can, and shoosh the naysayer till you’re walking away from the finished work. Every brush stroke is a learning. We all just have to keep the brushes moving and forge ahead in our acquisition of skills. Thank you for your compliments. I hope your painting time is a flurry of inspiration and ideas.

  6. When I began with watercolor, I felt I had to make perfect “renderings.” Masterpieces. There was art in the composition, perhaps, but not in the painting. Now I deliberately let the colors flow, blur the lines, allow blossoms (sometimes), and relax more. I found that most of my “mistakes” don’t show in the final painting anyway. Great article on putting perfection in its place.

    1. Hi there, Ralph! Thanks for stopping by and sharing that Good News. I think many beginning watercolor painters’ challenge with this medium is the attempt to control it too much, which can lead to stiff paintings, mechanically done. What made you decide to “loosen the grip” and let the pigments meander on their own?

  7. I find play dates to be a good tool when you have trouble getting started. It sets aside blocks of creative time and guarantees some productivity. I like to mix up my mediums, too.

    1. Hi Tina, Playdates are an excellent way to get your art supplies going! Sometimes it’s easier to show up for others, so plan the day, gather your pals and have at it. Good job. And your artwork is on fire these days! The work is just awesome!I’m *so* glad you’re creating consistently! XO B.

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