Perfectionism can be a creativity roadblock. It’s a behaviour that feels productive by endeavouring to improve artwork, but can subconsciously be a mechanism to protect against the fear of not being good enough. If we make it the best possible version, we avoid potential criticism and become worthy of praise. The problem is, there is no best possible version when the bar of expectation is so high you can’t even see it. If the bar is too high, you will never be able to reach it, therefore you’ll never be done perfecting. Danny Gregory in Art Before Breakfast explains the behaviour of fiddliness, a kind of perfectionism as “Constant reappraisal, erasing, tweaking, reconsidering… Never done, never good enough.”
Perfectionism doesn’t work well with creativity because it leaves no room for the unexpected, unanticipated and beauty held within mistakes, mess and failure. Gregory talks about the problems in trying to plan art in advance: “You think you can conceive the destination before you embark on the journey… and that nothing else can intrude and change the outcome you have conceived. But, first of all, the world doesn’t work that way: unless you are doing something extremely simple and banal… it will invariably intrude and change your will-laid plans. And, second, you should welcome that intrusion. The accidents, mistakes, serendipities, and ink spatters that the universe throws in your path make you work and your life more interesting. Perfection isn’t organic. It’s constipated, lifeless, and dull.” Is it your goal to make lifeless and dull work? That might actually be the result of any fiddliness and perfection-focused tendencies.
One antidote to perfectionism is setting a goal to make the biggest quantity of art in the time available and let go of all other expectations around quality or the visual outcome of the art—it doesn’t have to look good or be appealing to the eye. Make lots of art, make it quickly and move onto the next piece quickly. Don’t give your perfection behaviour space to reflect on the art—make it and move on.
Deciding to stop an art project because it’s not “good enough” is not a good reason to stop making. If everybody judged their art on its perceived visual value and aimed for perfection, no art would EVER get made. No art is ever good enough if expectations are too high to begin with. Unwittingly setting perfection as the goal sets you up for disappointment because whatever gets made will instantly fall short. A far better expectation is simply finishing the project, giving it your full attention but letting go of the art needing to look a certain way.
Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magicencourages “So if you can just complete something – merely complete it! – you’re already miles ahead of the pack, right there. You may want your work to be perfect, in other words; I just want mine to be finished.” Let go of perfection and embrace getting things finished. It’s a far kinder and gentle way to approach making art which may allow you permission to continue making imperfect art regularly.
If reality isn’t neat and tidy and fits together perfectly, why expect any art you make to be the same? Why is there such a focus on making things neat and colouring within the lines? Can we not have a title space in our lives to explore messy and imperfect, a space with no expectations and an abundance of freedom? It’s a choice we can choose before picking up a pen to make art, one that will help you kick your creativity up a notch.
Danny Gregory in Art Before Breakfast suggests that “Reality isn’t neat and tidy and compartmentalizable. It has infinite variations and details, and that’s what makes it beautiful. Making art slows us down enough to see the details, the wrinkles, the world within worlds.” We don’t always appreciate the wrinkles of life, but through studying our surroundings and daily life for inspiration, we can see beyond the obvious and known and find wrinkles to use in our art.
When making art, your prior expectations of the outcome—or perhaps your imagination—may well far exceed the reality of what you actually make. A cycle of disappointment could emerge from your practice, one which doesn’t allow for less than ideal outcomes. But what if whatever you make is good enough? That right now, given your skills, experience, mental frame of mind, available time and space, this IS the best thing you could make and therefore it IS good enough? It’s good enough for right now. It doesn’t mean you won’t improve with time and practice, if that’s what you’re hoping for. But the art is good enough for this present moment. It cannot be more that it is.
If your inner critic rears up and aims negative chatter towards the art you just made, it may be helpful to say (out loud to give it more power), “It’s good enough.” Then move on with you day or onto the next piece of art. You have a choice about the way you think about your art but it takes practice to see it as being enough. Similar to building muscle, it takes practice to build confidence or a new way of thinking. While you may never completely erase the disappointed thoughts, the goal is not to let them stop you from making more art. And being ‘good enough’ may get you a lot further in the long run than trying to be perfect.
Feeling disheartened about the quality of your art could lead to you stopping making anything altogether. The inner critic asks “Why bother continuing to make ‘bad’ art?” But stopping practicing is the opposite thing to do because the solution to disheartenment is to make even more art.
Stephanie Peterson Jones in Drawing for Joy explains“…one of the hardest things to do is to let go of the outcome. There will always be times when you won’t like what you’ve done. Accepting your imperfections and drawing without inhibition can be liberating, and if you’re able, it will make your experience deeper and richer. The more you draw, the less the outcome will matter to you.” Letting go of the outcome gives yourself permission to continue to make art the inner critic doesn’t approve of. It’s not suprising it doesn’t approve if it’s comparing your art against art made by people who have years of experience or if the perfect image in your head doesn’t match the imperfect reality on the paper. You can’t win against perfect (perfect is boring and overrated anyway).
Peterson Jones again: “One of the most important lessons you’ll learn from doing art every day is that what you create becomes less precious to you, and the time spent creating art is just as important as what you make. And you will practice more tomorrow. Like life, some days work out fine, others, not so much. Courageously making art with acceptance of the outcome will free your soul and give you joy.”
If you commit to making something every day, the art you made 3 weeks ago won’t feel like such a big failure if you really don’t like it. You will have made a pile of other art since then and so will be less attached to past work. Through the process of consistent making, you begin to see how making something today is helping you make something tomorrow and therefore is a step in the process and doesn’t even need to be visually ‘good.’ It only has to get out onto the paper and exist.
Negative black-and-white thinking about your art can be harmful to your confidence and future art-making practice. While you may think labelling the art as “rubbish” or “bad” is stating the obvious, it could be blinding you to all the positive aspects of your art. Whatever your brain focuses on expands therefore looking at only “negative” aspects of your art, they will appear bigger, especially with similar repeated thoughts over time.
Kevin Gyoerkoe and Pamela Wiegartz talk about this extreme viewpoint in 10 Simple Solutions to Worry: “All or nothing thinking, or black-and-white thinking means viewing things in extreme categories. For example, you might describe a presentation you gave as “perfect” or “horrible.” Instead of a more balanced, reasoned view, you overlook the shades of gray, the subtleties of life, and force experiences into either-or categories (ie. describing yourself as “irresponsible” if you overlook a task or calling yourself a “failure” if you don’t meet an important personal goal.”
If by giving yourself constructive feedback you feel encourage to continue practicing then that’s great. But if you feel disheartened by your own feedback—especially if it’s black and white thinking—look for the more neutral “grey areas” instead. If you’re unable to find any small areas of the art you like, can you find one positive aspect? One specific line or dot? You can’t notice what you don’t look for. And “perfect” art is overrated. If we could do it perfectly instantly, we’d get bored very quickly. There’d be nothing new to learn and no joy from each step of growth accomplished over time. Look for the grey and let go of the pressure for your art to “be better” than it is right this moment.
This experiment brings together collaging and quick drawing to create loose, playful images. This process allows you to break free of drawing ‘good’ by embracing a looser way to create images and allows you to focus on quantity over quality. While being learning to draw realistically–drawings that look almost as lifelike as a photograph–has its merits, it can be harder to achieve as an amateur which could halt your future creative enthusiasm and art practice. Lynn Whipple in Expressive Flower Painting suggests this exercise will help you to create marks with energy: “This is “in the moment,” “get out of the way,” “make yourself laugh” stuff… Make scribbles, scratches, and smudges. Make yourself laugh knowing that any way you do this exercise is 100 percent perfect. Approach your flower drawings with the curiosity of a child.”
You will need: flowers, paper, pencil crayons, scissors, glue or tape and a timer. Optional to use a plain pencil or pen instead of pencil crayons.
Set timer for 15, 30 or 60 seconds and quickly draw a flower with the pencil crayons within the allocated time.
Repeat the process multiple times. Experiment with using one or multiple colours to draw flowers.
Draw a vase using the same process as above
Cut out flowers and vase with scissors
From your pile of cut out flowers and vase, start arranging on a piece of paper. Play around with different layouts.
Once you’ve finished arranged your flowers, fix them in place with glue or tape.
If you don’t have flowers nearby to use as inspiration, find images from a book or online or use your imagination. Whipple suggests not looking at the paper while you draw (blind drawing) and use two hands to create: how will a two-handed drawing differ from using just one hand? How about if you tried using your non-dominant hand? This quick drawing method can also be applied to other themes:
Animals in a zoo
A family portrait of unusual looking people
A collection of aliens from outer space
An outfit for a haute couture fashion show
Things found at sea
Any collection of objects, people or greenery, the skies the limit!
If you find yourself still focusing on perfecting lines or trying to make it ‘perfect,’ try a shorter time frame. What would a flower look like drawn in 5 seconds? Lynda Barry in Syllabus encourages using time constraints: “There is a kind of calibration of what to include given the time constraints, and time constraints are vital in the beginning.” Barry explains the time constraint doesn’t allow space to think but instead allows “a natural kind of picture comes about.” How some of these pictures look like children’s drawings and adults don’t like that. But Barry argues “But what if the way kids draw — that kind of line that we call ‘childish’ — what if that is what a line looks like when someone is having an experience by hand? A live wire! There is an aliveness in these drawings that can’t be faked… that aliveness seems to come into me…. Real aliveness of line is hard to come by.”
“Children see magic because they look for it” – Christopher Moore