Work can sit on the easel for months, even years. The afflicted artist may be dedicated, hard-working and obsessive. In mild cases he takes a very long time to get to signing, let alone to making a delivery. HP (Hyper-perfectionism) may not be widespread, but it can be devastating to a creative career.
Not only is the work never quite good enough in the mind of the artist, it may constantly develop elements that the artist feels need to be covered up or in some way changed. In analyzing the art of hyper-perfectionists, it strikes me that many of the needed changes are arbitrary and do not contribute very much to the general quality in the long run. In other words, progress may be stymied by some deeper psychological factor.
Parents or other elders are often fingered as the root of chronic perfectionism. As we ourselves are in some way not good enough, it’s easy for our work to be seen as imperfect and a scapegoat for our failed selves. The early and enthusiastic approval of a work by a friend, spouse, dealer or customer can offer some relief. But this can be difficult for shy, introverted or reclusive artists. Underlying fears and stresses need to be privately faced and understood.
While keeping in mind that “good enough is not good enough,” HP sufferers need to find role models among the confident, audacious and efficient. Inefficiency is the perfectionist’s game — but it’s often just simple dawdling and completion avoidance. By not completing, one avoids judgment.
Sufferers may respond to direct orders. One is to follow the command of American Civil War Marine Admiral David Farragut: “Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead.” By simply getting on with the next, quality stays high, freshness prevails, and signatures happen. Further, I don’t think watching the clock is a useful tool for combating perfectionism. Perfectionists, by nature, often have little respect for time. As much as perceived quality, completion must also be seen as the truly desirable goal. One needs a dedicated drying room or office where finished work is stashed and off limits to further brushwork. My own antidote to HP is MAD (Make A Delivery). Wrapping and shipping have significantly delayed my much-anticipated lobotomy.
PS: “It is from the regret left by the imperfect work that the next one can be born.” (Odilon Redon) “Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” (Joseph Campbell) “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.” (Confucius) “Regularity, order and the desire for perfection destroy art. Irregularity is the basis of all art.” (Pierre-Auguste Renoir)
Esoterica: If you’re a perfectionist, you’re actually in good company. Leonardo da Vinci was never happy with anything. Haunted by feelings of parental abandonment, he became the Patron Saint of Procrastinators. His was a condition I call “idealistic perfectionism.” Just knowing he could do it was enough. Thinking he could make it better kept him fiddling. I still don’t feel he got Mona Lisa’s smile exactly right, do you? Maybe it was better before.
by Rod Hobbs, Kenmore, WA, USA
Pierre Bonnard was famous for reworking his paintings both in the studio and after delivery, including having his friend Vuillard distract a guard in the Louvre so he could add a few brush strokes to a hanging painting of his. I don’t think that this was hyper-perfectionism but more a changed vision that he felt compelled to share.
Price tag beyond comprehension
by Dwayne Davis, Williams Lake, BC, Canada
Ralph Heitmann is a friend of mine whom I consider to be one of those who have taken Hyper-perfectionism to the next level. I doubt anyone will ever come to know his work because he gives away his pieces to his family as gifts because the work “has a price tag that is beyond his comprehension.” More or less he has no idea at what price to sell it and, if it went to an unknown, he couldn’t reclaim it to fiddle with it some more.
He has now quit painting because of his own frustration with his own work. I’ve tried to get him back to painting, but instead he would rather just be critical of my work, which I have found is good, as his eye for composition, detail and color is valued by me. It just saddens me to see someone with his talent and unique vision to be so self-conflicted that he no longer has the will to paint.
by Nikki Coulombe, Lewisville, TX, USA
Respectfully, the advice to stop painting too soon can be misunderstood, especially by beginners. Experience is valuable, even for the experienced. While it’s true that much of the life of a painting pours out through our blind enthusiasm at the start of a new one, and very often it ought to be left alone early on, as you and other professionals say, that’s not always the case. The judgement call is an individual one; for each artist and for each new piece. There is a lot to be said for exploration; exploration for the potential of each piece, and the continuous adventure of seeking our own unrealized potential. No amount of money spent on courses and tutoring from famous artists can give us that same quality of education. We need to know who we are and what we are capable of if we are ever to learn how to recognize that elusive moment of completion.
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Compulsion a personality trait
by Laurel McBrine, Toronto, ON, Canada
Guilty as charged. I am rarely finished with my paintings until they leave my possession or I am forced to abandon them because of a deadline. I also delay signing them just in case I spot something I want to to change. I think this compulsion is partly a personality trait. Leonardo was probably a “P” rather than a “J” (according to the Myers-Briggs Personality Assessment) with the tendency to want to keep his options open rather than get closure.
It is a not uncommon problem for artists. As an example, apparently, the sculptor Stephen Staebler related how Giacometti once visited a friend, saw one of his plaster heads and immediately pulled out a pocket knife and started carving away at the head. It would never be right.
I do think this perfectionism is damaging to productivity and the advice to create something fresh instead is excellent. However, I also think that some artists could afford to be more picky about the quality of their work.
by Melanie Frey, Scottsdale, AZ, USA
This past week I went to the Phoenix Art Museum’s current exhibition of the art of Ernest L. Blumenschein and was pleasantly surprised at his work — vibrant colors and amazing Indian art of New Mexico at the turn of the last century. He was, evidently, one of the founders of the Taos Society of Artists. I really haven’t heard much about him. I was greatly surprised (and saddened) to learn he had destroyed a good deal of his work because he didn’t think it was “fit for posterity”! I also noticed that piece after piece after piece stated he had finished it in one year and then 5 to 10 years later (!) reworked it. I think he would fall into the hyper-perfectionist category that you have described. I left the exhibit enriched with seeing his art and saddened with the idea that much of it will never be seen.
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by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
While teaching an adult art class several years ago, I met an artist with an extreme case of hyper- perfectionism. During the first couple of class sessions he had created a stunning painting. It was an abstract landscape painted with transparent oils. The painting positively glowed through glaze after glaze, but to Fred it just was never good enough. Fred’s habit was to paint one stroke, and then walk across the room to look at the painting for several minutes. Then he would walk back to his easel, add one more stroke, and repeat the process.
The whole class loved his painting, and we all had told him so. Meanwhile, Fred’s walking back and forth making invisible improvements had gotten on everyone’s nerves. In the eighth week of the class, I took a string and tied it around Fred’s waist, and the other end to the easel. He could only walk six feet away from his work. I told him to squint if he wanted a longer view.
It was a ten-week course, and at the end the painting still wasn’t “finished.” Fred was 30 hours into this moderately-sized painting, and of those hours 20 had been spent gilding the lily.
When I saw that Fred had signed up for the next ten-week class, I was ready for him. I brought in a blank canvas, and when Fred showed up, I took his painting, the very same one, and hung it under the lights in the critique viewing area of the studio. I gave him the blank and told him to start a new painting. There was no way that I was going to witness another ten weeks of that performance.
Loving the imperfect
by Loretta West, Spokane,WA, USA
Thanks for the comments on HP, an affliction I battle regularly. Two things save me. One is that I have kept a framed painting of an early work in our bedroom which I see every night before I go to bed. It’s not perfect, the values are way off, but I still like it because of its other qualities. Looking at it reminds me that at one time I thought it was well done. It keeps me real. Perfection is an ever-evolving concept. The second thing is what a college professor in ceramics once told me. He said that people identify with flaws and they rarely love something that seems too perfect. This I find true when others view my work, they will often like the ones where I know there is something not quite right but didn’t notice until it was too late. If they buy it, all the better, as I won’t have to fix it.
There is 1 comment for Loving the imperfect by Loretta West
Time to be audacious
by Mary Aslin, Laguna Beach, CA, USA
This desire for perfection evolves naturally for some people. It seems I was more audacious when I was a less capable artist. One of my students recently said that she now sees what she doesn’t know and wants to throw everything that she’s completed up to this point in the trash (and I don’t think she should do this but it is a good sign of a great “artist-to-be” to recognize the chasm one must cross to build excellence). I believe Edgar Degas said that he wanted to buy back everything he had sold and “put his foot through it.” I’ve felt the same way… as I’ve grown as an artist, I want to go back and fix what has sold or replace it with something better. Having now completed hundreds of paintings and understanding how skills and vision evolve, I’ve become so much more critical of each piece I do because there will come a time that, though I might be fine with the piece now, I will likely find a flaw later. Consequently, it is so difficult to deliver work to the gallery these days. Still, there are those pieces — some done years ago — that still work for me and I had no idea what I was doing then… just plunging ahead like a madwoman. It is good that I was being more audacious than perfect then because it brought me not only drawers full of “rejects” but gallery and jury recognition for the keepers so that I don’t have to be the sole judge of “perfect” now.
The timing of this letter was “perfect” as, having completed some good work lately, I began to feel a bit paralyzed by the desire to make sure the next piece is even more “perfect.” Time to be audacious and plunge ahead like a madwoman.
There is 1 comment for Time to be audacious by Mary Aslin
Nearly done in
by Gillian Hanington, Ajijic, Mexico
An excellent description of a condition that nearly did me in. Then somewhere in my 50s I revised my whole notion of the world — or maybe the universe. I decided to quit fighting it and be part of it. Once I started to view myself as filtering reality THROUGH myself, rather than having to create it out of nothing, things got a lot easier, and to my surprise my work became much more powerful. I also upped my output from a couple of projects per year to many dozens.
I discovered the concept of “good enough” and learned to let the work go after a certain point. Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way was immensely helpful to me during this process of change, which took several years of hard work, re-wiring my brain. It paralleled some other things that were going on in my life, children leaving the nest, quitting my “day job” moving to Mexico to be a full time artist….
Ultimately it appears that getting my ego out of the way was necessary for the production of works that have some integrity and some strength. Going with the flow seems to liberate ideas that lie below the level of intellect, and have a life and direction of their own.
I find it utterly fascinating, and I feel very lucky that I stumbled upon it… and “stumble” is the right word. It wasn’t brains that got me here.
There are 2 comments for Nearly done in by Gillian Hanington
Good work not perfect
by Janet Vanderhoof, Morgan Hill, CA, USA
I am reading a book called Art and Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland. He had an interesting section about perfectionism. He talked about a teacher that had announced one day that he was going to divide the class into two groups. Now one group would be graded on quantity and one on quality. The requirement was simple. For the quantity group it was measured by weight, 50 lbs equaled an “A” and forty pounds equaled a “B” and so forth. Now the quality group only could do one ceramic. It had to be their best work and quality of work was the grade. Well guess what, when it came time to grading the groups, while the quantity group was churning out the ceramics and learning from their mistakes, the quality group was theorizing, not doing, and had little to show for it. They had “grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.” This in the end shows good work is not synonymous with perfect work. “Art is human; error is human; ergo, art is error.” So inevitably our work will be flawed and looking for perfections is flawed.
There comes a time when we have to quit rationalizing and just do. No matter how much you think about doing, thinking is not doing. We can rationalize it isn’t good enough to do yet or not the right time. But unless we start to bring this quantity of doing and risk making mistakes we cannot learn and grow.
There are 3 comments for Good work not perfect by Janet Vanderhoof
Savoring the experimentation
by Ina Beierle, Glencoe, IL, USA
This particular letter made me sit back and think about the painting that has been on my easel for too long, as it needs attending to with the express intention of finishing it. I think back to my impetuous, self-assuredness days (let’s even go so far as saying “rebel”) when I was a younger painter. Those paintings would be churned out with a great ego, one after another.
Now, in my more senior years, I have been slowly placing myself in what seems like the hyper-perfectionism category. With age, definitely comes more knowledge, more understanding of techniques that are not of the big stroke variety. Techniques that take decades to master… and if you come to these later in life… the need for more time definitely places the devil in the details. And with new techniques come experimentation, methods need to percolate, take time to develop.
I have done a lot of reading about artists who have abandoned their early styles to seek a more mature style, like Degas and John Sloan, to name a few. This is where I place myself in thinking about painting today. Perhaps when we reach an age when “fast, move on to the next one quickly” no longer seems seductive, a bit of savoring through experimentation is a nice place to be.
Since John Sloan (a member of the group of Eight), along with his group, painted subjects that have always appealed to me, I will quote from his book on Painting and Drawing: “I want to say something to the fresh young minds with which I come in contact. Because I, too, am a student, ten years ago I turned my back on the type of work I had done in the past, work which had been recognized by critic and public. Many pictures I make today are frankly experiments, products of the laboratory.”
Perhaps perfectionism and experimentation conjoin when one seeks, if it is really there, some sort of place when the artist can say, “Now I have what I want.”
by Cathy Harville, Gambrills, MD, USA
This letter on perfectionism really hit home! My father was a perfectionist — never satisfied with his drawing, his gardening skills, or his life. He would throw his drawings into a small trash can, and I would often rescue them, and hide them, to avoid his wrath that I valued such flawed efforts. I have a few of them framed, and hanging in my home. My father’s short life was one big struggle to be perfect. He was constantly frustrated living on this imperfect earth.
Unfortunately, I grew up with the same perfectionist tendencies — in school, at home, and in my art. I actually gave up art at the tender age of 12, when my father told me it was a waste of time. It was only after he died that I felt comfortable pursuing my artistic cravings.
Now I am 51. While I still have nagging perfectionist tendencies, I realize their source, and allow myself to make lots of mistakes. I constantly experiment, to avoid becoming comfortable in perfecting a subject or technique. I pay homage to each failed work, and give it a nice burial in our trash can. And then I move on to learn from the mistakes, and to continue growing and creating. While I still have trouble forgiving myself for my shortcomings, it is getting easier.
Through psychodynamic therapy, I have learned to embrace the shadow side of perfectionism, and to be imperfect. I have learned that it is the imperfections in life that make it amusing and lovable. The imperfections of the world and its people add interest, and invoke curiosity, and humor. How boring would a perfect life be?
In the painting, Long Shadows, aka Critter Path, there are enough imperfections to fill a book. But the work is honest and true, and while no one has yet taken it home, people can’t stop looking at it. The brilliant, ridiculous colors, and wild strokes and blobs give viewers an opportunity to relax — to enjoy its flaws, and to muse over the crazy color and texture. Everyone can relate to being flawed. Everyone feels comfortable with imperfection. People feel so comfortable with imperfection in art that they instantly become art critics! I just smile. I had a great time creating Long Shadows, and I apologize for nothing!
Ironically, work where I have nailed the reflections, or composition, or color, sometimes cause people to feel uncomfortable. Seeing something near perfection sometimes makes me feel inadequate, and I don’t think I am alone. Yet, even in the near perfect reflections, I can still find fault. That recognition of imperfection drives me to become a better artist. But I don’t strive for perfection — I strive to be true to myself.
West Coast Cliffs
acrylic painting, 10 x 10 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Peter Salwen of New York, NY, USA, who wrote, “Nice one, Robert, including the useful quotes in your postscript. I try to remember a mantra of my own: No matter how much you polish it, it’s still just an apple.”
And also Depy Adams of Albuquerque, NM, USA, who wrote, “Stick a frame on the damn thing and forget it — that’s the message sometimes.”
And also Skip Van Lenten who wrote about Mona Lisa’s smile: “Actually, she was frowning right up to the end because it was taking him so long.”
And also David Lehmann who wrote, “In an art class I took years ago, a fine teacher — Matt Kahn at Stanford University — said to us, …Sometimes the hardest thing is knowing when you’re done.’ ”
And also Anne O’Malley who wrote, “I heard a quotation attributed to John Bellamy, a Scottish artist, which sounded good. It went in this vein… ‘If one or two works from a body of work for an exhibition are what you would like to be remembered by, it is a good exhibition.’ It helps deal with being too perfectionist.”
And also Sascha Rybinski of Fort Lauderdale, FL, USA, who wrote, “This was my first letter from you and I didn’t expect it to be so good. It’s completely relevant to what I’ve been struggling with. Well written and succinct, it shed new light on procrastination and perfectionism. I look forward to more of these letters!”
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