Recently I’ve been looking into the business of perfectionism among painters. It seems to me most artists have a mild version of the condition. I’m also seeing a kind of obsessive perfectionism that really holds some artists back. Let me explain.
Social psychologists and forum leaders identify types of human machinations they often call “rackets.” Apparently we all run them. Rackets are blind spots, self-fulfilling games or internalized stories we keep repeating to avoid certain outcomes. For example, a painter may demand such high standards of himself that work never leaves the studio. Work is never quite finished. “Never quite good enough” is his racket.
Some artists need to look at the disabling that comes with over-perfectionism. They need to find out where it came from and what can be done about it.
Perfectionism is the opposite of audacity. It is the over-runner of intuition and the neutralizer of confidence. It is the mean little voice that says, “Noodling will get this thing right.” More overworked passages are wrought by perfectionism than this world dreams of.
When rackets are identified, there’s a root cause that cannot easily be dug out and released. The longer the racket persists, the more difficult it is to remove. An overly demanding, displeased parent, sibling or spouse, even from the distant past, is a common source. Guilt, fear and common garden-variety stubbornness play their part. These conditions and their sources need to be understood, analyzed and forgiven. While counselling may be necessary, vigorous introspection is often a good course.
The perfectionist artist may also suffer from the scourge of advice dependency. He is always looking for expert opinion to release himself from the eternal burden of making up his own mind. This is, of course, an impossible request. The artist must hold all skills within himself. As Picasso pointed out, knowing when to stop is just as important as knowing how to paint.
Perfectionism often hits artists in mid life. When you are a kid, you don’t know your own limitations and you just do it. A few failures or discouragements later and you start to lose your moxie. Perfectionism becomes chronic. Dedicated head vacuuming is in order. Re-accessing your child may be necessary. At the base of all of this is independent character-development and rugged self-control.
PS: “Done is better than perfect.” (Scott Allen)
Esoterica: A former Jehovah’s Witness of my acquaintance, now departed, painted only one painting that I know of. Taken to and from crits, her painting received changes or embellishments after each advisor had a go. In its final reincarnation it was not at all like it was at first. No matter what anyone said (like “Leave it alone,” or “Start another”), twenty or so human figures mysteriously appeared in the painting during a ten-year period. Also, a few extra lambs were lying down with the lions. As well as being “busy,” it was quite overworked. Curiously, posthumously, it was accepted into a group show, so what do I know?
The relationship of detail to overworking
by Robert Hagberg
How do you tell the difference between overworked and detail? How do you, personally, recognize when you have slipped over the edge of completing the details to overworking. As a realist I paint what many would consider very detailed paintings even though they are a far cry from the photorealism I used to create. Does level of detail equate to overworked? These are a few of the questions your article on perfectionism raised for me. I think I understand that you were really addressing a mental state and a condition that can get in the way of achievement. That said, I believe that it is a constant struggle to know when enough is enough.
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Painting ‘in the zone’
by Ingrid Christensen, Calgary, AB, Canada
My favourite paintings have happened in the “zone”: the state of abandoned, confident play during which you can’t make a bad mark or mix an off colour. The painting just flows off the brush and all you have to do is stay open and catch it. But take a break, or make a phone call and the zone evaporates. Then the perfectionist comes back and starts tweaking a bit here and a bit there and soon enough the painting is dead. Interestingly, viewers can always tell which paintings were done with intuition and which with the perfectionist mind. They always prefer the former.
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Plein air as cure for perfectionism
by Brad Greek, Mary Esther, FL, USA
For me it was the power of plein air that freed me up. Whether due to weather conditions, time limits or just had to stop for some reason, defined the finishing point in the painting. I would say to myself that I’ll finish it at home, but usually leave it alone once I get there and look at it for awhile and see that it was finished. That, in turn, lead me to leave work as it was and not to worry about all the details. Sure I can bounce around from realism to representational abstract with a flick of knife or brush. I don’t worry about perfection at all.
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The loop of perfection
by Jeanne Benson, Columbia, MD, USA
Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way wrote about what she calls the loop of perfection: “Perfectionism is not a quest for the best. It is a pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us that nothing we do will ever be good enough — that we should try again.” “No. We should not,” she wrote and continues, “A book is never finished. But at a certain point you stop writing it and go on to the next thing.” Cameron wrote about ‘letting go’ as a part of the creative process. And the part that resonated with me, “We always do the best we can with the light we have to see by.” In the same paragraph Cameron quotes painter Paul Gardner, “A painting is never finished. It simply stops in interesting places.”
When is it overworked?
by Robin Shillcock, Groningen, Netherlands
It’s too easy to pull the debate into the extreme, to talk about obsessive or neurotic tendencies in artists, and then come up with simple-sounding solutions. Far more interesting is the middle ground. I know hundreds of artists and to my knowledge not one is an excessive perfectionist, though all, barring a few, are perfectionists of the “right kind.” Forget about the few that are mentally anchored in such a way that they turn in circles. Leave them to the shrinks.
So I ask you, at what point does perfectionism become a burden? In your thought-provoking letters you often touch on the “danger” of overworking a painting. When is a painting overworked? Artists that ride rough, defining objects with one slash of the brush (like yourself), often define the work of more finely wired artists as overworked. Is Holbein overworked? Wyeth? Is Monet, that gifted, endless, retoucher overworked?
Look at the surface textures of “slashers” like Zorn, Sorolla or Sargent, compared to their fluid strokes Rembrandt and Homer look like “diggers.” Perfectionism drove all these artists to become great commentators of the human condition. So when does good painterly texture become overworked?
Basically perfectionism is a good drive. It takes us to where we want to be: to a fine piece of work. It’s an incentive to reach just a little further. It has given us great entertainers like Chaplin, Leonard Cohen, wildlife artists George MacLean and Robert Bateman — all perfectionists in their trade.
The futzing perfectionista
by Julie Doornbos, USA
Oh yes. I am a perfectionist. Or, as I prefer to call it on days that I’m feeling particularly generous… a perfectionista! HA! But yes, I freely admit that I have a habit of working my paintings long after they look complete. I call it futzing. I recently wrote about this after I finished my most recent painting. While futzing greatly slows my productivity down, it can, at times, push me to be a better artist. So long as I don’t let the revisions get in my way of moving on to the next work… ah it is a delicate balance we futzing perfectionistas strike.
One of my favorite futzers was Norman Rockwell. He famously had a hand written sign taped to the top of his easel that read simply “100%” — and he meant it. It wasn’t uncommon for him to completely set aside a painting that was nearly complete and start all over again because he wasn’t satisfied with the direction of his work. This has caused some confusion now, particularly when seemingly identical copies of his work pop up and it turns out that one or more of them were simply given away before he began his final, complete version!
The return to play
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
Perfectionism comes from a child’s attempt to please mom and dad. Parenting paradigms shift with the times. My parents believed that it was healthy for their kids to strive to do better at all they did. You could ‘always do better.’ It’s a biblical message as well. The Bible discourages ‘boasting’ and humility is easier when you never get it quite right. The opposite parenting concept is the ‘esteem building’ when all the kid does is WONDERFUL! Isn’t he or she ‘fantastic’?! This is even a bigger curse in my view, producing unhappy, mediocre slackers without any goals to aspire to. The middle ground between these two is probably healthy. I think it is easier to recover from perfectionism than it is to suddenly adopt high standards. Artists need to learn to be easier on themselves, to respect their efforts and to shrug off the disappointment of never reaching the holy ground of the perfect painting. Most artists I admire learn to laugh it off, and to modify their obsessive self doubt with some attempts at esteem building. It is every adult’s job to recover from their parenting if necessary, then to redefine themselves to seek the wondrous spirit of the happy child. This job is even more important for the artist. Artists learn skills to gain control, then have to use those skills to relinquish control and to once more establish freedom in their work. Work has to become play again.
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The evolving nature of perfection
by Elsa Bluethner, Sunshine Hills, BC, Canada
Do you not look at older works and find ways to improve them? Do you not see older works and wish you had never let them out of your sight? Did Degas not take completed paintings off his patron’s walls back to his studio to rework them?
Often, when I paint something ‘new,’ I find I am quite pleased with it. When I show it to my mentor and he makes recommendations or suggestions, I see it with a fresh eye and new knowledge and realize it’s not as good as I thought. Some paintings I am pleased with today may yield different reactions in the cold grey light of dawn. In some that I did months prior (and didn’t know how to fix), it becomes blatantly obvious what needs to be done. A few still remain my preferred works and I have no desire to perfect them. Ones that tend to be over brushed, overworked, and just plain ugly, usually fall in the paint-over pile and are merely an exercise, a study or an experiment. I have probably never painted a masterpiece, yet, working towards achieving proficiency with technique and the tools will propel me to produce more creative and personalized work. That’s the ‘perfectionism’ I’m guilty of.
The work’s the thing
by Marv Skelton, Richmond, BC, Canada
One way to tell if a person is a perfectionist is to ask him what he thinks of his work. If he/she constantly replies, if they were to do it again they would do this or that differently, that is a sign of wanting perfection. Nothing is perfect for these people, yet they keep trying to obtain an unobtainable goal. I like your approach better, just do it. To me the best thing about painting is, I can create a piece of junk and still have a good day.
The insights of Kenny Werner
by Lindakay Rendina, CA, USA
I just wanted to share a book that an acting coach of mine turned me on to. It will help anyone with the plight of perfectionism. Although it is written mainly for jazz musicians, the content is just as applicable to artists of all mediums: writers, actors, painters, musicians, sculptors, etc. Anyone wanting to create from within and achieve a sense of total self-acceptance.
The work is that of Kenny Werner, a jazz pianist. The book/CD is called Effortless Mastery. He has also produced 2 DVDs, where he gives talks and goes through the process that is in the book.
I hope you post this because I have been using the book and DVD and find it to be an amazing and very simple approach to overcoming self-judgment, perfectionism, doing it “RIGHT,” making it look good, etc. He is also very entertaining to listen to.
Examining ‘THE AREA’
by Robert Borbas, Salt Spring Island, BC, Canada
OK, so I know I am guilty! Why do I overwork passages? As I stand back to evaluate an ongoing piece, whether I use distance or a mirror or standing on my head (not really, I do invert the piece when size allows), my eye immediately goes to THE AREA.
From now on, instead of jumping in because my brain says there is work to be done here, I shall explore why my eye is drawn to THE AREA. It may be a result of value, colour, shape, line, etc. It may only be a result of an intentional focal point.
When my eye is drawn, my brain says, justify yourself to THE AREA. It asks for explanation. Now here is where it gets tricky. Perhaps THE AREA should be accepted as a special invitation to the viewer to explore and interpret for himself. My ego gets in the way wanting to direct the viewer to see THE AREA the way I see it.
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Going for the enchantment
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
I am no stranger to overworking a painting even though I am by no means trying to achieve perfection. This happens when I get a mental image of a scene that charms me, but the idea consists more of an enchantment than of a visual image. Since I am a realist, it’s not hard to guess what happens when I try to paint something that doesn’t visually exist. As I paint, I am playing a guessing game trying to figure out what enchanted me about the scene… it’s thrilling until the painting can’t bear any more guessing. I am learning to use this approach as experimental and not expect that a finished piece will necessarily show up at the end.
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Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT)
by Angela Treat Lyon, Kailua, Hawaii, USA
In this week’s letter, you write, “These conditions and their sources need to be understood, analyzed and forgiven. While counselling may be necessary, vigorous introspection is often a good course.”
Unfortunately, in my experience as someone who helps people with these challenges, I’ve seen that more often than not, introspection, analyzation and self-control are not enough. And forgiveness isn’t possible until the emotional charge of the situation has been disabled or transformed into another perspective.
These emotional patterns, or rackets, as you mentioned, are most times so deep-seated as to be invisible to the conscious mind. Thus, no introspection will find it; analyzation becomes just more talk about it but not healing it; and self-control only adds to the “I’m not good enough” when the control fails and the deeper feelings leak all over the place.
I’ve been a business success coach now for 10 years, and my main tool is EFT (the Emotional Freedom Techniques — I have seen it mentioned here once in a while) to help business owners, entrepreneurs, health practitioners, artists and performers dig up and turn around their self-hatred, lack of confidence, fears, anxiety, etc. (esp. around money and marketing!). These emotional tangles slow them down and stop them from expanding the success of their endeavors.
I teach them how to use the tool so they won’t be dependent on me, and when they really get it that they can use it for just about anything — well, it’s more than an amazing gift to be able to see the transformation in their lives on all levels.
It’s the only self-help tool I’ve seen that really does allow people to help themselves. Once one learns how to use it, it’s the key to the resolution of many patterns and rackets, allowing emotional freedom in the form of confidence, calm, and self-assurance to come in place of emotional, mental and physical pain.
When I was first introduced to it, I used it to completely eliminate — in a mere 6 weeks’ time — the pattern of suicidal thinking that had plagued me for over 35 years. As an artist, those thoughts and buried feelings completely devastated my life. Of course it’s been a long journey of finding the other little tendrils of thought-habit after that initial conquest, but instead of it being work and drudgery, my life and quest to snag and heal those little patterns has turned into a marvelous adventure — an attitude I’d have sneered out loud about if you had told me before that I would have it. What a relief.
Just ‘being with’ or trying to control or thinking about these patterns ain’t nuff. So I created a free how-to site for people interested in ditching their fears, anger, sadness, perfectionism, procrastination — whatever — by using this tool, if anyone is interested. The info on the site is not the be-all end-all magic one-time pill — it’s an intro to how to use a tool that is to be used on a long-term, life-freeing basis.
I recommend it to everyone — hence the name — EFT in Every Home. If I could have one wish, I’d wish that EFT was taught to all parents and in every school across the planet from the lowest grades and up.
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Reservation Road Red
pastel painting 20 x 16 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 Simon Reid of London, England, who wrote, “The error of perfection comes from the innate human desire of wishing to give too much. In art, less is more.”
And also Dustbuster who wrote, “The time to think about stopping is when you see yourself reaching for the smaller brushes.”
Enjoy the past comments below for The plight of perfectionists…