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)
“Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.” (Confucius)
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.
“Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” (Joseph Campbell)
This letter was originally published as “Hyper-perfectionism” on May 1, 2009.
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“Regularity, order and the desire for perfection destroy art. Irregularity is the basis of all art.” (Pierre-Auguste Renoir)
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Los Angeles-based artist Lisa Chakrabarti works in a variety of media: oils, acrylics, pastels, watercolors, graphite and colored pencils. Focusing on a style she calls “romantic naturalism” – impressionism based largely on subjects in the natural world – her works have found their way into galleries in Los Angeles, Florida, Colorado and New York. In 1995, after being introduced to sumi-e and Chinese ink painting by Asian friends, Lisa became captivated by the apparent freedom and subtlety of this ancient medium. This shift in focus has informed her work ever since.