“The way to be happy,” said Winston Churchill, “is to find something that requires the kind of perfection that’s impossible to achieve and spend the rest of your life trying to achieve it.” I’ve always liked that idea — it’s one of the main reasons why painters keep coming back to their studios and squeezing out.
But, as most of us know, perfectionism has its problems. Some of us don’t handle it very well. Current study identifies some folks as “adaptive perfectionists” while others are “maladaptive perfectionists.” It seems that some of us use the ideal of perfection as a healthy route toward excellence, while others are stymied and made dysfunctional by the thought of it.
Accepting the inevitable proposition that striving for your own idea of perfection is going to take you down a long and bumpy road of frustration, here are a few ideas:
Turn on your experimental mind. Everything is an assay. Be inventive and prepared to be surprised.
Do not at first commit yourself to onerous or impossible projects with too many potential pitfalls.
Be aware that disappointment and failure are stepping stones to satisfaction and success.
When something you do gives you joy, go once more (and perhaps again and again) in that direction.
Do not beat yourself up when you fall down. There is no vendetta. Dust yourself off. Be practical.
Know that perfection is just an ideal and that notes, colours, forms, designs, etc., can only approach that ideal.
Avoid exposure to potential critics until well along on a project. Don’t let anyone prematurely pop your balloon.
Be philosophical. The happiest people take an “agnostic” approach where curiosity and questioning give more joy and stimulate more wonder than pat answers. We live our short spans in the vortex of a miracle, and while we may not be the center of that vortex, it is magic to be anywhere in there. Be happy! The gods insist on it. The philosophers can find no higher ideal. The pursuit of it is written in the US Constitution. It’s the pursuit that matters.
PS: “For adaptive perfectionists, the divide between their high standards and actual performance may serve as a motivator. But for maladaptive perfectionists, that gulf becomes insurmountable, creating anxiety and self-doubt that can be demotivating.” (Sue Shellenbarger)
Esoterica: On the daily pathway of pushing brush, or any other creative task, we encounter potholes and obstacles that contrive to dim our forward vision. Back up. Clean off. Start again. Re-think. Ask again. Push aside. Jump over. Retrace. Shove on. Fact is, a great deal of satisfaction is to be had by chopping aside a fallen log from a trail. And when all else fails, bed and sleep give promise of a fresh working day tomorrow. “Sleep that knits up the raveled sleeve of care,” said William Shakespeare. He may have been fretting how to advance a plot. Really now, is there anything more important? Or anything that has the potential to make us happier?
Perfection not needed
by Phil Chadwick, Southampton, ON, Canada
Perfection is over-rated. Who decides what is perfect anyway? I don’t like to empower anyone else with that kind of authority. I am not even qualified to make that weighty decision! If I am happy, isn’t that all that really matters? I find if I try to make something better, supposedly closer to perfection, I typically mess it up. My imperfect perfection tends to be the accidental strokes that happen outside, surrounded by inspiration. I don’t wear my reading glasses when I paint. I don’t want to see the obvious imperfections. Maybe I have just contracted “OLD” and thus cease to care what others think of my art and painting perfection. Just let me paint… I mean well.
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Value of chance and change
by Iskra Johnson, Seattle, WA, USA
As a professional calligrapher and lettering designer I am a card carrying perfectionist. This is utterly necessary in my work in advertising design and publishing. Typography is an unforgiving world. In my life as a fine artist the perfectionist streak can be a crippling liability. I began as a watercolorist, carrying over my calligraphic training into a painting discipline that takes no prisoners. Love of the whiteness of paper and the perfect brush stroke almost killed me.
To recover I had to open my mind to the complete messiness of other mediums and learn to paint knowing I would scrape it all off as part of the process. Only then could I begin to learn composition and image making — which can be quite different from “painting-making.” My psychological liberation came with reading John Cage’s book, Silence, which has been my go-to bible ever since. I have incorporated his ideas of chance, change and the way of making one’s own “rules” to compose by, and can bring about a transformative order and magic to the process. I do a lot of my photocollage in Photoshop. I welcome the software’s infinity of ways to reconsider value, to reorder layers, to test and retest and ease back with command z’s — the generosity of this technology can open my mind, loosen my preconceptions and lead to much better and more surprising work.
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Habits of perfectionists
by Peter Trent, Hawkesbury, ON, Canada
I read an article in the weekend Globe and Mail (Toronto) “Why Can’t Perfectionists Break the Habit?” in respect of the subject of perfection and I wondered how long it might be before you used that as a theme for your column; you haven’t disappointed!
The article is so pertinent to many of us (well, me anyway!), as I am about to embark on a new painting tonight and I am struggling with, Should I do this one? but it’s beyond my current skill level, or that which is a doodle, but — people (or if you prefer, they) say one should reach beyond, yada, yada — and I don’t want to fail — (I suspect that my ego would take a real beating — blah, blah ) so yes, an interesting article and good food for thought. Thank you for your comments because they made this evening’s choice easy!
(RG note) Thanks, Peter. Yes, the article is excellent. Readers can find it here.
Perfection invites paralysis
by Cristy West, NW Washington, DC, USA
Today’s letter hit home, embroiled as I was in a maddening struggle with a new painting that wasn’t coming together. Your discussion also inspired me to dig out a pertinent quote, from Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland:
“The perfect is the enemy of the good — To require perfection is to invite paralysis. The pattern is predictable: as you see error in what you have done, you steer your work toward what you can do perfectly. You cling more tightly to what you already know you can do — away from risk and exploration, and possibly further from the work of your heart. You find reasons to procrastinate since to not work is to not make mistakes. Believing that artwork should be perfect, you gradually become convinced that you cannot make such work. (You are correct.) Sooner or later, since you cannot do what you are trying to do, you quit. And in one of those perverse little ironies of life, only the pattern itself achieves perfection — a perfect death spiral: you misdirect your work; you stall; you quit.
The seeds of your next work lie embedded in the imperfections of your current piece. Such imperfections (or mistakes if you’re feeling particularly depressed about them today) are your guides — to matters you need to reconsider or develop further.”
So I guess I’ll just have to jump back into the muck of it all and see what happens next!
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Tempering perfection with ‘the shadow’
by Helena Tiainen, Berkeley, CA, USA
In the western world we are in general brought up to concentrate on the happy and positive to a degree that the negative or so-called shadow side has no choice but to raise its head in a mostly thwarted fashion. The shadow can be a great ally when accepted as a necessary part of the whole in this world of duality. Your point about looking at disappointment and failure as stepping stones to satisfaction and success reflects true wisdom. Our emotions always reflect our desires. When our life experience does not meet our desires, we are let down. And since feeling let down most of the time simply does not feel good, happiness flies out the window. I think hence the pursuit of no desire in Buddhism.
Yesterday, I was feeling some physical pain and decided to try a different approach from my usual. Instead of fighting it, I decided to go toward it and embrace it. After a while the pain went away. I am not sure if this was due to my newly found approach or not, but in any case, the whole process was more pleasant when I decided to own it. Perhaps it is possible to learn new ways of interpreting and reacting to so-called negative experiences. Perhaps there truly is a blessing in everything, no matter how terrible it might seem at first glance and experience. There is much to be said about how we may be conditioned to react and re-react to our reactions. Maybe the only difference between a person who is stopped by a challenge and one that is motivated by it, are the questions that they are willing to ask themselves and the openness of their approach. I personally think that it is wise not to take oneself too seriously. An open mind always seems to work better and a touch of innocence is mostly refreshing.
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Popping a kid’s balloon
by Megan McLean, San Diego, CA, USA
The other day, while at the St. Paul Art Crawl, I noticed one of the artists had a display of kids’ art which took up an entire wall in her small studio space. I asked if she taught art and she replied that the art was made by her kids and some of their friends, who wanted to be part of the Art Crawl. She added that she really loves to encourage children who have any kind of interest in art.
I told her about my niece, Michelle, who recently had a very bad experience while meeting with an art school rep. The woman was highly critical of everything Michelle showed her, including a piece that had been selected from hundreds of high school entries for a special art show. Michelle was proud of that piece and the woman verbally trashed it. She advised Michelle to pursue other interests and forget about trying to be something she’s not. Michelle, who’s only 17-years old — still just a kid — was terribly hurt by that woman’s “advice.” It really damaged her self-image and made her feel that she can no longer pursue her passion for art.
The artist, who’d been busy painting while we were talking, put down her brush and listened very intently. She then told me about winning first place at an art contest when she was a kid. One of the judges came up to her, after she received the award, and advised her that, even though she’d won first place, she really wasn’t very talented and should only consider making art as a hobby — not as a career. She was devastated by those words. She’d always wanted to be an artist when she grew up and thought the judge’s “advice” was the end of that dream. It took her a long time to get her mojo back but now she makes her living as an artist. And, in my humble opinion, a very talented one at that.
She also told me that, over the years, she’s heard many stories from people about how much they once loved to make art until some unkind or thoughtless remark hurt their confidence to the point that they stopped. What a terrible shame!
It makes me wonder what it is about some people that they feel the need to burst a young person’s bubble like that. Do they think there’s some kind of artistic “tone-deafness” that can’t be overcome with any amount of training or perseverance? Do they think they’re being cruel to be kind? Or, saving the world from sub-standard art?
And, what about those budding artists who are so wounded that they’re unable to regroup and move forward… what words of advice can undo that kind of damage and rebuild their confidence? I wish I knew because I think my niece already is an artist. I’ve been friends with and worked with dozens of artists over the years, and I think Michelle’s one of the most naturally — seemingly effortlessly — creative people I’ve ever known. I think she shows great potential that, but for a thick skin or an “I’ll show you” attitude, may never be realized.
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Getting out of the box
by Robin Shillcock, Groningen, Netherlands
In wholehearted agreement with what you recently wrote in response to Catherine Stock’s call for help — it’s all there and may help to push her work in the right direction. My first thought upon seeing examples of her work was: complete lack of light. Notwithstanding a level of accomplishment, her paintings don’t give the feeling that I am looking at real people, with bodies that occupy space, have weight, are touched by light, and create shadows. Her high-key palette excludes the opportunities of chiaroscuro. I’m supposing she paints her portraits as commissions and wouldn’t be surprised to hear that she has a degree of success, because I’m sure there are people who would like to see their loved ones so delicately captured for posterity.
Using chiaroscuro need not only imply using stark effects of light and shade. It could be applied toned-down or toned-up, in which contrasts are grouped in other extremes of the value range. It could also mean making use of more unexpected lighting effects, like the afternoon sun striking below the heads of a sitter, which would certainly add a little mystery to a portrait, besides giving it a sense of time and place.
Light, in itself a “Deus ex machine,” offers endless possibilities in giving life to a painting. Being stingy with light may offer opportunities like putting the sitter completely in the shade and letting reflected light define shape and character, no doubt a more perilous course to take when working on commissions.
I find that many portrait painters remain too much within “the box” — wholly understandable, because they pay the bills by reproducing not only the sitter but also themselves in each subsequent painting. But there are also great exceptions to this rather boring rule: artists who manage to bring freshness and a new interest to the art of portraiture.
About the letters
by Lea Lyon, Richmond, CA, USA
I absolutely loved this post of yours. It came at a perfect time. Besides the quote from Winston Churchill, are the rest of the words yours? Brilliantly written. I’m printing it and putting it on my bulletin board.
(RG note) Thanks, Lea. People write here every day and ask if I write my Twice-Weekly letters myself. I do. Except for the quotes. Sometimes I start with a quote and work backwards, but most often the material is just taken from my daily life of painting. And when that lets me down, I always find great questions and ideas from fellow artists in my email. I’ll tell you, Lea, I just love writing these letters. I love making a contribution to the lives of others and I like to keep aware of who I am and what I do.
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Enjoy the past comments below for Perfect happiness…
Featured Workshop: Kathleen Carrillo
Morning at Germich Farm
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 Gary Eddington of Baltimore MD, USA, who wrote, “My card reads… ‘Creating the illusion of perfection since 1965’ As long as illusion is the goal I can find some peace in my work.”
And also Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki of Port Moody, BC, Canada, who wrote, “People often accuse me of perfectionism and at the same time point out all the mistakes I am making. Most of the time I am not bothered by either. BTW weren’t Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong perfect? George Carlin was once again a visionary.
And also Sr. Mary Francis G. who wrote, “In your Resource of Art Quotations I found a section on Perfectionism with 139 quotes. ‘Indiscriminate pursuit of perfection infallibly leads to mediocrity.’ (Henry Fuseli) Thank you.”