Biting back at the tyranny of perfectionism

Frustrated artist
Portrait of the artist seeking perfection
Watercolor on Yupo

Blogger Drew at the Skinny Artist recently posted about the perils and paralysis of perfectionism. The kind of perfectionism that keeps painters from painting, writers from writing, and musicians from musicking. You probably have felt it: the need to make sure everything is just so before beginning, working on, or finishing a piece of work. It can be a problem for creatives. It can keep us from accomplishing our goals, telling our stories, meeting deadlines, and making our dreams come true.

I know, I know, it’s hard to let go of the tyranny of perfectionism. I work at freeing myself from it constantly. But it’s possible to break those chains. Here 8 simple bullet point items that work for me.

1. Just start. Fear of failure can derail my creative train before it ever gets out of the station. But come on. It’s art, not mass transportation; if I go off the artistic tracks, nobody dies. Truly. So I chug ahead by doing something. Anything. I copy a Bargue plate; study how to draw a particular body part (right now I’m doing knees); make some color charts; even—when I’m least inspired—drag a brush or pen across a piece of paper just to make some marks. It often sparks an idea and stokes that creative choo-choo.
2. Do a lot of work. Everyday. With plenty of work going on, I don’t end up hunched over one painting hissing “my precioussss”. I’ve got other fish to fry. If a particular painting isn’t working, I move on to something else for a while.
3. Make a mistake early in the process. I work in watercolor, and we all know how hard it can be to correct an errant  . Rather than live in fear that I’ll ruin my perfect piece, I often deliberately make a mistake, just to get it over with so I can paint in peace.
4. Forge ahead and find those mistakes. As an artist, I’m an explorer. I’m seeking the fountain of eternal personal vision, but along the way I’m sure get stuck in the bog of bad brushstrokes, or lost in the desert of dumb ideas. My job is to find those places too; while slogging through them, I’m also mapping them. Who knows? There might be something there I’ll need in the future.
5. When the inner critic starts blathering, change the station. Sometimes there’s a reason to listen to that gremlin, but usually there’s not. When mine starts to cackle in glee at a mistake, I shut him out by thinking of my past teachers, and imagining that they’re standing at my shoulder helping me out of a sticky situation (fortunately I’ve only ever had wonderful, supportive teachers).
6. Let it go. Take a breath. Turn the work to the wall. Go eat some cookies. When you come back to the work, you might discover the fix for any mistakes that have been bugging you. Or you might just discover that you are, in fact, finished, and ready to take what you’ve learned from this work on to the next.
7. Embrace rejection. I once asked a magazine editor friend how she dealt with the constant rejection of her ideas at story meetings. She laughed. “Ideas are cheap. I come up with a hundred of them everyday. Most of them get rejected; I don’t take it personally.” So, go back to #2 in this list. Or move on to #8.
8. Did I say work? Yeah. Work some more. Sleep. Then get back to work. Over the years I’ve noticed that many of the successful artists I admire don’t really have time for existential angst over perfectionism. They don’t have time to, well, spend a lot of time obsessing. Painters pick up the brush and paint; writers sit down at the computer and write. My fiddler takes up his fiddle and plays. There might be angst contained in the process, and they always try to do their best, but the work? It gets done.

**Disclaimer: Understand that I’m just whistling in the dark here. But the thin tune I’m singing can bolster my courage and gumption to get over that fear of failure. Because really, the game may be a foot, but still, it’s all in the mind. 

Get to work.