Perfectionism can be a creativity roadblock. It’s a behaviour that feels productive by endeavouring to improve artwork, but can subconsciously be a mechanism to protect against the fear of not being good enough. If we make it the best possible version, we avoid potential criticism and become worthy of praise. The problem is, there is no best possible version when the bar of expectation is so high you can’t even see it. If the bar is too high, you will never be able to reach it, therefore you’ll never be done perfecting. Danny Gregory in Art Before Breakfast explains the behaviour of fiddliness, a kind of perfectionism as “Constant reappraisal, erasing, tweaking, reconsidering… Never done, never good enough.”
Perfectionism doesn’t work well with creativity because it leaves no room for the unexpected, unanticipated and beauty held within mistakes, mess and failure. Gregory talks about the problems in trying to plan art in advance: “You think you can conceive the destination before you embark on the journey… and that nothing else can intrude and change the outcome you have conceived. But, first of all, the world doesn’t work that way: unless you are doing something extremely simple and banal… it will invariably intrude and change your will-laid plans. And, second, you should welcome that intrusion. The accidents, mistakes, serendipities, and ink spatters that the universe throws in your path make you work and your life more interesting. Perfection isn’t organic. It’s constipated, lifeless, and dull.” Is it your goal to make lifeless and dull work? That might actually be the result of any fiddliness and perfection-focused tendencies.
One antidote to perfectionism is setting a goal to make the biggest quantity of art in the time available and let go of all other expectations around quality or the visual outcome of the art—it doesn’t have to look good or be appealing to the eye. Make lots of art, make it quickly and move onto the next piece quickly. Don’t give your perfection behaviour space to reflect on the art—make it and move on.
If reality isn’t neat and tidy and fits together perfectly, why expect any art you make to be the same? Why is there such a focus on making things neat and colouring within the lines? Can we not have a title space in our lives to explore messy and imperfect, a space with no expectations and an abundance of freedom? It’s a choice we can choose before picking up a pen to make art, one that will help you kick your creativity up a notch.
Danny Gregory in Art Before Breakfast suggests that “Reality isn’t neat and tidy and compartmentalizable. It has infinite variations and details, and that’s what makes it beautiful. Making art slows us down enough to see the details, the wrinkles, the world within worlds.” We don’t always appreciate the wrinkles of life, but through studying our surroundings and daily life for inspiration, we can see beyond the obvious and known and find wrinkles to use in our art.
Why does it feel uncomfortable to make a ‘bad’ drawing? Does it really matter if a drawing isn’t any ‘good,’ if lines are wonky or in the ‘wrong’ place? What if there’s magic in the ‘badness’ of the art and in order to progress you had to first make a huge pile of bad drawings?
Danny Gregory in Art Before Breakfast encourages “Bad drawings are the best teachers. Every drawing has one great part, maybe just a line or a curve, a record of a moment when we were fully engaged. But we are not looking for perfection; we are seeking mistakes. If you somehow did knock out a perfect, near-photographic drawing, then what? What would it teach you, that hole in one? Would the journey be over?”
A hole-in-one drawing might theoretically seem like the best outcome, but it doesn’t leave any space to wander, explore and experiment. It’s those adjectives that make the creative process so interesting and rewarding. Why not try embracing the idea of making lots of bad drawings and see where the journey takes you.
Could your version of what art is be limiting your creativity? If you believe you need talent and skill to get started making art, think again. If you place “art” high up on an unreachable pedestal, it will be harder to fight the disappointment if your art falls short and that disappoint might eventually discourage you to try again. Let’s be honest, most artwork will fall short of a masterpiece atop an unreachable pedestal!
Danny Gregory in Art Before Breakfast explains the difference between capital “A” Art and small “a” art: “Art with a big “A” is for museums, galleries, critics and collectors. art with a small “a” is for the rest of us… Art takes Art School and Talent and years of Suffering and Sacrifice. art just takes desire and 15 minutes a day.”
If you have the desire and 15 minutes a day then you too have permission to make something. Get rid of your pedestals by embracing the small a of art.
The thing about writing ideas down is they move from being a thought, to physically existing. It becomes tangible, held down on paper and unable to escape (unless of loose the paper). What if you wrote down every interesting idea the moment it appeared? What if you sat down for a moment during each day and actively thought of new ideas and then wrote those down? Would the capturing of ideas down on paper help inspire your art-making? Absolutely – intentionally creating ideas gets the brain thinking creatively which helps feed inspiration and enthusiasm.
In the Art For All Podcast, Danny Gregory talks about intentionally creating ideas helps him get unstuck: “When I get stuck, I spend my personal project time making lists of ideas. Take half an hour early in the morning to just sit and brainstorm. Write down 10 ideas and then have breakfast. In a week I have 70 ideas. In the following week I have lots of things to start with. I have my big list of ideas.”
The list becomes a future mine of inspiration to pick from. One tiny thought could eventually grow into a bigger project. But in order to remember them, you must write ideas down asap because, like the wind, they can disappear as quickly as they arrive. Carry a small notebook (or make note on a phone) to collect every idea. It’s better to use a notebook compared to loose paper because everything will be automatically chronological and in one place, which will make it much easier for your future self.
While making art with no fixed rules or set objectives can be a freeing experience, sometimes you don’t know what to make next which can hold you back from starting anything at all. Setting yourself a project could help with getting unstuck because there’s a clear focus for making. When you know where you want to head, it makes it easier to make decisions along the way. And if the infinite possibilities of making anything feels too overwhelming, then a project approach to art making could be for you.
In the Art For All podcast, Danny Gregory and Ros Stendahl talk about the power of projects: “A project is a blueprint for your free time, a series of assignments that will add up to something grand when it’s done. But more important, will be really fun doing, getting there, making.” Stendahl explains “Whenever I do a project, I like to set parameters because I find that parameters not only focus you and make it more likely that you’ll achieve your goal of doing it every day, but they also help you discover more clearly what it is you’re looking for… you can create something substantial in a very brief time period.”
If you’re feeling even more adventurous, consider having multiple projects in the go at once. They could be similar and interlink or be vastly different and you rotate through working on them depending on your mood and interest each day. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Creativity describes how a E. O. Wilson “typically works on several projects at once, using different methods. This again is a common pattern among creative individuals; it keeps them from getting bored or stymied, and it produces unexpected cross-fertilization of ideas.”
One project or several, it doesn’t matter the number of projects so long as you find it a helpful approach to get you regularly making your art.
Have you ever sketched something to create a physical memory instead of just taking a photograph? Most likely you’ve more photos than sketches but drawing is something that can enhance your memory of past events and bring a richness to new experiences like travel.
Danny Gregory in the Art For All podcast ep 8, describes travelling somewhere new: “When I stop and study something new, it sparks ideas and I recognise new connections. I get insights into my own life by seeing how it differs from this new place and I learn not to take anything for granted. Just because we always do things this way doesn’t mean that’s the way you have to do it. So it allows me to kind of live life on more vivid terms.” Although travel is an enriching way to to experience new worlds, just by looking closer at your own neighbourhood, you open up to seeing things differently.
Gregory explains on a past Japan trip describes “I just wasn’t engaged and present. But drawing has changed all that. When you sit down and you draw something, all of your senses are on. Study Notre-Dame for half an hour and you’ll never forget it. Draw the plaza outside St. Peter’s Vatican and it will be severed into your brain cells. Not just the sights but the smells, the sounds the temperature – all of it. While I draw I’m experiencing life in super-high definition. Vacations are really expensive. You spend thousands of dollars on hotels and restaurants and museum admissions and they become even more costly when the memories that you’ve picked up, fade before your tan does. But I can open any of my travel sketchbooks and I’m instantly transported back to Florence, to Vienna, to Kuala Lumpur because the drawings that contain all those memories are there. They are encoded in ink and watercolor.”
Koosje Koene on the podcast agreed that “doing it [drawing] everyday and documenting certain moments and certain places, it is a way of taking photographs, only you use your pen.”
The idea that drawing can be even more effective at creating memories is something Juhani Pallasmaa discusses in a lecture on the thinking hand: “this multiple nature of the sketch… makes me remember vividly each one of the hundreds of scenes I have sketched during 50 years of my travels around the world. Whereas I can hardly recall any of the places I have photographed because of the weaker embodied recording in taking of photograph.”
If drawing helps us hold onto memories more effectively, perhaps we should consider picking up a pen instead of a camera more often.