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.
When you try connecting to making art again as an adult, it can be tempting to rush out and buy a whole array of art materials. Many general art books and guides present a list of suggested materials but sometimes the lists can be overwhelming and long. Included can be various types of pen, inks, charcoals, paints etc. but you don’t need any of that to get started. Ironically, buying a whole pile of art materials could keep you from making any art at all. Because a pile of pristine and precious (perhaps expensive) materials could mean an expectation to make the art pristine and precious, which may be too much pressure for your fledgling marks.
Instead, start where you are with what you already have. Scan your home and surroundings for materials already available- biros, pens, pencils and paper. If the paper has already been used (think post, envelopes and shopping lists) could makes you feel less worried about ‘spoiling’ the surface, which creates freedom to make messy and imperfectly bad art.
It’s natural to want to experiment with different materials, but don’t be in such a hurry to buy everything new. Many materials may only be used a few times and unless you find something that really resonates with you, it could be an expensive exercise. The wonderful thing about getting creative is that you don’t need fancy materials to make something out of nothing. The mind and body are the best tools you’ll ever need.
Deciding to stop an art project because it’s not “good enough” is not a good reason to stop making. If everybody judged their art on its perceived visual value and aimed for perfection, no art would EVER get made. No art is ever good enough if expectations are too high to begin with. Unwittingly setting perfection as the goal sets you up for disappointment because whatever gets made will instantly fall short. A far better expectation is simply finishing the project, giving it your full attention but letting go of the art needing to look a certain way.
Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magicencourages “So if you can just complete something – merely complete it! – you’re already miles ahead of the pack, right there. You may want your work to be perfect, in other words; I just want mine to be finished.” Let go of perfection and embrace getting things finished. It’s a far kinder and gentle way to approach making art which may allow you permission to continue making imperfect art regularly.
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.
This experiment brings together collaging and quick drawing to create loose, playful images. This process allows you to break free of drawing ‘good’ by embracing a looser way to create images and allows you to focus on quantity over quality. While being learning to draw realistically–drawings that look almost as lifelike as a photograph–has its merits, it can be harder to achieve as an amateur which could halt your future creative enthusiasm and art practice. Lynn Whipple in Expressive Flower Painting suggests this exercise will help you to create marks with energy: “This is “in the moment,” “get out of the way,” “make yourself laugh” stuff… Make scribbles, scratches, and smudges. Make yourself laugh knowing that any way you do this exercise is 100 percent perfect. Approach your flower drawings with the curiosity of a child.”
You will need: flowers, paper, pencil crayons, scissors, glue or tape and a timer. Optional to use a plain pencil or pen instead of pencil crayons.
Set timer for 15, 30 or 60 seconds and quickly draw a flower with the pencil crayons within the allocated time.
Repeat the process multiple times. Experiment with using one or multiple colours to draw flowers.
Draw a vase using the same process as above
Cut out flowers and vase with scissors
From your pile of cut out flowers and vase, start arranging on a piece of paper. Play around with different layouts.
Once you’ve finished arranged your flowers, fix them in place with glue or tape.
If you don’t have flowers nearby to use as inspiration, find images from a book or online or use your imagination. Whipple suggests not looking at the paper while you draw (blind drawing) and use two hands to create: how will a two-handed drawing differ from using just one hand? How about if you tried using your non-dominant hand? This quick drawing method can also be applied to other themes:
Animals in a zoo
A family portrait of unusual looking people
A collection of aliens from outer space
An outfit for a haute couture fashion show
Things found at sea
Any collection of objects, people or greenery, the skies the limit!
If you find yourself still focusing on perfecting lines or trying to make it ‘perfect,’ try a shorter time frame. What would a flower look like drawn in 5 seconds? Lynda Barry in Syllabus encourages using time constraints: “There is a kind of calibration of what to include given the time constraints, and time constraints are vital in the beginning.” Barry explains the time constraint doesn’t allow space to think but instead allows “a natural kind of picture comes about.” How some of these pictures look like children’s drawings and adults don’t like that. But Barry argues “But what if the way kids draw — that kind of line that we call ‘childish’ — what if that is what a line looks like when someone is having an experience by hand? A live wire! There is an aliveness in these drawings that can’t be faked… that aliveness seems to come into me…. Real aliveness of line is hard to come by.”
“Children see magic because they look for it” – Christopher Moore
We’re taught to seek constant improvement, to work on our weaknesses and out-do our previous performances, because better is better… right?
Except it’s not better when making art is involved. How you feel making during the process IS the point. The fun of making something out of nothing, the sensory experience of using your hands and switching off your mind for a few precious moments in your day is worth gold. To reconnect to the part of you that enjoys making something just for fun, with no a hint of it needing to be productive or valuable far outweighs any incremental progress you’ll achieve.
You don’t NEED to get any better in order to continue making art. You have everything right now to make something from nothing and it’s even better if the art is messy and flawed. Why focus on impossible task of making everything perfectly if it doesn’t feel fun?
1. Carry a small notebook/sketchbook and pen/pencil wherever you go
Write down your ideas, make notes of things you like as soon as you see them, practice making art on the go or in fringe time that normally gets swallowed up looking at your phone. Get curious about your daily surroundings, mine your life and record your discoveries. The scrappier and cheaper it is, the more likely perfectionists will actually use it instead of keeping it ‘unspoilt’ in its perfect original state!
2. Make something everyday
Make something, ANYTHING to practice exercising your creativity muscle. If you can find a spare two minutes, then you have enough time to make something. If you think “what’s the point of only spending two minutes?” It adds up to an hour after a month and creates a small pile of art. Spending two minutes is better than spending zero minutes (especially if the myth of having to spend hours making art feels overwhelming and is stopping you from making anything at all).
3. Focus on quantity not quality
When you make art for yourself, you can let go of it needed to look ‘good.’ You’re not in school trying to please the teacher anymore. You get to make bad, messy and imperfect art because you ENJOY it. That’s the only important reason you need. By focusing on quantity, it helps to shift focus from worrying if you’re not doing it ‘right’. And when making quantity can actually accelerate creativity, quality can be so overrated.
4. Start making art right now
Don’t wait for the start of the year/month/week to roll round. Start NOW. You’ve heard you only need two minutes so pick up a pencil and paper and make some marks immediately!