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!
Failure. It has multiple definitions but if we take “omission of occurrence,” then a failure is the lack of something happening. For example, you didn’t complete the art you intended. That doesn’t sound serious but we can make failure mean something much more heavy and dangerous – I am a failure. The mind complicate things by making it feel the stakes are higher than they actually are. The mind interprets failure as life-threatening and will try to avoid at all costs, which is why it feels so bad not to reach a goal. It’s trying to protect you from getting ‘hurt’ again. But picking up a pencil to draw is not life-threatening and ‘failing’ at making art is a vital tool in your art-making practice. How else are you going to improve as an artist and learn what you like visually?
Ken Robinson in Out of Our Minds talks about failure: “I asked the renowned chemist, Sir Harry Kroto, how many of his experiments fail. He said about 95 percent of them. Of course failure is not the right word, he said “You’re just finding out what doesn’t work,” Albert Einstein put the point sharply: “Anyone who has never made a mistake, has never tried anything new.” I don’t mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative but if you’re not prepared to be wrong, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever come up with anything original.”
Expect to fail, expect to make mistakes, expect that there is no perfect way to make art and if there was is would be boring and predictable. The joy of making art comes from making messy mistakes, being open to spontaneity and colouring outside of the lines. Safe and perfect sounds far less fun. Robinson encourages us that “A good deal of creative work, especially in the early stages of a project, is about openly playing with ideas, riffing, doodling, improvising and exploring new possibilities.”
Failure is a vital part of creativity and not something we should try to avoid. So when your overdramatic brain whispers “You’re a failure,” know that you’re on the right pathway to letting more creativity into your life. Thank your brain for its concern and then go make more creative mistakes.
It’s a challenge to let go of wanting to be good at something new and making art is no exception. It’s a very human trait to want to make only ‘good’ art. Our ego doesn’t like it when we make ‘bad’ work and so it’s not surprising if you feel like giving up right away. Invariably this robs you of the potential of improvement, but most importantly it robs the experience of having fun with your creativity.
One way to help you keep making art is to purposely make ‘bad’ art. Label it as your messy, unruly, unperfected bad art practice so you can focus on enjoying the process. The quality of your work is irrelevant because you’re seeking to make an arty mess! Your ego may still pop up to question what you’re up to but if it says your art is no good, you can reply “that’s exactly the point so I’m doing great!” You’ll be less likely to feel defeated if you give yourself freedom to make mistakes with enthusiasm.
Debbie Millman in a Creative mornings talk said “I’m not that good. I’m just really unwilling to give up.” Giving up is far more disappointing than making something bad because making bad art takes courage and choosing to continue the process allows your creativity to develop and grow in ways you haven’t yet imagined.
I do have to step back, take a breather, and realize that it is just a project and not the end of the world if it’s not perfect.” – Mary Kate McDevitt
The fragile process of beginning to make art again is hard for the ego, who wants to get everything perfect first time. Currently our culture encourages us to share our art with the world via social media. Why not share when you can get instant likes and feedback to encourage you to keep at it? But what if your audience isn’t enthusiastic? You feel proud you even finished making the thing but that feeling can feel squashed when someone says something even slightly critical.
You are your own worst critic and Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way discourages critiquing yourself too harshly because “Judging your early artistic efforts is artist abuse.” But it’s not just yourself you have to worry about when “beginning work is exposed to premature criticism, shown to overly critical friends.” A well-meant comment can feel like a pin to your enthusiasm balloon and questions about why you’re not spending your time on more ‘important’ things can feel confronting.
It may remind you of a past time when you received harsh criticism about your art and this might be enough to completely derail you from being creative. Your art is going to be unrefined in the beginning and you have to face that while you’re making it but do you really need less than supportive feedback from others? What if you chose to keep your art-making secret and made it just for you?
The idea of your art making being similar to a private diary or journal process is echoed in Felix Scheinberger’s book Dare to Sketch sketch-booking process: “My sketchbook is something very personal. I draw in it for me and not for others; I use it to describe my world and my life.” How making art for yourself is the goal and nobody else need be involved. “It’s your sketchbook and yours alone, and should matter to no one else. once you are aware of this, it becomes a lot easier to work on a sketchbook. You are not drawing for any presumed critics or admirers, but for yourself. You aren’t producing a presentation booklet, but a creative space that consciously allows for mistakes and experiments. Your sketchbook is not a public space. Protect it.”
Protecting it and keeping your art secret is a way to help your fledgling artist grow stronger and limiting anything that endangers that. Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic talks of having an affair with your art: “Let yourself fall in love with your creativity… and see what happens.” The idea of an affair being something that you undertake in secret, something you’d make sure was hidden from the world: “Sneak off and have an affair with your most creative self… Conceal it from your family and friends, whatever it is you’re up to.”
The idea of making art in the dark, away from any other eyes could be the freedom you need to unleash your creative spirit. By treating your sketchbooks and notebooks as a private journal, you allow your confidence and skills to grow stronger undisturbed.
“[Creative recovery] It is an awkward, tentative, even embarrassing process. There will be many times when we won’t look good – to ourselves or anyone else. We need to stop demanding that we do. It is impossible to get better and look good at the same time.” – Julia Cameron
If the way to get more creative is to practice regularly, a small sketchbook for mark-making or notebook for writing and idea-collecting is invaluable. But when you’re just starting out, a new book can feel intimidating. The pristine white, untouched paper, the potential of what you could fill the pages with when everything is still perfect in your head makes the first page feel more important than it actually is. “This page sets the tone for the whole book so it better be good!” You want to get it right – to write or draw something that is worthy of gracing the front page. And so you wait. You wait until you have an important enough reason or idea to make marks in your new book.
But of course, nothing will ever be good enough as the unspoilt newness of the paper will always triumph over your scrawled marks. This way of looking at it will keep you from using your book and you’ll be robbing yourself of the opportunity to make friends with this invaluable creativity tool.
How to overcome this?
To begin with only buy the cheapest books. The more money spent, the more precious it becomes because the ‘nicer’ the book, the less you’ll want to mess it up.
Write a title for the first page e.g. “My messy imperfect book” and set an intention that your book WILL include MANY bad marks, misspellings and mistakes.
Purposely make it the most messy, ugly or mistake-ridden page possible.
Ignore the first page completely and start on page 2 or even further in.
Whatever gets you regularly using your book to jot down ideas, doodles, words or start making art, do it! Don’t treat your book as fine china, only to be used once or twice a year, on “special” occasions. As Regina Brett says, “Burn the candles, use the nice sheets, wear the fancy lingerie. Don’t save it for a special occasion. Today is special.” Your book needs to be broken in ASAP because the sooner you dive in, the quicker you’ll get over being so precious (you’ll make bad marks and survive from it!) and the more often you’ll use it.
Sometimes when getting creative, we get caught up in judging our art before we’ve even finished making it. Focused on wanting to make something ‘good,’ we limit our potential by having such a low tolerance for ‘mistakes’. There is so much potential in making strange and weird marks, allowing for spontaneity and happy accidents, that making bad art is a way to get better a making good art. Sam Anderson suggests blind drawing is “the fastest way to break them out of old bad habits, to make them unlearn lifeless conventions.” As well as being “Joyful and meditative…you can do it anywhere, anytime, with any subject. It will flip you, like a switch, from absence to presence.” It’s a kind of active meditation where you let go of the outcome and get very still while drawing.
You will need: paper and a pencil or pen. Optional board or book to fix the paper to, if you find the paper keeps slipping.
Fix your gaze on your chosen subject and without looking at your paper, slowly draw what you see
Take your time to finish your drawing without looking at your paper
Kimon Nicolaides reminds us that “a contour study is not a thing that can be ‘finished.’ It is having a particular type of experience, which can continue as long as you have the patience to look.”
A couple of variations you can try:
close your eyes and draw from your imagination
set a timer and draw until it goes off
Place the paper within your peripheral vision so that it’s still fuzzy but you can see where your pen is in relation to the paper. This creates a sort of 1/2 blind drawing, allowing more control
Use your non-dominant hand to draw and either choose to look at what you’re drawing, or not. Be prepared for some fun mark making!
Your first attempt is likely to make you laugh because it will be so strange and bad but that’s exactly the point. Art should be about having fun and letting go. Blind drawing is a wonderful exercise in letting go, embracing bad art and getting clumsy like Piasso. But with practice comes improvement, more speed and confident according to Felix Scheinberger. “As strange as it may seem, blind contour drawing will teach you to observe more closely and to draw more confidently.”
“Lately I’ve been experimenting a lot with “un-perfecting” as a way to loosen up, embrace the grit, and explore new kinds of energy in my paintings. While a highly refined painting can certainly be lovely, I find raw, messy, human expression and experience to be incredibly compelling – and refreshing… One way to achieve this kind of less controlled look is to explore using your nondominant hand.” – Flora Bowley, Creative Revolution.