Artist Insights is a series where I answer questions from members of the community. Recently I was asked,
My question regards perfectionism. Have you dealt with so — and if so — what do you do to overcome?
Sarita, this is a great question, thank you for asking it.
If you are regularly visiting my website or community over on Artist Strong, you’ve likely heard me describe myself as a recovering perfectionist. As a child, if I earned anything less than an A plus or A in my classes, I sincerely thought I was a failure and unworthy. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it also really meant I thought I wasn’t worth loving, either. It got so bad my mom made sure to tell all of my teachers about it during conferences because she was so worried about me.
Today, it’s translated into a huge drive to achieve. I want to aim for and reach goals all the time because it still is the main way I derive self-worth. And it’s also why I’m so darn tired this year.
In 5th grade I was introduced to the idea that sometimes you can’t meet expectations and in fact, can do better work when you don’t. I talk about it here. Weirdly enough though, that memory only recently surfaced and has become a huge reminder to me that sometimes rules, expectations and achievement can take us away from the very things we care about.
When I used to make art, I started with a clear idea in my head and expected myself to match that idea perfectly. Then finally, one day, I thought: what if that idea is only the starting point? What can my artwork become if I give it room to grow while I make it?
That happened specifically with my portrait of Frida Kahlo. She came to me in glimpses in a dream. I did a sketch. And then I painted, without a clear end goal, but with the goal of keeping the spirit of the original image in my mind. And it was the first time, IN A LONG TIME, that I really enjoyed the process. My inner critic was quieter, and I created a stronger artwork.
That was the moment I decided to spend more time trusting the journey of making and that it’s okay I don’t have a clear outcome in mind when I start. And that often, the clear outcome I imagine is not as good as the finished work!
I know so many people inside the Artist Strong community who tell me they don’t feel they are good enough because they can’t draw or paint exactly what they imagine. This is everyone’s collective perfectionist idea of what it means to be a good artist. And guess what: I’ve NEVER matched exactly what I imagine. And my work is better for it.
In my current series Anonymous Women, I have never started with a clear image in mind. I’ve started with laying out my composition, then asking the lady in the painting, “what do you want next?” It’s been a great way to separate from that inner perfectionist trying to control everything. It’s allowed me to relax and trust the intuitive part of my process. And the more I do it, the stronger my work becomes.
I don’t know if I will ever truly overcome the perfectionist tendencies I have in my life, but recognizing them, catching myself when it happens, and having strategies to work with them and around them have helped me make better art.
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