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Combating Perfectionism in Art

June 16, 2010

perfectionism in artThe folks over at theArtistsWhoTHRIVE Blog posted a great article a little while ago: Perfectionism Kills Creativity. If you receive my newsletter, you will have already seen it. If not, I suggest you read it!

This short but informative article suggests that quantity is more important than quality in an art practice, a sentiment I happen to agree with.

When it comes to art, quality follows quantity. That is, by producing lots of work, experimenting, trying new things and allowing yourself to make mistakes, you will inevitably improve your skills. If you’re bogged down with details, obsessed with perfectionism, you limit your own creativity.

Your job as an artist is not to produce good art, it’s to produce lots of art. By producing lots of art, you will thereby produce good art!

Okay, it’s a bit much to wrap your mind around, but once you do, it’s very liberating! Let me give you an example:

I am a huge perfectionist, a characteristic that is evident in my portrait work. Throughout the first three years of art school, I really struggled with my need to create perfect images. I was criticized for it and questioned my own creativity. It wasn’t until my fourth year that I was able to set aside my perfectionism and start producing a larger volume of work. That’s when my creativity really flourished and the ideas started flowing like crazy!

So how do we leave perfectionism behind and embrace our true creative natures? Well, it wasn’t easy for me and it probably won’t be easy for you!

For most people, perfectionism isn’t a switch in the brain that can just be turned off. You will likely need to implement strategies that help you subvert your natural tendencies. For me, this was a systematic destruction of my own creations. Because I knew that I would be destroying my work eventually, it didn’t matter anymore if it wasn’t perfect. This allowed me to make mistakes and work more quickly without trying to plan the end result.

So, what are some ways you can stop being a perfectionist? Here are a few ideas that I came up with.

Practical Ways to Subvert Perfectionism in Art

1. Paint with an extra large brush. Don’t allow yourself a small brush to paint details. Force yourself to contend with a too-large tool and simplify shapes.

2. Don’t use an eraser. Whatever you do, whatever mistakes you make, no erasers! Either live with the mistake, or find a way to fix it by continuing to draw.

3. Give yourself permission to make mistakes. Not in a vague and abstract sense, but in a concrete sense. State to yourself that you will make (and not correct) three mistakes in your next piece.

4. Make up rules that get in the way of your usual process. For example, you could decide that after completing the first parts of a painting, you will outline everything in bright orange. This gives you another element to contend with and will keep you from getting caught up in details too early.

5. Go big. Technical drawers (like myself) tend to work on smaller pieces and stay tightly focused on the subject. We use small tools and small actions to draw. Break away from this mindset by using a large piece of paper and drawing with big, expressive gestures.

6. Paint or draw without looking at your work. Do this in the beginning to get a looser feeling, then challenge yourself to make it work.

7. Try it “en plein air.” Take your easel outside and work from nature. This forces you to work faster and looser, and to simplify many of the details that are visible.

8. Give yourself a time limit. Gesture drawings are great for this. Challenge yourself to capture the essense of a subject in thirty seconds, one minute, or five minutes.

By using these and other strategies, you can begin to let go of any perfectionism that may be holding you back. When you don’t stress over every little detail in every little piece, you free up a lot of time to make more art.

Perfectionism on the Web

Perfectionism seems to be a hot topic among artists right now. Check out Itaya’s blog and Kirsty Hall’s blog for more thoughts and discussion on the topic of perfectionism.


What are your thoughts of and experiences with perfectionism? What are some strategies that you use to keep from stressing over details?


From → Art General

  1. I used to stress about my art so much, it over took the happiness that it gave when I could draw, so now I’ve organized my art into either concepts/ideas or finished pieces, even the unfinished concepts/ideas still are classed as art and often it’s the sketchy unfinished art that looks better and it has an energy to it.

    Once I feel like I am going to be too perfectionist in my art I back off and start another drawing or piece of art and come back to it or I don’t, if the ideas are there, then I just move on and start again, so more art does equal quality in the end….!

    Good post!

  2. Hi Miranda,

    Your site really looks great! I enjoyed this article and like your list to subvert perfectionism in art.

    I find that plein air painting really works because there is no time for fussing around with perfection – that’s part of the charm of an outdoor painting.

    Now if you only have list for subverting perfectionism in blogging – lol!


  3. Hi Miranda-
    Excellent ideas/advice for avoiding perfectionism/overworking a piece! There have been so many times when I thought a painting was unfinished or needed to be tweaked and someone liked it as-is! I guess that shows that each individual person will see your work in a different way; some want to have a fully completed piece, others want to “finish” it in their mind… also interesting how as artists we have in our mind’s eye how the finished piece should look- and get frustrated if it isn’t going the way we want. Sometimes these lead to advances in technique or a new style.
    Reminds me of the Toll House cookie story where the Toll House woman wanted to make chocolate cookies, but did not have cocoa powder so she subsititued chunks of chocolate in the dough assuming they would disperse and make a homogenous dark dough. Her lack of perfectionism led to the wonders of the chocolate chip cookie…

    Love your work!

    Dena Tollefson

    • That sounds like a good system, Wayne. You know when there is no happiness left in your art that it’s time to change something up! Thanks for sharing.

      No cures for the perfectionist blogger, Lori, sorry! Although I do think perfectionism has its place, and maybe blogging is one of them?

      Dena, perfectionism aside, I also have a tendency to overwork my paintings. I always think there’s one last little tweak and as soon as it’s finished, I realize that I’ve ruined it! I’ve never heard teh Toll House cookie story, but I love it!

  4. I paint with friends on a regular basis. Some are experienced, such as my sister who has been painting as long as I have, and some have never picked up a brush before. I always tell people “Art” is all of the mistakes you make while making “Art”. It’s all about having fun, not getting stressed. I love figuring out how to fix mistakes – it usually turns into a technique I’ll use on purpose in the future.

    • Hey Jen! I agree, making mistakes is the best way to develop new techniques. It’s all about being aware of what you’re doing and how you’re correcting yourself. Your painting group sounds like a lot of fun!

  5. Oy. Perfectionism. It’s so bad for me that I am to the point where I am so crippled by it that I just don’t make work at all! I know it will be a struggle for me to do so but I will try your tips. Thank you!

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