Perfectionism – The Enemy of the Artist

Perfectionism and the artist
Do you ever feel like you are stuck in a work?

Do you find yourself not finishing a drawing or painting because it’s “not right”?

Do you frequently start over?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you are facing a mighty enemy – an enemy of the artist.

This enemy robs your productivity. It steals your creativity. It can make you question yourself as an artist. It can leave you feeling discouraged. It can ruin your artistic journey – if you let it.

Most artists have wrestled with this enemy at some point. The successful ones overcome it.

Know Thy Enemy

The enemy of the artist is perfection.

It will never be achieved in a work of art. Nor has it ever been achieved in any work of art that has ever been created.

If we approach the surface with an expectation of perfection – then we are doomed from the start. We will get stuck. We will not finish. We will start over.

Perfection is unattainable.

As soon as imperfection is accepted – or even embraced – then our work improves. Our growth is renewed because the restriction of “perfect” is lifted.

Ironically, it is the imperfections that draw most of us to creating. It is the imperfections that pull us into artworks – and make us stay there. The brushstrokes, the marks, the visible “hand” of the artist. It is all imperfect.

Artistic Excellence is Not Perfection

We should strive for artistic excellence, but not confuse this with perfection.  Perfection is unattainable.  Excellence is achievable.

The definition of excellence in a work is different for everyone.  Every critic, every artist, every person will define excellence on their own terms.  The only definition of excellence that matters to the artist is the one that they define for themselves.

"LHOOQ", Marcel Duchamp, 1919. Reproduced Post Card with Graphite
“LHOOQ”, Marcel Duchamp, 1919. Reproduced Post Card with Graphite

Excellence does not happen when perfectionism is in the way.  There are no excellent unfinished works.  Excellence occurs from study, practice, and execution.  Excellence is born from mistakes.

How to Defeat The Enemy

If you are one of the many artists that is struggling with perfectionism right now, let me offer an approach to defeat it.

1. Recognize That Your Work Will Never Be Prefect – You must first accept the notion that your work will never be perfect.  Not only accept this idea, but embrace it.  Remember, it is the imperfections that pull others into our work.

2. Finish Every Work – Make a commitment to yourself to finish every work that you begin.  Work through the imperfections, even with simple sketches in your sketchbook.  At all costs, form this habit.

3. Strive for Excellence, Not Perfection – Excellence is developed over time and only happens as mistakes are made.  Therefore, mistakes should be embraced – they are a sign that growth is happening.  Don’t ignore them, but allowing them to stop you leads nowhere.

You Are Not Alone

When the enemy rears its ugly head, remember that you are not alone.  We all struggle in our battles against it.  It is one of the biggest killers of creativity.  It is a powerful enemy – but one that can be defeated.

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Lesson Discussion

  1. I’m struggling with perfectionism since I was a kid. It sucks. I don’t know exactly what to do. I try not to be perfectionist, but the subconscious mind wants me to be perfectionist. Do you know any exercise which can help with it? Perfectionism is ruining my art.

    1. Hi Luiz,

      I know that this is frustrating. At least you know that it is hindering you. I’d make an effort to finish your works. Fight through and just finish. Put your work down for a couple of days and then return to it with fresh eyes. You’re likely to be more pleased with what you’ve created with a little mental break from it.

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