Overcoming perfectionism in drawing

by rufus0705 on April 15, 2012

I was talking to some other people who draw last week (none of us really likes the term “artist”) and we uncovered a funny secret stigma about erasers. A few of these folks thought that just having an eraser around when you were sketching meant you weren’t very good at it – because if you needed an eraser around then you must be making a lot of mistakes.

Guys – gals – we gotta talk.

There are two issues here. The first is the perfectionism. The second is that actually the eraser is an excellent drawing tool. For this post I’ll just stick with the perfectionism issue.

Perfectionism kills creativity. Unfortunately, even after wearing my special magic imperfection ring for over a year (to remind me to deliberately mess up sometimes, just to push against the yearning to be perfect), I still struggle with perfectionism. If you have major issues with procrastination, look to see how much perfectionism is interlaced with it. You may find that the secret to actually getting down to work is to decide that you are now going to draw a rotten drawing, or paint a rotten painting. You have to do this seriously, with gusto – it is most fun if you are determined to make something truly awful. Then, ten seconds later, you are actually working. Just don’t stop long enough to realize it.

Perfectionism and drawing are especially odd, because one of the most classic and used techniques for drawing – sketching – is pretty much about making a mess. No sketch is ever supposed to come out perfect. And, oddly enough, it is exactly this imperfection that makes most sketches so appealing.

So why, then, with all this evidence that imperfection is good, do I still have that cranky woman in the back of my head that tells me my drawings have to be perfect?

I don’t know. I guess its a love of excellence gone awry.

I wish I could banish this demand for perfection from myself and from everyone else who wants to draw. It really hurts us. It is the essence of “you’re not good enough” and that evil little thought makes too many of us much less likely to even try to draw.

But here’s another truth about imperfection. Most professional artists (though they may love perfection) are not afraid of making a mess. Of screwing up. Of doing an AWFUL drawing that deserves to be peed on by the cat. They just slog through. Have you ever studied Monet closely? He did dozens and dozens of paintings of the same subject. How many of us amateur artists has done a dozen drawings of the same subject? If we did summon the focus and will to do those dozen drawings, the odds are very, very high that we’d get our precious perfect drawing.

So we can have our perfect drawings. We just need to do the first eleven rotten drawings to get to our prize. Maybe this is the difference between the “good” and “bad” artists – good artists just plow through the awful drawings. They just keep sketching or painting or sculpting until the materials finally give in and – voila – perfection.

I’m not sure if this is patience, or focus, or determination. Its probably a mix of all three.

As you start pushing back against your perfectionism (and drawing those ugly, awful drawings that you are going to give to the cat to pee on), remember writers. Writers, even Shakespeare, do drafts of their work. Most of them do A LOT of drafts of their writing pieces, kind of like Monet’s dozen paintings. Maybe we should just see each awful drawing as a draft.

Also, by the way, even the awful drawings often have one little line that is very good. Find that one little line, celebrate, and then move on.

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