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Puncturing Perfectionism

Updated: Sep 8, 2019

Perfectionism murders creativity.

I used to be a perfectionist, and thought it was a good thing until it blocked my art. Perfectionism is a form of control; a desire to control and force outcomes. It also leaves no room for interpretation, expressionism, or spontaneity.

Perfectionism would have us be precise, perfect and spotless, while creativity would have us be messy, uncontrolled, loose and colorful!

As artists, we need to allow ourselves to play and be imperfect. Nature is imperfect, and beauty lies in those imperfections. Think of how beautiful a cloudy sky is at sunset, much prettier than a clear sky.

When I teach classes, I encourage new artists to strive for "Impressionism not Perfectionism!"

Here are a few tips for puncturing perfectionism:

· Set the mood…Turn off the cell phone, ignore all distractions, play your favorite music, make sure you are well rested and well fed!

· Let go of producing a masterpiece…give yourself permission to play, to try an experiment, to build on “happy accidents” and not take yourself or your work too seriously.

· Paint Fast and accurately. When you focus on the task of painting, it keeps your “inner critic” busy and allows your right brain to get into the spiritual flow. In other words, you get out of your own way!

· Be teachable! When we are open and teachable, we are looking at our work honestly and seeing the both the mistakes and the parts that really work. Be able to give your art an honest self-appraisal, and build upon the strengths while minimizing the weaknesses. If your not sure what they are, ask an artist that you admire to honestly critique your work.

· Accept where you are... You are not going to instantly be good, or instantly get it. Its going to take a while and be a process. Each painting is a stepping stone to the next, an opportunity to grow and improve. Don’t have expectations or “should” on yourself.

· Paint for yourself… My biggest problem is I often “overthink” a painting, and paint something to sell, or to pander to a particular judge, or because “boats are selling” or a myriad other things that are not part of being true to my own inner artistic vision. Your paintings won’t look exactly like mine, or anyone else’s they are yours and you have your own inner vision. Honor it!

Tips from other artists


If you're left-handed, put your brush in your right hand, and if you're right-handed, put it in your left. It'll feel awkward and you won't be able to paint as precisely as you can with your dominant hand. This lack of co-ordination also means that you can't get into that automatic paint mode where your brain says "I know what an apple [for example] looks like" and you paint an idealistic apple rather than the one in front of you.


Well, not complete darkness, but in reduced light where you can't see every last bit of detail. Try lighting a still-life with a strong lamp from one side (oblique light). Or if you can't change the light, squint your eyes so the lights and darks in your subject become stronger.


Our brains are quite adept at filling in missing details, so you needn't put down every single thing. Take a long hard look at your subject, trying to decide which are the essential bits. Put down these only, and then decide whether you want more detail or not. You'll be surprised at how little can be necessary to capture the essence of something.


Objects are three-dimensional, they don't have outlines.

If you're unsure about this, look at your body and see if you've got an outline or if you're 3-D. You do have an 'edge' when you look at e.g. your leg, but as you move, so this changes. Instead of drawing an outline (or painting one) and then filling it in, paint the object as a whole.


Load your brush with lots of dripping color and let it run down the surface of your painting as you apply it to the 'right' place. Don't tidy up the drips. They add a fluidity.


Instead of worrying whether you've got accurate colors, try some that are completely unrealistic. Paint a self-portrait in your favorite colors rather than skin tones. The result will probably be a lot more emotive – and certainly dramatic.


First paint your subject with clean water only (okay, not if you're using oils!). This familiarizes you with your subject. Then introduce color, which will flow into the wet areas. Don't try to stop the paint from spreading or worry about the colors becoming 'wrong'. Wait until you've finished, then see if you like the result.


Painting with a big brush makes it hard to put down detail. A big brush encourages you to use your whole arm to make broad, sweeping strokes. Use a flat brush not a round one because you're wanting to increase significantly the width of the painting strokes you make.


Take a stick at least a meter/yard long and tape it to the handle of your brush. Put a large piece of paper on the floor. Now paint. The long brush handle exaggerates the movement of your hand and arm, creating longer marks on the paper than you'd usually make.

Don't fight this by trying to make smaller movements!

This is a 5 min. timed exercise that helps me puncture my own perfectionism.

How to do it:

  1. Set up a simple still life

  2. Work standing up at an easel

  3. Use a limited palette (I use black, white, a cool neutral, warm neutral, and two compliments like blue/orange, or red/green, or yellow/purple.

  4. Set a timer on your cell for 5 mins.

  5. Repeat, do several times from different angles.

  6. It takes me a few times before I can loosen up and start treating it as an exercise and "play!"

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