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Stopping yourself 15 minutes before you think your done, or "Conquering Perfectionism"

I have a speech impediment. Those of you who have taken a class with me or who know me personally know that I am not the best talker-my voice cracks, I pause at awkward moments and search for words, I lose track of what I was saying. This is partly because I learned to draw before I learned to speak and my thoughts are pictoral not verbal. Its like trying to describe a feeling with words-its hard for me to formulate exactly what I want to say.

Perfectionism makes me silent when I need to speak up. Because I stumble over words, I often choose to be quiet instead of speaking my truth. How many of you do the same thing artistically? Your perfectionism tells you that you will never be able to paint like her, so you don't try, or that you are not good enough, not brilliant or colorful enough, or lack enough drawing skill. All these thoughts will stop you in your tracks and act like a block.

This week, during Plein Air Adventure class at a beautiful seaside park, I was painting with a small group of mostly women who had a lively conversation about perfectionism and how it was a double-edged sword. Most of us agreed that we wanted to paint looser than we currently do, and be more expressive in our work.

Inviting your fear in for tea-one painter who is Buddhist told me the story of how Buddha invited Mara (his fear) to tea, and would acknowledge fear when it came up but not let the fear take over or rule his emotions. As a painter, we often face fear every time we are confronted with a blank canvas. What would happen if we acknowledged that fear, and politely sat it the table, and continued with our work? That is how I feel at every Quick Draw competition, where I have 2 hours to produce a finished painting in competition with some of the most talented and celebrated artists alive.

Scene we were painting

Self talk is key-Taming the "inner critic" another painter in class said that while she painted, her mind would be criticizing every brushstroke! In her head, she would be saying "I shouldn't have done that! or that's the wrong color!" All this negative self-talk creates a fearful environment for you when you are having to make multiple quick decisions as part of the painting process. This is also a block. What would happen if we changed that self talk or inner dialogue to be something like; "this is the middle of the painting, stick with it." or "this is only the lay-in phase," or "this is only one brush stroke, color, or shape."

Comparing not Identifying-another painter talked about feeling like she was an absolute beginner surrounded by all these experienced plein air artists and having a hard time even getting the canvas covered during a single class. Perfectionism would have us compare our beginning work to other's and always find us less than, lacking, or not good enough. I never use another artist's work as a measuring tool for my own. I will always come up short. Instead, I always measure myself by last year's work, or even last painting. When I look at other artist's work it's not to compare, but rather to identify with what they did. How did they resolve the cast shadows? How did they simplify all those tree trunks? What can I learn from them, and how can I be inspired by their success?

Perfectionism creeping into my thoughts while I paint

Perfectionism as Creative Fuel for the Fire-some artists strive for photo realism or classical realism and use the concept of perfectionism to fuel their work. One of the artists painting with us described it as "fertilizing your skill with encouragement rather than bending over a flower bud and shouting GROW!" She would take figure drawing classes to improve her ability to draw as a foundation for her plein air paintings. This is striving to improve your work, not beating yourself up for not producing perfect paintings.

Quitting 15 minutes before you THINK you are done! As an upshot of our conversation, our painting group all decided that we are going to stop painting 15 minutes before we think we are done, because that is usually when the overworking starts to happen. Overworking is perfectionism brought to life. You know when you've done it, but it's hard to catch yourself in the act of doing it.

Painting in a group allows you the opportunity to learn from others, as well as discuss topics that affect all of us. Finding that tribe of artists is often a challenge. I have mine in the group I paint with every Weds. in plein air. If you are looking for yours, you. are welcome to try mine, or reach out through organizations like pastel societies, oil painting guilds, clubs, classes, etc.

finished painting-should have quit 15 minutes before I thought I was done!

Resources for combatting perfectionism:

  • play, the more you play, and allow yourself to play the less serious and perfectionistic you are.

  • "The Artist's Way" by Julia Cameron and Mark Bryan discusses the inner critic in detail and how to work through creative blocks including perfectionism

  • Savvy Painter Podcast with Antrese Wood (look for the episode on perfectionism)

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