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Outrunning Perfectionism

Years ago, I met a prolific fine-artist who displayed his western-themed paintings all over Jackson Hole. He was successful by every metric and had a slew of interns following in his footsteps. He gave my class a week long workshop, including an hour-long Q and A session. The prospect of asking an extremely successful artist whatever we wanted for an entire hour was so exciting. Surely he would share the secrets of success, bestowing his knowledge on us like a magic spell. Our careers would never be the same. 

We huddled around him in a small classroom, sitting on whatever there was as he candidly answered our smattering of questions. Everyone took notes. When the hour was almost up a student in the back raised her hand and asked earnestly, “How do you fight perfectionism?” He chuckled to himself, thought for a moment, then said: “I’ve got deadlines.” Not quite the magic spell we were expecting. The solution to fighting perfectionism couldn’t possibly be something so unromantic and simple as show up and work hard every day. I didn’t understand at the time, but this line has become almost a mantra for me since.

I’ve got deadlines helps when my hand feels stiff and my usual creative motions feel arthritic and restrained. I’ve got deadlines helps after spending a few days away from my sketchbook and the first mark feels insurmountable. I’ve got deadlines helps when nothing looks right. When the page is so, so blank. 

I’ve got deadlines doesn’t mean treat yourself like a machine– mechanically cranking out half-hearted work in the name of productivity. It doesn’t mean sacrifice your soul to the corporation, calendar, or client. I’ve got deadlines means keep on moving. Show up every day and create something. 

“Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.” -Andy Warhol

I have a memory of my high school art teacher taking me into the hallway and humorlessly recounting all my partially-finished projects. I’d exclaim that I was “taking a break” from project A to work on project Z. “That’d be fine–” he’d say– “as long as projects B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, and Y weren’t also being neglected.” Touché. He’d then repeat a phrase that would haunt/heal my creative practice. “Finished, not perfect.” 

Consistently making work is the unglamorous answer to many of artists’ sorrows. My favorite art parable, originally recorded in Art & Fear says: 

“[A] ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”

Perfectionism can only touch you when you’re standing still. It’s unable to walk or run. To fight it, you simply have to keep moving. So long as you keep a reliable creative habit, you stave off perfectionism. 

When I show my work to others, I often get questions; What’s your favorite medium? How did you figure out these colors? How do you think about line and tone? I’m always happy to answer them, but the most common question I hear is: “How did you make all this?” 

My answer is always: “I’ve got deadlines.”



Citations:

DAVID, O. T. B. (2023). Art & Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of Artmaking. SOUVENIR PRESS LTD.


Some of the pots from my 50 pounds of clay this month:





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