The Creative Life

Would you rather have perfection or progress?

True confession time. I’m a recovering perfectionist.

It’s especially true when it comes to painting. In my mind’s eye, I see perfection but like most creative projects, what the mind sees and what we create can be two different things.

My latest lesson in progress vs perfection Maple Leaf in Mahone Bay

One afternoon in Mahone Bay, I was focusing on a scenic shot across the water. However, when I looked down, a bright red maple leaf just under the surface caught my eye.

Back home, I printed out the photo and make my sketch.

I laid in shadows , defined some shapes and was pretty pleased with the progress.

I laid down more colour, spent some time texturing the individual rocks with salt or very fine graining. Kept deepening the shadows.

Finished but Far from perfectionBut as I worked  I wasn’t really happy with it because it wasn’t what I saw in my head. I put it away for awhile and wrote this blog post, thinking about my tendency to want it to be ‘perfect’ before I shared.

I was actually going to abandon the painting altogether but after thinking about perfection vs progress, I’m going back to do a wash of dark over the rocks. I’ve got nothing to lose, right?

I’ll keep you posted on the progress.  In the meantime, I’ve gained some ‘creative wisdom’ for the journey. Maybe there’s something here for you, too.

What I know so far…

  1. I learned more about my watercolours, perspective and composition. Light and shadow, too.
  2. I also learned that taking a photo to look at my painting helps me see things I miss when I’m working on it.
  3. I need to let some time pass when I start being critical of my own work so that I can see it with fresh eyes.
  4. I’m also curious about what would change if I painted this subject in acrylics.

My biggest Aha

I have to say that the area where I’ve made the most progress is a willingness to share both the good stuff and the ‘not so good’ stuff. (Which, if you strive for perfection yourself, you know is quite a big deal.)

Before, if I wasn’t completely happy with something, it would quietly disappear. No one else would know it even existed. I couldn’t/wouldn’t share it. After all, I was supposed to showing how it was done, right?

Somehow I’d bought into the idea that I couldn’t “let them see me sweat”, as the old saying goes. As a business coach, I even hid the fact I liked to knit and quilt because someone told me it ‘gave the wrong impression’. (Writing and painting were okay but that other stuff? Never.)

The results was that my true self, that authentic self,  became buried behind a wall of my own making.

And therein lies the real problem with this whole perfection thing

Perfection is grossly unfair to everyone.

If I can’t be myself, how do you and I ever connect as human beings? If I only share the ‘perfect stuff’, there’s simply no common meeting ground. I see perfection as a slippery, one dimenstional surface that no one can get grip on. As Leonard Cohen famously said, The cracks are where the light gets in.

Even more important, what’s the message here? If I’m striving to be someone who doesn’t really exist, you don’t have permission to be yourself either.

As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. — Marianne Williamson

Williamson was talking about personal power. I believe the willingness to be vulnerable is an important ingredient of true strength. When we see someone else stumble but survive, it’s an example of hope.

After all, what is creativity except the curiosity to see what happens when we try? And trying is really an experiment. Not all experiments work out. That’s why we call them ‘experiments’.

I talk to wannabe writers and artists all the time who compare their first efforts to the finished results of masters. They take one look and walk away, afraid to try because they’re focused on on the finished (perfect) product, not the journey and what it took to achieve those results.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could see the stuff that didn’t make it?

A few years ago I attended an exhibit of Henri Matisse’s work. While I love his paintings and sculptures, what I remember most was a display of photos taken while he worked on his masterpiece “Large Reclining Nude“. It showed his progression and process. He painted in a vase and then covered it up. His subject was sitting up and in the next photo she was lying down. I believe there were about 20 photos in the series.

It was an AHA moment.

I understood Matisse didn’t always know exactly what he wanted or how to achieve it if he did. He experimented. He learned, tweaked, adjusted and repeated until he was satisfied.

When he passed away, they found piles of discarded canvases in his studio. I like to think he kept them because seeing his progress taught him more than his masterpieces. In fact, those masterpieces wouldn’t have existed without all those discards collecting dust.

I believe Scott Adams summed it up best when he said:

Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.

What about you? What do you do when your creation doesn’t match your vision? Share your thoughts in the comments. I’d love to hear from you!



8 thoughts on “Would you rather have perfection or progress?”

  1. Isn’t it crazy how we fear being judged and choose to conform. It takes getting older and wiser to recognize the importance of being unapologetically YOU. Love that you shared the real you in this blog!

    When my creation doesn’t match my vision, I take a pause and schedule in an artist date. It is something I have been doing for years but didn’t have a name for it.

    Read “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron

    The Artist Date is a once-weekly, festive, solo expedition to explore something that interests you. The Artist Date need not be overtly
    “artistic” — think mischief more than mastery. Artist Dates fire up the imagination. They spark whimsy. They encourage play. Since art is about the play of ideas, they feed our creative work by replenishing our inner well of images and inspiration. When choosing an Artist Date, it is good to ask yourself, “what sounds fun?” — and then allow yourself to try it.

    I generally come back more inspired to create and go back to my art whether it be a blog or a collage. I recognize everything is progress. Take my lastest blog it took me way to long to birth why because I was stuck in perfection mode lol! My aha from reading your blog!


    1. Cameron’s book was a life changer for me as well.
      Morning pages are powerful but the idea of an Artist Date was like full permission to play. I love that you compare it to “mischief”. That speaks to the inner child in all of us because who doesn’t like to get up to mischief once in awhile.
      It seems to me that mischief is a good antidote to perfectionism.
      Thanks for sharing, Amanda and being part of the conversation.

  2. Excellent Aprille! We all need to practice being kinder to ourselves, in all of our endeavours! Stepping back from a project I find, gives me room to breathe, re-assess and the usual result is I end up liking what I’ve created or the light bulb goes on and I see the possibilities. Sometimes we just need to see life from a different angle or thru’ a different lens to appreciate it.

    1. You’re so right. It’s about turning off that inner committee that judges everything we’re up to and then makes us doubt our efforts. Giving ourselves a bit of a recess and coming back with a fresh perspective is so helpful. I know it helps me let go of the attachment to a result and see it through almost objective eyes.

  3. It’s so easy to get sucked into perfectionism and the fear of losing face. I’ve read where master painters would sneak into galleries and touch up one of their paintings with a hidden brush. Even they couldn’t let it go. I’ve been trying to take a “just ship it” attitude. Get feedback from the market, let them guide your success. Great article.

    1. I hadn’t heard that about master painters but I totally believe it. It’s easy to keep tweaking without a ‘just ship it’ attitude and then our progress slows down or stops. Good to hear from you!

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