Lately, I’ve been having trouble finishing my work. I literally have about 6 or 7 pieces laying around my studio in various states of unfinished-ness. I have tons of ideas, and they all start out pretty good. However, I get to a point where they’re almost finished, and then – I’m stumped. ‘Work in progress’ just – stops progressing. I feel like it needs something else, but what?
I think this happens to all of us at some time or another, right? But recently, it’s been occurring with monotonous regularity. What’s even worse, I understand why this happens, yet I’m apparently still powerless to avoid it.
I got pretty far on this one before deciding I wasn’t happy with it. It may end up on the scrap pile. Or, maybe she wants to be a bird?
The Last Few Brushstrokes
I was listening to a podcast, I think – or I may have read it somewhere. Anyway, it was about how the last few brushstrokes of a painting are the most important. They are what makes a painting great – what makes it truly “finished.”
What many artists do, however, is get to a point where they know the painting (or collage, sculpture, etc…) is good. It’s nearly finished, and they’re pleased with it, but have the feeling it could be even better. Yet the fear of ruining it keeps them from adding those last few strokes that would, potentially, make the painting as good as it can possibly be.
In her insightful blog post, Why the Fear of Ruining Your Art Will Ruin Your Art, Jann Alexander describes it this way:
“…But suddenly there you are, one morning, studying your painting-in-progress, coffee cup in hand, and it happens: you know your painting needs something. Just one or two little tweaks, a more dramatic brushstroke across the sky, highlights to perk up the water . . . and then it will be complete, a masterpiece, perhaps your best painting ever.
Except. You fear you’ll ruin it.”
Nope, this one’s still not finished, either.
Art and Perfectionism
Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in. (Leonard Cohen)
Work in progress (working title Specimen # 3), collage with antique herbarium page on vintage file folder. Almost finished, but what else does it need?
What it comes down to is perfectionism. I always say that I’m a recovering perfectionist. (My husband, however, might dispute the ‘recovering’ part.) But honestly, I’ve put a lot of effort into letting go of the obsession with doing everything in the best possible way. I believe I’ve made progress in most areas of my life. For sure, I don’t worry much about the house being totally clean any more, or the yard being perfect. Even my flower beds are a bit out of control.
But I have fooled myself into thinking that it’s OK to be perfectionistic about my art. And for the last couple of years, I’ve been pushing myself to take my work to the next level. ‘Throw out your first ten ideas’ has been my mantra. And while there’s something to be said for that approach, it can be taken too far. If the first ten can be discarded, why not 12, or 15? Where do you stop?
“Woulda, Shoulda, Coulda”
I posted these w.i.p. shots on Instagram in January. This piece still looks exactly the same; I’ve made no decisions about how to proceed.
The fundamental problem with perfectionism is that it doesn’t work. Rather than motivating us, it actually cripples us. We feel that everything we do is a failure, because it’s not ‘perfect’. Each evening, we go to bed feeling that we should have done better, should have done more, should have done something other than what we did.
Well, “woulda, shoulda, coulda” is an exercise in futility and self-sabotage. Why? Because ‘perfect’ doesn’t exist, especially to a perfectionist. Whatever we do will never be good enough in our own eyes. This doesn’t make us happy, and it doesn’t make us productive. Case in point: my unfinished art pieces.
I found an excellent article about this by Ker Cleary, MA, LPC entitled, Maybe Stuart Smalley Got it Right. Do you remember Al Franken’s hilariously self-doubting self-help guru character from Saturday Night Live? Cleary writes:
“What if everything we’ve done, and who we are right now, is good enough? What if Stuart Smalley got it right?…. What if we are fundamentally OK as we are, at this weight, this age, with these wrinkles and imperfect
relationships, with dirty socks and unpaid bills lying around? The longer I live, the more likely this seems. We are OK. We don’t have to live the ultimate life in order to bring something worthwhile into the world.”
Is ‘Good Enough’ Really Good Enough?
“Perfection, fortunately, is not the only alternative to mediocrity. A more sensible alternative is excellence. Striving for excellence is stimulating and rewarding; striving for perfection—in practically anything—is both neurotic and futile.”
I started this one last winter as well, and have changed it so many times I don’t even like it any more.
Eva Hesse was an American painter and sculptor who struggled with self-doubt, perfectionism, and paralyzing fear. Her good friend, artist Sol LeWitt, wrote a now-famous letter of encouragement to her in 1965, which reads in part:
“Don’t worry about cool, make your own uncool. Make your own, your own world. If you fear, make it work for you – draw & paint your fear and anxiety… You must practice being stupid, dumb, unthinking, empty. Then you will be able to DO!…
Try to do some BAD work – the worst you can think of and see what happens but mainly relax and let everything go to hell – … And don’t think that your work has to conform to any preconceived form, idea or flavor. It can be anything you want it to be…”
When You Speak to the Birds (Give Them My Love)
mixed media collage on antique book cover, 14.5 x 9.5 inches
I have managed to finish a few pieces lately, such as the one above. Hopefully, more will follow. I try to be mindful of Sol LeWitt’s words to Eva Hesse, to stop over-thinking and just DO. In the meantime, some of the unfinshed pieces will be set aside; some may be torn apart and re-started.
Being a perfectionist isn’t healthy, and it sure isn’t helping me get any work done. I also know that lifelong habits like this are hard to break. So all I can do at this point is to keep reminding myself that good enough really is good enough. In fact, it could even be excellent!
Another finally-finished piece, Time to Put on Your Big- Girl Pants, mixed media collage on antique book cover, 9.5 x 7 inches.
“Perfectionism doesn’t believe in practice shots. It doesn’t believe in improvement. Perfectionism has never heard that anything worth doing is worth doing badly–and that if we allow ourselves to do something badly we might in time become quite good at it.“