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  • Writer's pictureDave Shelman

Perfectionism and Painting - Part 1

Updated: Aug 11, 2022

"The disposition to regard anything short of perfect as unacceptable.” So reads the definition of the term “perfectionism” in Webster’s Dictionary. This trait has been a nemesis of mine throughout my life and has had spiritual, intellectual, social and vocational consequences. Not surprisingly, I have seen it mostly as a negative part of my personality. I am too self-critical. I overwork—and overthink—things. I irritate the people around me. I hold back attempting things if there is a reasonable likelihood of failure. I can be hypercritical of other people and their work and I am even harder on myself and my own work.

I know that my experience is shared by many, including a good number of artists who may be reading this blog. Psychologists suggest that one person in every three in the general population—and a majority of “gifted” (presumably including artists?) Are affected. Perhaps something in these reflections will bring to mind experiences or insights of your own on this subject. I invite you to share them with me and other readers.

It is too simple to say that making art is a natural fit for a creative type who is, by nature, a perfectionist. Similarly, to conclude that these individuals would have an affinity for the more demanding crafts such as sculpture or engraving—or painting—would be oversimplification. No, I think the perfectionist brings their “baggage” with them no matter what medium they choose to engage. I have come to the conclusion that there is plenty of room—within all forms of expression—for perfectionism to aid or impede “the work.”

By the time I became engaged in drawing and painting my perfectionist habits were pretty well settled. “Accuracy” was highly valued and pursued. In drawing and painting I tended to see myself as a “copyist.” The goal of rendering was to create a convincing reproduction of the subject. Perfectionism was right at home. This left little space for interpretation or—heaven forbid—imaginative leaps of invention. I still remember the panic when my teacher asked us students to stop rendering the studio model in front of us and, instead, to depict a personal experience or a scene from a novel. At that moment I could not make the shift! When it came to the craft of drawing and painting, I read everything I could! I built up a lot of knowledge and a substantial library of visual images of “masterworks” of impeccable quality. I was enabling my perfectionism. And I was making it difficult to progress as an artist—specifically as a painter. There were many failures and aborted projects

Thankfully—or should I say luckily?—this tension did not lead me to a state of hopelessness. With the help of some wonderfuI teachers I gradually came to see that the “best practices” in the very craft of painting could help me overcome some of the perfectionist impulses that were inhibiting my progress. I will talk about two of these “best practices” here and continue with others in subsequent posts.

The first one is based on the insight that a picture (whether a drawing, a print or a painting) is an arrangement of shapes—not objects. I start by recognizing shapes—which are visible as color or value or a combination of both—and I use these as my building blocks in composing a picture. This keeps me from rendering things. I am not focused on the demands of detail and the constant self analysis that accompanies that approach. The second “practice” is to work down from the largest shapes to the next smaller shapes and so forth down to the smallest ones. Both these practices keep me in the “abstract” (generalized) realm where I am less likely to get too concerned—and easily hung up—with detail. I am not asking myself, “Is that a good cow or tree?” Both these practices allow me to be loose and to keep the large composition in view.

In Part 2 I will talk about the practice of “attending to the whole”—that is, bringing every part of the painting along at more or less the same rate.

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