Perfectionism and quality

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There’s such a fine line between the two. On the one hand, you don’t want to put crappy artwork out into the world. You want your best stuff out there representing you.

On the other hand, perfectionism can be crippling – I should know. I’ve got an awful case of it.

Keith Bond wrote a guest article yesterday on Fine Art Views called “The Wiper” and that’s what got me thinking about it. He wrote about attending a workshop given by Matt Smith. They watched him paint a beautiful demo and then found out the next day that he’d wiped it out, because it wasn’t up to his standards.

On the one hand, I can completely appreciate this – there are many works I’ve painted that have been gessoed over a month later because it just wasn’t working. Keith Bond quotes him as saying:

“He explained that when he first started out painting, a huge percentage of his paintings were ‘wipers’. He didn’t want mediocre work out there. He continued to wipe off anything that he wasn’t completely excited about.”

This is where I start to struggle. If I wiped out every painting I wasn’t completely excited about, then I’d have no paintings. In every single piece, I hit a stage where I think I’ve screwed it up completely, and that there’s no hope. Sometimes I’m right, but a lot of the times I’m wrong and a very nice piece manages to emerge from the wreckage.

So where do you draw the line? Where do you just let your creativity run free and where do you cull the lesser pieces? At what point do you bring in that critical eye to decide which pieces are to be shown and which ones should be burned or painted over?

I think that the answers lie with the individual. Unfortunately, I don’t think there can be a blanket, one-size-fits-all solution to this.

Some of us are apt to think everything we do is marvelous and never cull anything because we never look at our work with a critical eye to see where we might learn and improve. Then there are those of us who are so self-critical that unless it looks like a Velasquez, we consider it trash. (Who, me?)

Obviously the end goal is always the best quality that you can produce at the level your at – something I need to remind myself quite often.

I think that if you lean towards perfectionist tendencies, it might be best to cull a few weeks after the completion of a piece. Often when a piece is finished, we are at our most self critical – we remember the pain of unreached perfection and we’d like to take our frustration out on something. However, I find that a few weeks of ignoring it allows me to mellow somewhat and I can see the piece with a fresher eye. Occasionally it still needs work, but most times, I find the painting is just fine the way it is.

On the other hand, if you shy away from critiquing your own works (I can hardly blame you – it’s a distinctly unpleasant feeling), then maybe you might take the opposite attitude. Wait a few weeks and then see what’s missing from a piece before you send it out into the world. I think you’ll find that most of the time, your work is still just fine, but maybe there are one or two pieces that you can touch up a little bit, and add those little finishing touches that pull a piece together.

You’ll notice the procedure is exactly the same for each type of artist, but I think it’s the attitude that you approach the situation with that’s key. We all get so emotionally involved in our art that it can be so hard to see with a clear and objective eye – it’s why I suggest waiting a few weeks. Maybe you only need a few days, who knows? Whatever time period is necessary to come back to the piece and see it with fresh eyes, as though you’ve never seen it before.

You need to let the painting speak to you, tell you what it needs. Maybe it needs to be framed and sent out into the world. Maybe it needs tweaking. And maybe it just needs to be gessoed over. It happens. And I don’t think there should be any shame in destroying a piece – you learned while creating it and it was there to serve a purpose. It’s just a stepping stone to greater works.

But I’ve been known to be full of hot air, so I turn it over to you – how do you cull your good works from the bad? Are you a perfectionist or do you struggle with critiquing your own work? Leave ‘er in the comments!