Sunday, July 18, 2021

The Perfectionist Paradox


Let me get this out of the way, but really, you probably already know this, right? I’m a dyed-in-the-wool perfectionist. “Hi, my name is Sarah…” <raises hand> From the moment I started customizing back in 1987, I was holy hannah bent on creating the very best work I could to the exclusion of any sort of rational justification. It simply had to be perfect. Go perfect or go home. And I’m still that way, in fact, even more maniacal about it than before because I have 30+ years of distilled, refined insanity behind me. Perfectionism is simply a part of my process now, simply a way that I think when it comes to my artwork.

Yet because of this fixation, I can drive myself to near breakdown trying to get something to “click” — to feel perfect. It doesn’t just have to look perfect, see…it has to feel perfect. Deep in my gut, it has to feel as though this is the way the piece was meant to be, this was how the Universe intended this piece to pan out, down to the square 1/8” landscape. So if a wrinkle isn’t just so — if it doesn’t click — it has to be redone…over and over and over until it does. This is what I mean when I say I “sculpt by feel.” It’s not that I’m sculpting on a whim or loosey-goosey — I try to follow those biological rules to the letter — it’s that each little fiddly bit has to feel as right as possible in my own little perfectionist heart. And that’s a tall order — a piece has to please the Universe, as I like to think of it, and it also has to please me. Phew!


My work isn’t perfect. No one’s is. It never could be. Not ever. Not even 3D printing from a live scan. The only thing that can ever create a perfect equine is Nature. Only the living creature is perfect because DNA always bats last. Everything we sculpt, print, or paint realistically then will be flawed no matter how hard we try.

And that’s the Perfectionist Paradox.

This is something we have to reconcile otherwise we’re going to go mad and even just stop, right? We have to find a way to keep going despite this Sisyphean predicament. How do we do that?

“The most dangerous way we sabotage ourselves is by waiting for the perfect moment to begin. Nothing works perfectly the first time, or the first fifty times. Everything has a learning curve. The beginning is just that — a beginning. Surrender your desire to do it flawlessly on the first try. It's not possible. Learn to learn. Learn to fail. Learn to learn from failing. And begin today. Begin now. Stop waiting.”

- Vironika Tugaleva

Well, for one, we can recognize that the benefits lie in the struggle itself. The pro-active learning, the innovation, the experimentation, the learning of discipline, patience, diligence, and persistence, of discovering how to be kinder to ourselves and others, and of course the grand things that can come with dreaming big. We also place more worth on quality workmanship and intent, on originality and our Voice because perfectionism asks for a new level of devotion that cannot deny these things, indeed, that must embrace these things. Perfectionism also adds nitro to our developmental fuel, injecting a kind of urgency and expectation that drives us to improve faster and in more significant ways than a more casual effort would require. And if we weight the effort more than the product, each piece simply becomes a learning experience, practice for the next. In other words, rather than a period at the end of the sentence, each piece becomes a continuum, propelling us along at ever-increasing speeds. Perfectionism is simply the conduit by which we improve our work to the highest potential we can at that moment. 

“The seed of your next artwork lies embedded in the imperfections of your current piece.” 

- David Bayles 

And that’s an important concept to always remember — “at that moment.” We can only ever create as perfectly as we can in our current learning curve, right? This is why our past work shows our newbness and why our future work will be better. Perfectionism only works in the present with the piece we’re creating right now, and that’s actually a lot of freedom in there, to create in the present. Let go of the past, don’t dwell on the future, just put a full effort into the present and we’ll glean the most out of what that piece has to teach us. And we’ll also learn how to be gentler with ourselves I think — I hope — because if we accept that the moment is all we can do, we can accept a lot more of our foibles with generosity and humor.

And to brass tacks it, too, having some degree of perfectionism is inherent in every creative process. Even the most casual creators have a smidgeon; otherwise they’d never declare “done” with anything. Even if we just slap paint on a piece haphazardly in random colors and call it a day, we’ve still exercised a measure of perfectionism. If we hadn’t, that piece would never be finished, right? By the mere act of establishing some baseline of “this is good enough, I’m done," that must beg for a degree of perfectionism in there somewhere. We have a concept, we try to accurately express it, and we declare it done. That’s an exercise of perfectionism. The trick then is to manage it better so we don’t become a slave to it.

“There is a difference between obsessive perfectionism and taking time to create something that is the best you can offer. Knowing what needs to be better and stretching to improve yourself is what separates the mediocre from the marvelous.”

- Suzanna Reeves

So it’s not perfectionism itself that’s a potential problem, it’s how we relate to it that can spin it out of control. But that’s good, yes? This dynamic puts the power back into our hands because if the issue really is us, we can change our relationship to realign back to its benefits. How do we do that?

Well, fully accept that none of our work will be perfect, for one. We have to fully realize that and, in fact, revel in it. Instead, meditate on this: That anyone takes up tool or brush to create anything wholly new from their heart is a miracle in itself. The artistic act is one of such beauty and power and mystery, it’s a marvel every time it happens. Think about it — it’s the Universe recreating its own dreams for reals. Pretty amazing stuff! So to see the profound magic in creating is to recognize where its true worth is to be found. Hold onto that. 

Also fully realize that we’re going to be terrible at what we’re doing when we learn something new. Sure different people can have a higher baseline — what we’d refer to as “natural talent” — but in the beginning, we’re all struggling. And some may struggle more and longer than others because not everyone learns in the same way or speed. But that’s not the point, right? The point is to get a little bit better with each piece, to learn from our mistakes, to vet new methods and concepts, to stretch our expectations and ideas, to rethink and reevaluate, to do all those things involved in what we’d think of as “improvement.” When we do this, we’re going to learn more than just about arting, even better, we’re going to learn a lot about ourselves. To art then is to also and inevitably engage in a journey of self-discovery as we explore what we’re made of and what moves us. We are the process and our piece is simply the pathway. So one of the ways we get into trouble then is forgetting these things and framing our piece as something so unreachable at that moment, we’re just setting ourselves up for failure. Baby steps! Maybe have one or two big — but simple — goals for each new piece and leave the rest for later. We usually aren’t ready for all the information at once — things take time to process and grow into each other. Improvement is better achieved with building blocks and happy surprises than with unrealistic goals out of sync with our current skills. Small bites, well chewed. Yes — we all want to be creating at the level of that amazing artist we admire, but just remember their abilities took years of very hard work, sacrifice, and emotional investment to develop — they had to go through the hard won process of improvement and so do we. We’ll be far more invested in our efforts and successes through this as well.

Also understand that our work is the sum of its good points and the sum of its quirks — just like us. In many ways, those quirks contribute to our artistic style which, of course, plays so well into the distinctiveness of our art. Now we may work to mediate these quirks to achieve more technical realism in this clinical art form — as is the prime directive — and this is exactly how we gauge improvement. How close to the real deal can we get? Well, we pluck out ever more quirks, leaving the technicalities behind. But even if we get super, nutty close, quirks will still be present to make our work as unique as a fingerprint. And that’s actually a pretty cool thing! Hey — if all our work looked the same, wouldn’t our genre lose some of its flavor? And if the equine means so many different things to each of us, wouldn’t having different ways of expressing this splendid creature also appeal to those different aesthetics and prerogatives? There’s strength and vibrance in diversity! Quirks aren’t such a bad thing, are they? Well, given they don’t compromise things too much, of course.

Reset our motivations. Arting must first be joyful — it must fulfill us in a positive, inspiring way, or we’ll stop. Always — always — focus on the fun! And this joy is rooted in love — we must love what we’re doing or we’ll stop. All inspiration, all process, all effort, all sacrifice is rooted in this and what actually gets a piece finished. Stay centered on this, no matter what. Even when we want to throw the piece into a dumpster and set it on fire, stay centered on this. And well, on the flip side that level of extreme emotion speaks to our dedication and passion, right? And it’s already showing us “the way home” to quote Elizabeth Gilbert. So always follow those breadcrumbs back. Try to stoke our fires with that clean-burning love rather than impossible perfection and we’ll stay on track. And this is so important to lean on because…

Perfection is immensely intimidating, so much so it can even shut us down before we start! In this way, perfectionism can be a self-fulling trap and the only way out is to accept that perfection isn’t the endgame, it’s a means to an end. It’s a light to follow but one we’ll never catch…and that’s okay. Everyone makes mistakes! Everyone is creating imperfect work! If they’re okay with that, maybe we can be too, yes? And always — always — remember that imperfection in our work isn’t a personal reflection on us. It’s not a failure of our character but merely an inevitability of being human. And that’s not such a bad thing is it? It’s actually rather beautiful when you think about it — our frail but hopeful humanity has such passion for its Vision that we work to bring it into existence with all the effort, emotion, and sacrifice that requires. It’s an act of love and devotion and joy! Embrace that and worry about perfection later and in proper context…and just start. Let the joy of creating a new piece sweep you away and fall in love with it. People ask often ask me what’s my favorite piece, and well…it’s the piece I’m working on right now!

“Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Do not bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.” 

- William Faulkner

Recognize that perfectionism has a tricky way of exhausting our Eye and so can ramp up a false sense of frustration quickly. That’s to say, by fixating on things too long, because we want things to be perfect, we exhaust our Eye and so areas of our piece that are actually fine will start to look weird, unfamiliar, and incorrect. Sometimes the effect is so strong, the entire piece can be distorted in this way. What’s the inevitable outcome? We’ll just end up spinning our wheels with never-ending “corrections,” getting ever more exhausted and upset since we’ve simply fixated on things too long. This is to expected though when chasing perfection which is why there are many workarounds such as putting the piece aside for a time to “fresh Eye” it later or a more diligent use of calipers to do more “Seeing” for us. Diving into more references and research is another. Artistic exercises such as sketching, practicing and exploring alignments, planes, and anatomical structure can be helpful here as well. Looking at our piece backwards in a mirror is a very handy trick, too. Playing our with photos of our piece in a photo editing program like Photoshop is yet another, and a particularly useful one. If we can get our Eyes to look at the issues in another way, that often helps break the cycle. But ultimately, we also have to know when to say “enough.” When we let the Universe decide for us and let things just be. Because here’s the thing: This is a cycle, almost a syndrome, a fixation. Sure, there can be areas that bug us — that’s part of the process of finishing our piece — but this can spin out of control into a cycle that will trap us with false errors, so be vigilant. There’s a big difference between getting stuck on a piece because of a knowledge or skill gap and getting stuck because we’ve gotten lost in our process.

“Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it's often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.” 

- Brené Brown 

Understand that perfectionism can become a form of procrastination, can’t it? It’s an impossible goal, so what better excuse to not even start in the first place. Really, if we aren’t creating, we aren’t making mistakes, right? But if we accept that everything we do will be imperfect, we’ve opened ourselves to the possibility of creating beyond our expectations with a happy surprise, a moment of serendipitous learning that often just appears like a gift from the Universe. And that’s what a lot of folks don’t know — some of our progress comes unexpectedly, out of the blue often through a mistake or a sudden new way of thinking or Seeing. If we aren’t working though, we’re actually denying ourselves of this very real potential — because it will happen, but only if we give it a chance to happen. So get out there and take epic imperfect actions with every piece!

“Too many people spend too much time trying to perfect something before they actually do it. Instead of waiting for perfection, run with what you got, and fix it along the way…”

- Paul Arden

Likewise, beware that perfectionism can turn into a form of avoidance, a manifestation of fear. Setting this lofty goal for ourselves is great and all, but it can be very intimidating if it’s blown out of proportion. We avoid this mistake by learning to set challenging goals that are still within our grasp, and we only learn what’s chewable with experience— so keep doing! Creative honesty with ourselves is so important because it actually helps plot out a path for progress that doesn’t only make sense to us, but gives us reachable baby steps that result in tangible success that builds our confidence. And with confidence we build competence and with competence we go where we want to go. Likewise, if we hit a wall, please don't assume then that it was because we're inherently incapable! That this is a clear example of how our fears were right the whole time! No. It simply means we bit off more than we can chew for right now so simply set it aside to allow our knowledge base to catch up later. That's all. No biggie. It happens. I've done it several times! So work on other pieces, do some artistic exercises and research, play around with other things...let those subroutines do their job. 

“At its root, perfectionism isn’t really about a deep love of being meticulous. It’s about fear. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of failure. Fear of success.” 

- Michael Law

Yet how do we gauge “perfect”? When do we know when something actually is our idea of “perfect”? Every artist has a different way to go about this so there isn’t one way. As for myself, I know when to call “done” when every bit of a piece cannot be finagled any further. When every tool stroke that could ever be applied has been applied, when no part asks for just a little bit more tweaking. When things are “just right” and it all fits together and falls in place. In short, when it feels done. It’s a mysterious state for sure — ambiguous and hard to pin down — but an artist just knows when a piece is done perfectly. It’s a magical moment, really. However, it’s a dangerous moment too because this is exactly where perfectionism can careen way out of control to keep us fiddling to overwork the piece. Yes — overworking is a thing. A very real thing. If ever I learned something after 30 years of sculpting, it’s knowing when to stop to better avoid overworking an area. Really, more times than not, our initial impulses — our first few tool strokes — are the better choices and so “improving” them with fiddling can refine them into a diluted or muddled version of themselves and they lose their organic quality, clarity, energy, and power. I can’t tell you how many times I ruined an area, even an entire piece, by overworking it! Go with your gut, flow with the energy, and learn to keep that energy contained in each tool stroke even if that means backing away and leaving it be. Trust the process! It’ll all come together later, and if that area still bugs you, address it then. See, if we get stuck in one place trying to perfect it — and probably overworking it — we’re going to hit a wall of exasperation. We become too focused on one aspect and we lose sight of the big picture. Keep things in perspective! If some area is bugging you — that’s okay, it happens all the time! Just keep going, move onto other areas, let the piece come together more as a whole then re-evaluate. Because I also cannot tell you how many times I’ve had to redo an area I loved because it was part of a larger correction that had to erase it! Everything we do now can be redone later if we so choose, that’s the beauty of artistic creation. Whatever we do, we can undo and redo at any time so don’t let unchecked perfectionism distract you.

“Perfect” also means different things to different people. Indeed, what is “perfect”? Sometimes not even the artist knows! And sometimes the artist doesn’t even see the exceptional work they created but fixate on those parts they believe are flawed. “Perfect” can be so subjective! And it can be so invisible. And here’s a crazy thing about perfection — the more “perfect” an area is, the more invisible it becomes! That’s to say, it lacks the big errors that would make it jump out at us. Oh, the irony! Now that does beg this: If that’s the case, then by definition “perfect” must mean that a piece matches the real thing so closely in structural features and coloration and effect, side-by-side photos would create complete confusion. And let's be real here — pun intended — that’s true. That’s the goal right? Photo-realistic equines in 3D? However, we’re also talking about art, and art is a big messy amalgam of style, technique, innovation, motivations, imagination, and possibility. Will we produce photo-realistic pieces? We’ll get darn close! Will everyone value them the same as “perfect”? No. See, what may be perfect to one person may be flawed to another, and all dependent on where we are in a learning curve. There’s also the component of personal taste and aesthetic, and of different goals and motivations. And we all know the adage, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” right? So no matter how perfect we think we’ve made something — and even if it is objectively darn near perfect — someone out there won’t hold to that…and so be it. They’re simply at a different point in a learning curve or have different aesthetics or goals. Conversely, we may believe something we’ve done is pretty well perfect, but an unknown blindspot has actually shot us off our mark right under our radar, and someone else without that blindspot will spot it quickly. Or perhaps they have a blindspot that interprets what we have right as wrong! What does this mean? That “perfection” is a concept that’s inherently flawed because humans are flawed and so evaluating perfection is flawed. So learn to stop chasing it when it ceases to serve us. Perfectionism can so quickly turn into tilting at windmills if we let it take over, so keep it centered as the process, not the purpose.

Likewise, “perfectionism” can mean different things to different people, too. What is it exactly? Think about it — how does one define the state of “perfection” when everything we create is inherently imperfect? And is perfectionism inherently good or bad? Because there are plenty of people out there who think perfectionism is awesome and plenty who think perfectionism is evil incarnate, and so there’s plenty of conflicting ideas about where it belongs in our arting. So while many may think it’s creating a piece without flaws, that’s really just one facet of what it can mean to us. It’s also one focused entirely on the end product rather than the process. So can perfectionism be about different things? Is it reaching our goal? Is it learning something new? Is it conquering a challenge? Is it achieving a state of clear in a joyful process? And what about the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi? Or on the other hand, the Japanese concepts of Dō or kaizen? Many times it’s the act of striving that’s all the perfection needed!

There’s this to think about, too: Is the state of being “perfect” actually a real thing then, or is it a subjective ideal we simply construct to have a goal? In a sense, yes to both, at the same time. That’s the funny thing about perfection, it’s both a real thing and an arbitrary concept, and oddly enough, especially when it comes to realism. If we “know our stuff” we can clearly see when a piece has more technically correct areas and when it doesn’t. The technicalities of realism simply give us more objective baselines for comparison. Simply put, the living animal is our objective goal of perfection. He’s real, he’s factual, he’s tangible. Likewise for artistic technique in our art form because sloppy methods or newb mistakes aren’t always so easy to overlook. Yet on the other hand, even a hypothetically truly perfect piece won’t be to quite a few people who’ll find flaw with it somehow for their own reasons influenced by differences in their knowledge bases, aesthetics, and prerogatives. For example, many of those fabulous hair-by-hair flatwork paintings of fuzzy animals could easily fool us at first glance. But to me, some can look forced because of the introduced error of regimentation and artifice in areas when instead, nature is defined by “organic chaos,” a quality excruciatingly difficult for the human brain to mimic, especially when it comes to repetitive actions like painting hair-by-hair. Even a snowflake is “messy” under magnification compared to how perfect they’re so often rendered in art. Then consider the issue of scale and proportion, which can throw things off, even subtly. A pencil can only get so sharp or a paintbrush so fine. And I remember being rather creeped out at Madame Tussauds because while those wax figures sure looked real (and were technically stunning), they weren’t quite in that unique way close calls can miss. So to me, some of these things careen into the Uncanny Valley rather than serve as examples of abject perfection. Again — everyone is different! And conversely, we’ve all seen the flawed piece showered with kudos as “perfect,” too. For instance, someone’s sculpture of a lion may look so real to my eye because I’m no expert in lion-ness, but when that same artist sculpts a horse, I See errors so I know that lion also has flaws only I’m blind to them. Wrap it all up then and curiously perfection is a real thing as embodied in the living animal but also a fantasy since everyone Sees that animal differently. Now one could argue then that a machine could create perfection because it lacks human foibles, right? Wrong. Sure, a machine can be far more clinical, but it’s only as accurate as its programming or technology or construction — all of it human-made — and none of which can match Nature in complexity, nuance, and detail. Yes, it can look darned close but when you really know what you’re looking at, you see what’s not there due to the limitations of technology. This is why perfection will always (so far) be the goal and never the endgame in realism and why, quite literally, the only “creators” who make perfect horses are breeders! But all this is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? In all this magical messiness is the potential for diversity, discovery, curiosity, innovation, and surprising ourselves as we strive in the try. So like the speed of light, even getting close is pretty amazing!

In the end then, think of perfectionism as a tool, a means to an end rather than the end unto itself. It’s just like a screwdriver, a hammer, a computer, a paintbrush — it’s just a tool. We can therefore do what we want with it, right? We can pick it up to move forwards or we can put it down just to play or we can throw it clean out the window when we experiment with new things. Perfectionism should also be thought of as a process of renewal — renewal of our love and joy, of our Vision, of our goals, of our inspiration. It’s best when it’s rejuvenating rather than debilitating, so stay focused on the positives it provides and manage it away from its negatives. Also try to detach ourselves from our work a little bit. Yes, our art is a form of expression, but it’s also something we just do and not necessarily always a personal reflection on us. Indeed, if we can’t stand back from it a little bit, we’re going to literally paint ourselves into a corner and close ourselves off to progress. How? Well, we’ll just lose that necessary flexibility for rethinking things by making things too personal. And there’s this, too — our work should take on a life of its own. In many ways, we can think of a piece as an energy — an “inspiration” — that’s trying to make itself real through us, and sometimes we just have to step back and let it unfold and exist on its own terms. Sometimes we’re just vessels. So while we may have this “perfect” vision in our heads, it’s often better to remain open to new possibilities of perfect as the piece evolves in creation. Along those lines, think about reframing our efforts — even our successes and failures — away from ourselves and instead more about whether our Muse showed up or not. Because sometimes it goes into overdrive or it just doesn’t show up at all! That’s normal. Every artist has unexpected triumphs and bad art days. Our Muse truly has a hand in taking us closer or farther away from our goal, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you come up short. Life is a mystery and art is even more mysterious.

“Healthy striving is self-focused: "How can I improve?"

Perfectionism is other-focused: "What will they think?” 

- Brené Brown 

Above all though, be kind to yourself. It may be very tempting — and it’s very human — to denigrate yourself in the face of failure. Resist it. Give yourself space to make mistakes or fall short or just fall flat on your face. That’s part of the process, too! The important part is getting back up and back at it to give it one more try. Each piece will test your resolve and in new ways, so the point is to keep going, not necessarily always being “perfect.” In this, we can think of perfectionism as a Path, a Way towards the improvement we crave and if we keep it in this framework, it’ll remain our reliable workhorse rather than an angry, stampeding T. Rex. Also actively praise yourself and your efforts. Seriously. Take moments where you recognize and acknowledge what you’re doing well with a piece and take stock in how far you’ve come — because you have come very far, and with such moxie and panache! Pat yourself on the back every so often — it’s good for you and you art. 

On the other hand, there’s this, too — every artist, every single one, will work on a piece that ends up simply being a lost cause. For some reason, it just fails despite our best attempts. Our Muse just doesn’t show up. And that’s okay! So it’s important to recognize when this point has been reached so we don’t end up in a perfection trap trying to save it and drive ourselves bananas. Learn to be okay with starting over from scratch or putting a concept on the back burner until something about our knowledge base can play catch up. Sometimes it’s not the right time for an inspiration to be born.

“Embrace being perfectly imperfect. Learn from your mistakes and forgive yourself,

you’ll be happier.”

- Roy Bennett

And lastly, I don’t know if anyone has told you, but I’m very proud of you. You’re full of beautiful potential and there are people who love you and your art. Even those folks out there you don’t know, even those potential peeps who’ll go bonko when they do discover you and your art. Some things in our psyche can be geared to grind us down and stop us, but please know that your potential is wholly unique, so special, and has no limits. Just believe in yourself a little bit. Just a little bit. Because a little bit is all it takes. You’re so much more than you suspect and your art is so much more worthwhile than you believe. You’re doing better than you realize. It makes perfect sense!

“Isn’t it a relief to hear that what might not be perfect for you might

be perfect for someone else?” 

- Neeraj Agnihotri

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