Why Artists Struggle With Perfectionism (And What to Do About It)
You are creating a new piece. At first, it’s going great, but then… you just can’t get it right. Doubt starts creeping in. This artwork is terrible, isn’t it? Aren’t you a failure as an artist and as a person? Ah, congrats, you just ruined your day. But hey, you are not alone. Perfectionism in art and critical self-talk are problems that many artists struggle with.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, it shouldn’t be this way.
It is normal to have a more critical perspective on your own work than anyone else’s, but when perfectionism starts getting in the way of creating the art you love, it’s time to change things.
Signs that perfectionism affects your art
Do the following statements sound familiar? Then you might be a little (too) perfectionistic about your art:
- nothing you create feels ever good enough
- you don’t finish your projects
- you are looking for someone else’s validation that your work is good
- your self-doubt takes away the joy in creating
- you don’t allow yourself any mistakes or imperfections
- you tend to procrastinate
- you avoid taking on challenges that might make you grow out of fear of failure
What can I say, I’ve been there a million times. But I decided to not let perfectionism get the best of me (and my art) and started to actively work against it. If you recognized yourself in any of the above, keep reading.
Why do artists experience perfectionism?
One good explanation of why artists are so terribly perfectionistic can be found in Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Big Magic’. According to her, artists are simply equipped with good taste. You recognize what is good. You know when a book is well written, a photograph well-composed, or a painting masterfully crafted.
Unfortunately, with that comes the tendency to compare our own work with only the best of the best. Which, consequently, can kill your entire creativity because nothing you create will ever be as good as their work.
Deep down, perfectionism is simply the fear of (your art) not being good enough.
Let that sink in. To me, simply understanding this truth already helped me to accept my fears and move forward despite them.
However, let me give you some practical tips as well.
How to overcome perfectionism in art
Do not identify with your art
Okay, one important thing to mention right away is: You are not your art. How good or bad your art is does not determine your worth.
Do you feel terrible when you create something that is not up to your standards? That is a clear sign that you’re over-identifying with your work.
Learn to separate yourself from your art. You are still a legitimate artist if you fail. Seriously, not every piece has to be perfect. It is natural in the creative process to abandon projects, having to go down a completely different route, starting all over.
It can help a lot to change your outlook on the times when it feels like everything is going wrong. See those pieces as lessons, not failures. Seriously, the world will not end if not every piece is a masterpiece.
Say goodbye to comparison
People who are brilliant at what they do, have usually been doing it for really, really long. They have put all their dedication and energy into their craft.
So be careful with comparing your own work to that of others, especially when they’re just mind-blowingly good. Or when they’re at a point of their career which you desperately long for.
Of course, looking at others’ art can be valuable. That is, if you genuinely appreciate their art, let it inspire you and learn from it.
Just don’t make the mistake of falling into jealousy or feeling bad about yourself because you do not create what they do. You never will, anyways! Because you are you. And you need to follow your own artistic expression.
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Just keep swimming… eh… creating
If you’re like me and you tend to leave behind your projects as soon as unhappiness kicks in, this piece of advice is for you.
Don’t stop just because it’s getting hard. If you keep going anyways, that’s where growth happens.
I really had to learn to continue working on my goals and not run away in search for something ‘easier’. Having a daily art practice can help, setting yourself a schedule or deadline, or having someone hold you accountable.
Just whatever you do, keep going. Because doing something mediocre and actually finishing it is way better than something perfect that has been started but never finished.
Apply the 80:20 rule to stop perfectionism in art
Are you familiar with the 80:20 rule? It states that 80% of your outcome comes from only 20% of the effort. This means you should prioritize that 20%, not get lost in those last time-consuming 80% of your work.
The 20% are the most important part. Everything else is just the cherry on the cake.
So, as an artist, when you notice that a piece is mainly done, but you’re just forever getting lost in trying to make it perfect… just call it a day. You will save so much time and energy.There’s nothing wrong with declaring a work finished when it’s 80% good, not perfect.
Seriously, perfection is impossible to achieve and your quest for it will only stop you from making more and better work.
Give yourself permission to create
As an artist, your mission is to simply create. It should never be to make amazing art only.
Letting go of your unrealistic standards helps to explore and open up new areas of creativity. So many good pieces are nothing but happy accidents – because the creators kept exploring.
No matter the quality of your work, you are ALLOWED to express yourself creatively. Give yourself permission.
Perfectionism often strikes when we are working on something and we WANT it to be good. Serious business. So sometimes what you need to do is to come back into play.
Make something just for fun! It does not have to be great, or perfect, or meaningful in any way. Just play and enjoy the process.
Silence the inner critic
This one is another tip I learned through Gilbert’s ‘Big Magic’. You know that annoying inner voice you hear that tells you that your work will be never good enough? That’s your inner critic.
Over time, you might want to enter a deeper relationship with it. Because, honestly, it will never quite go away. So you need to learn to live with him or her or whatever your little critic sounds like.
Listen to your inner critic, let it speak, and accept that it’s there. However, you do not need to give too much importance to it.
There’s a lot of beauty in saying ‘thank you for your opinion, but I will continue creating this piece now, whether you like it or not.’
It is time to overcome perfectionism in art
So, dear friend, you can do this. I’m rooting for you in your journey of building more awareness and letting go of perfectionism.
Just take it one day at a time. It can be a long process, but it will lead you to create more freely and happily.
The world needs to see your art, so bring it on!
Thank you so much for writing this. Reading this has been incredibly helpful.
This article highlighted exactly what I’ve have been struggling with recently while writing songs.
Hi Molly, that is SO great to hear! I hope the songs will flow with more ease from now on 🙂