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Painting Past Perfectionism

Updated: Dec 13, 2022

I used to be a serious perfectionist. This applied to all aspects of my life, including my art. At first I drew from my imagination, but over time I began to paint from photographs in a realistic style. As my painting skills improved, I sought to make my paintings more and more photo-realistic, often spending upwards of 40 hours to replicate every tiny detail in an image. Below is an example of one of my paintings from this period. While the colors are manipulated, the forms are meticulously copied from the original photo, and even up close it is hard to identify a single brush stroke.

"Marla," 18in x 36in oil on canvas, 2014

However no matter how hard I tried to copy the photo, my paintings always had flaws. I became extremely critical of my work, and this negative thinking dominated my painting process. I also feared criticism from others, worried that their words would undo the hours and hours I had put into each piece. This fear prevented me from experimenting with new styles and ideas. Each painting felt like such a huge investment of time and effort that I could not risk failure.

The result was that I made some beautiful, intricate paintings. The other result is that painting became a tedious chore, and I painted less and less over time. Eventually, I was doing only one painting a year.

Then in 2020, looking for a distraction from work burnout and pandemic stress, I enrolled in a painting class that taught daily painting. Daily painting is a painting practice in which you make small, quick paintings each day. This concept was completely foreign to me, as I had never painted so small (6in x 6in seemed impossibly tiny!) nor in such a short amount of time (how could anyone do a decent painting in just 2 hours?). But I was so desperate for something to recharge my painting that I was willing to give it a try.

First, I set up some small still lifes of avocados, oranges, tomatoes, and other things from my kitchen. Then I would then set a timer, sometimes for as little as 2o minutes, and try to paint my subjects within the time limit. This forced me to focus intently and paint only the most essential parts of the still life using loose, bold brush strokes. My first paintings were rough, but I quickly began to see improvement. And I realized I really liked the impressionist, expressive feel of my new paintings.

Me working on a daily painting (left), 20 minute avocado study from life (right), 2020

Daily painting gave me a chance to explore and take risks in my art. Since each painting was so small and quick, I wasn't worried about making it perfect. After all, I would do another painting the next day. And as I took more risks, I began to challenge myself and hone my skills, leading to better and better paintings. I was also much more open to criticism about my work, since I knew I could improve on the next one. Rather than feeling like each painting was a tedious trudge, I painted in a state of flow, carried away by my concentration and focus in the moment.

It has been over a year since I learned about daily painting, and while I haven't painted every day, I've come close, producing around 200 pieces in the last year. Over this period, I've seen my art improve faster than ever before. While I still notice perfectionist tendencies, my new motto is "done is better than perfect." I don't strive for perfection. Instead, I try to focus on enjoying the painting process and absorbing the lessons I learn from each new piece.

Some daily paintings from 2021: "Oranges on Blue" (left), "Purple Dahlia" (center), "Sunset in the City" (right)

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