The plight of perfectionists
Robert Genn

March 19, 2010

Dear Rodney,Recently I've been looking into the business of perfectionism among painters. It 
seems to me most artists have a mild version of the condition. I'm also seeing a 
kind of obsessive perfectionism that really holds some artists back. Let me explain.

Social psychologists and forum leaders identify types of human machinations they 
often call "rackets." Apparently we all run them. Rackets are blind spots, 
self-fulfilling games or internalized stories we keep repeating to avoid certain 
outcomes. For example, a painter may demand such high standards of himself that 
work never leaves the studio. Work is never quite finished. "Never quite good 
enough" is his racket.

Some artists need to look at the disabling that comes with over-perfectionism. They 
need to find out where it came from and what can be done about it.

Perfectionism is the opposite of audacity. It is the over-runner of intuition and 
the neutralizer of confidence. It is the mean little voice that says, "Noodling 
will get this thing right." More overworked passages are wrought by perfectionism 
than this world dreams of.

When rackets are identified, there's a root cause that cannot easily be dug out and 
released. The longer the racket persists, the more difficult it is to remove. An 
overly demanding, displeased parent, sibling or spouse, even from the distant past, 
is a common source. Guilt, fear and common garden-variety stubbornness play their 
part. These conditions and their sources need to be understood, analyzed and 
forgiven. While counselling may be necessary, vigorous introspection is often a 
good course.

The perfectionist artist may also suffer from the scourge of advice dependency. He 
is always looking for expert opinion to release himself from the eternal burden of 
making up his own mind. This is, of course, an impossible request. The artist must 
hold all skills within himself. As Picasso pointed out, knowing when to stop is 
just as important as knowing how to paint.

Perfectionism often hits artists in mid life. When you are a kid, you don't know 
your own limitations and you just do it. A few failures or discouragements later 
and you start to lose your moxie. Perfectionism becomes chronic. Dedicated head 
vacuuming is in order. Re-accessing your child may be necessary. At the base of all 
of this is independent character-development and rugged self-control.

Best regards,

PS: "Done is better than perfect." (Scott Allen)

Esoterica: A former Jehovah's Witness of my acquaintance, now departed, painted 
only one painting that I know of. Taken to and from crits, her painting received 
changes or embellishments after each advisor had a go. In its final reincarnation 
it was not at all like it was at first. No matter what anyone said (like "Leave it 
alone," or "Start another"), twenty or so human figures mysteriously appeared in 
the painting during a ten-year period. Also, a few extra lambs were lying down with 
the lions. As well as being "busy," it was quite overworked. Curiously, 
posthumously, it was accepted into a group show, so what do I know?