Perfectionist Practices

In creating samples for the book, I do the art first, then write about it. So the first page I do is an experiment. I riff on an idea, create a few takes, and then finally have a specific idea.

leaning-stack-of-papers-and-filesI did the riffing earlier this year, getting to the point where I knew the sections of the book and roughly what the artwork would look like. So all I had to do was make the final piece. And how hard can it be to do a card if I already have the idea and several samples?

Turns out, plenty hard. Because in my head, this next one had to be perfect. And once it had to be perfect, it never was. Card after card didn’t turn out, looked lame, wasn’t what I meant, had unflattering colors. I made mistakes, and when I started over, I made different mistakes.

And time after time, I realized that the card I made when I was just riffing was the card that worked best. The cards in the first group were made with full interest and no fear. There wasn’t any pressure to perform or have it be perfect for the book. It was great the way it was.

That was a big lesson I needed to learn again: when you are playing, you do your best work. When you are working, you are tense and there are too many people watching  and speaking–at least in my head. My crew consisted of imaginary critics: future readers of the book,  my mother, a caricature of my editor (who is incredibly nice in real life) and Sister Michael Augustine, who was responsible for my learning how to write right-handed in 7th grade. Oh, my inner critic was there too, with the family.

Your best creative work is done in play. Who knew?

–Quinn McDonald is writing a book on inner heroes and inner critics.


17 thoughts on “Perfectionist Practices

  1. Ah perfectionism! I like this quote by Anne Lamott
    “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life”!
    Thanks for sharing your process, thoughts and feelings – you continue to be an inspiration!

  2. My best line from this blog post:
    “when you are playing, you do your best work. When you are working, you are tense and there are too many people watching and speaking–at least in my head.”

  3. You are so right about playing producing the best work! When I plan things out, right down to the colours (exact shades, tints, brands), design, paper, and so on, I just cannot get the final piece to turn out the way I had hoped it would. For me, the best way to do anything is to fly by the seat of my pants, turn on some great music and dive in and thoroughly immerse and enjoy what I’m doing. If the music is loud enough, my Inner Critic cannot be heard and that makes me smile. This year, I want to play more, lose track of the time when I’m in the studio and be the artist I have always wanted to be. The laughing you hear in the background could be my Inner Critic or it could be my cat laughing at my style sense/size of my butt or whatever. Not to worry about the neighbours complaining about the music, I have my headphones on. 🙂

  4. Yes, I’ve been there many times! And Deb you are right too. I have the coolest drop clothes ever after painting newly installed drywall in my house!

  5. Hi Quinn, thanks so much for your comments. I have been following your blog since last year, when I discovered your book at I purchased Raw art journaling and I have been reading it.
    Let me tell you that what I loved most (both in your book and in your blog) is the encouragement that you give. I am a librarian and I have been learning bookbinding since 2009 and in 2012 I decided that beautiful handmade blank books with blank pages are not enough, so I resolved adventure myself with journaling. My first attempt at it was buying Gwen Diehn’s The complete decorated journal, but when I see that beautiful things I got scared. Your proposition atracted me (mainly what you say about the inner critic) and since then I started to follow your posts.
    Another thing that astound me is the sincerety of what you write, it is so personal!! I liked very much your posting about leaving sugar.
    Thank you so much, know that your influence arrived in Guarulhos, Brazil.


  6. This is also why the drop cloth under your work, or the clean up paper you wipe your brushes and stencils and such on, always seem so much more relaxed and free in their composition. Sometimes those are way better than what I am actually working on.

  7. Play is the key to everything! Really. We learn, if not faster, then at least better when we play. We do better work. I think it’s because laughter kicks Inner Critic’s butt: if we have fun making mistakes, then how could we be discouraged by them? If we can laugh at our mistakes we forget them – more easily, if nothing else.

    I suspect Leonardo seldom HAD to finish his commissions. I think what his patrons paid for was more his presence in their court that for actual art works. In the Renaissance world the rulers and princes showed off their might though fabulous collections of art, curiosities and people (the Renaissance collections were the first form of museums), so having Leonardo in your staff would have been precious enough in itself. Hence, no pressure, Leonardo, just keep mucking about. As long as you’re with us. A nice drawing every now and again will be just fine, just remember you join us for the dinner so we can impress our rivals.

  8. Leonardo had the right idea; I’m not sure what he did to his inner critic, but he rarely finished his commissioned work (he had a patron after all), and took off to another country in the middle of a commission with the painting so it went to someone else. Perhaps that is why he is regarded as one of the greatest artists of all time? Van Gogh, concentrating on his art, always working in a frenzy, presumed his family or other people would look after him, and they did. But most creative people who rely on commissions for their livelihood don’t have it this easy.
    I know we all handle pressure differently but having to be creative to order must take the edge off what we do so that its no longer playtime, and everything focuses not on art, but the dreaded deadline. I won’t do commission work for that reason.
    I don’t know what Leonardo had or did, but perhaps the reason there are so few of his paintings in galleries might be that he never finished his work because that was the only way he could handle his IC?

  9. This is exactly why I need to swear off commissioned work! No matter how sympatico the requester is, their presence in my creative psyche is killer. I have a tendency to turn any idea/plan into a job anyway, and when you add the imagined opinions and desires of a quasi-partner, I freeze up and do my tortured worst, every time.

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