it doesn’t have to be perfect

February 5, 2010 |  Category:   art + design life


I think I’ve hit a wall. I was coasting along all happy and motivated, planning my (hopeful) escape route and then I started drawing.

It was not good.

I mean it was fine, really, but I’ve been so out of practice that it made me wonder how I even made it through art school. Now I’m not going to say this to brag, but I will tell you this story just to make a point. When I was applying to colleges here in NY, all the art schools except Parsons had scholarship competitions as part of their admissions process. One school (Cooper Union) had us do a take home exam where you had to complete specific art tasks and then hand them in while the faculty looked over your portfolio. Two schools had us take the art test on location at the school with a bunch of other hopeful bushy-tailed candidates (Pratt, SVA). We had to do things like draw a crumpled up piece of paper and take off our shoes and draw them. I won full scholarships to 2 of those schools and the Parsons guy told me my portfolio was in the top 3 portfolios that he had seen that year.

Again, I’m not telling you this to brag, but on the contrary, I’m mentioning this because it’s funny how little it means, then and especially now. Talent might be a gift, but if you don’t keep at it, you risk squandering it away. As I struggled to finish my first year of bootcamp at Cooper (we had to enroll in like 8 or 9 different classes a semester. Yeah, you heard that right), I realized deep down that while I was technically proficient, I lacked a certain passion and uninhibited creativity that many of the other students had. I just didn’t have it and the work that I did was not good. Some of you may already know my struggles with art, but while it’s true that I lost interest in art that first year, I also gave up on it and myself. I felt totally uninspired and deflated (though I would later gain it back with music).

I have this problem, see. I’m both cursed and blessed with being a perfectionist and I tend to give up on something if it’s not turning out the way I envision. It’s incredibly frustrating and I know it’s stupid. I tend to focus on the goal and not the process, even though I like the idea of process and it seems that I *should* like the process of, well…process. So I found myself reverting back to these unrealistic expectations that I set out for myself. I did a drawing and it wasn’t good. I shouldn’t have cared so much about the way it looked, but should have been encouraged by the fact that I was trying to draw again. And instead of getting upset with myself, I should have just kept going, working at it and doing it over and over and over again. But the perfectionist, Type A with a capital T, control freak in me didn’t make that happen.

I’m starting over again tomorrow. The good news is that I have a lot of ideas right now. The bad news is that I have a lot of ideas right now and can’t focus on anything. Seriously, I’m all over the place, but I look over at the girls and see how freely they draw and paint. They will both literally draw the same person figure over and over, day after day. I have whole sketchbooks and piles of loose papers with these people, but there’s a lesson in there! Focus and perseverance will get you to the place you want to be.

And before you say it, I know. I get it from Claudine all the time. “Chill out! You have to chillax, mommy!”.

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  • Carla February 5, 2010 at 2:20 am

    Yes. I am with you on that one. I’m taking part in this project called Thing-a-day at the moment, making something every day for a month. I am coming up against all my old devils – the need to create something ‘perfect’, the inability to leave something alone, the constant judgement of my own ability…it’s tedious, really – but what I am finding is that the repetition (I know it’s a daily task) is forcing me to loosen up a little. And even a little bit makes a difference. It’s even helping me comment on posts I like without over analysing every word I write. Aaaargh!!

  • Siri February 5, 2010 at 5:37 am

    Oh good lord, you are writing to me!

    My current art project is making a few sea life paintings for the nursery of my expectant baby that was due on Wednesday. I’ve been planning them all out, choosing my creatures, my colors, my style, all over the entire last trimester, and now that the baby is late, I haven’t even begun.

    Why? Because I’m afraid they won’t turn out as I’ve envisioned them. Sure, it’s lame, but it’s typical of a perfectionist.

    Do you feel like if you don’t give 100%, that it’s not worth doing at all?

    I think it’s really re-assuring to know that we can learn lessons from our kids so early on. Your girls seem completely childlike in only the best meaning of the word, and your blog has seriously set me up to enjoy all those tiny, mundane parts of family life. So thanks for that.

  • alexandra February 5, 2010 at 5:45 am

    i really, must say that little claudine is right!

    jenna you’re so talented in everything, you’re just forgetting it. it’s so good you started to draw again, you just have to concentrate on that, and i’m sure in few days you’ll photograph a beautiful draw or painting that you made, and all sweet fine day readers will be happy and amazed.

    cheer up, you’re amazing!*

  • martha February 5, 2010 at 6:26 am

    I tell my students this all the time -things have to be ugly for awhile -work that in the end is strong and full of layer and meaning needs to go through an awkward adolescent phase before it gets good. And you learn more from your failures.
    You know all this- lecture over:)

  • Brooke February 5, 2010 at 7:07 am

    I know how you feel re the perfectionist thing.

    I’ve just heard of a book by Seth Godin called “The Dip” which talks about quitting, or not quitting. It’s in relation to business and successful businesspeople knowing when to quit and when to power through ‘the dip’, but from what I hear it’s also applicable to creative and personal pursuits.

    I’m hoping it will help me to identify a dip as opposed to a dead end.

    Good luck for when you next tackle the drawing.

  • Zooey February 5, 2010 at 8:02 am

    Thanks a lot for sharing with us! This entry sounds a whole lot like my life; just substitute art school with grad school and oh, pretty much everything else in life in my case. Funny how perfectionism can be a boon but also such a bane.

    I’m not going to say chillax, since I get told that a lot, but just wanted to share that what sorta helps me is a phrase from one of Regina Spektor’s songs that goes “good is better than perfect”. For some reason it reminds me that process is as, if not more, important. In my experience, perfection more often than not reveals itself to be static because it remains frozen in time, without the possibility of allowing that little bit that is ‘wrong’. With hindsight, I realised that often it is that semblance of ‘imperfection’ that has, more than once, opened up more areas of potential that I had thought possible at the beginning.

    Here’s to possibilities 🙂 All the best with starting over!

  • jennifer February 5, 2010 at 8:22 am

    Hi Jenna. What are you drawing for? A specific project or just to get back into it?

    I feel like I just had this same ‘moment’ yesterday! I used to draw so well too. I got into RISD & Parsons but, chose FIT since it was less expensive and I wanted to be in the city. Drawing was my life. Sketchbooks filled. I never draw on paper anymore except for little doodles. I bought a fashion sketchbook last month and have been trying to get back into it, it’s not the same. I struggle. I look at sites like this: I compare myself and put the book away. 🙁

    I guess it’s a matter of practice & time. You are amazingly talented. Don’t lose site of that!


  • Sarah February 5, 2010 at 8:29 am

    I feel like you’re writing about me (except the getting all the scholarship bits, that doesn’t happen in the uk…) But seriously, I start to draw and really hate what I’m doing… all the time thinking ‘this isn’t going right, it doesn’t look good, why doesn’t it look good’ and then I give up. But I’ve been tring to shut my brain up, been copying images out of books (just to practice of course!) and just doodling and trying not to worry so much. Not sure if its working yet…

    But Claudine is right isn’t she 🙂 good luck

  • EmmaC February 5, 2010 at 10:53 am

    Hey, Jenna – Your post today really struck a chord. I’m just now getting back into creative writing after burning out on it in college. For the past ten years, I’ve dabbled and been hard on myself for “quitting” and started a million writing projects only to drop them again. I’m also a perfectionist and was frustrated that nothing turned out the way I envisioned it in my head – which gradually transformed into not doing any writing at all because I was afraid it wouldn’t be perfect.

    Then last month, I was talking to my husband about how tired I was of not doing my writing. I described this idea for a project I’d been wanting to do for so long but had a million reasons for not doing, and he just said, “I think you should do it.” I can’t exactly say that a lightbulb went off or anything like that, but the next day, I DID pick up my pen and start mapping the outline for this story. And the next day I did a little more. And then a little more. It’s still super hard. I continually have stern conversations with my inner critics and dissenters and perfectionists. Yesterday, the story was so “not right” I wanted to cry and quit.

    But I’ve been thinking a LOT about my creative process. I’m glad I did creative writing as an undergrad and got so much schooling in my craft, but I also think it…kinda messed me up. I got into the mindset that there was only one way to go about the creative process (my teachers’ way) and also that everything had to be done perfectly the first time because when you’re in college, you simply have no time for anything else. Combine that with someone who’s already a perfectionist and really wants to please her instructors, and it really messed me up!

    In any case (sorry, this is getting long!), going back to it now has brought up all those things, but I also realize what a different person I am. I’m not a young, lost, idealistic, eager-to-please 20 year old anymore. I’ve started realizing that I can do things my way, on my own timeline. I don’t have to be impressive or witty or extraordinary. I can just be me. Letting myself relax into this (when I’m not arguing with my inner critics) has really helped.

    The best part is feeling like I’m rediscovering the joy of writing and being creative, which I felt like I lost somewhere in between Mia’s age and finishing college. Whether I actually publish this book or anything else, I’m just so happy to have that feeling back.

    Good luck to you! Thanks for sharing with us.

  • Ani Tashjian February 5, 2010 at 10:56 am

    Hi Jenna,
    You put into words how I feel about my life. Squandered is a word I use constantly in my head. I was also amazing at drawing at one time and if I had kept at it, who knows? Life got in the way. I am happily drawing and painting again, but the eyesight isn’t what it used to be, so it’s harder. And there are too many blocks. But you’re still young so you can do it! I read another post of yours recently about your indifference towards your field (mine too) of graphic design. I feel exactly the same way. Although I’m grateful to be able to work, these days especially, and I was able to raise my children while working at home, I can’t help feeling that if I had put more effort into my passions (painting and drawing) perhaps I would have been much more fulfilled with my career. Anyway, thanks for putting words to my feelings more than once. I think you’re very talented, your cookies are gorgeous and I love your blog.

  • Lynn February 5, 2010 at 11:03 am

    I can completely relate to this: “…while I was technically proficient, I lacked a certain passion and uninhibited creativity that many of the other students had.” I was never the design student that had sketchbook after sketchbook full of drawings because I didn’t know what I would draw. The lack of uninhibited creativity now especially haunts me when I’m starting a project. Just tell me exactly what you want it to look like and I can make it happen. Me starting from scratch? “Designer’s block” usually sets in immediately and I don’t even want to start the process. But I get there eventually.

    Thanks for sharing your struggle.

  • Mrs Soup February 5, 2010 at 11:21 am

    I can so understand. I had such a passion for art growing up. I have sketchbooks full of things starting when I was little and could first hold a crayon. And then doubt and real life started settling in in college. I didn’t have the desire or drive to do it anymore and didn’t have as much time either. Now, I get so frustrated just making a simple card. It’s so annoying that I can’t get it to look like I want it to!
    But I’m trying….I have scratch paper by my work phone and make myself doodle and sketch whenever I’m on the phone. It’s helping. But not quickly enough.

  • mixette February 5, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    Isn’t it funny that many people think that being and artist is easy or not “real” work?

    Just to get back into the drawing groove I bought a moleskine sketchbook and keep it by my computer. My dog always curls up on the floor or the chair next to my desk and I take a moment every day to make a quick drawing or two of her. I’ve definitely improved my sketching ability, and it’s a fun no-pressure thing that I really enjoy.

  • Caroline February 6, 2010 at 7:19 am

    Sooooo where I am right now! doing an MA in design to try to ‘fix’ it!

    Perfectionism -leads to
    Procrastination -leads to

    It’s a struggle, but it can be overcome….

  • Anna February 6, 2010 at 10:02 pm

    Hi Jenna,

    I’ve been following your blog for a little while now and I really enjoy it. I’m 5 weeks away from my first baby so there are a lot of things I can’t relate to just yet, but I completely empathise with you on this one.
    I’m a graphic designer and sometimes I draw/make art. But I always struggle, and it only occurred to me the other day that I don’t really enjoy it. I don’t enjoy the process of it like I do the process of design, and if it’s not working out how I want I get down on myself and stop.
    I’ve tortured myself about this for a while and have now come to the conclusion that if I’m trying to create a drawing or art piece, I have to approach it from a design perspective. This seems to work! I wish I could scribble all over a page and be happy, but I can’t. So I just have to accept that I’m a good designer and if I have to take that to my artwork then so be it.

    Good luck with your drawings and ideas. And thanks for such a lovely blog.

    Anna x

  • Amie February 7, 2010 at 1:04 pm

    Wow. This post made me feel a bit like you walked around in my head for a week or so and then perfectly articulated how I feel about the creative process. Thank you for that. Children are amazing in their ability to create without being critical. I have often wondered at what point we lose that ability as adults. I think about, and often marvel at the fact, that some of us don’t ever lose it. I’m envious of those free-spirited folks. So, here’s to getting some of that back, and to creating with abandon, just for the sake of doing it.

  • cvjn February 8, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    the thing i most hope my girls get from my husband? his i don’t care attitude toward mistakes. it is so awesome and awe inspiring. he truly does not care if he does something badly or looks like an idiot. so of course, he rarely does things badly and rarely looks like an idiot. i have to keep reminding myself, mistakes really are for learning.

  • Lindsey Boyer February 21, 2010 at 5:31 pm

    I can completely identify with your struggle. I too went to art school and after finishing became completely worn out and ended up not pursuing my chosen career path. Instead I did something else + am now trying to return to art/graphic design.

    I guess the only way to approach it, is to try and get back on the horse. I’ve found that I have to put aside my Type A-ness (which can be extremely hard) and keep on a moving towards my goal.

    I wish you the best, you are clearly creative and talented! Good Luck!