Slow Down Perfectionist!

written by Sophie | Materials & Technique

So many of us get frustrated while we paint. The painting just doesn't work, you can't make it sing, there's something wrong but you're not sure what. Sounds familiar? I think we've all been there. We plod on and on, and the painting goes from bad to worse. In frustration, you start again.

Frustration Sets In

We set the bar so high. We have this amazing image in our mind's eye and yet our hands do not deliver the goods. Practice makes perfect, we all know that, so we go on and put the hours in. And indeed, we do get better. Slowly.

I've been here so many times. I was planning on this epic piece of art, and for some unknown reason it just didn't happen. Depending on your temperament you can start screaming, throwing, or just sigh and start again. I am more of the keep-going-with gritted-teeth type and sometimes I managed to work through the problems. The work-through often includes total desperation and wiping off or repainting most of the painting. But nothing feels better than to come out the other side, knowing you've made it.

If there was ever one thing that helped me out of this frustrating situation, then it's my kids.

Yep, you should all have kids. 😉

Slow Down!

No, seriously. Despite the odd complaint that having kids takes up so much of our time, there is no time to paint, etc etc, they are actually a blessing in disguise (in so many ways) for your art.

Ever since I had kids (eldest is now 14 and as much glued to his computer as I am to the easel) I had to paint in fits and starts. I have always made sure that my studio (or painting corner) was easy to reach and available. So I painted in a corner of the living room or, nowadays my studio is in between the kitchen and the living room. So whenever I had a spare minute, I could paint, without having to move far.

That meant I sometimes just painted for 10 minutes before running off to other things. My painting would sit on the easel, sometimes untouched for days or weeks. Sometimes I got an hour, sometimes two hours. Sometimes just 10 minutes. And I thought that was a bad thing.

But having children turned out to be the best thing for my painting, for two reasons.

Having children turned out to be the best thing for my painting

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Time to Think

My painting sits on the easel while I run past it many times a day. I don't have time to work on it, but it's just sitting there. And that forced break gives me time to think about it. After a few days I might come up with a new idea, a way through a problem, or I realise what needs to be done next. I get so much time to simmer about my painting (a notepad is handy to jot ideas down) that when I do get back to it I know what to do. I will have had time to imagine what it would look like if I blur and edge, or push the chroma of an area, or remove a bit out of a composition.

After all that thinking and looking at my painting I am much more focussed when I do get to paint. I know what I want to do; after all I've been thinking about it for days. I have solved a problematic area in my mind and I am keen to try out the solution. The time away has forced me to work in a much more focussed way. I have only so much time so I make the most of it. In my mind the paintings develops and grows, and when I get to the easel I get to try out the solutions and ideas.

Fresh Eyes

Another major benefit of not being able to paint all the time is 'fresh eyes'. I think we all know what that means. We've all had the experience of seeing your own painting after a long break from it and all of a sudden you see everything that is wrong with it. While you were still painting it, you got stuck and muddled up. You weren't sure what was wrong but you knew something was wrong. Putting the painting away and getting back to it much later often helps to see things you did not see before.

So when you are forced to leave your painting alone, it can help enormously to simply not look at it. Turn it facing the wall and forget about it. When you come back to it, you will have lost your frustrated muddled gaze and might well see what's wrong straight away. Result!

So although at times I have probably complained about not having enough time to paint, and expressed my jealousy of artists who can paint all day every day. But, now that my kids are older I know better. I have tried to paint all day every day and not only do I end up with extremely tired eyes, it also muddles the mind and the last few hours are usually the least successful. I have realised that to paint in fits and starts (and no doubt I have developed this method over time to work well for me) gives me time to reflect and consider what I am doing on the canvas. It strengthens my vision and makes sure I can get back to the canvas with intent. Now that my kids don't need me so much I still paint in fits and starts. Days go by and I don't touch the easel. Ideas simmer, painting problems rumble around in my head. When I am ready, I paint. Sometimes just a bit and then I leave it again. 

Who ever said paintings have to be finished within a few days? If you take your time you might get much more efficient in how you paint. You might stop wasting time painting 'mud', you'll avoid having to rework areas, and you will have a clearer idea of what you are doing and where you going. Slow down and you might well produce much better work. Time will remind you why you create art and it will give you space to reflect. 

One Downside to Going Slow...

There is one down side to painting in fits and starts though. Your brushes suffer. I usually wipe my brushes on some kitchen towelling and put them in a wooden box with my palette (for example like this, or this). This way everything stays wet and I can get back to painting whenever I have time. But as I never know whether this is in an hour or in 3 days, I sometimes end up with ruined brushes. So don't do what I do, and clean your brushes on time, before they have completely dried up. I found Master's Soap is pretty brilliant is getting even dried up paint out though.

Published: September 5, 2019

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  1. This was very good for me to read to let me know that painting in "fits and starts" is okay. Sometimes it's just for five minutes, other times its for a couple of hours. Thanks for bringing this up


  2. I was mentored by someone who went through art school as a single parent. She said her tutors said that her work was always fresh because she didn’t have time to over-labour it like those that stayed in the studio into the evenings. She also got me to sit down a lot (we drank a lot of tea) to make me ‘paint with my eyes’. These are lessons I need to revisit so thanks for the reminder. Great post!

  3. Yes, I need to work on slowing down when I am working on an art project. For some reason I feel like finishing fast most of the time and I get super frustrated right away.

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