Using Art Journaling To Beat Perfectionism

Published by Nela Dunato on in Sketchbook, Tips for creatives, Video

Using art journaling to beat perfectionism

Related post I mentioned in the video: Why I Think Every Visual Creative Should Keep A Sketchbook

If you don’t feel like watching the video, here’s the transcript:

I today’s video I talk about how art journaling can help with releasing perfectionist tendencies.

I’ve been meaning to do this video for a long time, and it was never the right time, so I just said “Screw it, today is the day, I’m doing it!” and I have my bad hair day and nothing is perfect, which is great for today’s topic.

Before I start, I just wanted to make things clear with the terms I’m going to use.

What’s the difference between a sketchbook/art journal/creative journal/visual journal?

For purposes of this video, they’re all the same.

The main point is that it’s a book where there are some visual things going on.

I use the term sketchbook a lot because that’s what I started calling it before I even knew what art journaling was.

Next, I want to talk about perfectionism and why would you want to release perfectionism at all?

Perfectionism is a personality trait that some people do have, some people don’t have, and there’s a continuum in between. You can have a little bit of perfectionism in some areas, and in another you don’t.

Usually we associate perfectionism with positive qualities. A person who is a perfectionist has high quality standards, they are not putting out junk, they can be trusted with other people’s projects, they’re going to do a good job. This is all good. And when we say “I’m a perfectionist” we wear it like a badge of honor. (I’ve written more about how to use perfectionism in a positive way here.)

But this also has some downsides. Perfectionism often stifles creativity. Perfectionism can make creating really stressful. One of the reasons is, since we have those high standards and because we don’t want to put out junk we censor ourselves and we fear failure more so than other people. If we have expectations of how things are going to turn out, and it doesn’t turn out like that that’s no good. So we tend to call some works of ours “failures” even though they might have turned out quite all right, but it’s just not the same as we imagined them, so we’re disappointed with ourselves.

We sort of get tense when we need to do something creative, or do anything that requires some intellectual effort.

Basically, perfectionism makes creating any type of art less enjoyable than it can be, which is a shame because art is the one area of our lives where we can really be free, be ourselves and not worry and make mistakes, but when you’re a perfectionist, that’s simply not true for you. You don’t feel like you can be free, you have to perform well because it’s either that or it’s not worth doing.

Why are some people perfectionists, and some people are not?

I’m not a psychologist, but based on my personal experience these things tend to happen very early in your childhood and in my case I was raised a perfectionist because my family is mostly perfectionists. We had high standards of behavior, high expectations from school performance and so on. I was raised to be a high achiever and good grades meant good stuff — my parents were happy, I was allowed to play as long as I wanted and bad grades meant my parents would not be happy, I would probably have some form of punishment, like not being able to go play outside.

Basically, I was taught very early that success is great, failure is not acceptable and I internalized this story. So for me even when I grew up and when I was no longer required to perform for other people, I have this “inner critic” as they like to call it that constantly nags you with words like “This is not good enough, it’s never good enough, you’re a failure, you should be ashamed of yourself…” So this is the story we keep running long after we’ve been out of our parent’s homes and out of school and it just goes on and on. Which is just such a shame. (I wrote more on the fear of failure in my post The Meaning of Failure.)

It cannot be easily fixed because it took years to make you this way and it will take years to release this but it’s definitely worth doing, and I call myself a recovering perfectionist. I’m still not completely completely out, but I saw some progress and I’m really happy with how it’s working so I want to share some of my tools and techniques with you so you can see this progress in yourself as well.

There are some reasons why having a sketchbook or an art journal is beneficial and I describe many of those in my post Why I Think Every Visual Creative Should Keep A Sketchbook.

One of the reasons I mention is:

Sketchbooks are private (or at least you can make them private)

They’re sort of this safe space where you can express yourself without fearing other people’s judgment. And of course it’s not just other people’s judgment that we’re worried about, because as I mentioned we have this internalized system that that keeps telling you all the time you’re not good enough, that this is crap, but when you put other people’s expectation on top it just makes it all the harder.

If you just erase one part of the equation which is other people, you have just yourself to work with. Which is the only thing you can change in your life — your own reactions, your own thoughts, your own emotions…

Having this safe containment space is very beneficial because you can practice with yourself. And the way you practice is you just allow yourself to experiment, allow yourself to make mistakes and you start to re-frame those mistakes in your head like “Ok, so this didn’t work, but next time I’ll know what not to do and what to do better” so every mistake is a learning experience and you sort of change your inner dialogue/monologue to something that will work in your favor.

Why sketchbooks being private is important is that you feel safe to do it. If you fear that other people are going to see your failures, then this is not going to work as well and the one thing I want to say is that you are allowed to keep things private.

For example, if someone asks you “Can I see what you’re doing, can I flip through?” you’re allowed to say no. You don’t have to feel like a bitch because you said no to someone. You’re allowed to do it, even if you’re drawing in public. For example if you’re sketching in a coffee shop and the waiter comes to you and asks “Oh, can I see it?” you’re allowed to say no. Which is also probably very difficult for some of us, but you are allow, I give you permission to say no. People do this all the time. I do this all the time. I just say “You know, I’m sorry, there are a lot of personal stuff inside so I don’t really feel comfortable sharing” but you know, I open some spread where there’s something I would like them to see or that I’m comfortable with the seeing it just so they can see what my art looks like. I just don’t let them handle my sketchbook. If someone takes my sketchbook in their hands, I’m like RAWRRRRRR and I just snatch it. So you’re ok.

Experimenting with different mediums

Another thing that is really important is that you take your time with experimenting with different mediums.

A lot of times you’re going to see other people’s art journals and they’re like full of collage, and layers and stamps and whatever, I don’t even have all these tools so I don’t know what they’re using but it looks very textured and rich and you may think “I can’t do that”.

Well guess what, you don’t have to do that. Your art journal pages can look however you want. You can use any tool that you’re usually using.

If you like collage, that’s great. If you don’t like collage, you don’t ever have to use collage. And I don’t ever use collage.

If you want to do all your pages in ballpoint pen, that’s cool. I did some entire sketchbooks only in ballpoint pen and I think ballpoint pen is great.

Just use the tools that you’re accustomed to and play with them. Because if you start doing too much new things at once, it will probably freak you out and you’ll just say “Oh, hell no, this is not good for me”. Let yourself first express yourself using tools you are comfortable with and then after a while you can start introducing something else.

For example, after a while of working with my usual mediums which were ballpoint pens, ink and colored pencils, I started using watercolors. And watercolor was very difficult for me, but then I started loving it. And then later I introduced soft pastels which I never used before and it started being very fun because I could use my fingers to put the pigments on the page. But it took me years to get to this point and now I even started doing some gouache paint which is on the verge of what you see with this mixed media journal pieces, though it’s still not that, but I’m good with that my art journal pages look however they look.

You don’t have to strive to achieve something that other people are doing because rest assured a lot of things that people do you just don’t see because they’re not sharing them. And this is why being comfortable with having this private space for yourself is very important. And if you want to share something, if you’re really proud of something you did, then by all means do share it with other people, but you’re not obliged to do that.

Art journal exercise for perfectionism

I want to introduce you to some exercises you might do that are designed to shake you out of your perfectionist mentality. And they’re going to be a challenge.

I’m going to show you something that I did that was accidental, I did not design it as a practice, it just happened on its own, but I realized there’s some value to that. We’ll name this exercise “Ruin your drawing”, because this is what happens essentially.

I started with a drawing that was done in ink and watercolor, and it was supposed to be a nice drawing, there’s this sheep skull, and this rose, and it was supposed to be really fancy, and I accidentally spilled ink over it.

Ruin your drawing exercise - Using art journaling to beat perfectionism

As you may know, you can’t erase ink, and there was no way to remove it from this page so I decided “Oh heck, I’ll work with it”.

Now, I was pissed. I was seriously angry that this happened because I imagined in my head this beautiful drawing and now this vision was ruined. And what to do? Well, I took my angst out on the page and I basically decided to just spill even more ink over it and, you know, work with that.

People who see this version for the first time, they don’t know what I wanted to do with it so they say “Huh, cool”. Well, it was not cool to me. But it was a very interesting experiment, very interesting exercise in perfectionism because then you see all of this strength of your stress response and whatever goes in your head when you try so hard to do something right.

I would advise this to anyone, to just try it, to ruing a page.

Start something that is intended to look good, and then halfway you just spill paint over it, or just scribble across it… It’s going to be painful to do that. It’s going to feel so uncomfortable, but discomfort is where you’re pushing out the boundaries of your comfort zone outward, so I think it’s very helpful to do something like that.

Another exercise you can do is you can start with sort of scribble or splash of paint or something abstract, and then you can start working from that. That’s sort of a different take, in the first exercise you start doing something that you want to be doing, and then you just ruin it halfway, and here you start with something that is ruined from the start and you just keep working with that. You can try doing something like a Rorschach stain and see what you can do with that. It’s very interesting.

Of course, you don’t have to do this often, it’s not like something you need to do every day, perhaps you can do this once a month, or couple of times a year, just to feel how this feels to you and to be with those emotions that are going to rise up and just see what they’re like.

You can see on this example what being you is like whenever you’re faced with something that’s not going the way you want. Usually you’re so consumed with what you’re doing that you don’t even notice what goes on within you and when you do an exercise designed on purpose to make all these thoughts and emotions conscious, then you can see what really goes on in your head, and it’s very, very illuminating.

I hope you found this video useful! If you don’t already have a sketchbook or an art journal I hope that by now you’re at least considering it. Check out the other blog post and video for even more information why having a sketchbook or an art journal is great for you.

Read more about art and perfectionism


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9 responses to “Using Art Journaling To Beat Perfectionism”

  1. Kickass – instructive, inspirational and honest. There seems to be a problem though when I try to share this video on my Facebook wall.

  2. I saw so much of me in what you say in this video! I am at the stage where I can’t really decide what I like best and to focus on it. I’m like ‘flitting’ around. I do find I like some styles better than others, so, I guess eventually I will narrow it down.
    I did painting and sketching and a bunch of other kinds of art, until I found Photoshop. I feel I have a pretty good handle on using it now, so, I have been sampling and experimenting.
    You make me feel a lot better about what I am doing. It’s for ME! Right? LOL
    Thank you,

  3. @Jasna: Thank you! :)
    Oh, that’s too bad, I don’t know why video sharing doesn’t work.

    @Su: I’m so glad this video resonated with you! :)
    I know what you mean, and I often find myself thinking how I “should” focus on something, but you know what? That would be boring.

    Do what you feel like, enjoy it, and your style, technique and process will develop naturally.

    I’m very glad that what I’m saying makes you feel better, because when you feel better you’re be more motivated to create awesome things! So keep creating ;)
    Everything you’re doing is ultimately for YOU! :)

  4. Thank you for this video. I already feel its going to help though I am still staring at my unfinished painting! I struggle so much with perfectionism that I rarely finish a painting, despite being a keen artist/sketcher all my life. I get paralysed by fear that the next brush stroke is going to ruin the painting. So I procrastinate for weeks. I want to learn how to complete finished pieces in a shorter timeframe, and to actually enjoy the process instead of feeling stressed by it, and the only thing stopping me is my perfectionism. I should enjoy the process, but instead I hit a wall where I’m paralysed with fear of messing it up! Its a terrible thing. I shall go grab another sketchbook right away, and this time, I’ll use your tips. Thanks for your advice, and I will let you know if I ever finish my painting! ;-)

  5. Hey anonymous person, I’m so glad you enjoyed this video! :)

    I so empathize with you, perfectionism is a huge issue for me as well. However in my case, once I get myself to even start the painting, it gets easier. I tend to procrastinate for months in front of a blank canvas, though :)

    I really hope this will help you get through that stubborn block you have, however I’d also encourage you to give some thought to where your perfectionism is really coming from, and meet it with compassion.

    I’m a perfectionist because I take everything in my life (including art) so seriously, and I imagine from your comment that this might be the case with you, too. It’s hard to enjoy the process when we set the stakes so high!

    A sketchbook is a good place to start with this attitude “Oh I’m not getting all serious now, I’m just practicing”.
    And notice when you tense up and start feeling stressed again, and repeat “hey we’re just practicing now, no big deal! It doesn’t even have to look good.”

    Then gradually, when you’re comfortable doing this in your sketchbook, you can start introducing this attitude to your paintings as well.

    I would love to hear how it goes for you!
    Good luck! :)

  6. I’m discovering your video quite late but it was helpful precisely because you offered a specific example on HOW to work to overcome perfectionism. I’ve read a thousand accounts of advice and self talk about “giving yourself permission to screw up” but what I can rarely find are specific examples of exercises or activities that help overcome this problem.

    I think a small private sketchbook is a great idea. I’ve suffered from creative perfectionism for a long time but I can’t figure out where it started. I don’t feel like it started in childhood–while I might have had some sibling teasing about something I wrote or drew, I also just as often got respect and compliments. I had a poem in elementary school years published in the county newspaper and won a separate writing contest a few years later. I even directed the winning one-act play in high school. In adulthood, my historical fiction project’s first 15 pages won it’s category in a writing contest.

    Nevertheless, perfectionism absolutely paralyzes me. That winning historical fiction sits unpublished on my hard drive because I refuse to believe it is ready to publish and I’d rather sit and revise it into eternity.

    I have long desired to learn to paint and draw. I’ve got 3-4 sketchbooks where I sketched one or two things in each of them then quit, disgusted at my lack of skill.

    And now here I am at 50, life passing me by, and I still have not kicked perfectionism in the butt and lived my creative life. There is absolutely nothing more paralyzing than perfectionism.

    If I hope to accomplish even a third of the goals I long ago set for myself, then I need to figure out a way to stop the procrastination, kill the perfectionism, and move forward with my creative ideas.

  7. Dear Brenda, I’m really glad you’ve found this blog :)
    I too am frustrated when people don’t explain *how* to do something, and I try to be specific with my own advice whenever I can.

    When I wrote that perfectionism had started in childhood for me personally, I meant perfectionism in general – not just in art. It’s a character trait that spans over all areas of my life.
    (My parents couldn’t care less what my art or writing was like, as long as I was bringing home straight As, and was polite and tidy.)
    In my opinion, the way we approach art reflects the way we approach life, and vice-versa. Changing our art habits can cause a ripple effect in other areas of life, so I find the practice of overcoming perfectionism very healing in general.
    I hope this explains better what I meant :)

    Don’t wait any longer to pursue your artistic passion. I know how difficult it is to battle perfectionism, but it can be done, and it’s so, so worth it.
    Good luck with your creative projects!

    (By the way, I a couple of posts on procrastination as well, go check out the blog archive – I hope it helps)

  8. I cannot tell you how many bazillions of times I’ve searched a bazillion variations of phrases about art journaling over the past roughly 5 years. This is not the first article I have read about over-coming perfectionism, but it is definitely the most relatable and helpful in general than anything else. Exactly what I needed to start on this journal. I was actually thinking about starting with dropping ink because I couodn’t decide. Also, over the past couple years I have collected a pretty ridiculous amount of different types of media, and I wasn’t sure I could decide WHAT to use, as there’s so much I wanted to try. To start with what you’re comfortable with, as obvious as it may seem, is exactly what I needed to read. I am so glad I came across this article. Thank you so much!

  9. Thank you for your comment Cara, I’m so happy to hear you’ve found this helpful :)
    Awesome, I’m glad that this simple tip resonated with you, and that you’re a step closer to using this in practice. I’d love to hear about your experience afterwards, if you care to share.

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