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Frustration vs. perfection...and the winner is?

Sunday, December 24th,2017

When I first started painting back in 1973, I had yet to hit my teen years full stride and hadn’t up until then, really paid much attention to the world of art. My mother had decided it might just be the thing to keep me quiet for a few hours at a time and so, she bought me a set of oil paints, brushes and cut up several thin wood boards. My art career had begun!

I stood at my easel in the backyard, a few feet from the house to be sure any onlookers would have full view (always the performer) and sliced and brushed my landscapes of the Australian bush. (I wonder how many relatives have dusted off the top of their fridges to find one there?)

There was very little in the way of instruction available, so most of my early years in painting was trial and error. Mostly error. I could visualize what I was trying to paint and would end the day frustrated with the results. It looked like some kid had painted it with a stick! At twelve, I was my biggest critic and was only saved by the fact that I was completely and totally in LOVE with the paints and process. I even loved cleaning my brushes!

In high-school I dabbled in silk screen, copper coin enamelling and all the side arts of the 70’s as well as the on going oil painting in the backyard. Slowly my shapes and compositions became more sophisticated and held up under scrutiny. When Malcolm Gladwell eventually wrote about the required 10,000 hours it takes to get to the point of having our expectation and ability align, I exhaled.

So, now when I teach painting, I unravel those years of frustration, step-by-step, so that my painters begin to understand the layering process of information that I have finally settled into my bones and stored in my muscles over the forty-ish years I have been painting. It’s like a quick starter. However, NOTHING can replace the time needed to let all this settle into ones bones - the movement of the brush, seeing the colors collide on the canvas and images coursing through the bloodstream to be stored in muscles. It is time. Time and lots of painting.

Eventually I had my AHA! Moment and have had many since then as I turned each new corner. I find these moments unteachable. They must be stumbled upon and small mountains scaled to reach them. They are the sole propriety of the owner. They can be explained, but the experience cannot. That’s why we paint.

It’s true of most things we do when we do them because we love it. We get that Aha! moment when we feel it settle inside. Most times it comes after much frustration. For me - years of it.

We have a vision, we want to make it look just so and, though we don’t have the skills, we hope we can achieve it. It is maddening when it falls short of our expectations … but we come back. If we do, we are on our way to scaling the mountain. We are building tools to get to our AHA!.

This learning pattern is a very healthy thing. It is ability falling short of expectation and determination bringing the two together. It’s how we do things as humans.

Perfectionism it is not. I have never been one and, if you care to swipe the top of my TV, you will always find dust. I have learned when to let go, when to step away and when to put it away for next time. How did I learn that? Layers and layers of paint! Perfectionism is the inability to accept anything short of perfect and, perfect is generally unattainable. My experience though is that people who are perfectionists are usually responsible for that and take their time to make sure they follow the path there. The rest of us are just frustrated.

So what do we do? I like to give myself a few minutes of frustration and then I walk away for a breather. In the scale of things in my life, this is probably not as big as it feels. Then, I look to see what it is that is bothering me, specifically. Can I fix it now? Shall I put it away in my closet where things go that need attention later? Shall I just call it good and try again another time? I have choices and, with each of these I grow in my skills and feel empowered rather than defeated.

It is just how life goes really. Time truely does have its part to play in making things wonderful and nuanced. I would have loved to tell my young self that back in 1973, though I am pretty sure she wouldn’t have liked it one bit!