Perfectionism and the Anatomy of the Bad Drawing

I am a perfectionist. Not an amateur perfectionist whom merely dots every “i” and crosses every “t”; I’m a pro whom makes sure that the dot above the “i” is perfectly round and the cross through the “t” extends out evenly on both sides. And to be sure, I zoom into the letters at 6400% in Illustrator just to check. It’s always served me well as a production artist, where exactitude and methodical perfectionism are mandatory for creative deliverables. It has, however, hampered me as an artist and illustrator.

I’ve always been a left-brained artist, not so much “creative” as technical. I don’t look to blow people away with out-of-the-box thinking; I just look to tantalize eyes with aesthetically-resonate artwork. Of course, artists are more animal than calculator, and in the past, I’ve had to fight against this perfectionism. In art school, I quickly became proficient in realistic oil painting, but the slow tediousness drove me crazy, and I took up watercolors just to have a degree of lost control. And as much as I love conceptual and quirkily-executed art, my pen always looks for the straight line and the 90-degree angle,  which is why the sketch featured here, a “bad” drawing, is for me a good drawing.

Much about this coffee cup, quickly scrawled in about ten minutes, is wrong, or in the lingo of perfectionism, “bad”. The proportions and perspectives are wrong, the circles on the lid are not concentric, and much of the detail is not perfectly recreated in relation to size, placement, and detail. But then again, how often do you think about the perspective of your coffee cup, the concentricity of the circles on the lid, or the placement of the most finite details? Instead, as you sip your overpriced coffee, you may just catch glimpse of the warnings around the cup lid, the corrugation of the cardboard sleeve, or the graphics here and there.

Perfectionism may be fine for InDesign layouts of a government proposal documents and branded marketing campaigns, but for sketchbook drawing, you have to decide where and when to halt perfectionism. For this drawing, all that really matters are the details that are unique to the subject, essentially telling its unique story. And I’ve always felt that when art like this goes wrong, it’s really just taking on a life of it’s own, and this is when it truly becomes alive. So if you’re a hopeless perfectionist like me, then buy a cheap sketchbook and draw badly, also known simply as “drawing”.

And drink more coffee!

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8 thoughts on “Perfectionism and the Anatomy of the Bad Drawing”

  1. Great post! It’s hard to accept the concept of ‘drawing badly’ sometimes but I know where you’re at – I’ve grown tired of ‘realism’ – your coffee cup drawing is an addition to reality than a replication – surely what art should be about. I know people are still impressed with realism but, you know, take a photo for that.

  2. great post, personally I have tried to start drawing many times, but since I never manage to create what i am picturing in my mind, I tend to get frustrated and give up. I am currently doing another attempt, trying to allow myself to draw badly

    1. Thank you Nicolai. As for drawing badly, it’s one of the most important things you can do as an artist. Bad drawings not only defeat the scourge of art’s biggest challenge – the blank page – but it also lays the foundation for better drawings down the road. For every sketchbook page posted on my blog, there are pages and pages of sketches and drawings that don’t get posted. These are the bad drawings that none the less contain singular lines, details, or stylings which emerge from the bad drawings like diamonds in the rough, and become the foundations for better drawings down the road. And if you can’t always work from your mind, work from your eyes; I’m a very left-brained artist, so what I lack in internal creativity, I make up for by working with the direct imagery of the people, places, and things that surround me. Ultimately, though, the only real bad drawing is the drawing that never gets done, and no matter how polished it becomes in our minds, it looks much better unpolished, but real, when initially laid down on paper in front of us.

      1. You are totally right. Your blog made me motivated to give sketching another go. I don’t aspire to become great at drawing, but I would really like to master the basics so I am able to communicate ideas. My plan is to draw one person each week, one attempt a day and hopefully get to a point where people actually recognize who I am trying to draw. I would really appreciate some tips and feedback on how I can improve. Keep up the good work!

      2. When I first got back to drawing, and in particular, drawing people (I was out of art for too many years, and life/figure drawing was always my weak point), my goal was not to get it the figure “right” at first, but to merely get it drawn. I’d start at the top of the person, and work my way down. The head and face and arms and torso and legs and feet would not be “right”, nor was that the goal; I just wanted a full person on what only minutes earlier was a blank page. As I went along drawing people almost daily, I found myself focusing on particular details and their challenges: eyebrows, hairlines, the area between the nose and the top of the mouth, chins, hands, feet, and so forth. I have whole sketchbook pages of just parts like eyes, noses, hands, elbows, arms, knees, etc… Just remember that the only real hurdle to get over is to not worry about getting it “right” on the page, but to just get it onto the page at all. Over time, and the more and more you draw, real people will emerge from the sketches, and more than the sketches being mere reflections of the people, will people will be a reflection of your own unique way of seeing people and reflecting them on paper.

        Good luck, and keep drawing!

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