Wabi-Sabi: Embracing Imperfection in Your Art
Is striving for perfection in your art driving you crazy? Let it go, and learn to embrace imperfection! In this next installment of our Creative Problem Solving series, Holly DeWolf encourages you to drop the pursuit of perfection and look for the perfectly imperfect. Keep reading below for her “antiperfection” checklist, and learn more about wabi-sabi, the Japanese aesthetic that values imperfection. Get all of DeWolf’s tips for creative problem solving here.
Keep creating and good luck!
Perfectly Imperfect by Holly DeWolf
“Practice makes great!” —Holly DeWolf
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, The saying above is “Practice makes perfect.” I have always preferred things to be great over perfect. The word great just sounds wide open to possibilities. As an artist, you can do a lot of creative things that can lead to many great things down the road.
Mistakes can also find their way into that great category, too. Mistakes aren’t as bad as we think. We focus on errors and blunders so intensely that we lose sight of all the good things mistakes can teach us. Mistakes allow you to reinvent the idea from a different angle. As I am well seasoned in the mistake category, I am willing to admit my goofs and bone-headed moments. My philosophy is if I can laugh at it, I can live with it and learn from it. I try to use that energy for good. Sounds like superhero thinking, but it’s better to use mistakes than to waste time wallowing in them.
Perfection is an illusion—it’s only an idea, not a human truth. Illustrators are in the business to solve creative problems in a visual way. Trying to be perfect only creates more problems on top of what we have time to fix.
Perfection is also a surefire route to Crazy Town. It can only lead to stress and unhappiness. A happy illustrator is a creative and productive illustrator. Why waste time on negative energy when you can be doing what’s really important? Perfectionism means only one option, too many rules and inflexible thinking; this leads to hair pulling—mainly your own. Basically, perfectionism is all-or-nothing thinking. Perfectionists believe it is best or worst and black and white.
I like to go the route that says, “Mistakes happen. Have fun anyway!” The level of creativity you require as an illustrator is pretty big. There are endless possibilities, decisions, mistakes and experimentations. Perfectionism requires too much energy that can otherwise be better spent on the fun part of your life and illustration work. When you’re worrying about things being “just right,” you lose that element of surprise many illustrators require in order to come up with new ideas. The wrong energy spent on the wrong things can lead to missed opportunities, and these missed moments could increase that unrealistic need to get things “just right” the next time—or else.
As illustrators, we are in a constant state of reinvention, and reinvention pretty much cancels out any concept of perfectionism. At some point you will have to break your own rules. No sense being rigid as a stick. Remember that your illustration career “ideal” is only a creative guidepost to work toward. It also helps to add some flexibility because there will always be deviations from your original career path. Focus on the benefits that led you to this career in the first place.
The antiperfection checklist
• Step away: Leave an idea or an illustration you may be feeling critical about. Instead, look for inspiration. Something unrelated that can distract you long enough
to refresh your brain. Fresh eyes add a new perspective. It’s also wise to avoid looking at other illustrators’ work at this time because this can halt your productivity even more.
• Shelve it: If it’s the wrong time or the wrong kind of energy or it just feels wrong all around, shelve it. Sit back and relax. You know where it is and that you can revisit it later. If you’re going to exert that much energy on a project, make sure you’re enjoying it. This simple act can let you love that idea again.
• Get organized: It’s definitely beneficial to create some sort of order for yourself if deadlines are looming. Order can add a sense of control at those moments when you feel like you’re going to pop your disordered head. Mess has this funny way of agitating people. Mess can also be very distracting.
• Define what’s really important right now: What’s the No. 1 thing you need to focus on? Making yourself do things on a regular basis even though you aren’t into it isn’t a good push in the right creative direction. Nagging yourself to do it all, do it right and do it exactly as planned can work against you.
• Practice letting go: Do you really need to control every little thing, idea and illustration project? Sometimes the uncontrollable and unchangeable career issues can be quite liberating. I find these moments to be surprisingly refreshing.
• Make a deliberate mistake: Do something imperfect, messy and really out of character. Create blindly without a plan, blueprint or notes. Break the rules (but make sure you break your own rules).
• Distraction: Set up diversions for yourself. Distraction can be a wonderful thing, especially when it’s something really different, interesting or a bit odd. Moments like this help your brain wrap itself around things.
• Embrace the concept of “good enough”: Accept that you need to be done. If you’re tired of looking at something, it’s a sure sign to call it finished. The project can be good enough right now. Down the road you can revisit it, change it or realize you love it.
• Reward yourself: Hard work in creative thinking and illustrating needs to be appreciated from time to time. Take moments when it isn’t so busy to do something good for your creative ego. Do what you need to do. Need what you need. Want what you want.
• Joke: Nothing stimulates my mind quicker than humorous banter. Humor—especially self-deprecating humor—works really well. If the person you’re talking to or watching can laugh at her mishaps and oddities, you can too. Humor is a great fix and in many cases it’s free. It’s cheap medicine!
Essentially, you’re letting go of the over-responsibility role that can be numbing your illustrious mind. We can exert too much of that all-important energy to perform great things in exacting specifications. Not only does this make life harder, it can also alienate important people such as friends, family and clients. Being seen as someone who does not creatively play well with others isn’t going to help your career. Allowing yourself to be less obligated for your work to be done “exactly as planned at this very moment” kicks perfectionism to the curb. All that’s required of you is to admit the truth that you’re a creative illustrator, and perfectionism has no business poking around your business.
Wabi-sabi, a Japanese philosophy of aesthetics based on the transient nature of things, focuses on three simple realities: nothing lasts, nothing is finished and nothing is perfect. This philosophy has a very nice simplicity to it and I think sums up life in a very down-to-earth, common-sense way. Wabi-sabi focuses on the concepts of being imperfect, impermanent and incomplete. When we stop forcing things to be something they aren’t, we develop new eyes and a much simpler way to live life. I believe that only when we let go of those things holding us back do we actually become our true, authentic creative self. It is then that your illustration career really benefits. It is then that you take your illustration career to the next level.
Holly DeWolf is an illustrator, mentor, DYI’er, blogger and author of the book Breaking Into Freelance Illustration: The Guide for Artists, Designers and Illustrators. She currently lives in New Brunswick, Canada, living the creative freelancer’s dream.
Excerpted from Breaking Into Freelance Illustration © 2009 by Holly DeWolf. Used with the kind permission HOW Books, an imprint of F+W, a Content + eCommerce Company. Visit NorthLightShop.com or call (800)258-0929 to obtain a copy.
Learn more about the art of imperfection in these wabi-sabi DVDs and books by Serena Barton.