Loosening up and tending towards imperfection
On sketchbooks and becoming appreciative of a flawed art practice
A journey towards letting go
You have been clenching that sword for too long. Look at your hand — the tighter the grip, the greater the pain. By releasing the hold of the sword, you will find joy and safety in flowing and playfulness.
Battling perfectionism (the ultimate double-edged sword, everybody’s “greatest” weakness) as a creative person starts with the way we connect with our sketchbook. The sketchbook is a ground for experimentation, for letting our ideas out in a messy way, a space to try out new things without being afraid of “ruining” it or without fearing that you will create something you cannot show to other people (you don’t have to show it to anyone!) It is your safe place and your ally — who are you trying to impress?
If you google “sketchbook spread,” what you will mostly see are polished pages, amazing works of art that look like they have been effortlessly created — these are great and admirable! But even if we all know that social media is a highlight reel, when you face your sketchbook and draw a line in the wrong place… you feel invalid, you tear down the page, you sigh and close your sketchbook for the 100th time.
There is a beauty in imperfect things: old and used objects, handmade items with defects that would be rejected at factories’ quality checks, children’s drawings... But what is perfection anyway? Do imperfect things have to be beautiful to be valued? Art has shown us time and time again that it is not about beauty or perfection: it is about expression, about connecting on an emotional level, about feeding into our curiosity, about feeling less alone in our experiences. Honouring art-making as something sacred can be liberating in many senses. Ultimately, we are just expressing ourselves, and what better way to do it than letting go of all expectations — becoming a tabula rasa and allowing our soul to sing its song.
A recipe for imperfection
Perfectionism comes down to a matter of trying to control every single aspect of ourselves and our environment, not only in regard to art but in all aspects of life. It is important to keep in mind which factors we can control and which ones we cannot, and to surrender and let go of those we cannot control. There should be no harsh judgment in the creative process, as there is no right or wrong way to do things. These are some things that have helped me along the way:
Silliness and ugliness
Let go of the idea of making every page beautiful and embrace the wobbly lines, the not-so-good colour choices and the failed experiments. Even if you try your hardest at making every page beautiful, you will not like all of them, and it will drain you. In my case, combining my art practice with mundane notes, to-do lists, and journalling has helped me approach my sketchbook in a more casual way. I invite you to write down your grocery list, scribble your schedule, draw on top of other things, journal about your day. This messiness is your tool for growth — the sketchbook turning into a place where you can just dump words and lines without any pressure or constraint. You will see beautiful ideas arise from this place. If you are a sketchbook artist, you can invest in a different + cheaper sketchbook for your experiments. It is important that you have a place for playing and for the not-so-good work.
Listen and look from afar
Take a second to look inside: Do you have any expectations for this piece? How is your body feeling? How is your body interacting with the piece? What is your mindset at this moment?
Now, look at these thoughts from far away. Look at your artwork too, from afar. From this perspective, allow some compassion towards yourself and your work.
Analysis vs creation
When you are working on your sketchbook, don’t plan too much in advance. Let yourself loose. You are in creative mode. There is this quote by Sister Corita Kent from her list of rules for students and teachers that really inspired me when I first read it. It says: “Don’t try to analyse and create at the same time. They’re different processes” And they truly are. When you are constantly switching from one mode to the other you are interrupting the state of flow that is the essence of art-making. Try setting aside that critical voice when you are creating; you will always have time to analyse and edit and assess and judge afterward.
I invite you to read the rest of Sister Corita Kent’s rules because they are all very valuable. I think there is one in particular that is very famous and relevant: “The only rule is work”, which takes me to the next point;
Quality vs quantity
In Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland, there is a little story about two groups in a ceramics class: one being graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, and one being graded solely on the quality of the work. One group had to make as many pieces as possible, while the other had to make only one — but a perfect one. When the time to mark the students came, the group that focused on quantity had works of higher quality.
Especially in regards to sketchbooks, the more work you churn out, the more probable it is that there will be good stuff among it. We learn from each work we create and it’s very easy to get stuck in one, going over the same lines in fear of ruining it, but many times it is wiser to move on to the next thing. There are many bad artworks behind a masterpiece.
Good vs perfect
So, instead of pondering how to create the most beautiful artwork, go ahead and aim for good work, not perfect work. (Cut yourself some slack! You are enough) Change your standards and seek a pleasurable, joyful creative time, not a finished product.
Remember that mistakes are part of the process — they make us human, the same humanness that allows us to create art in the first place.
Sources + Further reading
— The only rule is work: Sister Corita Kent’s timeless advice for students (Creative Lives in Progress)
— The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown
— Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland
— The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
— How to loosen up your art by Sandi Hester
— Illustrator Frannerd talking about her “ugly sketchbook”
— An afternoon in my sketchbook. Sketch & draw by Furrylittlepeach
— The Bull by Pablo Picasso - A Lesson in Abstraction by Dan Scott
✸ Recreate something you have already made before with a different medium (bonus points if it’s a medium you are not familiarised with). You can also play around with colour palettes you are not used to
✸ Lose your fear of “ruining” sketchbooks by mixing your grocery list, your to-do list, your dream journal and your art practice all together
✸ Draw the same thing 5 times, each time loosening up and simplifying your lines and shapes more and more (exercise inspired by Pablo Picasso's The Bull lithograph series)
✸ A few copies of my “At the top of the mountain / At the foot of the mountain” zine are now available at Bookartbookshop in London, Good Press in Glasgow and Books (Peckham) in London!
✸ I am running a little summer sale on my online shop! Everything is 20% off until August 25th :-)
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Have a great day! Stay hydrated in this sunny day.
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