Perfection (or, why I love abstract painting)

Perfection in art.  Wow, that’s for sure going to be an interesting conversation.

Except that is not what’s going to be happening here.  What I’d like to do is tell you how learning to paint — first with watercolors, then with alcohol inks, and now with acrylic pouring — has been a massive experiment for me in letting go of my innate desire for perfection.

Truth is, it’s been a massive experiment in letting go, period.

What attracted me to watercolor in the first place, other than the beauty of transparency in pigments, was the ability to create something soft and impressionistic.  Not having to paint dozens of little life-like leaves on a bamboo stalk, but being able to be much less detailed and more fluid.  Water and pigment, oh my.

I didn’t paint much of anything that was abstract in watercolor, and I’m not sure how well the medium lends itself to abstract.  I really didn’t go looking for it, as I was thrilled with simply being able to create something that looked vaguely like a stormy sky.  Because I was painting landscapes, flowers, etc., I was inevitably plagued with the desire for things to look “right.”  In the perfection trap, things have to look right, you know?

In retrospect, the primary attraction to alcohol inks when I came upon them was that most everything I was seeing was abstract.  Highly saturated pigments, plenty of ways to manipulate it, and nowhere near the amount of control one has with watercolors and a brush.  It lends itself really well to abstract, and it didn’t take me long to see how much more freedom I felt playing with inks.  There were goals, yes, but very little right to go chasing after. 

I had unexpectedly found a sweet spot in abstract painting which for me would be about letting go of the idea of perfection, and letting go of the idea of control.  Illusions, both!  I’ve known this on an intellectual level for a while, but painting abstract has plopped me down in the middle of the experience itself.

And then, stuff happens when painting.  There’s accidents — fingers slip while holding a canvas, paint drips where it shouldn’t, and cat fur is a story unto itself.  Some mishaps mean the ruin of a painting, and sometimes they just add to the character of it.

Painting on albums is fun, but the grooves make it hard to get rid of the air bubbles that are part and parcel of paint pouring.  I’ve tried to get rid of all of them in many ways, and that was one more lesson in the journey.  That lesson is don’t fiddle!   If you like it, leave it alone.  Is that a blemish or is it texture?  Yes, more texture, please.

Having a small home studio, space is limited — table space for painting, storage space for paint and supplies, semi-protected areas where I can dry canvases and tiles — and all of this is before we talk about where to store all the finished paintings.  It’s just another aspect where one has to let go of the idea of having things perfect.  (Or tidy, for that matter).

As I’ve mentioned before, I had no idea when I got interested in learning how to paint what a layered journey it would end up being.  I just wanted to play with color and see what happened.  Now, here I am looking at how a speck of dust in wet paint can break my heart, and what that’s really all about.  Yes, lots of interesting stuff here, with more being revealed every day.  Huh!

The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.

Anna Quindlen

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