Crate Training the Perfectionist Monster

A few weeks ago a call for submissions prompted me to start playing around with a new works-on-paper series based on some draft sketches I made in 2011.

I’d always imagined that the RYG drafts would be translated into rather large works, 72”x48” and built up using several layers of plywood in the manner of 3D découpage.

However, when the call for Tiger Strikes Asteroid Gallery’s Flat File came out I decided I would make a couple pieces especially for the submission and re-create some 24″x18” drafts into 14″x11” works.

L: Choice Cuts draft, 24″x18″, ink, watercolour & collage on cartridge paper, 2011. R: Choice Cuts, 14″x11″, ink, watercolour & collage on rag paper, 2018.

Generally I have very few reservations about diving in and trying out ideas directly on my textile sculptures or paper collage pieces. Both of those media offer the ability to make changes painlessly. If I don’t like how a sculpture looks I just rip out the seams and re-sew, if a certain part of a collage no longer appeals I just pull it off or cover it up with something else.

Working with watercolour is different. Once you put a layer down, it’s pretty much there for good. In my opinion it’s one of the most difficult media to master and become technically proficient at.

It’s been fascinating noticing the differences in my process as I work with an “unforgiving” medium. It’s revealed some traits that I thought I’d moved beyond or at the very least learned to work alongside.

I don’t possess the skills of a pro watercolourist and – unless I dedicate a lot of hours to it – I never will. That’s OK, I exploit the medium in my own way because I fancy the look of it and like how it feels to use. But watercolour, as much as I love it, rears the ugly head of my Perfectionist Monster; the beast that I can pretend doesn’t exist when working with other media that I have more control over.

The knowledge that I could completely destroy a piece at any moment has me becoming a bit too precious about the work. I tend to think of myself as a competent creator, able to produce items very efficiently. With this work, though, I find myself slowing down and taking steps to test my ideas on a piece of tracing paper before committing them onto the heavy weight cotton rag paper I’m using as a surface.

The medium of watercolour has been making me pause, question my next actions, and occasionally paralyzing me with doubt. I haven’t experienced these feels in a long time and I think it’s a good thing that I am now, because it’s giving me the opportunity to trust, push through the hesitation, and, intermittently, fail.

Yup, that’s right. I just said, “opportunity to FAIL”.

I’m not going to pretend that I’m happy and all “Oh, gee whiz!” when I spend hours on a piece that ends up feeling like a total waste of time. The Perfectionist Monster HATES IT when that happens and throws a big, fat tantrum. I, however, can respect the value of failure.

First of all, failure is great if you’re the kind of person that doesn’t give up easily. Failure will make you do something AGAIN, which inherently makes it better. Even repeating something just once will show an improvement. The third piece I’m currently working on – even though it’s still in progress – feels stronger than the first two pieces in this series.

L: Goosed, 14″x11″, ink, watercolour & collage on rag paper, 2018. R: Untitled, 14″ x 11″, ink watercolour & collage on rag paper, WIP.

Secondly, making mistakes is how we grow and learn. When I push a piece to the edge where it may be irretrievable I know I’m going to learn something in the process of trying to bring it back.

Sometimes The Learning is all you get out of it and the piece itself ends up being crap that you have to throw it in the garbage (or if you’re a thrifty Scot like me, hide in the Bin of Shame to be broken down and recycled at a later date). Every now and then, though, perseverance shines and it becomes one of the strongest pieces in the series. True story, exciting art can come from not knowing what the heck you’re doing, but doing it tenaciously.

As I work transcribing the drafts to finished works of art I’m also getting a vigorous philosophical workout in the exercise of letting go. Letting go of outcomes, of expectations, and, especially, of control. The Perfectionist Monster REALLY HATES THIS.

That’s because letting go is like crate-training the Perfectionist Monster, getting it accustomed to resting calmly in a comfy cage within your psyche while you leave it behind to go out and make art (or do whatever you do) fearlessly. Failing provides the opportunity to reinforce this over and over, and practice makes perfect, right?

That, at least, should make the Perfectionist Monster happy 😉

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