“You’re feeling the character out,” Lauren told me. “It’s supposed to be loose.”
I groaned, a fraction away from throwing in the towel, and maybe my pencil. “I’m really bad at sketching. Really bad.”
Lauren rolled her eyes. We were Skyping for the first time in a month (the holidays halted our several-times-a-week Skype hangouts), and as usual, we were drawing. I held up my sketchbook. “I’m happy with his outfit, I guess, but the sketch is horrible.”
“Aww, it’s not horrible, ” she said, obviously blinded by her love for the character I was sketching. “I think it’s good.”
For probably the sixth time, I moaned, “I’m so bad at sketching.”
“I love sketching. I’m really bad at finishing things, but I’ll sketch all day,” she said.
“I’m the other way around.” I tapped my pencil against the page. “Either I do a full-blown portrait or nothing at all. I’ve always been that way.”
She continued to encourage my sketching and I switched to another sketch – I decided to try a sloppy, whatever-it’s-just-a-sketch-anyway doodle of our shared tiny goth germophobe character, Alucard. We talked and sketched, but what I’d said stuck in the back of my mind. I’ve always been that way. And it’s true – I have a very clear memory of being seven, and my older sister Maralie put together a craft where I, my baby sister, and my older brother each painted a seagull as a gift for Mom. I was putting ridges in my seagull’s legs – for realism – when Maralie said, with laughter and frustration, “No, Mirriam, we’re aiming for simple here.”
“But – detail,” I stammered, really confused as to why anyone wouldn’t want a realistic seagull. Of course I had the paint skills of a seven-year-old and nothing I painted was going to look realistic, but the incident stuck with me. I can remember my piano teachers over the years telling me, “You’re overcomplicating this. It isn’t hard. Just relax.” I can remember the years of being told, “It’s just adding numbers, okay? Math isn’t that hard! You’re making things more difficult for yourself.”
It was true. I had always been this way. I have always been this way. But as I sketched – trying to loosen up, to realize this was for fun and practice, nothing more – I realized I was actually happy with it. It was way better than my previous one. I was ‘feeling the character out,’ and the more I relaxed, the more I loosened my grip on control, the more fun I was having. And fun wasn’t the only result – the result was a small, messy sketch I was entirely happy with. It did more than capture details – it captured him.
After dinner, I settled down with music to try and work on a commission I’ve been attempting to wrangle for months. I was never happy with it. This was my fifth try; I had scrapped every attempt beforehand and this was resulting in the world’s longest art commission, I was sure of it. Every time I looked at it, it felt stiff. If I’m not happy with the groundwork for a drawing, then anything I try to build on top of it crumbles beneath my own dissatisfaction.
I scrapped the fifth try and sat staring at a blank sheet of paper. The sixth attempt. Something had to give; I couldn’t keep doing this forever. I remembered what I’d learned during my call with Lauren. I was doing to this drawing what I do to everything of any importance – I grasp it tighter and tighter until my metaphorical pencil snaps. I procrastinate in the name of perfectionism – because really, the older I get the more I realize that’s what perfectionism is. It’s glorified procrastination. We don’t move on, we don’t grow and learn. We remain stunted in the name of ‘making it perfect.’
I like perfect things as much as the next person – but anything we do ourselves is not going to be perfect. Perfect things come from God. Sunsets are perfect. Stars are perfect. My artwork? Yeah, it’s never going to be perfect. But I can continue to do lame sketch after lame sketch until suddenly, an okay sketch emerges, and then one I like, and then one day I’ll actually like my own sketching. I’ll get closer to perfection the more mistakes I make.
Samuel Beckett said, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Make mistakes. Because making a mistake means you’ve tried, and as long as you keep trying, you’ll improve. I just need to remember to loosen up, to feel things out, and to strive for the next step upward instead of immediate perfection. Mistakes mean you’ve tried, and trying – that’s a worthwhile thing.