Girl Talk: So A Perfectionist Walks Into An Abstract Painting Class…

“Don’t be afraid of the white canvas.”

I’m sitting in the Nashville community art center for my first art class in almost a decade. My art teacher is standing at the front of the room repeating this phrase over and over in her sweet, calm voice. She brought homemade cupcakes to class and brewed a pot of coffee. Maroon 5 is inexplicably blaring from a paint-spattered boombox in the corner. I’m surrounded by easels and a small group of mostly middle-aged women who have signed up to spend their next eight Monday evenings learning abstract painting. I’m nervous.

“Experiment,” my teacher urges us. “Don’t be afraid.”

I dip a fat brush in water and coat it with acrylic paint. Deep breath. I drag an exuberant wash of magenta across the smooth canvas. It immediately starts dripping. I’m surprised to find that I don’t care at all. The color is so joyful. I want more of it. I stipple the edges of the canvas with the same lively pink, then rinse my brush and switch to yellow. I use quick, diagonal strokes. It overlaps with the magenta and creates a fiery orange. This is awesome, I think. I want to do this every day!

I signed up for abstract painting because I missed doing art. I’ve always loved to draw and paint, and in high school and college I got moderately good at it. And then, for a few reasons, I stopped. One factor was time — as I focused on my writing career, certain non-paying hobbies fell away — and another factor, a bigger factor, was that I wasn’t good enough to meet my own ridiculous standards. I was doing realistic painting, and I would get so obsessive about accurately capturing the shade of a glass vase or the shape of a model’s thigh that I would drive myself absolutely bonkers. I hated displaying my paintings because it was a reminder that I wasn’t as good I wanted to be. I crammed many, many canvases in the garbage.

I quit painting because I’m a perfectionist, and my paintings were far from perfect.

But recently I found myself wanting to paint again. I missed the feeling of a brush on canvas. I was yearning for a creative outlet that didn’t involve a computer. Abstract painting appealed to me because it seemed like a good place to let go of the perfectionism that had sabotaged my earlier attempts at art. Don’t get me wrong, abstraction is extremely challenging in its own way, but my definition of perfect would have to change. I wouldn’t be able to look at my representation of a still life and instantly point out all the things I got wrong. I would just have to, as my teacher advised, let go of my fear of imperfection and experiment with color, texture, and balance. “Don’t be afraid of the canvas” really means “Don’t be afraid of messing up. Don’t be so afraid of failing that you’re afraid to start.”

So that’s how I got here, painting fast and furiously to Adam Levine’s falsetto. I love the feel of the paint and surprisingly, I’m also loving how my painting is turning out. Then, suddenly, my glorious color orgy takes a turn for the worst. I notice the bright hues have conspired to create a brown swamp in the upper corner of my canvas. And not pretty brown either — toxic sludge brown.

I feel that familiar wave of perfectionist panic rising in my throat. I’ve messed it up. I add a frantic smear of red to the swampy area to try to revive it. Maybe a bit of bright yellow will help? It’s slightly improved but still ugly.

My inner critic is delighted by the turn of events. Well, that settles it, she says, you suck at art. You should have held back on the bright colors. You should have thought this out. You should just quit right now. You shouldn’t have even tried. 

I snap out of my self-flagellation when I realize my teacher is standing behind me. “What’s wrong?” she asks, apparently sensing my inner turmoil (or maybe the horrified scowl on my face is giving me away).

“I messed up,” I say. “I made a paint swamp. I hate it.”

She flips the canvas 90-degrees. “There,” she says, “that’s better.”

I look at her with an expression that clearly betrays what I’m thinking, which is, Wait, you can’t do that!

“It’s abstract,” she says. “You can do whatever you want.” I look at my painting. I still hate the color, but she’s right — switching the heavy brown to the bottom corner of the canvas rebalanced the composition. Turns out the problem wasn’t with my painting, it was with my perception of the painting, my narrow idea of what it should be. Is the rotated painting perfect? Not at all. Is it better and different and totally refreshing? Yes. I continue working on it for the next two hours, focusing on letting go of what I think it’s supposed to be, and letting the painting become whatever it’s going to be. My inner critic is finally at a loss for words. I leave class with an imperfect painting. I don’t throw it away.

It’s been eight weeks since then. I’ve learned a lot, improved in many ways, and finished 6 paintings, with a few more in the works. Out of all the paintings I’ve done, it’s my first one that I have most prominently displayed in my office. It’s not my favorite painting, and despite my attempts to fix it, the brown swamp is still visible in the corner, but every time I look at it, I think about my teacher flipping it over and the paradigm shift that ensued. My perfectionist instincts often make me feel stuck, focused on what’s wrong instead of how to make it right. Whether I’m frustrated with an essay, a recipe, a job, or a relationship, one look at my imperfect painting reminds me to be brave enough to flip things over and try again.

Because here’s the thing about life: it’s abstract. I can do whatever I want.

[Photo of woman painting via Shutterstock]