"The artist who aims at perfection in everything achieves it in nothing."- Eugene Delacroix
They say that practice makes perfect… But can any creative skill be mastered by the simple act of practicing for hours, days, weeks, years? Does practicing over and over guarantee perfection?
I’m not sure I agree. For example, I’m a terrible singer—I can appreciate music but have no musical talent whatsoever. I can’t carry a tune in a paper bag. So let’s say that, to the detriment of my dog and my neighbors, I took up singing (sorry folks!). I hired a great teacher and practiced every day. After months of practice I would probably be able to carry a tune. Maybe after a few years I might be good; not Carnegie Hall good but maybe local coffee shop good. But given my age and lack of natural talent I’d likely only get so far. Even if I was really determined to be an excellent singer and I worked very hard the fact that my starting point is way below average would probably limit what I could accomplish.
And then, how would one define perfection in something so subjective? Who decides what is or is not perfect (or at the very least excellent). It’s all very relative. What I do think is certain is that if I studied and practiced singing for years I would be proud of the accomplishment and of reaching my own personal level of perfect.
In the book The Art of Work, by Jeff Goins, the author speaks of painful practice. He uses the term to signify practice that gets harder as your talent improves. It clarifies that practicing over and over is not enough and that only painful practice leads to mastery. For example, a pianist would practice with a very challenging piece of music and when he mastered that he would move on to something harder. It's an ongoing process and you have to keep pushing your own limits.
Painful practice is a much more realistic approach. To me, constant improvement, experimentation, failure and growth are more in line with my creative philosophies. I have pushed myself out of my comfort zone during my time in graduate school by experimenting with self-portraits—something I thought I would hate but ended up loving, portraiture—which, because of how it made me feel, convinced me to stop shooting people, and studio lighting which still baffles me. I look back on my work at the beginning and I can see how much I have improved even though when I looked at my work then I thought it was okay. I'm sure years from now I will look back on my work today and have the same reaction.
Perfection, in my opinion, is kind of like the end of the road. That once you get there, you’re done. But I don't think perfection is something to strive for in creative work. And I don’t think any amount of practice makes perfect. Maybe perfect in that moment is more accurate. For me, it’s about the journey—without a hurry to get to the end. There’s always something to learn and I plan on learning my entire life because I enjoy it.