Conquering Anxiety, Fear of Failure, and Perfectionism Through My Art

By ​​Anna Wwoyld

From childhood till adulthood, the visual arts have always been my nemesis. I have a distinct memory of when I was five years old. I got so upset that I could not draw an evenly shaped heart into the shag rug of my parents’ bathroom that I had a temper tantrum complete with tears because I hated my drawing. In middle school I became obsessed with anime, but never drew anything remotely resembling the colorful, smoothly animated characters I saw on TV.  Instead my characters were ill-proportioned with big eyes, oversized heads, arms hidden behind their back to hide the hands, and questionable legs. 

Despite my frustrations, I took one year of drawing in High School, and then avoided the class like the plague because I knew I was the worst student in the class. One thing I knew for sure: I couldn’t draw as quickly or as accurately as my classmates. By the end of the year, I had three drawings I was proud of: a shoe, a kiwi, (that my teacher thought was an avocado at first) and some seashells.  Everything else was horrible and I was frustrated. 

College was no different, the first art class I took, I barely passed with a C. The only drawing my professor praised was my version of a statue. Still, I tried again, determined for a better grade.

Unlike my earlier art instructors, this professor treated art as a skill to develop based on our current talents.. I remember dreading the moment she came around on our first still life drawing exercise. We had a plethora of objects on a table in the middle of the room: vases, plastic fruits, a Chinese takeout box, bowls, teapots, cups, you name it–with the instruction that we had to draw what we could see while adding in background foreground elements like the table, blackboard, chairs etc. 

Here we go again, I thought. She’s going to pass by, seeing that I only finished drawing the takeout box, the beginnings of a vase, a wonky table, and a deformed rolling chair in an hour, and come back later, hoping I had done more.

“Oh”, she remarked, “It looks like you measured the distance between the vase and the takeout box right.  And good job on the angle of the takeout box lid.”

What? Praise right off the bat. Had I finally mastered the art of measuring angles with a stick rather than my eyeballs? I was elated, but confused.

“What about the chair?” I asked, “I’ve been trying to get the distance between it and the table right.”

“Oh,” she said, looking at it for a moment. “You don’t have to worry about that for now. It looks good enough for me and you worked hard to try to get the shape of the negative space right.  Just keep working on your objects.”

Good enough?  What was she getting at?  

Emboldened, I showed her some character design later on. Everything about the character was fine, I thought, except the hands, where I’d overdone it, trying to get it right.  Her response?  “It’s nice to see those hands, that area that you focused on.”

Nice?  But they were so dark compared to the rest of the figure…the balance of value was not evenly distributed across the page!  How could she like that?

As the class wore on, I took my first step towards loving my art: letting go of unreasonable perfectionism. The idea that I would get it magically right on the first try like some of my more advanced peers was ridiculous!  But that was okay! Their art journey was not my art journey.  Instead of feeling disappointed and inferior when I drew something wrong, I could be happy when I drew something right. Instead of being frustrated that the basics didn’t come easily, I could spend my time working to improve on my basics. After all, each time I drew something, my brain was learning to memorize the shape, form, value, space. My hands were learning line width, direction, texture. All of this takes time, effort, and multiple attempts, especially for someone who is not typically a visual learner.

Based on my personal experience, I’d like to share some of the steps you can take if you feel like the worst art student in your class. I truly hope they help.

Step One: Let go of feelings and focus on the process

Letting go of my disappointment, anxiety, and frustrations, and instead focusing on the process of learning to draw helped me to be kinder to myself and get involved in the art process.  I began to enjoy the challenge of measuring distances and angles, adding in complex shapes and their values, and began to make art my happy place, even if I failed at something simple like drawing a circle or square.  As a result, I started to work harder and get better results.

Step Two: Don’t compare your art to anyone else’s

The second step towards loving my art came later: realizing that yes, all those artists you see with perfect drawings in art books still have something akin to your seventh grade people-drawing skills!  Sometimes they even doodle nonsense in their sketchbooks right next to more finished pieces.

I was in the library one day, perusing books on illustration, when I found a book showcasing the personal sketchbooks of successful illustrators.  I flipped through well-composed pages, lists of items, and them, bam.  On one page, next to some more developed work, was my exact 7th grade figure drawing style as the base sketches for ideas, complete with random cubes and other shapes floating around in space.  I was floored!  If they could be successful and still drew the way I did from time to time, then I could do the same.  Professional artists make mistakes, professional artists take time to develop skills, and without refinement, or hours of work, maybe a professional artists’ work looks just like yours! 

Step Three: Remember Steps One and Two

​The third and final step requires you to be able to remember the first two.  Withstanding negative emotions, either from your own criticism or outward criticism, being patient with yourself, knowing that your art journey depends on the skills that you build, and enjoying the process of making art is essential to keeping you motivated and pushing your work in circumstances where critique is not expected, or overly harsh, where you aren’t meeting financial goals and are frustrated.  The final step is this: any small thing that you do, new skill that you try, new advice that you take, hours that you put in, will be worth it if you decide your art goals are possible.