Let me tell you something really basic first: you are a human being. You make mistakes. This is a fact of life. And it’s okay and absolutely normal, too. It’s great and human and you shouldn’t think bad about yourself because of it.
But, you’ll say, I often think I have to be better with my calligraphy, I just want to do it all at once and be good. And look at all the great work around me – I’ll never get there. I should be better right from the beginning or I shouldn’t even start. I wish I wouldn’t make mistakes, they feel so bad.
Does this sound familiar to you? Let me tell you a few things about this approach.
Don’t mistake precision for perfectionism
First off, while it’s counterproductive to listen to your perfectionist inner self, because you’ll never get anything done then, you should strive for precision at the right time. What’s the difference? Perfectionism stops you in your tracks by making you think what you should do, or be able to do, and you feel bad about yourself.
Precision is a skill that comes with patience, observation and deliberate practice. You’ll see that precision can be a very valuable tool in your toolbox.
There are a lot of possible scenarios where precision is a desirable trait. You’ll need absolute concentration when you one have one shot for a piece and need to get it right (to be fair, in most cases you’ll even have a second or a third shot then..). Precision will make it easier to study and to write letterforms, to build up your skills and to look at your work with healthy criticism. Precision can only come from practice and experience, not from having expectations about being perfect. This is why precision is a good tool to have.
The more you practice the better you will get
Building up skills and building up precision takes time. This is true for any art or craft. The more you practice, the better you will get. This is actually a proven principle. You won’t achieve a perfect result with concepts, or pressure, or thinking yourself into a corner, this will only make your creativity go away. The only way to get better is to produce a lot of work, look at it with openness and healthy criticism, and follow the lead of your imperfections – these are the areas you can work on to get better, to attain precision.
This is why I always tell you to practice the basics for page after page.
The mere quantity of work you’ll churn out will hone your skills, make you notice and improve small things, and over time you’ll get better, just by producing more work. It’s really that easy. If you notice that you don’t get better although you’re producing a ton, you need to reflect what you do more, and apply the principles of deliberate practice.
Life isn’t about achieving perfect results with the first try, it’s about lifelong practice and being able to fall down, stand up again and learn from it. If you quit because you can’t get it right with the first try, you’ll never end up where you want. The trick is to stick with whatever you’re doing, even if it means failing a few times. As I said, it is not only ok to fail, it is the right thing to do, because you’ll learn a lot from it. You could even think of failing as your duty, because otherwise you won’t make progress. Failing is what you make of it. I believe 100% in this approach, because I have seen the results.
True, you might not end up where you want when you put all the hard work in, either, but at least you’ve tried. And I can guarantee you’ll feel a lot better about it. This is true for everything in life, not just calligraphy or art.
Being discouraged by the great work of others
In a lot of cases, looking at work you admire can have the positive effect of striving for similar results, and putting in a lot of practice, time and observing of new techniques.
But, for some people, maybe from the start, or maybe over time, you begin to doubt your abilities. Thoughts that don’t sound friendly enter your mind, and you become very self-critical. Often, this self-criticism appears in a very familiar voice.
So when you get discouraged by other people’s seemingly perfect results, think about how long those people probably have worked for these results. Should you even compare yourself with them? Are you in a similar position? Work on your skills instead of comparing yourself. Don’t let this kind of paralysis overwhelm you, embrace your mistakes and use them as a lead. And no, don’t think: I’ll never make this. Just start somewhere and turn up every day.
Particularly calligraphy is a craft that will only get better over time. We all sucked in the beginning. I did too. All the people who you think have great work produced absolutely horrible and cringeworthy practice pieces. And you know what? It’s okay. The tools feel weird in the beginning, you’ll need time to become familiar with them.
All those „great“ people did then is they decided to stick with it, embraced their cringeworthiness and noticed how they could get better.
Acknowledge your inner critic and let him go
I know perfectionism can stop you from trying something out or from continuing to do something like calligraphy practice (or exercise, or eating healthy, etc.) – if you are afraid of messing up or not meeting certain standards you tend to quit.
So where does this come from? Very probably what you hear is a voice from inside you that’s a result of past experiences, upbringing or certain people in your life. This voice or thought pattern is sometimes called your inner critic. Like the paragraph at the beginning of this post that harbored all those negative feelings and beliefs. Whatever you call it, you don’t have to listen to that voice. It’s just thoughts. Your brain produces these thoughts. You acknowledge them, and you can let go if you decide. You’ll just have to make this decision over and over. I do the same every day, I try to be mindful of this every waking hour. If I catch myself with one of these thoughts (and one some days I don’t and go on perfectionist autopilot), I try to relax, and let the thought go. This is an immediate relief. Life gets a lot easier if you do this.
One thing I’ve learned about calligraphy over the years is that I don’t need to achieve perfect results, not with the first try, and certainly I don’t need to achieve the same results like someone else, who may be a great teacher I admire, or who has experience that spans over decades. I can get to a similar place if I want to, if I put in the hours and observe myself and what I do very closely. It’s good to look up to those persons and strive to get to a similar place, but without all the pressure of having to and failure looming in the background. Always think of how it’s more important to push through these thoughts and create some art despite all this.
Mainly what I want to leave you with is: don’t get discouraged by your thoughts. Acknowledge them, breathe in and out, and carry on with your practice.