Watson and the Shark - My Musings on Perfectionism
In my freshman year of college, I took a class that focused on influential pieces of art throughout history. One of the paintings in the textbook that really jumped out at me was called "Watson and the Shark," an oil painting by the Anglo-American artist John Singleton Copley:
I knew the name of this painting and the artist behind it (had to memorize that stuff for the college tests ya know) but I didn't really know much beyond that.
It's one of those paintings that is so good I will never forget it, but I will also NEVER have this hanging in the walls of my house... gives me too many heebie jeebies.
What makes this painting so memorable to me is the IMMEDIATE sensation of dread and terror I feel when I look at this, for several reasons:
1) Giant shark. Terrifying.
2) Murky water. One of my top 3 fears (the other two are ants and jellyfish)
3) The subject (Watson) is helpless in the water, and also naked. Evokes a state of extreme vulnerability, and not a position I'd want to be in.
4) Watson has a TON of friends in that boat trying to help them, but most of them can't do anything except helplessly look on as the shark moves in for another attack.
5) You can't determine what is immediately going to happen next in the painting: Is the shark going to chomp on Watson's head? Is Watson going to grab the rope and pull himself to safety? Are his friends going to be able to pull him in? Is the guy with the harpoon going to be able to stab the shark and save Watson?? Even if they get Watson, are they going to be able to get him into the boat before the shark can attack again?? Anxiety!!!
6) Knowing this painting was based off a true story, and that Watson was a real person that really experienced the terror in this painting (and lost his leg in the attack as well) gave an extra layer of dread to the whole piece.
As I was reading the Wikipedia article about this painting, something jumped out at me, specifically this phrase:
"Copley had never visited Havana, and it is likely that he had never seen a shark, much less one attacking a person... The shark is less convincing and includes anatomical features not found in sharks, such as lips, forward-facing eyes that resemble a tiger's more than a shark's and air blowing out from the animal's "nostrils."
Sure enough, when you look at that shark, it is definitely NOT what a shark looks like in real life. Wildlife experts would shred his interpretation to bits and pieces, probably deeming the shark to look a bit too "derpy."
While the overall painting is very impressive, that shark is wildly imperfect.
But it doesn't matter.
Knowing the shark is anatomically flawed doesn't take away the dread I feel when I look at this painting. I don't focus on the shark's weird nostrils and think "bah, how could any professional artist paint such a goofy shark?!"
I fight a daily battle of overcoming perfectionism, and practicing art is one of the areas I struggle with the most. I look at the professionals that have been painting for DECADES and think "Until my art is at their level, I don't want it on public display!"
I've been working really hard for several years to overcome this mindset. I've forced myself to share my art, even when it's still a work-in-process, or even when I'm not happy with how it turned out. Day by day, I'm internalizing more and more that it's not about the perfection, but the passion in what you do.
Learning the history behind this painting helped me further realize that a piece of art doesn't have to be perfect to be remembered in the history books. Even some of the greatest art masterpieces in history like "David" and "Birth of Venus" aren't without their flaws.
So whatever you are passionate in, keep working at it and continue to learn and grow, and don't be afraid if every so often you create (or become) a derpy shark... it just means you're in good company!