To most people, paper is just paper.
But to the creative anxiously seeking absolute perfection, blank paper is a surface that has not yet been messed up. It’s a thing of unlimited potential. It’s something you can fail or succeed upon.
This all makes blank paper paralyzingly scary—much scarier than a computer, which comes with a delete button.
It turns out there’s an antidote.
In kindergarten, I made a fabulous friend. We bonded over our love of art…instead of playing tag during recess, we would dash to the edge of the playground where a row of birches grew, peel off strips of bark, and draw tiny pictures on them with mini colored pencils.
The other kids thought we were so weird.
Today, we’re weirder than ever and we still bond over art. Recently, I was telling this friend, who went on to art school, about my fear of blank paper and how it’s impeded my progress on a particular illustration project.
It’s bad. Over the years, I’ve acquired (with earnest intentions) a 50-yard roll of trace paper, a ream of sketch paper, and about a dozen unlined notebooks…which have silently terrorized me while gathering dust and becoming physical and emotional burdens of guilt and shame. I was describing this when my friend interrupted me.
“Take that roll of trace paper and rip it up.”
“RIP IT UP?!” I sputtered. “But it’s so perfect!”
“Rip it up! In art school, we called it ‘butt wad.’ Treat it like that.”
When I got off the phone, I eyed my lovely, perfect roll of trace paper. Then I carefully tore off a strip. The sky didn’t fall. So I picked up a pencil.
And discovered…that it worked. In one week I produced more output than I had in a season.
“Rip it up” ripped up my creative block.
In effect, I ripped up my idea of how “real artists” work—creating magnificence on their first try. I ripped up my safety net—a habit of tip-toeing with a pencil (and eraser close at hand). I ripped up my unreasonable demand for instant perfection.
Maybe it’s personally subliminal, tracing back to the days I peeled off birch bark to draw on, just for fun.
Or maybe it’s about creating a small, private space, specifically meant for exploring any and all ideas. “A room of one’s own,” Virginia Woolf might have said.
Maybe it’s about giving myself permission to hang out with the sweet, ugly trolls from The Land of Half-Baked Ideas. They all mean well.
Maybe it’s about embracing how artistic practice can be more about volume than perfection. A roll of paper can be seen as a tapestry of progress, unraveling.
Maybe it’s about recognizing how destruction and construction are both part of the creative process, and that destroying one’s idea of perfection is key to inventing something better.
Maybe it’s about seeing how no two scraps of paper can rip to look perfectly alike, just as no two sketches can be drawn exactly alike, and no two people will hand-make anything precisely alike.
Accepting, owning, and refining your perception, muscle memory, and spontaneity of spirit is exactly what makes your art your own.
“Sound your barbaric YAWP,” Walt Whitman might have said.
If you’re creatively paralyzed out of a fear of perfect paper, try this.
Whatever material makes you hesitate—blank paper, lined paper, grid paper, staff paper—rip it up.
The sky won’t fall. See what happens next.