|David A. Leffel painted this self-portrait in the style of Rembrandt,
one of history’s greatest portraitists. Collection Nancy Greenawalt.
What fascinates me about the artists I admire most is their drive, determination, and commitment to become the best they can be at their craft. It seems that the artists whose work has stood the test of time-in all of the arts-not only had talent and skill but also a high standard of excellence that motivated them to continually raise the bar.
These artists are sometimes labeled perfectionists by their peers or are considered extremely competitive. But perhaps healthy competition-with the artists of the past whose work has endured, with contemporary artists we admire, and with ourselves-is a natural and necessary consequence of the creative calling.
It certainly is nothing new. Michelangelo was known for his perfectionism and competitive nature, and Giorgio Vasari tells us that when Michelangelo was 89 and nearing death, he burned a large number of his drawings, sketches, and cartoons "so that no one should see the labors he endured and the ways he tested his genius." Not only was he a perfectionist but he also sometimes felt inadequate (imagine!), and one of his late poems found the master crying out to God asking him to remove the block that was preventing the fulfillment of his potential.
I recall a recent conversation with David A. Leffel, who was talking about how we need a collective sense of "better" and how, even after more than 50 years of painting, he is still trying to figure out how to reach the next level and gain more understanding. With that, he said, comes regular moments of frustration and feeling like he's capable of more. I asked him where the frustration comes from and what his benchmark is. He answered, "I look at Rembrandt and see how very far I still have to go."
I find it reassuring in my own moments of creative block to know that great artists throughout history have grappled with the same feelings. Perhaps this is the artist's lifelong conundrum–no matter how much we hone our skills or how much we accomplish, there is always a sense that we are capable of more. We have the painters of the past to thank for setting an extremely high standard, and I'm curious to see which artists of our generation history will remember. It will likely be the ones who refused to settle for the status quo and who, by raising the bar, forced themselves and those around them to reach higher.