Three Tips for Perfectionist Art Students

Perfectionist Art Students

Last week we talked about the role of tracers in the art room. Today, I’d like to tackle how to handle students that have what I like to call “tracer dependency.” You know the kids. No line is straight enough, no circle is round enough, no butterfly is symmetrical enough.  They want, no, they NEED to support to get started. Usually these kids have issues with perfectionism, which can be a big issue to tackle.

So what’s an art teacher to do? Here’s what I recommend.


Three Tips for Perfectionist Art Students 

1. Remind students that real art isn’t perfect.

Because I don’t use tracers in my art room often, I don’t have a lot of kids ask for them. However, I do have kids that deal with perfectionism as well as students that move in from other districts where tracers ran rampant in the art rooms. They used oval tracers for self-portraits, fish tracers for ocean paintings and rulers for castles. These students are afraid to draw anything for the fear it won’t look “right.” In these situations, I find it’s helpful to pull out some famous drawings or paintings to illustrate that art is not perfect. Imperfections make things more interesting. Matisse’s paintings are a great place to start, but you may want to hide the Mondrian’s :).

2. Give students practice time. 

One of the art teachers in my district has been teaching art for over 40 years. He is truly an art ed guru. He is always reiterating the fact that we need to give students time to practice new skills. After one such reminder, I really took a look at my curriculum and saw that many times, I was rushing kids from one project to the next. There was no time to practice! I saw that this impacted my kids with perfectionist tendencies the most. They were afraid to start because they feared they couldn’t get it right the first time. Asking for a tracer or ruler gave them a sense of mastery right away. With this in mind, I changed many of my drawing lessons to include either a warm up or chance to sketch for students that wanted it. Taking even five minutes at the beginning of the lesson to practice has definitely eased anxiety in my classroom.

3. Give support and encouragement, then walk away.  

When I have a student that is really struggling with drawing something and wants to use a tracer, I use a variety of strategies. I may pull out visual references, help the student brainstorm which part to start with, or help the student break down the object into simple shapes. Providing this kind of support helps students see that a tracer is not the only option. After I talk with the student, I walk away. I just feel like the last thing an anxious kid needs is me hovering over him while he draws.

No matter what, a caring, supportive environment is the most important thing you can provide to help students overcome their anxiety about drawing.

Tell us, how do you help students overcome a fear of drawing?

Do you let them use a tracer or try other strategies?

We’d love to hear your thoughts.


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Amanda Heyn

Amanda is the Senior Editor at AOE. She has a background in teaching elementary art and enjoys working to bring the best ideas from the world of art ed to the magazine each day. 


  • Charmaine Boggs

    I often start a lesson with a sample that I’ve created. It’s usually just enough to illustrate how to get started and it always has “imperfections” which I ask the students to spot as part of our prep work. They love finding that I drew something too small to fill the space, made a lopsided bunny rabbit, or whatever it might be. Then I show them how I’m going to use what I’ve done and improve on it or make it part of the plan, rather than start over. In the early grades I also sometimes do a “draw after me” lesson to show the students how an animal, tree, building, etc. can be formed by looking at the basic shapes that are in the object. I still have a few students who will insist that they must start over or must use a stencil from the tracer bin, but not very often.

    • Love the point you brought up about showing the kids imperfections in your own work. My students always seem to have this idea that I draw perfectly, which is definitely not the case! It’s fun to make mistakes in front of them. Even art teachers need erasers. :)

      • It’s also good when we can all laugh about it. When my demo drawing is ‘less than perfect’ because I am rushing, I can poke fun at myself and it lightens the mood in the classroom.

  • Katie Schaefer

    I am noticing this especially with one of my groups of 3rd graders. I’ve started to stop the class and build in mini critiques that they do with the kids at their tables. I also encourage them to check with themselves, their neighbor, and last the teacher. It’s really helped. They more often ask each other for advice now which is so empowering for the kids. And they really take their friends advice seriously!

  • Rebecca Alexis

    THIS! Is so so very great! I love it. Thanks so for sharing.

  • Sheila

    My mantra comes from Mona Brookes: “There are no mistakes in art – only changes to be made.” I constantly repeat this to the children I work with.

  • Sarah Ritter

    Perfectionists will often declare “I don’t like mine!” very early in the process of a new lesson. My response “Is it done?” is most often answered with “no” and a smile. I’ve found this very effective to help the student get past that initial freeze up characteristic of perfectionists.

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