Know when to take your hand away

Apelles knew the power of perfectionism, as well as its dangers.

He was a painter.  Reputed to be the greatest of his day.  Alexander the Great commissioned him to paint a portrait of himself. 

Apelles also painted Alexander’s general Antigonus the One-eyed.  (In the portrait, he turned Antigonus’ head so  you couldn’t see his eye scar).

Apelles once sailed to the island of Rhodes. He was there to visit a rival he admired, Protogenes. 

Apelles arrived at Protogenes’ home.  But the master was away.  An old lady kept his studio in order for him.  She asked, could she take a message?

Apelles said “Tell him it was this person.”  He walked up to a large blank panel, ready for painting.  He picked up a fine brush.  He painted an extremely fine line all the way across, and walked out.

Protogenes returned, heard the message, inspected the line.  “Apelles is here!” he exclaimed.  He picked up another brush, and a different paint color, and painted a line perfectly covering Apelles’ extremely fine line. No more, no less.

Apelles again returned when Protogenes was out.  He saw Protogenes’ work.  He chuckled, took up a brush, and painted over it an even finer line of another color, dividing Protogenes’ line perfectly down the middle.

When Protogenes returned, he saw again. He threw up his hands and admitted defeat.  He left the panel as it was, as a monument of their contest.

Apelles only achieved his status by extreme perfectionism.  We should emulate this.

However, he knew it could go too far.

He once said, “In all respects my achievements and those of Protogenes are on a level, or perhaps Protogenes’ are superior.  But there is one respect in which I stand higher: I know when to take my hand away.”

Apelles knew when to stop, when another stroke would be too much.  We should emulate this too.

The challenge, of course, is knowing which situation you are in with a given task. 

Stay ancient,


P.S. Pyrrhus Episode 1 is live on the Cost of Glory podcast.  Check it out on Spotify, Itunes, etc .  And if you’ve enjoyed any of this free content, do me a favor and leave us a review!

1 comment on “Know when to take your hand away

  1. Adele Bower says:

    Alex, thanks for this interesting story about an ordinary event between two extraordinary artists. As an artist myself I can testify competition among artists is very real. Of course, it isn’t considered good manners to be too obvious about it, even while we happily enter one art competition after another.
    Perfectionism in art is very demanding. Once the artist steps into that style, there is no room from much else. I used to consider myself a perfectionist in most things until years working in my art taught me otherwise. If I had to label my style it would be Perfect Expressionism………(Is that an oxymoron?). I’ve learned most artists strive for their own kind of perfectionism.
    Apelles comment that he knows when to quit is good advice. One instructor I had said “Stop when the beauty comes.” But when that moment has come is not easy to determine.
    Thanks again. I really enjoy your podcast.

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