The illusion of failure

Most artists have at some point grappled with a fear of failure. For some it’s a continuous battle. Many continue to worry that they’re not good enough even when they are evidently doing really well in terms of gathering fans, exposure, and even earning. Why are we so worried?

Part of it probably comes from the subjective nature of art itself. It is not difficult to list the objective qualities of a good shoe, or a quality newspaper article. But it is far trickier to objectively describe a ‘good’ piece of art. The quality of art is so dependent on the observer (Beauty is, after all, in the eye of the beholder), that even the creator can never entirely have faith in what (s)he’s made. An artist’s confidence in their work can sometimes be undone with one harsh comment.

Before we accuse artists of being big babies, we have to consider the fact that with art, perhaps more than with any other sellable commodity, the price is influenced by the consumer. Art can sell for vast amounts or not sell at all, and the distinction isn’t always down to some objective measure of quality. People react well to things that are familiar (that’s why pop art and fan art sells like mad), to things that are pretty or sweet (why cute animals and florals will never die), to things that match other things they own (polka dots, stripes or chevrons, anyone?). Finally, people respond to the art they encounter. If you can’t reach your target audience, they’ll never be able to give you their money.

So artists live trapped inside a perpetual dichotomy – should I draw things I feel I want to draw, or should I draw more things like the things I drew before which people seemed to really like? In this mental tug-of-war we all lose our footing from time to time.

Another big part of this issue is our view of our competition and their perceived success. Many have argued that Facebook is a social bane because it lets everyone project a glorified, glitzy and photoshopped version of their own existence, thus trapping us into comparing our own raw, fail-ridden, common lives with the idealized lives of others, and growing envious and depressed. As someone with a large number of artist friends, I have to admit that my news feed is often filled with happy announcements of new clients, new exhibitions, event invites, and multicolored forms of success. While I love my friends and want them to thrive, I do occasionally feel like I’m the only one getting turned down, struggling to finish a piece, or placing fourth (or fiftieth) in random competitions.

Which, of course, I’m not. Social networks lend themselves to sharing successes with our friends. If I read back through my own art page feed, I suddenly start to envy myself. It’s wall-to-wall interviews, new work, product releases – you name it. I just don’t bother to go on there and write status updates like ‘Still no reply to that e-mail pitch I sent two months ago. Sigh.’ No one does. Why should we.

So if you ever feel like you’re the only one struggling while everyone else is floating effortlessly to the top – consider these few things.

1. Everyone fails. Those who are currently at the top have failed more times than you have even tried.

2. Don’t compare yourself to others unless you know you are evenly matched. In fact, don’t ever compare yourself to others – you are never evenly matched. Only compare yourself to yesterday’s version of yourself. If you’re doing better than that guy, you’re alright.

3. Making a name for yourself in the art world (and when I say art I mean generally commercial art – illustration, lettering, surface or pattern design etc) takes a looooooong time. Progress is glacially slow. It’s slower than you think. No, even slower than that.

4. No seriously, even slower. Someone once nicely said ‘Surface design is a great field to become an overnight sensation over the period of three to five years.’ They weren’t kidding. And that’s the estimated time if you’re working at it with all guns blazing – promoting, networking, really getting your work out there.

5. There is a market for every type of art (within reason). What will define your ultimate success or failure is not so much what you make, but how persistent you are about promoting and selling it. This is a game of patience, a game of nerves, and a game of dogged determination. The only way to fail is to stop trying.

6. Failure makes you grow. It sounds cheesy and stupid, but goddamit it’s true. You learn more from one royal mess-up than from ten things that go well. Personally I wouldn’t mind learning slowly from a string of unblemished successes, but since my chances are slim, at least I’ll take my lessons where I can.

7. Go dig up the first thing you ever drew. Compare it to the last thing you made. See how awesome you’ve become? 🙂

Basically, becoming a successful artist is like climbing a really big hill. Except when you get to the top you realize it was merely the foot of another bigger hill, and another. We are all succeeding, as long as we keep rolling forward. So keep rolling. I believe in you. And redefine your expectation of success so it doesn’t always seem just out of reach.

I’d love to hear from you. Do you feel like a failure sometimes? How do you fight it?


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