I was talking to a friend today and after our conversation I spent some time thinking about us and realized she is a big part of the reason why I started to draw. She didn’t know it at the time, I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s how it worked out. In fact, when I think of the path that led me to discover digital art, it is absolutely full of random people and events that almost inexplicably led to what is currently one of the most important things in my life.
Many artists spend a lot of energy on trying to find ways to improve themselves. We seek mentors and listen to advice. We take online courses and subscribe to newsletters. And once you have absorbed a certain amount of this information, patterns start to emerge. There is a solid set of advice that, when followed, will lead you to become a great artist. This includes things like ‘work hard’, ‘always carry a sketchbook with you’, ‘experiment with different materials’, ‘learn from the best’, ‘believe in yourself’, and ‘be patient but persistent.’ This list is rock-solid – nothing there I’d disagree with. But it did lead me to thinking about a different aspect of being an artist, especially one without formal art education.
Most artists who still haven’t reached serious success have trouble identifying as artists. We’re shy about it. We self-deprecate. We brush it off as something not worth discussing. ‘So, you’re an artist?’ ‘Naaaah! *nervous laugh* I just sort of scribble things sometimes…..’ *furious blushing and prayers for change of subject.
James Victore talks about it brilliantly in one of his Burning Questions videos (which you should definitely watch because he gives some amazing life advice), admonishing young artists for apologizing for their work as they show their portfolio. It’s not hard to imagine where this need comes from, though. Partly it’s the idea that a harsh word will feel less painful if it comes from yourself, than from someone else. Basically even as we’re daring to show our art to the world, we hope they won’t say horrible things about it if we beat them to it. Part of it could be trying to dodge the stereotype of the arrogant, self-obsessed Artist. But another part, I believe, comes from the fact that we THINK we know what artists are like, and we look at ourselves and figure we’re not it. Artists are full of talent. They effortlessly produce beautiful images. Their heads are exploding with fantastic ideas. We with our awful sketches and our painfully long process of turning them into something not half as good as our initial vision – we’re not artists. We’re obviously Impostors.
Lisa Congdon recently wrote a great piece on why many artists suffer from the Impostor syndrome. And though I definitely agree with all the points she makes, I feel there’s another issue hiding in there – the one where we’re sure we’d be able to recognize an artist if we saw one. And, checking our mirror each morning, we’ve found nothing so far.
I think we have no idea what an artist looks like. I think there is no real way to recognize an artist except by one singular trait – do they make art? If you make art – of any kind, of any quality – in some fundamental sense you are an Artist – you stand apart from those people who don’t feel that internal drive to create something just so it can finally get out of your head and go live somewhere else. Everything else – money, success, public recognition, talent, quality of work – it really doesn’t enter into it. If art is being made, there’s an artist making it.
I haven’t been making art for long, but I sink a lot of time into it – all the time I have. I also pour a lot of emotional energy into it. I’m constantly absorbing new knowledge on the subject and it makes me think about all the things I’m doing wrong. Because if we go by the list I outlined at the beginning – the one we all agree with – I suck at being an artist. I fail at some really basic things there.
I never sketch. The amount of time I have to invest in my art always feels too short, and my elaborate style means work on each piece is long. Between these two, it never made sense to me to draw things I have no intention of using in an actual artwork. I practice sketching on vacations, when I’m confined to paper and have no other recourse; and sometimes in coffee shops if I’m waiting for a friend to arrive. Basically, once in a blue moon. I thought this was a huge failing on my part until I took a Skillshare class on lettering where the teacher said ‘Sketching is a waste of time, do as little of it as possible before you start on your final piece’. This one sentence had more impact for me than anything else in his course. Essentially he’d granted me a pardon for my greatest sin. Turns out you can be an artist even if you don’t sketch. My shameful secret was actually just a work style choice.
Another huge Artist faux-pas – I hate analog media. I love what people can do with them – watercolor and ink are the best when used effectively. But I suck at making physical things in the physical world. I have no patience, no space, no resources, and definitely no courage to work in any medium that does not include the ‘undo’ option. If I had been born in a time when digital painting was still not a thing, art and I would have missed each other in wide arcs.
I can keep adding to my list of sins as long as you have patience to listen. I don’t have any sort of a recognizable artistic style. (Q.E.D. the two pieces illustrating this article. I probably have about a dozen more styles back where those two came from). I have zero formal art training. Most of the online courses I take are on random subjects like lettering, drafting a business plan, book cover design, food collage photography, or time management. I have a full time job in administration, which is the other side of the universe from where art is. Do any of these sound like the traits of a True Artist?
Except they are, because they are my traits. There is no right way to be an artist, and there are definitely no wrong ways either. There are just different ways that different artists choose, because art is at its core an expression of individuality. Are we doing everything perfectly? Far from it. But do our screw-ups mean that our art doesn’t count somehow? Believe me, it counts. If you’re striving with your whole being to make something that shows the world your version of beautiful, it counts. And you – you are an artist.