Confessions of an Unsuccessful Artist

  • This terrifies me, to put out here all my artistic insecurities and horrible habits, but I have realised I can't do this on my own, that I need help to understand and grow better. This post is for all the people who almost push that post button, but never quite have the confidence to hit it, I hope we both can get something out of this ramble. TL;DR below.

    I'll start at the beginning of my art life. In school my art work was always the one that got picked for demonstration, always told that I was talented. Told that I'll get far with my art, but never told how. I have been through several different types of art education, both through an animation degree and online. I have learnt techniques, design, theories, branding, but nothing has clicked with me about creating art for a living.

    A few years back I left university, newly married and desperate to start making money to support myself and my wife. I found that I ran through loops of attempting different job roles (storyboard artist, vis dev artist, animator, illustrator, graphic designer etc) or styles, but never getting anywhere with it. I feel because I would find a job post and rush to produce a portfolio that suited that role, this has never proved to work. During this time I ended up working part time in Asda (Walmart) to pay the bills. I created small character paintings of my DnD games, or worked on pretend projects to buff the portfolio, however I would always end up feeling that it's a waste of time, as it's not serving anything.

    My biggest confession, something that I have always been ashamed of, and is something I never know if I am in the minority or majority with (speaking to the silent numbers, the people who read these forums and articles but never post). Is that I rarely actually made (..make) art, I'd be lucky to produce something once a month, I try to put so much effort into figuring why I'm creating this I burn myself out from over thinking, but really I don't want to make excuses.

    Jake's video came out about having a product rather than a project. When I finally stepped back and decided to do what I wanted to do, I found I still had this problem. I went from wanting to produce a board game because I love them and I enjoy creating games, to wanting to make children's books because I want to push good morals onto young people, to acrylic painting because I could understand the concept of people buying this form of art, to refurbishing furniture again because I can understand why people would buy this product. But nothing came out of this because I always felt there was no purpose behind what I was doing, it's not going to change anything. This, I believe, has had a side effect of not joining in with communities or going to conventions because I feel I have nothing to offer.

    From what I remember as a child I liked to draw because it was a way into 'the zone' where nothing around you matters, your mind goes blank and all there is you and the art. I still get a kick from this but feel it's not enough anymore, I need meaning and I don't know how to find it!

    In the last month my wife and I have separated, which sadly I guess has got me to finally hit that post button. I would love to hear your thoughts on this matter of meaning behind you making your art, what drives you? I have spent many years quietly reading through hundreds of articles and videos about art, producing art and selling art but I feel I am missing something in my understanding.

    I'm sure this could have been more refined, but I just needed to get it out there!

    TL;DR - Why do you create? What purpose does it give to you?

  • @cstoneart

    Thank you for being brave and saying something! I know how hard it is to push that post button. This is a great place to do that because we are all artists here to support each other!

    I understand how you feel about having a gap between making art and making money. I too was told in high school that I was talented. I pushed into the "real world" with no direction, okay art skills, no business skills and a piece of paper from college. One and a half years ago I was laid off from my retail job (full time framer at Michaels) and decided to go on my own to be an independent artist. Thank goodness for my boyfriend for supporting me as I try to make a living as an artist!

    Almost two years have past and I only snagged one gig and that was from my boyfriend's friend. It's awesome but I need more then one project to pay my student loans! Plus my boyfriend is getting annoyed about being the only one paying for things which is understandable.

    Lately I have been digging deep to what I really want to do with my art and why I started in the first place. As a kid I drew to escape. I had a hard time in my elementary years because we moved a lot (about 4 different schools before 4th grade). 4th grade was the hardest because I was a full grade behind (this move was from Washington state to California and California was a whole grade ahead of Washington). Teachers and students thought I was retarded because I couldn't speak right (mom was partly deaf and read my lips but didn't listen). I was pushed hard by teachers and my parents to relearn how to talk and do two grades in one while being picked on by other kids. Art was the only thing no one made fun of (even the bullies liked what I drew).

    Now I feel I have a better grasp of what I want to do with my art. I feel like I spent the past two years just reading. This week I have started to close my laptop, books, phone and just started doing work. I believe that planning and then DOING will show the right path. I have no idea if this will work but I would rather try then not at all!

    Long story short: I draw to escape. It gave me hope and has help me push through the hard times. Now with my art, I want to help give others hope and the courage to push through their hard times. What better way to do that then with stories and characters? πŸ™‚

  • @cstoneart good post. I can understand where you are coming from. For me, I guess, I don't see drawing and painting as the end goal, but just a means to an end. I actually just wanted to write, and I always have had the ability to draw, and so I came here to get better at illustration so that I could pitch my own books. However, even writing to me is a means to an end for me.

    I wanted to go to school for philosophy, but the only real job for someone that pursues philosophy in college is a professor, and that just isn't me, but I still have a huge love for philosophy. To me, there isn't anything in life more incredible than philsophy, and with my creative side always needing to be itched, I love applying what I want to say to people but don't want to write a whole paper, and consolidate it down into a single moment, or situation. I love using metaphor in my daily conversations with friends and family, and mostly with children to explain complex issues. I feel it is what has been lost in literature. For instance, Alice in Wonderland is sbout mathmatical nominalism, and the philosophy of how there are no universals but only names which place certain object into groups (the only difference between a dog and cat is that we categorize them as such i.e metaphor) hence, why the story is somewhat ninsense, because Carrol believed Nominalism (our world) to be nonsense. Lord of the Rings is a play on Plato's Republic, and Tolkien's Catholic Thomism as it relates to how we conquer evil. Tolkien is actually taking on Plato in his books. Then we have more current stories such as Harry Potter, which is about treating others as you wish to be treated. So there you go.

    With all of that said, I think my point is that everyone has something to say, and something they feel very strongly about.

    As for your career up until now: I think all you need to do is do a bit of a reset, and maybe join us here at SVS more frequently, and have your work seen and critiqued, as well as go through classes such as Lee White's business class ( it is remarkable if you have not worked your way through it already) if you have yet to go to conventions, I assume that you are also not getting your work in front of those who can change your life for the better in this area. The people who will hire you, are also not constantly looking for new people, but it is our job to reach out to them. I have been at SVS a year. I signed up for SCBWI and attend the local meetups, and went to the the Summer Conference. All of that is part of me making contacts, and sure enough, I have felt very much accepted into the circle. You have to go out a rub shoulders with others pursuing the same things as you are.

    As for your personal life; sorry to hear about your separation. I'm sure that is not at all fun to go through. I hope you land on your feet, and this starts a brighter chapter in your life πŸ˜‰

  • I've gone through something similar when I totally lost my direction and vision. It was like I had this sudden fear that I'd chosen the wrong major in school, and the wrong career, and I needed to start over in something else immediately.
    But the answer that got me back on track was surprisingly simple: I started writing and drawing because I read books/comics that inspired me. My favorite books gave me a chance to not only escape the "real world" but also come back to it refreshed and full of new thoughts. I decided that I wanted to make something that would do that for some other kid.
    I literally found a picture of myself when I was little and decided "She's my target audience. I want to write stories she can escape to, stories she can imitate, and stories that will motivate her to be strong."
    Have you watched Jake Parker's video on writing a personal manifesto? I really gained a lot from it! Hope things start looking up soon πŸ™‚

  • @cstoneart do you think jumping around from thing to thing is self sabotage? I have the same issue, have for some time, and with anything I do in life. I'm starting to see it tripping me up a bit. The urge to move to something new usually hits me when I start thinking about how competitive illustration is. It keeps me from really going after something because ''I've only just started". I'm sure you've heard people talk about trying to find a style, and most times they're told that it just happens. I think purpose is the same. It's going to become clear to you at some point. Until that time enjoy what you're doing it, even if the purpose is grins.

  • SVS OG

    @cstoneart I could have written this post, just put in different nouns to match my life . I don't have the magic answer for you, except to say, at this point of my life have let go of a lot of the guilt that I carry for all the hopping around in creative focuses I've done over the years, without staying long enough to "make it." I realize that everything I've done leaves an impression on me, and my style. So I'm not making dolls any more... the things I learned then stay with me, and all that comes together in a giant melting pot that make me the unique artist I am today.

    As for how to stay focused... I don't have any solution for you. I'm still on that journey. But I will say that there seems to be one thing I keep coming back to over the years, and that is children's book illustrations. If you put a pencil and paper in my hand, chances are what comes out is a cute drawing of children (or animals) doing some cute or magical.

    I don't know if this helps except to say you are not alone.

  • I think I may be able to help you clarify, hopefully. Sometimes when the thing you dream of and hope for becomes so large inside your mind, such a big defining quality of your definition of yourself, that you become afraid to take a chance to make that dream come true. Why? Because if you fail you no longer know how to define yourself.
    Or, if everyone in school told you how great you are but people aren't jumping at the chance to buy your work, you can get your ego bruised. The ego's natural response is to develop a shield of arrogance to protect itself from feeling wounded, and so you hide your insecurities rather than acknowledge them.
    Or, if you never finish a project, and it is criticized, you can always tell yourself, "Well, they don't know what they're talking about because it's not finished."
    If any or all of these sound familiar, then I welcome you warmly to the club.
    As far as staying focused, my advice would be to get a sketch book and sketch something every day, or as close to every day as possible. Finish the sketch, no matter how big or small. Turn the page. Don't go back, don't second guess. If it didn't turn out the way it did in your mind, turn the page and start again. I have pages and pages of failed illustrations. I've entered many a monthly contest here on SVS. Sometimes I make the cut, sometimes my work doesn't. I will look at it again to see what worked, what didn't work. And then I move on. I love Jake Parker's advice - "Finished, not perfect."
    I hope some of this helps. I don't think there's an artist out there who hasn't felt this way. Your always welcome in this community.

  • This is a tough subject, and I'm sorry for what you are going through. I'm blown away by some of the other responses to this post. They've articulated ideas that I've recognized in my own life, when it comes to this subject.

    First I want to say that I can empathize with a lot of what you are saying- wanting your art to fulfill a purpose but not finding something that feels worthy, not being able to commit and focus your art to one thing for very long, and not creating enough art.

    Here are my thoughts on the matter.

    I think some people are very good at first choosing an art career, and then letting that career path inform their studies and guide them in creating their own voice as an artist. They may just know right away what strongly compels them or they may be purely pragmatic, but they have the mindset to stay the path all the way to the destination. Their career may change down the road, but by that time, they've put in the work to have created their own voice, and that acts as their guide going forward. They've created connections and made themself known, and that has opened up more opportunities for them. They may or may not have been concerned with what their art was contributing to the world at first, but now that they have the skills and their own vision, they are better able to make work that's more meaningful to themself and to others.

    I think other people just get lost and stressed when they try to monetize themselves as artists at first. They need to put more time in developing their own voice as an artist, they need to reach a certain level of competency in order to execute what compels them, and they need to do art without monetization influencing their decision making. They need to play, grow, develop their own ideas, put in a lot of art mileage. They need to share their work more. As their own art voice emerges, that's when the path becomes more clear and they can set better career goals and do work that they define as meaningful, that has a purpose. I suspect you may be one of these people, and instead of exploring your own ideas, you are spreading yourself thin trying to cater to things that aren't important to you.

    I think it's also helpful to remember that people who you may envy, that having paying art jobs, that look like they have everything going for them, are sometimes dissatisfied with what they are doing. They would rather be doing work that inspires them, but they are stuck doing art jobs that suck their creative energy. They are trying to find ways to move away from their current art career to be able to do more work that relates to their personal interests in art.

    So my advice would be to take the time to play, work at your skills, and most importantly, explore your own ideas. Research how to spark creativity, and use those ideas to explore your personal voice. Having a non art job to pay the bills can be a blessing, if it means you can focus on exploring your own ideas. I would also challenge you to watch Jake Parker's video again, and actually make a product this time. Remember that the point is to finish something, and the focus should be on something you want to do. Don't try to make it because you think it's something someone would want or buy. Make a product that inspires you as an artist. If you need it to serve a purpose, make the purpose be that you'll have a finished product that allowed you to explore your own ideas.

    Anyway, I wish you well and hope you will post more here, if that will be helpful to you. Good luck. I hope you can find a way to make work that interests you and that you believe in.

  • @cstoneart Chapeau! Don't have any good hints, because there's already been said a lot. What I want to say to you is, keep your head up! As we struggle trying to climb the hill, we achieve something, more than not trying at all. So you do well. I hope you find your way up. ok maybe I do have a tip: Start drawing for fun. Enjoy it. Enjoy a small doodle enjoy holding a pencil, clay, paint whatever. again Keep your head up! good luck, keep us posted on how you are doing!

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  • Thank you for the amazing replies, I appreciate the time you've taken to do this, it's so good to know I'm not alone in this! I feel the main starting steps is to immerse myself into the SVS community, make time to consume for the ideas/visual bank, and start to create for myself.

    @Durribie I dig the courage to go independent! And feel you're pain with the lack of gigs, having to have the other half pay for things. I'm sorry to hear your story from school, but warming to know others used art to escape as kids. I like the attitude you have now! From what others have said it sounds like the right way to pursue this crazy career! Thank you for sharing!

    @Eric Castleman Those are some cool insights into these stories, it's interesting how deep meaning and metaphors can run in them! I guess for me it's about trying to figure out what I want to say. I think you're right in post my work and getting involved with the SVS community, which I hope will give me confidence to go into SCBWI, or whatever art forms equivalent I go into. Thank you for your kind words πŸ™‚

    @Missmarck I love the story about find a photo of your younger self, it made me laugh, I think it's so great! Something I have noticed is that over the last few years I've consumed less and less stories, books, art, films, etc I guess making the time to consume as well as create is key. I don't think I have seen that video, I'll dig it out and give it a watch, thank you!

    @jasonandroosmith I really get the bit about thinking how competitive it is, it does gets me down quite often, from what you said at the end and others have mentioned I think it's key to enjoy creating and purpose will come - I know that I had read style being like that, and so have tried not to pay forcing any particular style on my work, however I never thought of purpose in the same way, thank you for throwing another perspective on it! πŸ™‚

    @stringfellowart I appreciate you sharing, it's been such a good feeling finally getting this stuff out, and to know others go through this! I like the idea you mention that each form of art you take on it leaves an impression on you.

    @RHirsch these do sound familiar, the wording has helped me understand how my mind works these things out and gotten me to think about how I can start to overcome this. Thank you for welcoming me in, from what you and others have said I feel I need to get on board with getting involved with the SVS community, I dig the idea of getting a sketch and just starting to sketch, going back to basics and seeing how that develops. I'll make it my first task to get one and start tomorrow, thank you πŸ™‚

    @TessW Yeah I'm amazed at the awesome responses from everyone, there's so much people have to offer and I'm so happy we're willing to share! Thank you for sharing your thoughts, it is very much appreciated πŸ™‚ I think you're right on the different types of artist and that I've not explored my own ideas. It's interesting talking about other people being in creative work but not liking what they're doing, I had three university friends come visit me some months back, they all managed to get into the industry they wanted in some form however none of them said they were happy with what they were doing, this is something I'd forgotten about until now. Your last paragraphs inspiring, before when I was trying to figure out a product to make it was so focused around what I thought other people want, I feel I have such a better grasp on the concept now, I'll need to re watch that video again! Thank you for your reply!

    @Leontine Thank you for your encouragement! I can really understand the '..more then not trying at all.' Idea, it's how I put other things in context in my life so this has really clicked with me! I the main pointer I've got from these great responses is to get hitting that post button more, and getting into the community. Thank you for the reply πŸ™‚

    @Renduin I'm very sorry to hear about your illness, I am glad you've shared the perspective it has given you, it's a wonderful insight into stepping back and seeing what really matters. Thank you for the advice and responding to my post!

  • SVS OG

    Everyone has said such great things to you. I would like to say that all artists are challenged. We work hard, we get critiqued hard (sometmes) and can be so discouraged when it seems we're not getting anywhere. I listened to a recent podcast with an I can't remember his name but he was talking with Will Terry. Something they said really struck me. "Fail Forward". We work, we create and it's never good enough. The next thing will most likely be better but it will still not be good enough. But it is good enough. It's good enough for that period of time in our progression. You learn from each project, each bad decision about what kind of work you "should" do, etc. Don't worry about it. Just do it. Do your art. Share it. Some people will love it. I post here for honest critiques and help from other artists but if I get discouraged, I can post something to my facebook page and everyone of my small group of followers will like it πŸ™‚ Because they don't know whats really good art or not and they don't care. That gives me a little boost πŸ™‚ Also, I can burn out for a bit on a project but I just put it aside for a day or two and do something fun and easy creative outlet or I give myself challenges to do each day, then I go back to the drawing board and everything is fresh again. I finish it. Start what you finish. I often redo or try to save my flubbed up stuff and sometimes it comes out better than I thought it could. As others said, get yourself out there-the good the bad and the ugly. I don't get my art selected for art challenges but I do get some good tips in the process of making it and I think I have made some progress. It also keeps me humble. Now I'm rambling and off track! Sorry.

    To keep it short: Keep your day job and have FUN creating whatever you want to in your spare time. Share it. Share it. Share it.

  • SVS OG

    I can also relate to this. I was told growing up that I was talented, and unfortunately I was also told (basically) that I'd never make it in a career in art. I tried to self-study through books to learn to draw better but I didn't understand the basics and art went from being my dream to being a hobby. I had no one to teach or encourage me. After my early 20's I stopped drawing as much and I produce maybe 2 finished pieces a year since then. So now in my mid-30's I feel like I'm starting all over again to learn how to draw. I have to force myself to pick up a pencil and practice and I actually spend most of my time watching tutorial videos--and not drawing along. shame I feel like I draw worse now than I did 10 years ago because I'm so out of practice. I have no style or direction, but I'm working on that now thanks to SVS. I was listening to a radio show unrelated to art about a month or so ago. The woman said "Remember what you loved doing as a child. Do that for a living." And like a sledge hammer it hit me, I LOVE COMICS! I spent my childhood all the way up to my early 20's reading and drawing comics. I dreamed of being a successful comic book artist. I don't know when, or why I ever stopped reading them but I feel a renewed sense of joy for having picked them back up again. The past 10 years or so I've only been painting landscapes in acrylics with very little character art though. Hence, starting all over again. Anyway, your post reminded me of a beautiful video by Marco Bucci that I saw recently. He tackles the subject of creative blocks from the mental aspects of it. It was a real eye-opener and I think you and the others who posted here may also enjoy it. I'm pretty sure it's okay to share since Bucci also did SVS videos. ^u^

  • @cstoneart Going back to basics is what I had to do three years ago. I had to swallow my pride and admit that I was missing a lot of skills necessary to do the job I want - which is illustration. I took pages of notes while watching SVS classes, and spent many nights sketching and practicing basic skills like perspective. I still have much to learn but I believe I come to it now with more humility and gratitude. Hopefully.

  • So I've started a little sketchbook, I'm struggling to figure out what to draw but I'm trying to keep it causal, trying not to worry about it too much. My next step I think is to get into the community and get onto helping others where I can (: Consuming content has taken a bit of a back seat, I need to make time to get reading / watching! It's been good being able to write this stuff down, it sort of solidifies my thoughts I guess.

    @Marsha-Kay-Ottum-Owen I really like that term 'fail forward' I'll have to keep it in mind! Thank you for the encouragement πŸ˜ƒ

    @Washu I think something that I'm missing in my life is other people who create art, like you hadn't had in your early years. I'm so happy for you that you've found what you love again! (: I'll give the video a watch, thank you!

    @RHirsch Yeah it's hard but necessary I think to grow as an artist, thank you for the reply (:

  • SVS OG

    I know where your coming from, I work part time at asda and do the odd commission oil painting on the side... but for me I didn't quite get that purpose feeling until I started my own how to channel on youtube . It gave me a way to create something that would be seen and used as a learning aid or just entertainment or for sleep therapy lol... But from doing that it kept my art alive and I have kept going and have got better and better... Maybe you should do something like that, might give you the motivation needed to keep doing art that doesn't have that almost pointless feeling to it.

  • @cstoneart You were very brave to write and post about your struggles being an artist. I'm sorry that you're going through some tough times. I can definitely relate to your story about trying to find a path in life that you want to focus on exploring... Besides working part-time at retail stores, I have done graphic design work and illustrations, but I didn't feel passionate about it. Lately, I have been redefining myself as an artist and exploring various styles. One of these styles is called 'kawaii', which means 'cute' in japan. I LOVE THIS STYLE SO MUCH and at 31 years old I feel like I finally found an art form that I love. Being open minded about the process of finding a style/medium/art form that fits you, like a pair of shoes, could help you to find something you love to do.

    Also, I think that finding our 'purpose' in life is connected to providing 'value' to other's lives. I feel like my 'purpose' is to provide 'value' in the form of smiles and laughter to cheer people up and encourage them to make positive changes in their lives. You can help others to feel happy, motivated, healthier, comforted, excited... It's up to you. πŸ™‚ 'Value' can also be understood as a solution to a problem, and there are tons of problems in the world today that need solutions.

    "Try not to become a man of success, but rather try to become a man of value."

    –Albert Einstein

    The definition of success can be subjective, so what is your definition of success?

    Take care and I hope you feel better soon. Here is a link to a positive book that has helped me get through the hard times:

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  • SVS OG

    I think that part of being an artist, is just learning how to cope with your own creativity. We are all such a mess sometimes. Something about art and depression that seem to go hand in hand. Sometimes I feel like art is the cause and sometimes its the cure. I struggle a lot because I need to do it, its part of me, but I also lack the confidence, my skill level is never where I want it to be, it feels like a completely impractical thing to need to do...

    When I was little I had teachers tell my parents they needed to put me in a special art school - which they couldn't afford. But, it felt like I had something. And then I went to a different school, where the teachers thought I was terrible at everything. I have had many ups and downs like that in life. But, I can't get away from my art, because it's too much a part of me. I process so much through creativity. I've tried to commit to it and been stressed by the need to produce and sell, make it worthwhile. I've tried to give it up and I can't.

    Interestingly enough, the best thing that has happened to push me forward artistically is when, all of a sudden, I had NO time for art.
    My husband and I got married and had 5 kids - one after another. That was the end and the beginning for me. I struggled for a while. I used to think I could only be artistic with time and space to get "in the zone." Don't even try with that many kids. It wont happen. I got really frustrated. Felt like I was losing myself... But, then I heard my husband say something. Ive heard him say it a thousand times actually. Hes a musician and he always tells people trying to learn an instrument, "5 minutes a day. If you want to improve, just commit to 5 minutes a day. That's all. Some days, you'll maybe do more, some days not, but you WILL see progress". Anyway, one day it clicked for me. I can do that. I would take care of my family because that's what's important now. I would also draw a little here and there - 5 minutes a day. I would fill cheap sketchbooks with bad drawings. I joined Instagram to post these sketches. I participated in Inktober and Mermay and other art challenges. I decided to be inspired by other artists and not just intimidated/depressed by them. Someday, my kids will be grown and I will have more time. Maybe by then I will have gained the skills to do something big. But, when I have no time, I have no pressure. I can be okay in the learning season. To do my normal job, let myself be creative, and learn to find meaning and purpose in doing laundry and baking with my girls and playing Legos with my boys and not in finishing a perfect piece of art. And, every now and then I actually do finish something, sell something, notice the progress I've made... I've even miraculously had time to submit a piece or 2 to a Thursday SVS before. I can't even tell you how that change in mindset has helped me, though. I have seen improvement, but I have also seen myself gain a healthier mindset. My value as a human isn't so tied to how well I draw or how much I produce. I feel stable. Lord knows how I'll do when the kids are out of the house, but my 5 minutes a day has grown me already and I think I'm getting better. I'm okay with that. Progress not perfection. πŸ™‚

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