Managing a healthy relationship with art
I'd like to open up about something I struggle with often. It's been especially relevant since the beginning of the shutdown in our country and from having lots of time in isolation. It seems our demons all come out when we are alone, but maybe we don't have to face our boss battles alone!
To give you a little background, I'm didn’t arrive at SVSLearn as a beginner. I went to art school for 6 years. I'm not going to make this topic about weighing the pros and cons of art school. What I do want to say is that school fed a lot of negative energy that I'm still dealing with today. That's what a lot of this is about.
When I applied for school, it was like the Pokemon theme song - I wanted to be the very best. I went to a highly demanding, highly competitive figurative arts program because, god damn it, I'm not going to illustrate until I paint like Sargent and draw like Anders Zorn. I had very high expectations of myself and by the time I left I was complete burnt out and bitter. I wouldn't pick up the brush in earnest until about 4 years later. The other qualities of school didn't help either - infighting between students for awards, lack of any real measure of growth, but again.. I'm not going to get into that today.
Fast forward to today and it's a different situation. I work fulltime and I'm trying to reconstruct a studio practice in the moonlight. I don't have a cohesive portfolio and I'm learning a lot of new techniques, so I'm spending a lot of time on personal work.. but I also want to be ready to hit the ground running so I'm challenging myself to get faster, get more work done, be better, and.. You see what’s happening here? I'm starting to set expectations on myself again and they eventually become destructive. I want to break that cycle this time.
Part of what I picked up in school is that to be successful you have to be disciplined. You have to sketch all.the.time. You have to have the entire human musculoskeletal system memorized. You have to work every single day. I did this and it didn't work. In fact, I learned a hell of a lot more on my own after I'm left school, when learned to let go of my reference, loosen up, and start looking at the drawing more instead of the subject.. I enjoyed drawing much more. Alot of the school mentality is well engrained in my work mindset. I still don't know what really works.
(by the way, I love SVS so far. It's very different than my experience in school, if you are wondering)
I guess what I really want to know, is how have you figured out your own self expectations so that you can see see your own growth as an artist but maintain a healthy relationship to your craft? When building a portfolio, how do you find ways to challenge yourself with meaningful projects? What are the habits that have helped you the most?
Thanks for reading this. Peace!
@Eelwick very interesting question! Although I've had a different path through graphic design as my undergrad, I can certainly relate to your dilemma. I used to illustrate and design a bit here and there, thinking I was working hard, not realizing I was doing everything out of fear: the fear of not being as good as others.
Now, I check myself with each project by asking the question Am I valuing people above art? This has made all the difference for me. In your example of letting go of reference, it helps me to think of the viewer of the art I'm making and what would be the ultimate thing to discover about the reference, the essential thing I can point them to with my art. They don't need the reference, because they can find it as easily as I can. So I want to tell them the story about it in a way that makes my drawing matter less and less (even as I take more and more classes, oddly) because it's just used for the main skill I'm developing, which is telling a story to a person. Since I'm focused on kids books, it means I care about the things kids care about and what their parents want to teach them and whether a story is important enough to tell them. It also keeps me from bad habits because it helps me prioritize my family and friends and a meaningful life above success. Our successes can really work against us sometimes, so although that's not my issue (haven't ever been paid for my illustration work) maybe it would help you to look at your successes and what they taught you to seek out.
I am also giving myself time to learn from my own art only - and not by comparison. This means going against all advice and keeping off facebook and instagram and twitter completely for a year. Consuming fewer images really helps me focus on where my work needs to improve, and not how much more talented and productive everyone seems to be. Turns out I find great inspiration just in researching what I want to do.
Waking up early is my best and most important habit, and that's saying something because i'm a night owl by nature. It's gotten to the point where I wake up at 5am and am so happy to start working on my illustrations! I didn't realize this could happen to me, this feeling where I'm creating for the pure enjoyment of a difficult challenge! I'm not worried about building my portfolio right now, I'm too busy exploring. But the way things are going, it might be that I will finally be able to put together a portfolio by the time this year is over. Portfolio or not, I never again want to do art the way I used to do it, with that frustrating need to prove I was just as good as anyone else.
One thing that helps me is that I'm old and I don't need to make a living at art. I do a lot of personal projects. They are never perfect but they are still challenging to me. One thing I cannot do is compare myself to others because almost everyone seems much better than me. If I was going to try to make a living off of my art, I'd die. I would do exactly what you tend to do. I have learned to like imperfections, to make art just for the sake of it. Working things to death sometimes. I post ugly imperfect things on facebook that show my flaws but not everyone notices (especially non -artists), Every project I finish adds to my skills (I hope) and if I am not the best, it doesn't matter. Some people really likew what I do but, I do my art first of all, for me. I love to create and art is one way I can do it. "Finished Not Perfect" and "Fail Forward" are two mantras I have picked up through SVSlearn that I like to remember. I am so glad that perfection is not a requirement for life, just doin gth ebest we can as we go and trying to go forward more often than backward and drag ourselves back up when we fall or lose motivation. Life goes on and we are good.
That is a wonderful way to put it - our work should focus on leading the receiver to out intended message or story, not strive to stand out from other artists. I think I'm starting to realize myself how inhibitmg fear is for a creative mind. I asked myself a similar question not long ago - does art answer to my soul or my insecurities? I think it's a question we all have to ask ourselves. And, at different points in our lives, our answers might be different too.
You made a really profound point and I'm going to try and ask myself the same thing before starting my next project. I think a good portfolio shows not just techncal ability but problem solving as well. It won't help me to only show a beautiful portfolio that was absent of any challenge.
You are not the first person to tell me that getting up early helps. It's a quiet time of the day and that allows us to work uninterrupted. Plus, we are still fresh from our dreams with plenty of inspiration. I'll give it a shot!
I'm really appreciate your response, thank you! I really needed to get these anxieties out of my head.
@Eelwick I went for school in animation and honestly did pretty terrible. It was a demanding program and I was always the one dragging behind, not sleeping for days on end to finish my projects. I barely graduated, having picked up terrible time management skills and overworking tendencies along the way. But soon after graduation I started working at a studio and my time there set me free, reset my habits. It was the first time in my life I was drawing 9-5, then went home and relaxed. Evenings and weekends, I wouldn't draw ever. I'd just rest and relax. It means when I was at work I was able to truly focus, and it's the first time in my life I had achieved such productivity. It finally clicked for me that when rested, I could do more in one hour than the wrecked me could do in 5. When I quit my job and started freelancing full-time, I had a hard time for a while and had to find the balance again. But I always remind myself than I'm a better artist when I work less. I draw better, I'm more inspired, more focused, I have better ideas. When I'm tired my work is crap! As you've learned, overworking yourself is just going to make you hate drawing, and when you hate it you're not going to be doing great work. I suggest you set yourself specific hours to draw, something really reasonable that won't overwork you. And when your time's up, it's up. Stop and rest. You need it to be creative, and to keep your flame alive! It would be a crying shame if you quit drawing for another 4 years. When it comes to art, slow and steady wins the race. You tried to become Anders Zorn in a few years of art school and burnt yourself out. How many years did it take him to get there?
@Eelwick for me, this month is a prime example of what youre talking about. I did a few thumbnails for the monthly contest, but just wasnt feeling it at all, just couldnt face it. Recently ive been spending every hour god sends doing art. It was getting to the point where i was exhausted, and the thought of drawing this book cover left me cold. So i bought red dead redemption 2. Ive resisted buying it until now, but after about ten minutes i knew straight away it was a good descision. Im giving myself the entire month of july off, just to play that. Its so liberating, straight away i felt amazing. And hopefully i'll be nice and rejuvenated by August. Sounds like youre burnt out, i definately was. Get red dead redemption 2, you'll feel better!
@Marsha-Kay-Ottum-Owen I agree, I think social media promotes unhealthy habits. I actually got rid of all my social media accounts this month and will be looking for alternative ways to drum up business. I don't miss it at all.
To add to your list of quotes I had one teacher in school, who honestly was the voice of reason in our program, that told us “if you f*** it up, f*** it up all the way.”
@NessIllustration you’re right, any headway is still headway and we often forget that. I'd rather put in 1 or 2 hours a day than slave over my work. We shouldn’t force ourselves to do anything.
I also like structure. One thing that has helped me during the shutdown is, like you said, setting a schedule. I work for a couple hours a day and then put it down.. Go do something else. Maybe sketch if I have an idea. I've also learned that if I have project time scheduled, and I sit down to work and I'm not feeling it - I stay flexible with myself and my needs. Often, I'll go out and research something new and that makes me feel pretty good and excited about the next project.
Balance is key. I was once the artist that stood with consternation at blank pages I couldn't fill, wishing I had some brilliant idea to put down on paper.. but that isn't healthy. The pages will be ready for you when inspiration comes, and in my experience, inspiration comes from looking outward more than within.
@gavpartridge nice!! That's a good game to get lost in. one thing that I've picked up from Jake Parker is that we have to actively consume media as much as we produce. Maybe your journeys in RDR2 will inspire a new, western themed work of your own!
Thanks everyone, these responses are great and I'm already feeling a little more reassured. I think I just really needed to express these thoughts and get them out of my own head. My partner and I call this a ”bitch-fit”! We let ourselves do this every now and then.
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Thanks for posting this topic. It's something I'm struggling with too. The social media side of it as well as just that healthy relationship. I find it so odd that I have had some success and I'm working so hard, then I suddenly feel overwhelmed and no idea what to do or how to do it, where to start, what style to use , and I feel that imposter syndrome so much. It's almost that any success or accolades makes me feel more like I have no idea what I'm doing 🥴. I had some success in the first few contests this year and now im utterly overwhelmed trying to get something together.
I have to say I try to not pay it too much attention. I used to years ago and it would get me down. These days it's this voice I hear, and I just sort of roll my eyes at myself and typically get on with it LoL. I think it's good to acknowledge though, especially every now and then. And even just having you acknowledge these unsettling feelings has helped other people not feel alone in it too.
Here's to our little b@#*ch fits now and then Ha Ha
Realistically, it's a very low number of people where social media is a driving force to generate the majority of their income. It's an essential part of self promotion (just in the same way someone you might court for business might check your instagram feed for example), but I think the pressure to "perform" on social media, to me at least, feels over emphasized in the minds of aspiring artists. The distance I'm keeping with social media is that I post stuff about once a week and beyond responding to comment, I check it every 3-4 days.
Just being very transparent about my own ambitions, I'm aiming to transition to doing mostly illustration and design over the next few years to try and replace my current income. I do a lot of web based interface design and graphic design for my current career, and I'll be the first to admit that most of it is "work", but there are projects I do throughout the year I feel REALLY good about, get passionate about, love the way it turns out, etc. and I think illustration will be no different - there will be plenty of projects that are just work, plain and simple. And then you'll get projects you are inspired to do and feel lucky to be a part of it. To only do passion projects, I feel about myself, is unrealistic just based on my own journey building my current company.
I do think it's going to take 5-7 years to fully move over because it took at least 5 years to build my existing business and have enough referral business combined with existing repeat business to make a good living.
I think you might benefit from some of the stuff that Marco Bucci talks about on his YouTube channel about inspiration. I think he has a book out that talks about it as well.
Just some thoughts from a newbie - take it with a grain of salt