Today we started a new semester at school, which is one of my favorite times of the whole year. I was worried I wouldn’t have the energy - it’s the middle of the week, a rainy Tuesday in January. But you know what? I made some extra coffee, and got hit with my usual bombardment of student questions, and got right into my favorite part of teaching.
The beginning of the semester is often the time I get to see my students’ fears and art insecurities up close. “Ms. S, I can’t draw.” or “I feel like I have no idea what I’m doing, and I’m scared to start.”
The good news: almost everybody in the WORLD has felt this way at some point or other. Leonardo da Vinci burned his own notebooks because he thought his work was crap. (Yes, that sound you hear softly in the background is art historians everywhere weeping.)
The second bit of good news: there are things you can do to get past that. There is literally no bad news here, I am the coffee-fueled optimism fairy today.
So much of the time, people are afraid to begin because they’re “not ready.” I’d like to disabuse you of that notion immediately - nobody is ever ready. If you are an electric ball of nerves (or at least pleasantly uncertain) about your new undertaking or project, you are for sure pursuing the right thing.
If you have never tried the thing you are about to undertake - cool! So what? Start today.
If you have already tried the thing and haven’t gotten very far? Cool! So what? Continue today. It is never too early or too late to pursue a thing.
Sometimes people get intimidated by thinking, oh gosh I have to find some huge thing I’m wildly passionate about and just throw myself at it?! I mean, sure. If you have something like that, yes do that, that’s awesome. But if there’s something that interests you, that’s stoking your curiosity that you’ve always wanted to try - that’s a great thing, too.
Do you want to play the bass? Learn to cook French food? Crochet tiny sweaters for penguins who have been in oil spills? (this is a thing, and it’s adorable. Look up pictures.) Do you want to learn to draw, or sculpt, or code, or animate?
Let yourself be a beginner, or an intermediate, or wherever you are in your process, and just START.
2. Measure your achievement by what you have completed and the work you have done, not by some nebulous standard of “good.”
Pick your new project. Do you want to draw noses? Draw a full page in your sketchbook of noses every day. 30 of them, 10 of them, it doesn’t matter. Fill up the page.
Make 10 new wall hangings, crochet 10 hats. Doesn’t matter! Whatever your thing is. Do the first 4 suck? Doesn’t matter.
By DOING, you learn. Take your brain with you as you go, but do not expect your learning curve to be flawless and exponential. As long as you are creating, you are moving forward.
3. Start a new sketchbook. Don’t show it to anyone. Or show it to everyone.
Maybe your goal is to draw a page in your sketchbook every day, or three pages a week. Wherever you are, whatever your craft, a sketchbook is a great idea. It can be for writing, for ideas, for watercolor pages, color swatches, composition planning - whatever!
Maybe it’s just for you! There’s something kind of exhilarating about keeping a secret that’s close to your heart like that - making secret art. Or post it on every social media platform available! Whatever! The fact that you’re starting a thing (whatever your stage in your journey, be you art school grad or noob illustrator apprentice), is awesome. Run with it.
Neither option is nobler. Keep your art close, or shout it out. Both are expressions of self, and so frigging what. Think of all the dumb things people say every day on Twitter. Your art is hardly a ripple in the pond, be it good or bad.
4. Be realistic with yourself.
You are not going to paint photorealistic oil paintings on your first try. Oil painting is hard, and maybe you’re not great at getting ears down with volume yet. THAT’S OK. Set reasonable goals - maybe this week you practice getting the form down. Next week can be oil techniques, then brush techniques, then color, and so on and so on.
In the same vein, don’t get overconfident! Every single person on this planet has something to learn - if you are finding yourself getting stuck in a routine, try changing it up. Find a mentor, ask somebody to review your work, or maybe try something outside your comfort zone. If you’re into digital 2D animation, try a ceramics class. Change things up and keep an open mind - you can take something from you everywhere you go.
Once you have been working on your craft, don’t forget the most important part of producing work - FINISH. A lot of times it’s super hard to part with your creations. They are our babies, right? And we can’t let them go. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve obsessed over a background detail of a painting, or a particular sentence in something I’m writing… THAT USUALLY DOESN’T MATTER VERY MUCH.
My thesis advisor in grad school (a wise and marvelous woman who should be canonized for the patience she showed me) one told me “a finished thesis is better than a perfect thesis.”
If perfection is your standard, you will never be done. I don’t want to be the person to break this to you - but perfection is unattainable. You can spend forever and ever obsessing over tiny details, ways you could get better, etc. Your art simply can’t be perfect. But it can be pretty DAMN good, and that’s worth striving for. But in order to be pretty damn good, you have to finish the thing.
6. Be committed to continuing, no matter how many times you get it wrong.
Failure isn’t a thing. And it doesn’t interest me.
You have to be willing to truly and spectacularly belly flop at a thing, and then keep doing it.
The question shouldn’t be “what am I good at?” Your question should be “what am I willing to be really, embarrassingly bad at, and keep doing?”
You made a thing that wasn’t perfect? Congratulations, welcome to the human race. You made forty things that truly sucked, and then kept making? Congratulations, you’re an artist.
Recommended reading: This book on creativity + fear. It's definitely touchy feely, but fun.