For many of us, me included, attaching the ‘artist’ label to what we do is a sometimes uncomfortable step requiring a level of bravery. Who am I to write this article? – can I call myself an artist?
The imposter syndrome nags on, ‘What me? How can I say this about what I love to do? Am I good enough? Only famous people who sell every painting and make their living from their art are artists.’
This is, I believe, fundamentally untrue – unpainted paintings, uncarved sculptures, unpenned novels, unwritten songs, sonatas, operas, plays and so on would be the only result if we failed to have a measure of self belief before embarking on a creative journey as an artist.
We need to step back and reframe this belief and to understand that in order to call ourselves artists it is important to question aspects such as fame, notoriety and retail success as the measure for judging creative endeavour and title.
Last week I watched a beautiful film ‘At Eternity’s Gate‘ – about the final three years of Van Gogh’s life as an artist. Slow paced and emotive in its blending of nature and Van Gogh’s response to this inspiration source for his work, the film inspired in me the question ‘How do we become artists?’ What drives us and how do we carry on regardless of recognition, success or financial gain.
There is a scene in the film when Van Gogh describes to a priest in the asylum he is about to leave that painting is the only thing he can do, The priest does not ‘get’ his work – he says ‘ the world does not look like this, this just looks mad’.
Did Van Gogh attach commercial success to his belief that he was an artist and his compulsion to paint? Of course he wanted and needed to sell but the world wasn’t ready for him. He was to all intents a commercial failure in his own lifetime. But did he earn the title artist? Well of course he did.
When you look at art, whatever form, what is it that moves you? For me it is usually colour, my eye is always led to the colour burst in the room. When you go to a gallery do you always buy? I can with some degree of certainty guess that you probably do not. When you scroll through Instagram why do you do this? What are you looking for?
As a consumer or practitioner of art maybe you are looking for inspiration but I find that as an artist sometimes comparison steps in and this is I believe what stops so many of us from becoming artists in our own right.
‘Oh I give up’ we say, and usually far too soon before we have even given ourselves a chance, ‘I will never be able to paint, sing, write, sculpt, compose, take photographs like… insert any name of any one you look up to and admire.
And here is the thing. We are all afraid to fail and yet without making hundreds of attempts at whatever artform we choose most of us will never become any good. So many of us early in our lives listen too deeply to critics who thoughtlessly make an offhand remark about something we have created that throws us off kilter and makes us give up. The critics are often surprisingly people who care about us and have our interest at heart, our teachers, so we listen to what they say. We are discouraged and we lose the courage, and with that loss, the freedom it takes to try, to explore, to play and to practice, to feel our way and to learn from mistakes.
“Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” Dr Suess
In my chosen art form, painting, most mediums have limitless possibilities of application to enable art expression. In order to exploit our chosen medium we need to spend time playing to understand what we can do with it.
Expel the notion that every time you decide to make something that it needs to attain a kind of perfection. Perfection is impossible. Perfection straight jackets possibility because of the fear of making bad art.
To make great art, and I believe everyone can, you need to welcome failure and to seek it out. Failure is fabulous – believe it and embrace it! Why is this? By failing we learn. It is that simple.
“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.”
― Paulo Coelho,
And when I talk of failure I mean failing after putting in a lot of effort. Sometimes I paint over and over a successively bad painting until I arrive at something that to me is passably acceptable. To reach this passably acceptable standard, self imposed of course, the work emerges after an interesting creative journey with ups and downs in the process.
“Have no fear of perfection, you’ll never reach it.” Salvador Dali
To explain, maybe the composition was wrong, the colours murky, the subject just didn’t work and so I kept on painting over and over until some things began to gel.
If we think of a simple analogy, boiling an egg or making an omelette, it takes time and trial and error to make the meal just right for your taste. You like hard boiled? Four, five or six minutes? – it’s a matter of taste. You like a soft omelette without a runny centre – it take time to perfect the process to suit you.
So you get to the stage when your painting is passably acceptable to your taste. You have taken a creative journey and someone who doesn’t like your flavour of painting disses it. It’s like offering your delicious hard boiled egg to a fan of soft boiled eggs they can dip their soldiers in.
But the judgement of one person, the wrong person at the wrong time can destroy your confidence and at worst cause you to give up because you have not had the time to become sure of your own ability at the stage you had reached when the critic destroyed you. Most probably you had not yet found your artistic language. Can you remember a time when this happened? Did it make you stop doing something that interested you? Did you decide you were no good at that something? But try to learn to take courage. It is never too late to start over and reframe your attitude and to start playing again and rekindle your creativity.
Here is what I have learned on my journey to becoming happy to call myself an artist. I paint a lot. Some of my paintings are good. Some are not. I don’t care if everything I do is good or not because I have learned that failure is amazing. When you do something in a way that produces an outcome that is far from satisfactory you learn something.
If I mix orange and green I get mud. I don’t like mud. Lesson learned. Paint some orange. Let the paint dry. Paint green next to orange. They are polar opposites on the colour wheel and the contrast is awesome.
Another thing I have learned is to love process. When you are truly engrossed in a painting the world around you stops. It is liberating – chase those moments!
It may seem obvious but ditch procrastination and make time to do it. Stop talking about it or making excuses – there is always time – just stop watching TV – leave the house alone and ignore the ‘must do’ tasks. Making art is a better route to happiness than DIY.
“Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.” Andy Warhol
Invest in yourself and don’t be mean with the materials you need. Start gradually – buy some lovely pencils and a good sketchbook, build up your tools – you can’t make art without them. And remember to squeeze the paint out of the tube – it’s meant to be on the paper or canvas. Don’t worry about running out – you will get to know what your favourite colours are and actually paint does go quite a long way. If you work in acrylics put the lids back on the paint or it will dry up. Look after your tools – clean them after each painting session and store them with care.
Look at art – if you like it and you can afford it – buy it. Go to galleries, museums, art fairs, plays, the cinema, read books etc. Travel, look around you, notice things, appreciate beauty whatever it is that you believe to be beautiful. You life will be richer. You will be richer. And the world will be richer because what the world always needs are people who are happy creating, sharing and contributing new beautiful art. Art is a wonderful route to happiness.
You can be an artist. Everyone can be an artist!
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” Pablo Picasso
Steps to becoming an artist
Start making something – anything that you enjoy. Give yourself permission to try lots of different media
Reframe your attitude to growth and embrace failure and mistakes for the lessons they will teach you
Enjoy what you do – play, explore, experiment – and for goodness sake ditch perfection. Be curious – its far more interesting!
Make 100 of whatever you are playing at doing – you will get better at it
Keep seeking until you find what you love and remember it doesn’t have to be one thing. Picasso made paintings, sculptures and decorated ceramics. He was a genius but some of his art is passably acceptable in my view. Picasso is my favourite artist!
Keep doing it, show it to people, be vulnerable, start an art Instagram account, be committed and keep stepping forward
Never stop learning and know that you can change tack – it’s entirely up to you
A final word
Remember artists are practitioners, they make, they do, they create, they collaborate, they communicate. Artists also show and share and put their work out for the world to see. Artists embrace vulnerability and accept that some people will be fans and some will not like what they do. Artists sell work and some make their living from their art. However commerce is the least authentic rationale for earning the title of artist.
If Van Gogh had given up The Starry Night would never have been painted, Don McClean would never have written ‘Vincent’ and ‘At Eternities Gate’ would not have had a reference for inspiration.
This article is ©Mary Price2019 – you are welcome to share so long as author is acknowledged