Content Note: Discussion of self-esteem issues, growing up as an artist, and constantly comparing myself to other artists.
Artists are a fragile lot, generally. We begin from scratch and build our talents up, quite commonly starting at a young age when the most important thing is our parents’ approval and our identities are still forming.
I don’t know about you, but I was really sensitive about my art at a younger age. I was particularly sensitive to criticism. Every good artist knows that (constructive) criticism is key to improving your own artwork, and that listening to what other people have to say about your stuff is essential to getting better. It’s not easy to have the flaws pointed out in something you poured your heart into, that you spent hours on, but without criticism you’re making the process of removing those flaws much slower. Sometimes you just need another pair of eyes.
I know I’m not alone. I wasn’t alone when I was younger; I had artist friends who had the same kneejerk reaction of hurt whenever someone critiqued their work. These days, I’m much less threatened by criticism and accept it as something essential to improving my art skills, but I do see younger artists struggle with it still. And I think that sensitivity is just a natural part of being a young artist. You’re a teen, you’re figuring out your identity and you feel as if everything about you is teetering on a tower of bricks. You’re not just trying to convince other people of your talents, you’re trying to convince yourself. And you’re approaching art from the perspective of someone who hasn’t had as much experience (both life experience and artistic experience) as an adult, which is why comparing your artwork to other artists (usually adults) is such a crushing experience.
That’s not to say I don’t still reach lows about my artwork, whine to my partner and friends about how I’m eclipsed by so many better artists out there, that I wish I was a great artist, and not just a good one. And here’s something I still struggle with: Seeing artists not as competition, but as a community to work with and fellow creatives to communicate with and admire.
As a teenager you identify yourself quite commonly as being the only or best “X” in your friend group. You’re the friend with the best knowledge of Star Trek; the friend who really loves Italian food; the friend who is good at art. When I was a teen I felt threatened by friends who were artists. When they were better than me (read: more noticed or admired by peers) I felt resentful; when they were worse (read: more ignored by peers) I felt gleeful. Artistry was a competition.
I haven’t attended art school, and in fact I stopped studying art as a subject once I picked my GCSEs (I was discouraged from creative subjects), but I know that in many art schools, art is encouraged as a collaborative process. Students across different disciplines are encouraged to work together and swap skills, tips, and just generally support each other. Art becomes less about being better or worse and more about being different; yes, everyone will always have room for improvement (no one ever reaches peak perfection), but it’s not as simple as being on a one-dimensional scale where Jane is a better artist than you but Mark is a worse one.
As a disabled person I’m often isolated from other artists except through online means. Trying to encourage a network of communication between myself and other artists has been hard going; I absolutely enjoy the artists I talk to and love seeing other artists’s work, but it sometimes feels like I can never escape my own instinct to compare myself against them. This isn’t helped by the fact that so often people state that art is a hard career to make a living of, that the market is oversaturated with artists (I don’t personally believe that this is actually due to ‘oversaturation of artists’ so much as a general undervaluing of artwork as a product to pay for, but I digress). Artists get the message that they need to compete with other artists to get those few spots, to get hired and be able to make a living.
The truth is, art is an expression unique to every artist. You aren’t competing because no other person can produce what you produce, provided they’re not actively attempting to copy you exactly (and even then, it would be a pale imitation of the real thing). Other artists are the only people to actually understand all those feelings you get about your artwork, because they’ve been there. Non-artists won’t get it, they can’t.
I try to support other artists; I buy their artwork, retweet/reblog their work where I can, and swap tips and critique when appropriate. I try to remember that other artists are my companions along this weird and sometimes rough road of interpreting the real and the fantasy through our own hands. It’s not always easy, but in reality the only thing I’m competing with is my own sense of inadequacy.