Is it Art Talent Or Art Work?
Dear Wonderful, Creative You:
Over the last two weeks, we engaged in a simple art challenge. The idea was to create for a short period of time, on a small square, every day for 12 days. You were invited to let go of perfectionism and embrace play and exploration.
So many of you reached out to tell me how powerful this exercise has been for restarting your creative engine, getting the inner critic out of the way, and finding inspiration again.
But for some of us, the voice of the inner critic was too harsh. If you found your inner critic came out swinging – comparing you to others, and telling you not to bother, I have a direct, but I hope, encouraging message for you.
Let’s think through this process of comparison. You see another person’s work, you admire it, and then you immediately engage in negative self-talk about how your art is terrible in comparison.
The inner critic is afraid – of criticism, failure, and not being accepted. If it feels right, you can internally respond: “I see you, I know you’re scared and you’re trying to protect me.” But now, let’s have the critic sit to the side for a minute while we examine what’s going on with clear, unemotional eyes.
You are comparing yourself to people you don’t know.
You don’t know how long they’ve been making art.
You don’t know how long they spent on the work.
You don’t know how long they practiced that technique.
Most likely, what you’re seeing is not that person’s first or twentieth attempt – what you’re seeing is the result of regular practice and engagement.
And frequently what I see with students is this: because they are afraid to fail, they give themselves 5 or 10 minutes, try the technique once, and then think, “See? I knew I couldn’t do it.”
So let’s think about a pretend scenario for a minute. As the newer artist, we will call you Artist #2. Artist #1 is someone who has done hundreds of hours of practice.
Let’s pretend that when you sit down to create, you and Artist #1 both sit at the same table. So in the year 2000, Artist #1 sat down for the first time, and started spending, on average, 2 hours per week making art. As of today in 2021, she has spent 2,188 hours practicing art.
Then, in August, 2019, you sat down for the first time next to her, spending on average 30 minutes per week . At this point, you’ve spent 52 hours on your art practice. Artist #1 has spent 2,136 more hours practicing than you. Let that sink in. Why do you expect your art is going to look like you’ve practiced 2,188 hours when you’ve practiced 52?
I know that sounds harsh, but I want to drive home the point.
Western culture has this myth that being an artist is about a “gift.” The myth says that yes, there’s some practice involved, but if you don’t seem to have it on the first try, you might as well give up.
That’s a load of malarkey.
Of course, there will be people who have an excellent ability to visualize and translate what they see, or traits that make them particularly well-suited to making art. But as with most pursuits – for most of us, art mastery comes through practice. That’s both the good and bad news. It’s not a lottery where you either win the gift or you don’t, you have to work to develop your art.
Your expectation that you can simply plop down for 10 minutes and create a masterpiece is unrealistic. Most of us mortals have to engage in the “w” word. There is a reason it’s called art work, but I prefer to frame it as playful practice and exploration.
The more I engage in playful art adventures, the more exciting the work becomes, the more art I make, and the more my skills and enjoyment deepen. I want to invite the same for you.
I have a free class called How to Be a More Productive Artist, and it’s purpose is to address exactly this issue – concrete strategies to help you shift limiting mindsets and creative productive habits for joyful art making. You can join here:
I’d love to hear about your experience with getting beyond comparison, and what makes you want to keep practicing art.
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This speaks to all my fears.
Hi Jennifer: Thanks for taking the time to read and comment – yes, no doubt because these fears have been instilled in us. I’m not sure why our culture decided that we needed to “professionalize” the arts and take them out of the hands of the people, but they belong in your hands and mine, giving the joy that they give. Create on! xo
Such wise words Amy. It took me a very long time to figure out that out. Im comparing myself with someone that may have gone to artschool. Crazy I know.
Hi Santa: I know – it’s so crazy the way we torture ourselves! I think it’s good to put it all in perspective this way. The hours thing really clicked for me. I hope this helps inspire you to create freely and openly to drive YOUR beautiful art. xo
Dear Amy, I am a “newbie” Artist # 2, and in the classes I do, I frequently fall into the “comparing” trap. This blog really speaks to me and also in your “exhale” slow drawing, where you mentioned that some people doing the 12 Day Inchie Challenge were disappointed with their one and only attempt at a prompt. Thank you for your very wise words.
Hi Linda: Oh wow, you really connected the dots in a way that makes me feel so gratified. Thank you! I’m so happy the message hit home. You’ve got this – just keep creating! xo
Your words are always powerful and encouraging, and I nod my head in agreement…until I sit down in front of a blank paper/canvas. Your comment about “professionalizing” art reminded me of an early art experience – I was in 5th grade and our art teacher (a tall, intimidating man) took us outside to draw a tree. So, most of us drew what you would expect of children looking at a maple tree with all its leaves – trunk and cloudlike area that we then began to fill in with our green crayons. He took one look at our drawings and began to yell (yes, yell) at us about how wrong we were and took us back inside. Even though that was 50+ years ago, it is one of 2 distinct memories I have of 5th grade, the other being when the principal came to the classroom door and told our teacher that President Kennedy had been shot and she started to cry. Intellectually, I know that his criticism was wrong on many levels, but it was traumatic and thus influenced future art experiences. Thank you for helping folks like me repair negative early experiences!
My goodness I cannot believe that teacher! Who knows what was going on inside of him to make him do such a thing. Something that surely had nothing to do with trying to teach, guide, and encourage young children in their creative pursuits. I wonder what this story would sound like if you rewrote it the way you wish it had happened? Also, I’m so proud of you for showing up and creating. How many of us sink after such terrible experiences – and yet your inner call to create has been strong enough that here you are. I’m so pleased.
I had a similar experience in grade school and I still don’t think of myself as an artist but rather a crafts woman.. That said, it isn’t stopping me from participating! Thank you, Amy
It’s an all too common story, sadly. And those bad interactions get reinforced by other messages about the myth. However, it is indeed a myth. Create on Louise! xo
This really spoke to me. The inner self critic is one of my artists blocks, as well as expecting the first thing I sit sown to draw will be perfect. I went to art school, and I had a painting instructor that I really connected with. He saw my artists blocks right away. He told me that even he does 20 drawings before he has one he likes. That really stuck with me. I no longer beat myself up over not having a perfect drawing. I really enjoy the weekly slow drawing lessons. I really enjoy creating several pieces of one pattern. I can see how each one gets just a litte better.
Kerri – I so appreciate your comment – I think it will help a lot of folks to know that even someone with formal training feels this way sometimes. Happy creating!
I also had a similar experience. My Grade 3 teacher viewed my art and told me that I had no artistic ability. I took it to heart and didn’t even try after that. My report cards in later grades stated that my work was incomplete or I didn’t hand in all the assignments. Why bother? I didn’t take art in high school either. Obviously, it would be a waste of my time. It’s interesting because I feel like I have art in me. I literally struggle doing a stick figure and I don’t have an eye for detail but I still feel like I have art within me that needs to come out. I’m going to clear off my desk and make some time to play.
Jan! I am SO SORRY about what this misguided teacher said to you. We can only assume that these folks were treated just as harshly, and that’s all they had to give back. What they should have said was, “Wow – look at the way you used those colors and lines. I love the way you’ve used the space. Well done.” Because you know what? It was. You feel you have an inner artist, because you do. That’s why you’re here. Be gentle with her, know she needs a gentle hand and encouragement, and make that space for her. She will come out more and more. Big hugs,
Today I am taking a big, scary step. A friend and I are signing a lease for space to encourage ourselves and others to play with colour and texture, to knit, to sew, paint and doodle. A place where we can leave out our half finished projects and supplies and come back tomorrow and keep working. It means moving my jewelry studio out of the basement (where I never go to work) into the sunshine. I’m kicking my Inner Critic to the curb so I can play with likeminded folks whenever we want! We are packing up our art supplies and paper (lots and lots of paper in my case), fabric stashes and yarns and moving in. But I am leaving my favorite supplies in my dining room so I my Wednesday mornings with you!
Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnnnnn!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Oh my goodness, Lin! What a huge amazing light-filled step you are taking! I’m smiling and I am over the moon happy for you. What an amazing creative soup it will be. Keep us updated! And I’m thrilled we will still have you on Wednesdays. 🙂 Happy creating!
Thank you so much Amy! For your words and for the Inchie Challenge too.
Because of my inner critic (yes i have that monster) i didn’t like to be on facebook or insta.
After many years i can admire your and other peoples work without comparing. It was hard practise to learn so.
Hi Nel: I totally understand where this comes from, and am so happy you are learning to embrace your inner artist.
Thank you for these words, Amy. Thank you thank you thank you.
Aw, Elin, I’m so happy that this speaks to you! xo
Amy yes that inner critic can be terrible! I know for myself it creates a lot of self doubt, and comparison etc etc. I did not continue posting on the inchie challenge because I felt my inchies were far less than the others that were being posted. It can really suck you in that inner critic! Thanks for all you say and do and getting it! Art work….I never really thought of it as work before, but why wouldn’t I? Now I will remember this!
Oh, I’m so sorry that the critic got to you. And so happy that these words resonate with you. What would happen if you had that little talk with your inner critic, got her to sit on the couch with a cup of tea, and posted your inchies? Happy creating Jennifer. xo
This blog was read after sitting outside for an hour or so, trying to complete the inchie challenge and, seemingly, running into a wall. I had stopped looking at the Mindful Art posts several days ago because 1) I was out of town for two days and 2) I did not want to see what others had done and have that influence what I might create. Yet, having nothing to go on but a one-word prompt left me struggling on many days: mend, sea, broken, etc. I so want to be one of those that is capable of taking a word and coming up with four or five ideas to put on paper, not sit and stew and, when I finally do paint or draw, get frustrated, and toss it aside. That happened four or five times and I’m not one to throw out watercolor paper.
So reading your blog was what I needed to hear today. I’m not sure where the inspiration is going to come from, but I won’t give up.
Thank you for all the time you spend leading me through an art form I’m trying to improve upon and do, most of the time, enjoy. 🙂
Hollyce! I HEAR you. So clearly. You know, the idea generation exercise is great for some, but not all of us thinks with words like that. You may want to pull out your journal and create a “whatever goes” page to just start making marks and doodling or putting down color. Let your hands do the thinking and then take something that feels like a lead to 5 or more different inchies. I wonder too if you would do better setting out multiples inchies and asking yourself to do the very SIMPLEST thing that comes to you. The most minimalist, the most boiled down, even if it seems “not enough.” I feel like something like this might be part of what’s getting in the way for you. Usually when folks feel this way, there’s a limiting idea in the midst. I may not have hit on yours, but let this be a starting point perhaps. You are an artist – and it’s a process for all of us. I’m so glad you’re here, Hollyce! xo
Spot on Amy. You are right, some are born with an innate ability to visualise and translate what they see but even they have to practice. I had always taken my childhood ability to draw and paint for guaranteed and I was very good. But after a hiatus of 20 years, I found that I had to re-learn the the ability/skills again and practice over and over again. Don’t get me wrong, the ability is there, but I am finding that I am having to prise it out by trying new things and just drawing everyday.
I, for some bizarre reason, have never compared my work with others online. I have always found looking at other people’s work inspirational and revitalising. I learn so much from their work. Like your work, for example, it really pulls a cord with me and I ask myself, how can I learn from Amy’s work and techniques? I believe it makes me better as an artist as I try harder as I learn more.
I know that not everybody can this approach, but please try. We are all artists. Your art is good enough, you are good enough. We are all good enough.
I’m sure it’s reinforcing for folks to hear that even someone with some innate ability must practice. And I think that’s the truth. Even the artist’s with the most innate ability practice – a lot. Practice is what leads to mastery, to innovation, to discovery. And for me, the most fun part of art is the discovery. It’s an adventure. And when we can sit back, like you say, and allow ourselves to get excited and curious about what we see in others’ art – then we can let it take us in new directions – our OWN directions. I love the way you’ve narrated this. Thank you Laila. Happy creating!
Thank you for the reminder! For some reason the mental battle about our art is fierce and real! I wish we could all just make art from the heart and leave our critical minds behind. I loved the inchie challenge and thank you for how generous you always are with sharing your art processes. Blessings, Leslie
Hi Leslie: I believe that leaving the critic behind is a matter of experimenting with the set up, such as the Inchie Challenge, that feels most fun and inviting, and then sticking to it. For some, that will be this challenge, for others something else. I believe we are all worth it. xo
Wow you just read my Mail you know me I am that person who try’s and hour then walks away my excitement is
Oh yes, I have heard a lot of folks talk about the waning interest. If you truly want to get to the bottom of it, a lot of my mentorees and students have found it helpful to examine this phenomena more closely. Perhaps pull out your journal and start to ask yourself some questions about the process and what comes up. When do you get bored? What are the thoughts coming up prior to boredom? Is there discouragement before the boredom? Negative self-talk? Frequently, when folks slow down the process, they find that the boredom comes becomes they have been dismissing their efforts and so it’s no longer fun. There’s a sense of, “Why bother?” If you decide to look into it further, Myrtle, and by chance found something similar, my free class, Creative Self-Care has some exercises that might be of great help with the critic. All the best.
Comparison of my creative abilities to another’s started at the beginning of my life. One of my uncles made a career out of teaching art and design at the university level and also as a sculptor of pieces purchased by museums internationally. I’ve been blessed to be in a studio environment many times, and I’ve been to numerous events and openings for my uncle’s work for over 50 years. I’ve learned that my most authentic self shows up in an art studio as soon as I walk through the door. She was absolutely starving to create until a few years ago. However, once I’m in the studio, I freeze when it’s my turn to create. It’s always felt like nothing I do or create will ever match up to what I’ve seen my uncle and his peers create.
So, I’ve kept my practice as simple as possible to avoid internal criticism. Adding mindfulness to the practice has taken so much of the pressure to perform away. I’ve created the space to allow myself to explore, play and do everything as “imperfectly” as I can. I’m allowing myself to make bigger and more complex, involved pieces a little at a time. I’m so excited to see what happens next! Thank you for your work and generosity in sharing it with others.
Hi Kim: Wow – that’s an intense story. Thank you for sharing it here. I can only hope that you get more and more exposure to the openness and freedom of expressive and mindful creating, and that it continues to open the door for your inner artist to play. She deserves it richly.