Ask the Art Prof: How Does a Visual Artist Get Out of Thinking They Can’t Get Better?

Final Crit

“How do you get out of thinking you can’t get better? I just got through my first year of art school, and I can never do anything but hate myself for my art. I’ve learned to tell myself that I’m not terrible, but my art isn’t beautiful or eye-catching, and it never comes out even a thread like what I want it to. And so now I’m sitting here crying, because I can’t even draw because I’m too afraid of drawing. I want to be an artist so badly, but I just can’t. I don’t know what to do.”

We are inevitably our own toughest critics, and usually the expectations we set for ourselves are much higher than any that anyone else could possibly set for us.  It’s important to be critical, be ambitious, and to push yourself, but not to the degree that it actually prevents you from making the work.  Right now, you’re being so harsh on yourself that it’s paralyzing your ability to make art.

I would recommend exponentially increasing your production level.  In other words, make so much work that you no longer feel precious about each individual piece. For example, if you’re used to making 1 drawing a day, make 10 drawings a day and spend less time and care on each one. You’ll be very pleasantly surprised that the 10 drawings will be fresher and more spontaneous than that 1 drawing.  Most likely you’ll get 1-2 that are worth keeping.  I find that when artists are too heavily invested in one work that they tend to get really fussy and worried about that one piece.

Intaglio Printmaking Project

The goal you’ll need to set is to find some way to make art without judging yourself every minute. I’m certainly no stranger to judging my work. I’m enough of a perfectionist that all I see is flaws when I look at my work. To keep myself from doing this, I make a work and then I instantly put it away where I can’t see it.  This way, I’m not tempted to sit there and harp on what’s not working. I leave the piece for two weeks, and then I take it out and decide at that point whether I want to keep it or not. Often times in the heat of working, our thinking can be inaccurate.  I’ve had more than one occasion where I was ready to toss something, only to realize two weeks later that the work actually did have some merit and was worth working on further.

Give yourself the license to make bad work. I always tell my students that they have to make bad work if they want to make good work. And remember, it’s better to be making bad work than no work at all. Tell yourself that the drawings you do for the next month don’t matter.  If you’re spending all of your energy worrying about the outcome, it means that you’re not focusing enough on the task at hand. Concentrate on enjoying the pure process of drawing and don’t let yourself be so product oriented.

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Ask the Art Prof Live is a weekly live video broadcast on my Facebook page where I provide professional advice for art students and professional artists. Ask the Art Prof began as a written column in 2013 and was featured in the Huffington Post from 2013-2015.  Ask me your questions by commenting on the live video post as the video streams, and I’ll answer right away. I’ll discuss being an artist today, art technique & materials, work strategies for artists, career advice, teaching art, and more. Like my Facebook page and you’ll receive a notification when each live video begins.

Video Critique Program
I offer 30 minute video critiques on 8-20 artworks for aspiring/professional artists working on a body of artwork, and for students working on an art portfolio for college admission. Watch sample video critiques and get more info here.

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3 thoughts on “Ask the Art Prof: How Does a Visual Artist Get Out of Thinking They Can’t Get Better?

  1. Thanks Clara, great post! I am a working artist and find what you said to be right on and absolutely true for me. The main point is to keep the flow of art and creation going and not getting caught up in how “good” or “bad” a particular piece is in that moment. The more I start focusing and obsessing about any one piece, I tighten up, fear kicks in, and then I’ve lost the game. I like working on 5 or 6 pieces at a time so I can bounce between them and not get too “tunnel vision” on any one piece.

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