There’s a certain confidence that we often feel in art school that I don’t think I have to describe to those who have experienced it. It’s a unique environment where you’re encouraged to explore and experiment, and an absolutely necessary part of learning how to be an artist. Confidence is good. Even overconfidence. It pushes you to be better. It allows you the freedom from self-doubt that’s required, at least in part, to keep producing. Not that you’re completely without self-doubt when you’re in school. Self-doubt is a given whenever your learning something new and hard. But if you’re fortunate, you have confidence enough to discover what kind of artist you’re going to be. Or at least, what kind of artist you’re think you’re going to be.
Each new lesson in “I’m not as good as I think I am” allows me to be just a little bit better.
And then there’s the time when you graduate, when most of us discover that all that confidence doesn’t necessarily get you a job, or that art show you were sure was going to begin your career as a professional. And the self-doubt creeps in again, and then you have to concede to the necessary evil of a day job, and this, unfortunately, is when so many artists become resigned to the fact that they’re never going to be as productive as they were in school. Part of this is practical: You can’t be, when you’re holding a full-time job and trying to support yourself. Art making, by necessity, has to become a part-time endeavor. Or maybe even a hobby.
Some of us are fortunate enough to get jobs that are, in some way, art-related. We become teachers. We become web designers, or gallery assistants. And maybe we still manage to make time for our personal work. But it’s that much more of a struggle to make the time to do it. There are no deadlines or teachers to push you to produce. And then there’s all that self-doubt.
After graduation, I went through years of low productivity and self-doubt and general malaise about what I was supposed to be doing. I tried and failed at painting, then switched gears to writing horrible plays, then, out of desperation, tried to get into the greeting card field. Then small press comics. Then editorial illustration. Each failure provided me with the increasing sense that maybe I wasn’t really that good. And it turned out that I really wasn’t.
It’s not that I was bad. I had a certain amount of talent, but no discipline. So after finally deciding what I wanted, which was to make my own books, I found myself in my thirties building that discipline for the first time. Part of this was recapturing some of that experience and discipline of art school. Since there wasn’t one in my community, I started a figure drawing group so I could learn how to draw people. I pushed myself to learn anatomy through an online course. I finally taught myself perspective. I found a way to make the kinds of images I wanted to make without being limited by lack of craft or skill.
But that was only the first lesson. The next one came when I started working with editors and art directors and eventually, my agent. This is a process I’m still going through. Because of my lack of experience, I recently I had a very generous editor walk me through the roadblocks I encountered as I did not my first, but my second SpongeBob Squarepants comic. I needed all the help I could get. Right now I’m working with my agent, as she helps me develop my first middle-grade novel. And it’s only because I had developed my skills as an illustrator, that she’s working with me as a writer at all. But as she helps me edit the book, each new lesson in “I’m not as good as I think I am” allows me to be just a little bit better.
Not to long ago I had a student who was just about to go to college, and I told him just this: You’re not as good as you think you are. This is a lesson you have to keep teaching yourself if you want to be any good at all. And the thing about it is, you have to think you’re better than you are, before you can realize that you aren’t. And this a very painful and difficult and daunting process, which is why most of use decide that it’s not one we want to pursue. But part of getting good is realizing that it’s a never-ending one. And it’s only when you decide that you are as good as you need to be that you cease to get any better, and that’s the worst curse you can give yourself as an artist.