For many artists, it is a constant struggle: on the one hand, cultivating the confidence to put yourself out there and on the other hand battling the near-constant doubt in one’s skills that seems to come with the package when one wants to create art (yours truly is no exception).
The more interviews with famous artists I read or listen to, the more it seems that nearly every artist knows this doubt. It can be crippling, but (hurrah!) it can also be turned into something positive!
Why do we doubt ourselves?
Perhaps part of what makes artists so prone to doubt their skills is the fact that art is so subjective – there is no true right way to do things. Yes, it often pays off to learn the ‘rules’ (about value, composition, color & light, etcetera), but in the end it is the artist who has to decide how to apply these rules and when to break them. This freedom is both awesome and kinda scary 😉
But why is it scary, exactly? According to Ted Orland and David Bayles, authors of the terrific book Art and Fear (I just keep it on my night stand to return to it every now and then), it is because we wish to get our ‘nourishment’ from the approval of others, rather than from the act of creation. This makes us ask these questions of ourselves – will people like what we make or will they think we are frauds? Orland and Bayles advice the following: “Making the work you want to make means finding nourishment within the work itself.”
Easier said than done, of course, especially when you create for professional purposes as well and you are at least partially dependent on the approval of clients and publishers 🙂 Even so, at least a rudimentary awareness of where our doubt comes from might be helpful. But what about the positive sides of doubt?
Doubt as a positive thing
The other day I was listening to a Chiustream recording (hosted by Bobby Chiu and Matt Johnson, with guest artist Claire Wendling). They discussed tons of topics regarding the life of an artist and the joys and doubts that come with it. At some point near the end of the stream, the idea of doubting yourself and your skills came up. Bobby noted that “without doubt, artists get bored. They want the challenge.”
The artists agreed that doubt is what keeps you on your toes and drives you forward. I liked this idea of doubt as a positive catalyst.
I recognized this idea within myself too – while it can be very frustrating to feel stuck at times and to feel that you have so much more to learn, this is also part of what is so alluring to me about drawing and painting. Every bit of knowledge you gain, every skill you learn, opens your mind to a wealth of knowledge and skill that is still out there. Pretty intimidating, but also pretty cool.
I guess we all want to keep improving, driven by feelings of creative hunger and a sense of inadequacy.
The flipside of this idea of doubt as a positive motivator, is that confidence, while a necessity and generally a nice feeling, also has its negative connotations.
A few days ago, I came across an interview with illustrator Yuko Shimizu, who, while generally considered to be a great artist, also deals with uncertainty. She said: “The fear never goes away, but then, that fear keeps you in check.” Then she refers to the opening lines of a 12th century piece of Japanese literature, The Tale of Heike: “The proud ones do not last long, but vanish like a spring night’s dream. And the mighty ones, too, will perish like dust before the wind”.
Wisdom for the ages! (Here’s a link to the interview with Yuko Shimizu, it is a great read altogether).
Does this mean that we should all start embracing our imposter syndromes, our feelings of inadequacy, our fundamental doubts about our artistic skills? Well, I think not entirely, at least that is not how I plan to go about this 😉
I guess for me, embracing doubt as a catalyst for positive change means that instead of thinking I am not good enough, I should give up altogether, I generally think I am not as good as I would like to be, though if I keep at it I will probably improve.
This is also how I am approaching some of my personal projects at the moment – I try not to pressure myself that it must be the best work I’ll ever create (hell, I sure hope it is not! ;)) and just try to create the best work I am capable of right now.
I try to get my confidence from the skills I have learned so far (even though it is very hard to look at your own work objectively!) and keep striving for improvement.
Oof. Nobody said this thing was going to be easy, right? 🙂