Here are a few words on self-criticism, for the benefit of my art students—and as a good reminder to myself.
Art is a technical skill that can be taught and improved with knowledge and practice. But it's also a creative activity, and that complicates everything about it. It means that no matter how accurate the rendering, each work of art will also display something of its creator's individual personality. Feelings and impressions are involved. We make choices, many of them unconscious, that shape the outcome of our piece. And that's just how it ought to be; otherwise, we would grow only in accuracy, not in artistic expression.
To compare my art with someone else's can be both helpful and harmful, depending on how I approach it. If I'm looking to improve my technical skills, it's good to observe the areas where I can learn from that artist. Better proportions; a more compelling use of values (darks and lights); subtler, more tasteful blending techniques; stronger color choices...I can pay attention to all these things and be more pleased with the results of my next attempt.
But if I try to mimic someone else's style too closely, sacrificing my uniqueness, it can hinder me as an artist. I shrink inside, due to lack of confidence. Bold, confident strokes almost always improve the appearance of artwork, yet confidence can't be faked. Everyone is more timid at first, which is why we must approach this process with a teachable, humble heart. We build up our abilities through practice and repetition. More successes make us believe we can do it, so we gradually grow bolder, and it shows in our work.
This practice and repetition are key, but they make up only half of a two-part process. The other half is equally important. It's knowing and liking who I am as an artist. That means accepting myself at my current level and being kind to the young artist inside me. I say "young" because no matter what age the artist is, a part of him or her remains a child. That child can be badly wounded when discouraged. How many broken-hearted "children" have abandoned their sketchbook, easel, or musical instrument out of discouragement? Too many to count. And who can help those "children" overcome, if it's the artists themselves who are doing the wounding?
Art of any kind can be a painful endeavor. It's hard enough to bear the criticism of other people—and let's face it; people love to criticize—but when the discouragement comes from our own hearts, that's when it can really tear us down.
I have had to learn this as an adult, since I began doing visual art late in life. My teacher is, and may always be, a superior artist. If I compare my work unfavorably with hers, I must do so only with the goal of improving my skills—never with hopelessness or envy, and certainly not with an attempt to become her. She is who she is, and I am who I am.
I am happy and thankful for what my teacher gave me. She launched me into the world of drawing and painting. Lots of people have been blessed by the many pieces of art I've created, all because of the basic skills she taught me, along with the deep joy of creating that God planted in my heart.
In this world, there is plenty of room for many, many different artists; together, we are a community of colorful people who make it a more wonderful place! We can celebrate the work of other artists as we celebrate our own.
It's like a big banquet where everyone brings a dish to the table and we all get to enjoy the feast. If I look down at the food I created and frown, because it doesn't look the same as someone else's dish, does that add to the celebration...or does it take away?
Cook it up, my friend. Put it out there, and let it be tasted.
Have a Happy Artist Thanksgiving!