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Monday, December 28, 2020

Monday Morning Art School: stop comparing yourself to others

Art is not like the Super Bowl, where there are clear winners and losers. It’s not necessary to be the most adept, brilliant, or incisive painter for your work to profoundly influence others.

Deer in snow, by Carol L. Douglas

“You can't be somebody else,” I heard my husband tell a young person. “You can just be the best you can be, and not worry about everyone else.” He was talking about music, but his advice is just as applicable to painting.

I will sometimes ask students whom they most admire among artists, but the answers—while fascinating—seem to have little to do with where they end up as painters. I’ve fed myself on a solid diet of masters from the northern European Renaissance to the 21st century, and I don’t see much continuity between these influences and my own painting. I love them, but I can’t paint like them.

Downdraft snow, by Carol L. Douglas

That doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes fall into the pernicious trap of comparing myself to others. As much as I’d like it to be otherwise, I’ll occasionally succumb to the green-eyed monster of jealousy. It’s very difficult to watch someone else do something easily that you’re struggling with, or sail into honors and accolades that elude you.

That can be especially difficult for women artists, who labor under a system that is, in fact, more sexist (in terms of dollars) than society as a whole. So, sisters, cut yourselves some slack.

After teaching for so many years, I know that early success doesn’t always equate to winning the race. Students start at different levels of competence. Some take to painting faster than others. Sometimes these good students are trapped by their facility, because they cannot let go of their cheap tricks to plow through the hard work of learning good technique. At that point, ‘talent’ becomes a trap.

Snowsquall, by Carol L. Douglas

Conversely, there will be students who, for some reason, don’t get it right away, but who, with diligence and effort, will end up painting very well indeed.

At the Art Students League of New York, students are crowded into fairly small rooms. It is impossible to avoid seeing others’ canvases as you work on your own. A fellow student had a sign in his paintbox that read, “Don’t copy.” It was very good advice, but equally helpful would have been one that read, “Don’t compare.”

So how does the artist develop self-confidence based in their own abilities? “Passion plus competence equals self-confidence,” I read this week. It’s a neat, economical explanation.

Toys in snow, by Carol L. Douglas

It doesn’t mean you have to wait until you’re completely competent to be happy. Instead, it gives you a roadmap to get to a point of self-confidence. Yes, painting is sometimes very frustrating, but that’s just a sign that you need to work on your skills in that area.

Art is not like the Super Bowl, where there are clear winners and losers. It’s not necessary to be the most adept, brilliant, or incisive painter for your work to profoundly influence others. But you can’t use the crowd’s applause to tell you if you’re on the right path. You simply have to work from your own gut. And that’s perhaps the hardest lesson in painting.

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