Creative Development Why was it so hard to say "i am an artist"?

I now own my profession, and happily mark it in conversation and on forms as "Artist". However for many years I couldn't say it without adding a disclaimer: "I'm an artist, but I'm not that good". This became "I'm an artist but all my creative energy is going into parenting at the moment", which became "I'm an artist but I've been too busy lately to do much", which became "I'm an artist but it's not my main job", which became "I'm an artist and in the next year or two I'll be making it my full time profession", which has now become "I'm an artist and am currently working towards making art my main source of income." Wherever you are in your relationship with your own creativity, it can be helpful to unpick some of the myths that too often prevent creative people from fully enjoying what they do.

  • Myth: True art is a matter of genius and is born of talent. If you don't have enough talent you will always be an amateur.
  • Myth: Art is inspired by original and new ideas. It's not good to allow influences to show in your work because people will judge you as "unoriginal" or "derivative".
  • Myth: I shouldn't share my work until it is finished, until I'm happy with it, until it is perfect.

These myths are paralysing. They prevent people from developing the confidence to make art. They are anti-art-conducive. They make people feel not good enough.

Replace "amateur" with "lifelong learner". Replace "lone genius inspired by a creative muse" with "all art has origins and influences and is based on research and practice and an iterative process. I have met so many people recently who love to see the process behind my art. People who thought that art was out of their reach because of the frustrating experience of staring at a blank page waiting for inspiration. When I share my failures, my stepping stones, and my process, people respond with relief because they are seeing a creative process that is accessible to them, is legitimate and works. These are often people just starting out, but I experience the same thing when I meet other professional artists who share their process.

Iterative Process: repetition of a procedure applied to the result of a previous procedure, typically as a means of obtaining successively closer approximations to the solution of a problem.

A huge game-changer for me was reading Shaun Tan's "The Bird King: an Artist's Sketchbook" and "Tales from a Nameless Land" containing the early sketches for "The Arrival". It's the best kept secret: art isn't about making brilliant perfect stuff based on Eureka moments and natural genius. Art results from making time to sit down and do the work. It emerges from experiences, communication, practice, creative play, influences and research. Art is imperfect. Art is achievable. Art happens in community with other people.

Shaun Tan sets up a scene using three friends to create a reference image for the artwork that captures a family of newly arrived refugees, eating a meal in their strange new home.
Late night inspiration about late night inspiration... These are reference images: the photo of me and two owl images that I purloined from the internet. Reference images help artists to create a composition that works. The two drawings combine aspects of my reference images to create something new. The first drawing was a stepping stone to the second, as I decided the artist looked too static and posed.

Once I've started exploring an idea, I might create a rough sketch, take a reference photo, make a model, or research for reference images. I make rough drafts (early models or prototypes), then play with the artwork, making incremental changes, learning what works and what doesn't work, trying different processes and materials, until I have created something that I'm happy with. Sometimes I don't end up with a product that is designated an "artwork" but is instead I put aside as a step in the process towards somethings else. It might be a dead end, or it might be that the process itself: learning to use a new material or developing a new skill - that is the valuable outcome.

Screenshots from a video by the makers of the film, Loving Vincent, showing the reference model they made to transform Vincent's "Sloping Path in Montmartre" into a live scene from the film.

If we focus on "making a thing" to be judged by others as "art" then those first rough sketches can be a source of anxiety. The unpolished and awkward amateur looking first sketches will never be developed into something more. If we subscribe to the myth that true art is the domain of the inspired genius then any research or influence that contributes to what we make becomes something to hide rather than celebrate.

If you are struggling with reconciling what you think artists "should" do with your actual lived experience, check out these two fabulous books by Austin Kleon: Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work!
Good work isn't created in a vacuum, and ...creativity is always, in some sense, a collaboration, the result of a mind connected to other minds - Austin Kleon

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