How to make art when you're "not an artist"

How to make art when you're "not an artist"
Take it from this guy, "I think there’s an artist hidden at the bottom of every single one of us."
Photo by Catherine Clark

Saint Bob Ross once said, “If you don’t think you can do this — you’re not realizing how simple it is.” That's how he wanted us to look at making art. And it's true. Whether it's painting, knitting, building furniture, writing music, telling stories… the creative process is easy, and so so hard. I have a BFA in painting and design and it still scares me every time I do it. It's scary to make it a priority, scary to put it out there for others to see, and scarier still to take in feedback and make change. Every response feels like it cuts with a knife. But still, it's so easy to start.

Here's how you can fight the fear and start making art…

Start small and work frequently

Think of being creative as learning a new language. To become fluent, you have to do it every day, even if it's just for a few minutes. If you mediate, workout, have a coffee ritual, set aside 10 minutes before or after to exercise your creative muscles. Draw a quick sketch, write a few pages, plan out a project. Toss away anything you aren't feeling and start again. There's nothing that means every piece of art is precious and needs to be saved. Think quantity over quality until you hit on an idea you really want to explore.

Learn what hinders you

A great book about the art making process and our fear of it is the aptly named Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. If you've ever wanted to pick up a pencil (or the tool of your choice) and create something from your mind, then you probably already know the dread of judgment and failure. Getting over that fear is a creative process in itself. Here's a nugget of insight from the authors:

“To require perfection is to invite paralysis. The pattern is predictable: as you see error in what you have done, you steer your work toward what you imagine you can do perfectly. You cling ever more tightly to what you already know you can do — away from risk and exploration, and possibly further from the work of your heart. You find reasons to procrastinate, since to not work is to not make mistakes.”

Not working, not creating, and clinging to what you already know are ways to stifle yourself.

One of our readers, @frantasy_island had some amazing insight:

People often comment that I'm 'good at everything' but what they don't realise is that because of compliments like that (and the perceived pressure to actually then be good at everything), for years and years I wouldn't even try something if I wasn't sure I would be immediately good at it. It's taken me a long time to show vulnerability in my creative process, but I started by making things that nobody saw, and then showing things I liked to strangers on the internet. I was too emotionally invested in the opinions of my friends, and there would be a lingering paranoia that they were just being nice anyway, but anonymous strangers had no reason to be anything but honest, so I ended up with some really constructive feedback that helped my work progress to a point that I'm happy to have it displayed to the people I care about!

Choose a subject you LIKE

There's a whole market for art that is inspired by fandoms or similar interests. People make fantastic work focusing on subjects which inspire them. You don't have to paint a bowl of fruit, write a sonnet, or sculpt a classic naked man. Pick something you like: a movie, a book, a character, an animal… and see what you can do with it. Don't take it too seriously. If you're creating work you'd put in your own home, you'll be more likely to enjoy it and want to do more of it.

Stop worrying about talent

I'm in the camp that believes that innate talent isn't really that useful in actually creating great work. A lot of it is built-up skill from a load of practice. And if you're focusing on something you like and which inspires you, you'll be less likely to drop it when you don't like the initial outcome.

Feel free to try out lots of mediums and outlets to find what you're more apt to be good at, but know that most of us just spend more time doing what we enjoy and are therefore better at it.

Here's another relevant take from Bayles and Orland:

“For most artists, making good art depends upon making lots of art and any device that carries the first brush stroke to the next blank canvas has tangible, practical value.”

Find like minds

A lot of people I know get supportive feedback from online communities, especially if there aren't many nearby outlets in person. Instagram, Tumblr, DeviantArt, and others will often give you the encouragement to keep on going and the confidence to share more of your efforts. Share in-progress photos, tag them with hashtags like #workinprogress to see who likes and replies. Go out and seek inspiration from them in turn. A little bit of a gold star from someone never hurts.

Self-taught painter Tucker has some great advice for those looking for cheerleaders:

As a self-taught painter, I have struggled a lot with the insecurity and fear that comes with not only creating art, but sharing it. That little voice in my head that tells me it's garbage and that the world might rip it to shreds can be very hard to silence. What has helped me drown out the fear is forming a small community of fierce cheerleaders. I have found several incredible artists on Instagram who do frequent tutorials and live painting sessions that help with gaining confidence in new techniques. Find artists that inspire you, leave encouraging comments, ask questions.

Many artists have given me great feedback and kind words of encouragement just when I was feeling like giving up. Try not to compare your art to those who have more experience. You'll find that even your favorite artists critique their own work. We all grow and get better.

Do you ever let your fears stop you from making art? How do you overcome it?

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  1. I love the book "Art and Fear" – Highly recommend it! I also would like to add that art is like anything else you do in life – you need to practice. Take a class – watch YouTube videos – copy masterworks. I have taught art for a while now and some of my favorite student work was from people that "aren't artistic and just took this class for fun." Also, art is expensive – be prepared – you will probably not save money learning to make it yourself, so enjoy the journey of creating.

    2 agree
  2. Two immediate thoughts jump to mind:

    1) Mother. Fucking. Cross stitch. It's straightforward, has a very easy learning curve, doesn't require a huge investment, and you can buy patterns from Etsy (https://www.etsy.com/search?q=cross%20stitch%20pattern) or find free ones online. There's no creative risk to start, so there's no ego involved, and it's a gateway drug to creating your own patterns and starting embroidery and other sewing crafts. I started it *three years* after expressing an interest, and what was holding me back was 1) thinking it'd be hard, and 2) a friend making a comment that I was only interested because I wanted to say naughty things on pillows, so I could just buy naughty pillows, and 3) worrying about my failed knitting attempts, since apparently I can't count.

    Cross stitch is SO much easier than knitting.

    I've made a sugar skull stormtrooper, a watercolor-esque border, a raccoon, a hell of a lot of naughty phrases, and one attempt at embroidery that was TOTALLY reasonable and didn't look shitty in the least. And I've spent maybe $100 over four months.

    2) Ira Glass has a great quote on creativity and what keeps us back: we've been cultivating good taste for years, so we're better at judging things than we are at creating things.

    "Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through."

    7 agree
    • This is an excellent point. I've been posting my stories online for several years now (the oldest work on my AO3 account is from 2013, the newest is from about two weeks ago) and I can actually see the difference, going through them. My quality used to be hit-and-miss at best, and I can see the bits of the story I wanted to tell but wasn't good enough for around all the old ones. The new stuff isn't like that. The quality has evened out a lot, mostly in the lows getting higher – I still hit peaks that are much better than the rest of my work, but the bad stuff is nowhere near as bad. I can look at my most recent work and think "yes, this is the story I wanted to tell".

  3. What got me over resistance was the realization that if I looked at something that I wrote or drew and thought, "That's awful!" it meant that I was comparing it to some ideal which it had failed to match–which meant that the writing or picture already existed in my head! So then all I had to do was tweak it here and there, bringing it closer and closer to what existed in my head, realizing that it didn't have to match perfectly, just close enough for recognizability. Then I could relax because the art already existed, I just had to just naturally let it be born.

    4 agree
  4. I would absolutely love to be creative. I really really would. But the problem is.. I'm just not. I don't mean that I create something and it looks terrible and I get disheartened and toss it. I mean I can't even create something in my mind to try and translate that into a physical thing. It's not that I lack skill or motor control.. I lack the capacity to imagine. Which sucks.

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