Creating art is not limited to just artists

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Photo: Lucia Thorne

I am aware that my work has lots of room for improvement, but I am proud of myself for starting after being discouraged in my youth.

By Jialin Xu

When I was a child, I dreamed of becoming a painter. But I became discouraged after my mom told me I didn’t have the talent to be a painter, and that the term ‘artist’ could never apply to me. Ever since then, the question of how to be an artist has lingered in my mind.

An inspiring motto from German artist Joseph Beuys says that “EVERYONE is an artist.” This leads me to think that the prerequisite for being an artist is not acquiring professional artistic techniques, but rather adopting an open mindset— one that is willing to observe and explore your inner world and the world around you.

I would encourage everyone to be an artist, despite the fact that few of them chose the path professionally. For myself, the two underlying factors that I believe hinder people’s artistic development is a lack of support from others and low self-esteem. 

In the book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron wrote that “one of our chief needs as a creative being is support.” Support from family and friends can really help them figure out what they are capable of, especially for people who just take a peek into the artistic world. Unfortunately, it often seems like only some are in an encouraging environment, whilst the majority of people simply just give up on their creative dreams. Consequently, most people have no idea that they are artists as they carry on with their day-to-day lives. 

A lack of support will eventually result in self-doubt, and worse, feeling too intimidated to act on  creative desires. Artist mentor Renee Phillips wrote on her website that many of the most talented artists she’s mentored fail to “see their positive qualities and achievements from an objective perspective,” while also being quick to point out their own weaknesses. This is unsurprising to me, because artists are some of the most insecure groups of people I’ve known. They usually feel unsure about their work and ask themselves: “Am I good enough? Is this what I really want to create?” 

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Even the greatest artists in the world were not an exception. After commissioning the Sistine Chapel ceiling painting, Michelangelo wrote his friends a letter where he expresses his self-doubt as a painter: “My painting is dead. Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor. I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.” Acknowledging that self-questioning happens to everyone and it is a normal part of human nature can make artists feel less alone. 

However, developing strategies to overcome these obstacles is the key to growing self-esteem as an artist.

My first suggestion would be to avoid sharp criticism too early, but rather build up self-confidence first. Even as an adult, I still can feel my inner yearning for a creative path, despite being discouraged by my family. Recently, I started to paint again without telling anyone else. At first, I was simply drawing for myself, but eventually I ended up with a piece that I was satisfied with, and shared it with close friends who I knew would give me positive feedback. 

Another piece of advice would be not to compare yourself to the experts in your field, but to yourself from yesterday. Take a look at your past work to remind yourself of how much you have improved. Once you can get a  taste of what changes you can make by practicing, it will be your motivation to keep improving your current work. 

In book The Artist’s Way, Cameron states that “judging your early artistic effort is artist abuse.” Self-criticism can interfere with your creativity and blind you from your artistic achievements. You have to accept the imperfections in your work in order for it to ever feel ‘perfect.’ 

I am aware that my work has lots of room for improvement, but I am proud of myself for starting after being discouraged in my youth. I hear many people complain because they feel it is too late to get started. It might sound cliche, but it is never too late to start making art. After you invest your time, you’ll see the reward of your hard work.

In the Outliers: The Story of Success, author Malcolm Gladwell states that mastering a certain skill is all a matter of time. After 10,000 hours of dedicated work, anyone can become an expert in their area of interest. Even though you might be a bit older when you reach a level of expertise in a certain field, you will gain nothing if you don’t try. 

Next time someone tells you that “not everyone can be an artist,” you should ignore them, knowing that they have a shallow understanding of what it means to be an artist. To achieve an artist’s goal, you have to first be bold enough to dream about it, and then take action. Remember, you can become anything you desire— but only if you’re willing to dream.

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