Being an artist is tough. Whether you’re a painter, photographer, digital artist, author or whatever else, you’re under constant pressure to do your best. If you’re doing it right, you should always be improving, or at the very least discovering your weaknesses so you can work on getting better. Being an artist means never stagnating. Since art is so fluid, it’s rare that anyone will hit their “skill ceiling” and never be able to do anything different or better ever again.
One of the most important things you’ll ever learn as an artist is that you are not perfect. Some of us grow up hearing about how great we are, how we have so much talent and potential and oh my gosh we’re just so good. And hey, compliments are nice. But eventually you learn that those can be pretty nasty traps. Once you start believing that you can never get better, you find no reason to try to improve. After all, you’re already the best.
I think a lot of artists fall into that trap at some point or another. Some people are really good at what they do. Many of us hit that point where we start feeling super confident. We’ve noticed ourselves improving, people are complimenting us, and we feel like we’re better than we ever were before. The mistake is thinking that we’ve reached our maximum potential. I love the books I’ve written recently far more than my older ones, but even as I start writing something new, I find that it’s still an improvement. I catch myself making mistakes I thought were totally fine before, and I’m doing better in many different areas.
Part of realizing what I needed to change came from feedback, and that’s another important thing you learn as an artist: feedback is your best friend. Not the one who agrees with everything you say, but the one who challenges you to be better and who can tell you straight to your face, “This needs work.” It’s also the friend that comes to your house and steals your food, but you’re okay with that because you’re best friends.
Many artists go through that phase where they think themselves invincible. A mark of a good artist is whether they leave that phase or not. Many do, and the difference is noticeable. This is where I shamelessly plug a friend of mine (who incidentally is also my best friend and also steals my food). She’s been arting for years, and she told me how at one point she believed she couldn’t possibly get any better. Everyone was complimenting her, never had any critique and she felt great. Eventually however, she realized that this mindset was incredibly harmful, and over the years she started working hard to get better. Take a look at this image and see what all that effort did for her.
But some people don’t grow out of it. They despise criticism and only seek out positive reinforcement. They reject help, and may even go so far as to accuse anything that’s not blind acceptance as hate. And it’s a lot more common than you might think. After all, who likes to hear that their work isn’t that great? You work hard and you want to hear that what you do is worth it.
Here’s the thing: not being your best is okay. Likewise, being awesome is okay. It isn’t so much where you are as it is how willing you are to accept criticism and feedback. There are some people out there who are, to be frank, incredibly arrogant when it comes to their own abilities. They could be fantastic artists already, but that mindset ensures that very little positive change will ever occur. Once you start to stagnate, it becomes hard to pull yourself out of that rut.
When it comes to art, much of the “skill ceilings” we encounter are just obstacles we’ve created for ourselves. This doesn’t mean that we can all become near perfect by practice alone, but it means that you have a lot more freedom and potential than you probably think. This also doesn’t mean that you can’t feel pride in your own work or enjoy people falling in love with your stuff once they see it. It simply means that, as an artist, your biggest enemy is the idea that you’re as good as you’ll ever be. Odds are good that you’re not. It may be hard to hear, but it’s true. And this is a good thing.