The Art of Valuing Yourself
By Nancy Rowe
I’ve heard people call it the artist’s curse. That is, wondering if what you’re painting or the songs you’re playing or the prose you’re writing are any good. It appears impossible to measure your own artistic merit, to see your work with objective eyes. And while you may be lucky enough to have an honest teacher or someone who will provide constructive criticism, there is still that nagging feeling that maybe you’re fooling yourself.
In the process of painting a recent portrait, I went from sketchy doubt to exaltation and back again. However, by the end, I felt fairly sure that I’d painted something okay. Somewhat. The face was decent, but maybe there was something wrong with the background or maybe the composition was off. And this time, like many times, I wondered if my painting was unfinished, as if adding a few strokes here and there would somehow render my work a masterpiece. Of course, I’ve tried those types of late-in-the-process strokes and often, not always, they end up muddying the piece and saying something different from what I had intended. Probably that’s because the strokes are born of doubt and not of knowing.
Watching Instagram videos of Bryan Mark Taylor put the finishing highlights on a painting is like seeing a revelation in action. Or reading stories about how Sargent would stand far from his easel, study the canvas, his subject, and then rush forward to cut in a few precise, brilliant strokes makes me pine for this kind of artistic knowing.
The other type of knowing is the thought that you are “good enough.” I don’t mean this in a defeated way but in a way that says, “I am where I am, I’ve come a long way, and I’m happy to be here now and to keep moving forward.” This attitude is likely opposite of the artist’s curse; it’s the artists’ nirvana. Yet like the real nirvana, it remains an abstract ideal. If you’re like me, you’re never quite satisfied with the final results. Yes, you might feel good about a finished piece, but there’s always something that could use a push or some polish or a little clarity.
The artist’s curse might partially stem from comparing yourself to Bryan Mark Taylor or John Singer Sargent or any other artist who you look up to. The internet doesn’t help. My sister, also a painter, once said that when she noticed she was comparing herself to Anders Zorn or even a contemporary painter, like Kim English, she realized that she wasn’t being fair to herself. Instead, she said, she started looking laterally at those painters hovering in her same experience and skill level.
If you’re going to compare your skills, and we all do, then at least be fair to yourself. When you glance to the side at those people in your real painting cohort, the people who have been painting for a similar amount of time with similar training and similar technical skills, you might feel better about your own work. Not that you’re somehow “better” or “worse” but that you’re playing in the right league. You wouldn’t start playing soccer and suddenly be thrown into the World Cup, so why would you compare yourself to the “Masters”? Of course, it doesn’t hurt to look to those artists who you deem great and study their methods, admire their brushstrokes, or examine their colors and composition. This can be an excellent place to learn about painting or drawing, but it’s not a good place to compare and compete.
So how do you get a good sense of yourself, of your own artistic output, of your own value as a painter?
When I think of learning a skill, I often imagine the bold, young electric guitar player standing beside an amp and unabashedly striking the cords, even if those cords are, well, discordant. Even if it makes others’ ears bleed. To those young performers there reverberates a sound that is both energetic and pleasing, despite what anyone else hears or thinks. It is this bit of bravado, this youthful ego, this willingness to attack the instrument with wild abandon that I so admire. Here, you’re not operating from a place of nervous fear. You’re letting go of precision and holding to your senses, opening yourself up to stop worrying about mistakes, intuitively knowing that’s the place where you grow. You might call it naïve learning, which can bring us to the next level without even realizing it.
For me, this naïve learning happens when I set an intention just before I begin to paint – today I want to focus on letting go – and then I let loose. I jam near the amp. These moments are mine, not for the public, not for Instagram, not for some future sale or show or prize. It is this loss of overthinking, of being “precious” and holding on too tight when I do my best work.
But the questions remain, how do we practice the art of valuing and evaluating ourselves and our work as artists? How do we stop underplaying our skills and talent while still being honest with ourselves? How do we marry humility with a little bit of youthful bravado? I don’t have the answer to these questions, though I imagine that even those artists we most admire have grappled with the same issues, wondered at their own flaws, at that long road ahead. As the art lore goes, John Singer Sargent allegedly said, “A portrait is a painting with something wrong with the mouth.” Even he doubted. Somewhat.