Your Own Worst Enemy

Own Worst Enemy

Being an artist is no cake walk by any stretch of imagination. It can be a lot of fun, don't get me wrong, but there's a whole host of roadblocks one can face, including (but definitely not limited to) lack of motivation, injury or disability, and...oh, right, the fact that everybody's a critic, and there's no shortage of people willing to tell you what you did wrong without actually giving you any helpful advice on how to do better.

Of course, as artists, each of our very worst critics tend to be ourselves. While this may not always be the case, it's often true that we criticize our own work more harshly than anyone else who ever lays eyes on it. There's a reason for this, and it makes a lot of sense when you think about it, but we'll get to that in a moment.

Today, we're going to talk all about the phenomenon of artists being their own worst critic in full detail. We'll go over:

  • Why it happens

  • How to look out for it

  • How to counter it and prevent it from paralyzing you and keeping you from making art.

And do note, this is a problem that can and often does arise with just about any type of art, whether it's visual art, writing, music...the list goes on. I'm going to be using a lot of examples from visual art, because that's my medium, and as such I'm familiar enough with it to draw examples and analogies from my experience. But if you're another kind of artist, bear with me, as I'll try to make this as general as possible while still being helpful. Keep that in mind as we forge ahead, and if you or anyone you know is an artist of any sort, I hope this will be helpful to you in confronting your own inner critic.

Why This Happens

There are a number of reasons why this phenomenon might occur, but one in particular stands out: as the creators of a given piece of art, we know it intimately. We see every insignificant mistake, every little slip-up, and we're painfully aware if our work does not measure up to the exact idea we were trying to convey, because we're intensely focused on the work throughout the entire creation process, so of course we notice every little mistake.

Further, we as artists tend to be keenly aware of our problem areas. Some, like drawing hands, are very common weak areas that tend to be shared among a lot of artists, especially new ones. Other problem areas may be more specific and personal to you. Either way, it doesn't make a difference, the point is that—while being aware of your own weaknesses can be a very, very good thing, because it can help you improve—it's also a double-edged sword.

See, being so keenly aware of your weak points means you're more likely to think poorly of anything you do that involves those weak points. It's frighteningly easy to fall into the trap of thinking things like “I am really bad at drawing hands, so all the hands I draw are sub-par,” which then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because you've set yourself up for failure.

How to Recognize It

It might seem like this would be a pretty obvious phenomenon for the person that it's happening to, and to be sure, sometimes it is, and if you're already aware that you're your own worst critic, you can skip this section. For those of you who aren't sure, however, let's talk about that.

Commonly, an artist might not think they are being overly harsh on themselves, they may just think they're identifying problem areas to help them improve. There is a difference between these two behaviors.

If you really are just casting a fair yet critical eye on your work, you'll be able to focus on the bigger picture. You might have an inner dialog going something like “I did well on this part, but could work on this part. I'll try to learn from this.” However, if you're being overly critical of yourself, it'll be more like “and this is wrong, and this is wrong, and this is wrong...I'm a bad artist.”

As you can see, being overly critical of yourself can spiral into self-destructive and self-loathing territory, whereas being realistic about your work looks at what you did right as well as what you did wrong, and gives you ideas of how to improve your art.

This is a very important distinction. One behavior accomplishes nothing but make you feel bad and can even stunt your growth as an artist and prevent you from improving. So pay attention to your inner dialog, and when you can't trust yourself, trust your friends and family to tell you if you're being too harsh on your own work.

The Truth

Two people can look at (or listen to, or read, etc) a given piece of art and come away with two very different ideas of the quality of, value of, and emotion evoked by the piece. And the thing is, they're both right. And so is anyone else who experiences the piece and forms different ideas on it.

You'll hear the phrase “art is subjective” thrown around so much, it can be easy to forget what it means, exactly. Does it mean that your art is horrible because someone said so, or because you think so? No. Maybe it's horrible to some people who feel that way about it, but that's all, and those peoples' opinions do not dictate its worth to anyone else!

Does it mean that there's no such thing as skill, so there's no point in practicing? Nope, doesn't mean that either. Skill is a factor and practice does improve your skill gradually.

What it does mean is that no one person can tell you how to feel about your art. What it also means is that all art is valid.

How to Counter Negative Thinking About Your Art

Remembering that all art is valid and that art is inherently subjective, as well as the fact that being overly critical of your work doesn't help is important, but sometimes just being reminded of these truths isn't quite enough to get out of a slump. So here are a few pointers to get you back in front of your sketchpad (or your painting canvas, or your musical instrument, or your notebook, or your word processing software, etc, etc, etc).

  • Take a break. There's no shame in taking some time away from your work. You may find it helps you gain a fresh perspective.

  • Commiserate with other artists. Being one's own worst critic is such a common problem that it affects almost every artist out there, so if you have any friends, family, acquaintances who are artists, complain to them about your woes; they'll probably understand, and it can be helpful to vent.

  • For every piece of negative criticism you hear about your work, or say to yourself, find at least one thing you did well, too. We learn equally from both our mistakes and what we've done well.

  • Remember that every bit of art you make is progress. Even if you think a piece of art is horrible (which it probably isn't), the act of drawing it still honed your skills, even if only a small amount. Incremental progress is still progress.

  • Similarly, focusing on quantity of art produced will actually increase your quality in the long term. So remind yourself of this, and if you make something you think is bad, don't loose any sleep over it, just make another one! (and another, and another, and...)

What We've Learned

  • It's very common for artists of all kinds to be more critical of their own work than anyone else, and this is often taken to unhealthy levels.

  • This happens because, as the creators of a given work, we are keenly aware of every detail, and by extension, every mistake.

  • The reality is that all art is valid, and nobody but you can decide how to feel about your art.

  • To counter this line of thought, you can take a break, comiserate with other artists, think of positive things to say about your art to counter the negative, and focus on producing more art to keep practicing and getting better, rather than stagnating as you bemoan what you've done wrong thus far.

So next time you cast a more critical eye on your own work than might be healthy, just remember that the most important thing is that you enjoy making art. You can always strive to improve, but improvement rarely happens reliably by hating yourself and your work.

Now, what are you waiting for? You're out of excuses. Go make art!