Art is an essential part of our existence; it enriches our lives and opens our minds. So what do you do when it becomes a source of unhappiness? What do you do when creating art starts to feel more like an obligation than a pursuit of self expression? I can’t speak for others, so I’m going to stick to my own story of how I came to terms with the interplay between my wellbeing and my art.
Before we get down to business I want to share a little bit of my backstory. When I was in high school I took four years of art. Before high school I had never taken art seriously. It was an eye opening experience to say the least. There were long nights, sore arms, and more than a little frustration, but there was also a whole lot of satisfaction at a job well done. When I graduated from high school in 2014, I fell into an art depression. There was nothing I wanted to create, nothing that made my hand itch for pencil and paper. I left home for college in the Fall of that same year. I was signed up for an art class, I’d purchased all the supplies, and I was mildly terrified. Long story short, I ended up dropping the course after only a few class sessions; I hated being told what to draw and how to draw it. My art depression continued and my mental health began its slow descent into chaos alongside it.
It wasn’t until mid-2015 that I returned to art. I visited my eldest brother and together we painted. The whole time I was there, I wanted to be somewhere else. Every brush stroke felt like a chore. I wanted so badly to enjoy it, to savor the challenge, but I could not. I tried to paint again towards the end of 2015. I chose a tiny canvas, 5’’ x 7’’, but I couldn’t do it, not the way I wanted to. I ended up haphazardly painting a portrait of my cat perched on my windowsill. It was my least impressive creation to date, but it was also the first time since, well since forever, that I’d actually enjoyed the process. I haven’t painted since, and I don’t know if I will paint in the future, but I know I will never abandon art for good. As a result of my struggles, I’ve made the decision to explore other mediums until I find the one that sets me free instead of trapping me.
There are many hard truths when it comes to art, but there are also some lesser known truths about the artistic world that fail to get the attention they deserve. Allow me to delve into a few.
#1. Two Words: Pressure Cooker.
If I had to describe my feelings towards my high school art experience in two words, I’d go with ‘pressure cooker.’ (I’m the meat in this scenario, in case you were wondering.) When you first start out with art, there’s no pressure. You’re a beginner, no one’s expecting a Picasso or a Monet. The more you practice, though, the better you get and the more the pressure starts to build. Some thrive under that pressure, others quietly have mental breakdowns while continuing to create art because, hey, it would be a crime to waste all that talent. Here’s the thing, though; you’re more important than any masterpiece you could potentially create. You do not owe the world your art. No one is entitled to your art at the expense of your health. And maybe it is a shame, to let all that hard work and time go to waste, but you know what? The bigger shame is in not letting artists, people, put their own needs first.
#2. Say NO to Limitations!
Art isn’t just the paintings you find in museums; it’s music, literature, interior design, fashion, scrapbooking, the list goes on and on. In order to grow as an artist, I had to step away from my definition of art, examine it, and then rewrite it. After I did that, I realized that I never stopped being an artist, I just failed to recognize myself as one. And I know there are those who would say that poems written on digital sticky notes aren’t art, that I’m “reaching,” but I won’t let their limitations limit me. I don’t know what the dictionary definition of art is off the top of my head, but for me, it’s anything you breathe life into, anything you imbue with the stuff of your soul. It’s anything born of love, anything that makes you feel something. And maybe my definition of art is too fluffy and vague for some, but that’s okay, because it’s just my definition. Art is about breaking boundaries, it’s about doing you, so do you.
#3. Perfection: Been There, Done That, Wasn’t Good Enough
Perfectionism and pressure go hand in hand. They’re a dangerous duo and have been the death of many an artist. When it gets to the point where you’re more focused on achieving perfection than on the actual spirit of whatever you’re creating, that’s when you know you’ve got a problem. There’s a big difference between acknowledging that you still have a lot to learn about art, and being unable to sleep because you can’t stop going over every minute mistake you made in your last piece. One is constructive, the other is poisonous and automatically sets you up for failure. My point is, if it’s tearing you up inside, maybe you need to step back and take a minute to ask yourself why.
Some questions you can ask yourself:
- Am I making art because I want to, or because I feel obligated to?
- Am I making the art I want to make, or am I tailoring it to what I think others want to see?
- How does art make me feel? If it’s not a good feeling, is there anything I can do to change that?
- Am I working with the medium I want to? Is there another medium that I could try, even if just to take a break from my current medium?
- Am I in an environment that is conducive of good vibes, an environment that speaks to me?
- Are my negative feelings actually about my art, or are they stemming from something else?
These are just a small number of questions you can ask yourself. Spend some quality time getting in touch with your feelings and don’t expect to immediately understand them. Like many aspects of life, art is a continuous journey. Make sure you’re walking the path that’s right for you, even if it differs from your initial path. Create art that speaks to you, that inspires you, that you know is worthy of all the time you’ve invested in it. Stay strong and go forth knowing that within you lies potential so infinite it rivals the stars.