There are positive and beneficial sides to comparing our work to that of other artists, and there are also plenty of drawbacks. In today’s episode of Nela’s Art Chat I’m drawing a magical winter fairy colored pencil portrait while talking about how to productively compare your art with others’ so you can learn from it, and how to change your mindset so you don’t fall into the black hole of hating your own work because it’s not “good enough”.
Listen to audio only:
Tools used in this drawing
- Strathmore 400 Toned Gray Mixed Media 9x12 Pad
- Pilot Super Grip 0.5mm mechanical pencil
- Kneaded eraser + regular eraser
- Derwent Inktense colored pencils
- Derwent Coloursoft colored pencils
- Derwent Studio colored pencils
- Conté à Paris pastel pencils
- Uni-ball Signo gel pen
- Aero white gouache
(Amazon affiliate links. I'll get paid a few cents if you buy these art supplies using my link, and there's no extra charge to you.)
Winter Fairy by Nela Dunato. Mixed media on 23x30cm toned paper
It’s normal to want to compare our life and work with other people. Comparison is how we learn. Small children observe what older kids and adults around them do, and repeat it until they succeed. To suddenly expect of ourselves to stop caring what other people are doing and keep our heads down is pretty unrealistic. We naturally gravitate toward this behavior, and stopping it takes a lot of conscious effort.
Sometimes there’s no harm in comparing your work to that of other people. When you’re starting out, seeing what is possible to achieve in a given medium can open your mind and help you envision a goal you want to reach eventually. It helps you develop a taste for good art. Also, even further in your journey you may have phases when you feel like you’ve plateaued and aren’t sure what to do next. Paying attention to art that engages you, makes you feel certain emotions or observe details you find intriguing and pleasing to your senses can inspire you to try doing something similar, in your own way. There’s no shame in being inspired by other artists and learning from them.
Comparison becomes a problem when it makes you feel bad about your own work.
Being aware that there’s lots of room for improvement is one thing.
Feeling discouraged from pursuing art because you feel like you’ll never be as good as other artists is a totally different thing, and it’s not healthy.
It is highly probable that you will never be one of the best artists in your favorite genre.
If you want to keep pursuing art, you have to be OK with that. If being “the best” is your main motivation for improvement, you’ll be constantly disappointed in yourself. The desire to be “the best” can lead to obsessing about what other artists are doing to the point of stalking them, and seeing your fellow artists as competitors. It can make you feel resentful and envious of their successes.
Isn’t it better to be friendly with other artists and celebrate with them? Can you imagine being friends with someone who is more successful and more skilled than you are and feel good about that? Because that’s what the art world is—lots of talented people who will sometimes be ahead of you, and sometimes behind you. You have no control over what others do, and sometimes people get lucky and you can’t control that either.
Comparing yourself unfavorably to fellow creatives will only bring you misery. Here’s a couple of tips to avoid doing that.
1. Only seek to compare yourself to other people if your intention is to learn something.
Don’t do it habitually and unconsciously.
Here’s what you can do to get the most benefit from a comparison session:
- Grab a sketchbook to take notes as you browse. Treat this like a homework assignment to emphasize you’re doing this to learn.
- Write down a few areas you want to improve in to focus on in your session. For example: Human figure. Clothing. Composition. Complementary color palettes. Atmosphere. Environments. Shading with ink.
- Look up one artist who excels at the areas you’re looking to improve, take screenshots of their work and make notes about what you like. Write how the work makes you feel, sketch thumbnails of compositions you like, make swatches of color palettes you’re attracted to... Break the artwork down into elements so you’re not overwhelmed with how awesome everything is, and you’ll never be so good at all of these things...
- After you’ve examined a couple of artworks, get away from the screen and read over your notes again. Write more insights if you want.
- And then, take a look at your own artwork and imagine what it might look like if you were to apply some of the principles you’ve just seen. Envision in your mind how this one drawing or painting would be different if you made the composition or the color palette more interesting, or if you were to improve the figure drawing, or shading, or whatever else you want to improve.
You see, this is a lot more work than just scrolling through Instagram so you probably won’t be tempted to do it too often, but each time you do it, you’ll be a better artist for it.
2. Don’t look at artists’ social media, blogs or videos when you feel grumpy.
If you want to make yourself feel better, watch cute animals instead. They won’t make you feel inadequate.
Before checking your feeds, check in with yourself first: how do you feel? If you’re neutral or better, go ahead. If you’re feeling even a tiny bit dissatisfied, do not go there—there’s a high risk of it making you feel even worse.
I personally go as far as to take regular breaks from social media because I've discovered that digital isolation is great for my creativity. It may take a while to get used to it, but once you do you might actually start enjoying it, like I do.
3. Appreciate your own journey.
I don’t mean this in an abstract way, I mean really think deeply about your journey—the circumstances you’ve found yourself in, and the choices you’ve made that caused you to be where you are.
You can’t change the past, and I understand if your lack of privilege and support is the reason you’re “running behind” your peers. It doesn’t feel fair, but you’re not doomed. You are who you are.
During the past 10 years of my life I had other priorities that got in the way of me becoming better at art. I don’t regret the choices I made. I consciously decided for art to be my hobby—I talked about that in episode #2 of Nela’s Art Chat. I still get to make art and these videos, and all in all it turned out pretty good. So why feel bad that I’m not as good as the other folks who took art more seriously, attended art schools, practiced more than I ever did..? They deserve to be as awesome as they are, and I deserve the skills that I’ve worked for. There’s no point in wishing it to be any different.
4. Be aware of your own strengths.
This is hard in the beginning when it seems like you suck at pretty much everything, but in due time you’ll discover that some things come more naturally to you. Lean into your strengths. When you see you’re good at something, do more of that.
Sure, practising to improve things you’re not so good at so you can raise the overall quality of your work is smart, but don’t spend all your energy focusing on your flaws. Actually, your “flaws” could point to a unique art style you’re developing.
I’m bad at drawing environments, so I avoid them altogether and draw abstract backgrounds or leave them blank. My figures and portraits could use a lot of improvement, but I’m proud of my imagination and I’d rather have that, than be able to draw technically perfect but ultimately boring realist portraits.
If I want to become more skilled, I know what I need to do. The only question is do I want to do it? At this moment, not really. I’d rather just have fun.
Be proud of your unique artistic voice and don’t let comparison get your down. You are worthy in your own right.
So that’s what I have for you today. I hope this has been useful and see you in the next episode of Nela’s Art Chat.