Aspiring visual artists tend to be incredibly self-critical, sometimes teetering on the verge of self-loathing. This is mainly because visual artmaking requires so much self-reflection. In many ways, making acts as an extension of the artist’s self, and as a result, much of that creative process is about reflecting, criticizing and reworking.
Joe Hamman '20 on the art school critique.
The ritual of critique can sometimes feel anything but removed from the artist’s self and more personal than an analysis of the work. As a result of the unrelenting amount of looking at other people's artwork, considering your own, and desperately trying to improve, it becomes almost impossible to resist comparing yourself to others. Needless to say, this can be emotionally exhausting and inevitably leads the artist to ask themselves: Why isn’t my art as good as I want it to be? Am I good enough to succeed? Is all this work worth it?
I am no stranger to this self-doubt and introspection. This headspace is unavoidable for the aspiring and highly self-aware artist. During the majority of my sophomore year, I was delving more deeply into my illustration program while trying to navigate the strange world of graphic design and further my non-academic work. I was struggling to see the profound effects I believed all this hard work should be having on my art. Paired with the consistent successes of my peers as well as my Instagram idols, I felt defeated. I became so consumed with my own self-doubt and criticism that I had difficulty maintaining the motivation to keep creating. Perhaps worst of all, I felt completely alone in how I was feeling.
Eventually, nearly bursting at the seams with introspective angst, I decided to seek guidance from my fellow artists and friends. I quickly learned that we were all struggling with quite similar feelings. While I was relieved by the comradery, I still needed a solution. I sought out someone who had been a pivotal mentor to me, someone who I looked up to: illustration professor and department chair, Kate Castelli.
Kate is an Illustration department legend. She is a wealth of tough love, prolific talent, endless wisdom, and the ability to always match her shoes to her scarf perfectly. I pursued an appointment with Kate to discuss my struggles and, admittedly, felt a bit embarrassed about the whole thing. I was seeking counsel from someone I revered and felt that my painstaking self-doubt made me weak, a failure. However, Kate made me feel mighty and accomplished.
I was desperately searching for a way to rid myself of doubt, and, instead of offering a cure-all, Kate told me this: doubting yourself is something all artists feel throughout their practice, but it’s never permanent and it is a crucial component of being a good artist.
After a long, uplifting, and truly lovely talk with Kate, I possessed a completely new perspective on my process and myself as an artist. This had been such a significant experience and revelation for me that it felt deeply important that I revisit my conversation with Kate; not only as a sincere thank you for her sage wisdom and gracious support, but to provide other artists struggling with these feelings of self-doubt the same understanding and guidance that was given to me.
- Did you ever doubt that art was what you wanted to pursue as a career?
Yes and no, I think the truth is I don’t know how to do anything else…I didn’t know that I was going to be teaching. I sort of fell into that, but I always knew that art was going to have to be some sort of element of my life and career. How that was gonna look I had no idea from undergrad ‘til like now…so it was important for me to figure out how to make that happen.
- Do you ever find it difficult helping students through artist's block and self-doubt?
Totally! Mostly because I feel like I’m only a little further down the road, so there is a lot of commiseration and just letting them know that what you’re feeling is valid, and I don’t have a magic solution. I just let them know that I feel it, too. Someone once told me that “self-doubt has seasons,” and I always kind of have tried to remember that sometimes things like that need to just flow through you and pass naturally. And I’m realizing that more as I get older, but I still get frustrated when things don’t work out.
- What’s the most effective way to combat artist's block/self-doubt?
My biggest recommendation is to get a hot beverage and have a cookie. I know I’ve told you that before. But, artist's block as a student is no different than artist's block as a professional artist. We are all going through it, but it passes and you make it through.
- What are the biggest things you’ve seen young artists struggle with as they go through their education?
The biggest thing is shifting from the first two years of the art school experience to the last two, where suddenly you have to make choices about what path you’re gonna take and what that looks like, and a lot of times students don’t quite know what that looks like right away. I've noticed that self-doubt seems to creep into the sophomore year—we call it the 'sophomore slump'—because you really start looking at yourself in comparison to your peers and the bigger picture, and that can be overwhelming.
But I can say from experience, that it usually works out and things get better moving into those third and fourth years. But I don’t think having doubt or artist's block is a bad thing. It actually means you’re doing the right thing in terms of being self-aware, thinking about your work, and being self-critical. If everything is perfect all the time, you’re not diving deep enough.
- So you’re proposing that artist's block is a good thing?
Well, I think it’s hard but important to remember that this stuff passes and that eventually you will be making work that you love, but you’re also going to make a ton of work that you hate…I went a whole year in grad school making work that I just absolutely hated, and I ended up burning all of it.
And it’s hard not to compare yourself to others. It’s not just a normal human thing, but it’s so prevalent in artistry. At some point, you have to reach some sort of equilibrium and be like ‘alright, I’m gonna make some work I really like and some stuff I don’t, but that’s okay, and I’m getting better.’ You just need to focus on moving forward.
And truthfully, it never changes, and you go through these seasons, but it somehow always works out in the end.