Artists struggle. That’s a fact. One that has often turned into a cliché over the centuries. Some sides of that fact have evolved and are not a fatality anymore, but others will never change: artists will always struggle one way or another, as this is inherent to the process of artistic creation, whether you do it professionally or in your spare time. Without struggles, there is no creation, no expression, no improvement, no journey towards “better”.
Let’s take a closer look at these nasty little demons that most artists need to face bravely while learning their skill. But before we do, let’s be clear: this article is far from exhaustive. Books could be dedicated to it (and probably have been many times around). These are the most common ones and some that I know firsthand from experience.
I like to divide the difficulties in an artist’s life into 5 general groups, depending on the reason that caused these struggles.
My first group is a big one. It refers to the struggles due to a lack of faith and confidence in our abilities. You've got it: The “lows” (and I mean really deep, bottom-raking, types of lows) in between “highs” (these are great though), the frustration at seeing other people who seem to be managing so easily while you feel like a miserable failure (I insist on “who seem to”, as it’s likely that these amazing artists that you admire will see themselves in this article too), that crippling jealousy that Tarsila Kruse described so well in this other blog post. In one of these days, you feel but one thing: “I’m crap!” and you want but one thing: “I’m quitting!” And also: “What was I thinking? I’m so bad at this. It’s never going to work, I’m never going to make it”...
But then, ok, let’s try one more time, let’s take that blank white empty scary page and let’s just, well, fill it.
Easy, isn’t it?
Not at all.
Here comes the artist’s block again. You stare at this page, wondering how you ever got to draw something good before (good? Actually now that you look at it after yesterday’s adrenaline rush, it’s miles away from the quality you wanted to achieve). Sometimes, you go past the block and manage to sketch something. Yep, that’s right, some... thing... that a 5-year-old would probably have done better. Let’s not forget the impostor syndrome, the one that sees you biting your nails down to your wrists at the idea that someday, people will inevitably see you for what you really are: a so-called artist, when all you do is stare at a sheet for hours, when it takes you 48 attempts to draw a hand properly, when your work is just bland and boring and your reasons for making it a silly blather.
Did I undermine your good mood and enthusiasm yet? No? Let’s keep going then!
Closely related to our first group, please meet group number 2, the one with a lack of knowledge and experience. Luckily this one shouldn’t bother you too much for too long, since after a few years, you're supposed to have gained some knowledge and experience. But above all, you learn that all the struggles above are just NORMAL. And even better, they are USEFUL. In a way, they are the reasons why you continue, they push you forward. And as you continue, you improve. Hence the “highs”. And if you don’t get the “lows”, you won’t get the “highs”. Get it? Full circle. Cause and effect. Or whatever you want to call it.
Also in this group, you find another big conflict felt by artists: how do I find my style? Where is it? How will I find it? How will I recognize it? Do not fret: apparently, it just comes. The more you create the better. This I can’t personally confirm, since I still haven’t really found my own! But at least I have reached the next level, where I learned not to worry about it. And that’s something.
This brings us to our third group, of which, in a way, the first group could be a subdivision: in this one, artists battle against none other than themselves. Creating is not a smooth process. Well sometimes it is, but a lot of the time, it involves going deep into yourself, to fish out the experience, the emotions, the thoughts that will bring your creation to life. In the case of children’s books illustration, luckily, they are usually good emotions, but you can always meet bad ones along the way.
And once you’ve sorted these things out, you need to find, apply and maintain the motivation, the fire and the self-discipline you need to keep going. Not everybody has all these attributes in their personality. If you don’t, it’s simple, you have to learn them: find out your weaknesses, face them, overcome them and stop procrastinating, learn what hard work really means... How hard can that be?
So very depressing, I know. But the secret is to keep going anyway. Successful artists are not masochists or romantic souls indulging in their melancholy. We are just hardworking people who thrive to reach the next step, and the next, and the next. Why? Because art is a passion and a necessity, like air into our lungs.
Yes, art can be draining emotionally and psychologically. I personally didn’t touch a pencil during my pregnancies and while my babies were very young. It wasn’t a job at that time so I didn’t have to, and it was just too overwhelming for me. Having to deal with such a life-changing experience didn’t leave me with enough energy for art, so I took a break.
Now, take all of the above and consider this: a lot of “non-creative” people (yes, that’s you, right-brain Mister over there!) do not suspect any of this. And here you have our group number 4, the struggles due to a lack of understanding of what art is, as an activity, as a way of life and as a profession.
Artists complaining of being asked to work for free (or just not for what it’s worth, for that matter)? Well, shouldn’t we be grateful to be able to combine work and pleasure? That’s the artists’ life as it always has been after all. If you don’t agree with it, well, you should just get a REAL job.
Artists asking ridiculous amounts of money for a small pretty drawing? How can we justify it? All we do is pick a pencil and put a few lines on a paper. We’re good at it, it’s so easy for us, AND we enjoy doing it anyway. No tears and sweat there. So surely the price doesn’t reflect the “effort”.
I was once told, as I presented a painting to a client in the presence of one of his friends: “Oh, that’s a very nice hobby to have”. No meanness intended at all, but this is what a lot of us are used to: not being taken seriously. I sometimes prefer saying “I am an illustrator” instead of “artist” when asked about my job, because the word “illustrator” seems to hold more credibility, industrialism, less arrogance even, in the mind of many people. And this sometimes reinforces my own insecurities and brings me back to that Impostor syndrome I mentioned earlier.
All these struggles are interrelated. The ones in my fifth and last group are plain practical, down-to-earth, prosaic struggles: money, time and kids!
Money, well, you can imagine how this is a struggle. Mainly because making a living with an artistic profession is not always the easiest thing to do, especially in the publishing industry, which is a very slow industry. Also because in order to make money, you need money, ha! Art equipment, supplies, promotion, art classes (you always need to learn as an artist)... none of these are cheap.
Time is the same way: always on the short side. Self-discipline, organization, reduced hours of sleep (but not too much, because your health is as important as the rest in order to produce good work) are some of the preciously useful habits you need to put in place early in your career to manage your time efficiently.
Now add a few children into the equation, 4 in my case. And that’s enough to drive you mad!
As a conclusion, I would just like to tell you:
If you are a creative, know that you are not alone!
If you are a newcomer into the art world and thinking of becoming more serious about it, here’s a glimpse of what’s ahead, but know that the rewards far surpass the struggles if you are passionate about it, and don’t give up.
If you are a non-creative and you didn’t know any of that, I hope my words give you an understanding of what art means to artists and what it requires of them.