The Push and Pull of Artistic Envy

I try to be as forthright as possible on this blog about my experiences with art. The site didn’t really start with a focused goal in mind, but over time, writing has become as much about sharing the struggles as the victories when it comes to this hobby. I hope it helps someone else to see my learning process along with snags and trip-ups I experience along the way. One that I’ve been wrestling with lately is my complicated relationship with artistic envy.

One of the many purposes that originally drew me to WordPress is simply browsing other artists’ work via the WP Reader. I probably follow way too many sites at this point, but I love seeing the unique styles and varied skill sets found among artistic bloggers. Similarly, exploring new artwork is also what finally brought me to social media sites like Instagram and Pinterest. I can’t emphasize enough how much I’ve learned just from reading about and following other artists. Outside of the learning aspects though, I’ve also gained inspiration from the vast talent on display, planting a small seed of “what if I practice” in my brain.

There is a drawback though, which is similar to the biggest downside of a motivational tool I’ve often used in life. The gist of it is this: Set a goal that’s extremely high, with the understanding that the goal may not be realistic or likely to happen. The upshot for me was if I aimed high, but didn’t quite make it, whatever I achieved along the way would still be very good. A prime example is that after high school, I set this overarching goal as graduating medical school. Although I got a few interviews, ultimately I wasn’t accepted to any medical school programs. The overly-ambitious moonshot wasn’t reached, but along the way I earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees – still overall a success, but not the one I set out for.

This is a decent strategy overall, because it’s helped me accomplish some things in life. The problem is that it can take an emotional toll over time; even if they are somewhat unrealistic, you’re still setting goals and not achieving them. In many ways, watching extremely talented artists create amazing things can take a similar toll. Although usually it’s inspiring, sometimes I instead find envy tugging away at me. Recently, I found this to be true as I was looking at a painter on Instagram named Henrik Uldalen (@henrikaau). At first, I was in awe of the natural talent on display. At some point though, I started feeling that little green monster poking his head around. I had thoughts like, “I will never be this good” and “I just wasn’t born with the talent this dude has.”

Fortunately, funks like that are usually pretty short-lived, and I talked myself right out of those doldrums. After letting the parade of emotions pass by, I typically try to think about things more objectively. First and foremost, I don’t know anything about that painter and I’m not in his head. He may have actually spent a lifetime honing his craft, and chalking it all up to a born gift does a disservice what could have been years of work and practice. And I don’t know how hard he’s focusing, if/how he prepared, or even how long his paintings took. But, even if he is a natural portrait prodigy, I shouldn’t try to measure myself as if there is some linear scale of skill. Art is fluid and subjective – I think it’s more important to consider individual styles people develop through their personal artistic explorations. It sounds cheesy, but I feel like examining those unique styles is where art really gets interesting.

Hopefully that’s not just a bunch of gibberish. And I don’t mean to make browsing art out to be a negative experience at all. Overall it is a great thing, and something I enjoy quite a lot. I just wanted to describe some of the internal push and pull that happens from time-to-time, and how confidence can take a hit within certain mindsets. Anyhow, all that being said, once I got out of that artistic funk, I realized it had been a while since I’d drawn anything. Here’s the portrait I ended up working on, which is another piece inspired by Unsplash photography (I’ve somehow lost the original, I’ll update this with a credit when I find it again):

With this portrait, I decided to keep pushing the shadows/high contrast I’ve been trying to practice. It’s long been an area in need of improvement for me, so I figured this was a natural direction. Overall, I’m happy with the portrait and it came together well I think. This looks like the subject and I don’t see any major proportional issues. I’m used to working on straight vertical head orientation, or only minor tilts, so it felt a little uncomfortable working with this angle. But like I said, I’m not unhappy with how that part turned out.

I do think the finished portrait looks a bit washed out. The digital version doesn’t emphasize that quite as much, but in person it seems I leaned too heavily on my white pencil blending. I have a colorless wax blender, and in hindsight, I really should have utilized it. This is particularly true for the subject’s face, but I think deeper blacks for her hair would have been good too. These are minor complaints though. I think the finished version works pretty well.

I decided to depart from real life a bit on some of the colors. Not that it’s a high-minded statement about smartphones or anything, but I thought this was a good opportunity to make the phone a focal point. I went with a noticeable navy color for the phone, and tried to use more grays and neutrals elsewhere. I didn’t want the eye to go to her shirt or something. When I select colors that vary from the real subject, I usual do it randomly based on feeling rather than some plan. This time though, I actually select specific colors with a goal in mind (“look at this phone!“). So, that’s sort of a new thing!

Here’s the usual progression .gif. I took quite a few photos as I worked on this, so it should be a decent animation this time:

As I said already, I really hope this entire post wasn’t an incoherent jumble. There really was a purpose behind that wall of text – to share some personal challenges that can arise on the path of an amateur artist. As for what’s next, I have no idea! I do still have a few basic outlines that I started and abandoned. But, so far I’m not really feeling those, so I think it will probably be something totally new.

8 comments

  • I can relate to that envy, when I first discovered Instagram I was doing the “wow that’s so good, follow them” and before you know it you’ve got so many inbound images that it’d take you most of the day to get through it – and certainly that time would be better utilised creating rather than looking at other art.

    I’ve naturally fallen into the balance now of rarely changing the accounts I’m following. I’ve got a few arty friends of course, and I’d say several which are above and below (in my opinion) in terms of skill level but broadly similar. There’s a few which are mind-blowing but I’m realistic about the fact that they are full time artists, with studios and often having done it for a chunk of time. I don’t have any envy these days as there’s only one person you should really compare yourself with, and that’s the “you” from a year ago 😁👍

    • That is so true, Steve. There is definitely such a thing as social media follow overload, and I think I’m past that saturation point! It’s especially true for exactly the beast you mentioned; Instagram. I mean, it is really neat to see so many great artists. But I got to the point where I don’t even see friends or family’s stuff on there sometimes, because it gets drowned by everything else.

      It’s sort of true for WordPress Reader too. As part of typing this comment, I went to the Reader to see exactly how many I follow now…I have 593 followed sites! I had no idea it was that many. I probably need to go back and filter out some impulse follows, because there can’t be more than 30-40 that I remember and specifically seek out (like Steve Kidd Art for example). I feel like I’m missing a lot of WP Reader content in the moment that I have to later hunt down for individual sites.

      That’s good advice about comparing too – it’s sort of fun to gauge how you’ve changed over time. A bit surprising even!

      • Yes, I started off following everyone that followed me but soon discovered a bombardent of posts including pictures of people’s dinners, cats, posing at the beach – so all that had to go. Besides my IG has something like 1,500 follows now, there wouldn’t be enough hours in the day just to look at that lot 😆

        I’ve had to make some tough decisions to stop following decent folk but decided that “Steve Kidd Art” as an online entity is purely for my art and nothing else. Harsh maybe, but essential.

        By the way, thanks for the follow but more importantly, for posting up your artwork and thoughts – it’s *exactly* what I’m here for 👍

      • Haha, yes you would have to dedicate your life to intake and processing of Instagram posts! Although some people might enjoy that, it sounds like a good recipe for insanity for me. I think filtering social media down to art is a good call – it seems like a lot of content now is just clutter (spammed articles, politics disguised as news, mid-level marketing schemes, etc). It’s nice to make that feed into something more enjoyable wherever you can

        And I remain flattered that people like you, talented and skillful folks, have some interest in these posts! It sounds cheesy, but I’m absolutely serious – having an interested audience, even if it’s just a handful of people, really makes writing about this worth it.

  • Oh yes, envy does show its ugly face from time to time. The discipline that I finally embraced was to stop comparing my work to theirs, to stop worrying if people would think I was copying my influences, and stop concerning myself with the opinions of others. I have no idea if I’m a great artist or not, but after almost 40 years of creation, I finally understood what so many artists have said before me: authentically make art you like and make it for yourself. That will be the only way to attract people who hear your true voice.
    Finally, and you have already said this before and in this article, you need only compete with yourself. Let me make this simpler that your approach of aiming high and accepting only partial success; you only need to do better that you did the day before.
    Ask yourself which feels better: “I didn’t achieve my goal, but I learned along the way”, or “That’s an improvement over the last sketch, now I’m one step closer to my goal.”
    By the way, this works best if you eliminate the big hairy goal and focus on the learning journey.
    In my opinion, art can have no real goal, because of its completely subjective nature. Art is about play, exploration, and expression much more than technique.
    I always remind myself of something Picasso said in one of his last interviews. The interviewer witnessed a retrospectively his work spanning from the technical genius of his early years to the abstracts and simple lines drawing on pottery and with light at the end of his life. The interviewer related a comment on his later work from another spectator “a child could do that”, and asked Picasso how he felt about that.
    The answer Picasso gave was something like, “When we are children we are not concerned about anything other than the joy we get from making art, because of this, we create pure art and pure expression. Society quickly erases that bliss with judgements they call needed learning.” Then he said the part of the quote that has guided me all my artistic life. “By the age of 12, I was recognized as a master of my art, able to copy El Greco, Velasquez and all the Masters perfectly. I’ve spent the next 70 years learning how to paint like a child again.”
    I’ve come to understand this in my own way, and I believe one of the important points he was espousing was to focus on fun over form.
    What do you get from it?

    • What an excellent, thought-provoking comment! I think what you’ve said here about authentically making art you like, and using your true voice, is spot on. I do believe people are interested in experiences that resonate in that way. I’m always more drawn to exploring a project someone is passionate about; it seems like you can often tell just from the way they write about it, or even the imagry itself.

      Also, I really like that Picasso quote. It’s interesting to consider his perspective though, as someone having mastered multiple genres and styles (Picasso of course, not me). I’m by no means an expert on art theory and history, but it seems like by becoming technically proficient at so many core skills (like realistic portraits), he probably learned things he couldn’t help but have bolstered his future modern art with. It’s like his artwork was a journey that relied on everything he learned, even if you couldn’t see it explicitly. It would feel like cheating for someone like me to paint some shapes and say “see I can do that too.” Maybe not cheating exactly – actually, more inauthentic. Almost like I haven’t learned enough, haven’t crested that hill, to start making it simpler/purer for myself. I don’t have that same body of work and knowledge for that perspective to fit my mindset – it wouldn’t seem like an organically generated thing at this point in my learning process.

      I may be totally wrong there though, because what you said about focusing on fun is a really important take away. And that may have been instead what he meant – if you aren’t enjoying creating, why are you even doing it, right? From that perspective, it sort of squashes what I just said above to some extent I think.

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