Take portraiture for example. Audiences can offer an objective opinion about whether a picture does or does not look like the subject. But they can also offer a subjective perspective on criteria such as texture, colour and pose. Add to this the different opinions resulting from the different contexts in which people might 'know' the subject, and it is easy to see why many portraiture students feel very under pressure when presenting their work.
In my opinion, confidence is an issue for all artists at numerous points in their development, but for some people it is debillitating. I work with a lot of artists who are apologetic about their work, and fearful of having to justify it, and yet, much to their credit, they still give it their best shot. Some of them have had their confidence eroded by the cruel words of someone close to them, and some have had their achievements devalued by bad teaching, both are inexcusable. After all, confidence takes a long time to build and only moments to destroy.
The reality is that confidence is at the heart of everything; confidence to try new things, confidence to take risks, confidence to work bigger, confidence to show artworks and perhaps most importantly, confidence to manage the views of other people. In this piece I am going to explain some ways, for those artists that struggle with confidence, to address this negative state.
First let me explain why I am such an expert on the subject.
Today I am a successful portrait painter and tutor, and consider myself to be very
fortunate to live the life I have always aspired to. But it wasn't always like that.
In the seventies I went to art college, full of confidence and ready to take on the world. I was only just eighteen and still a bit green behind the gills. But what I lacked in experience, I had in enthusiasm.
On my first day, I assembled with all the other newcomers, and as instructed pinned some artworks I had produced in the holidays, to a wall. Only two of us had figurative pieces, and mine were the only portraits. I was first to be called up and asked to explain my work. I was then told that although I thought I could draw, I couldn't, and that my work was as vacuous as the inside of my head. Myself and the other figurative student were the only two to be given a working over that first day.
I was shattered by the experience. I had been humiliated in front of my peers, before I had even had a chance to get to know them, and told that the talent I believed I had was non-existent. I survived for three years, enduring an onslaught of criticism about my work, dished out at monthly sessions with the tutors. It was so bad that I gave up painting for fifteen years after that. I really believed I had very little to offer. It wasn't that I expected much from the college, given my awful introduction, but if just one person had taken the time to recognise my pain, put an arm around my shoulders and tell me that I had some ability inside of me, it could have made such a difference.
Talking to other artists, professional and amateur, it seems my story is by no means unique.
When I started painting again I kept it very low-key, because I was fearful of criticism. It took me years to pluck up the courage to show my work, and even then I hated talking about it because I couldn't stop re-hearing what had been said at college. Fortunately, as I acquired new techniques and a better understanding of my working process, I was able to develop a useful philosophy about art and confidence that helped me to grow. This is what I would like to share in the words that follow.
Five tips to building confidence
1. Always have several pictures on the go.
Although it is never a good idea to give up easily on a picture that is presenting you with problems, there is a limit. How do you know when that limit has been reached? When you find yourself pushing paint around the canvas in the hope that serendippity might kick in. This is when the picture is in control of you, and not the other way around as it should be.
It is often better to put a troublesome picture to one side for a fresh look, with 'new eyes', and then move onto another painting. After all, ending a session feeling negative is unlikely to bring you back feeling positive.
2. Here's a hard one!
When you show a picture to someone, begin by pointing out the stuff you like about it. The resulting conversation is much more likely to revolve around positive aspects of your painting, making you feel good. Think of it like this: it is easy for a commentator to offer an opinion (and that is all it is) on what is wrong with someone's artwork, but it takes more effort and even skill to articulate what works well and why.
Finally, if you produce a picture you don't like, rather than dwelling upon what it is that offends you, try finding areas on the picture you do like (they are always there), and ask yourself why they work for you, and how you can make more of them. This is a much more positive way of managing your development.
Look for tutors who take the same approach.
3. Manage your process.
Everyone has a process that they work to in some way. For some it is the stages of actually painting, but for others it is how they manage themselves. For instance, when I begin a new painting I have to prepare the night before - clean brushes, white canvas on the easel, tidy studio - so that when I walk into the studio the next morning I feel ready.
Why not explore what you do that gives you the best start to a picture and beyond. Question why you do it and ask if you can make more of it. For example, I force myself to go for a walk at midday, even if I don't really want to, because I always come back with a better understanding of what I'm working on.
Then there are the working stages of producing a picture. Do you sharpen a number of pencils before you start drawing? You should to avoid drawing too long with a blunt pencil. Do you always have clean water when using acrylics, and clean vegetable oil to keep your oil painting brushes at the ready. Do you keep working on a canvas that has become loose, are you sitting on a chair that is uncomfortable or working on an easel that wobbles everytime you scrub paint into the canvas. This list is endless, but if you do not give yourself the best support through the way you work, you are damaging your ability to feel good about what you are doing.
4. Techniques, techniques, techniques.
These don't make a great artist or indeed great paintings, but what they do is give an artist the best opportunity to make the most of their skills. My Gran made fantastic bread, I have her recipes, and yet no matter what I do, it just doesn't come out the same. But I bet that if she were here now she would show me something, a technique, that would make all the difference.
The old masters had many techniques, that must have taken years and years to develop and even more to perfect. And they were all designed, not just for the painting itself, but also for efficiency. They were the high street photographers of their day, often having to get a commission in and out as fast as possible, in order to get paid and move onto the next. Consequently they developed techniques that they could be sure would deliver what they were looking for. In other words, their techniques gave them the ability and confidence to be the painters they were.
Many artists today go on courses to learn techniques, and there are lots of good tutors out there. However, I wonder how many people are looking for an instant fix? In Rembrandt's day it might take a student many years to become proficient at a particular approach, so if you are taught a good technique, it is essential to put the time in to get the best out of it. Do that and the rewards are great, as you too will develop the ability and confidence to make the most of it.
5. Buddy up!
The artists that seem to progress the fastest are those that have a regular painting buddy. Attending workshops as a pair helps with establishing your presence, there are two of you to remember stuff and you can discuss and encourage each other. But it goes much further than this. Art is a big world full of exciting things to discover, new materials, courses, books and exhibitions to name but a few. Working closely with a friend means you have twice the radar and opportunities to try new things.
Finally, I often come across small groups of five or six people with a similar interest who get together and do their own thing. They always seem to have a lot of energy and get up to all sorts of stuff, much of it with hilarious comnsequences. If you can't find one, why not start one.
6. Look after your brushes
And your paints, and canvasses and pencils etc... I see so many artists struggling with a picture because they either haven't got the right tools for the job. With brushes the problem gets worse as people continue to use them way past their shelf life - hard with dried paint, splayed at funny angles or half the bristles missing. If you are on a budget, buy fewer but better quality and treasure them. If you take a pride in your equipment and materials, they will take a pride in your painting.
7. How good are you?
What a pointless question to ask in art. Firstly, it is and always will be subjective, which means the answer will vary depending upon who you ask. Secondly, it depends upon who you are being compared to.
I often get students at the beginning of a workshop admitting they were concerned about others being better than them. My stock answer is that Rembrandt was and is better than me, so does that mean I should give up hope, or feel inferior? Of course not! The only way you can ever measure yourself, is against yourself. You might like others' work and even learn from it, but comparing yourself is pointless and guaranteed to attack confidence.
My way is to look back over my work and ask myself the question, 'have I improved, in my terms, over the last (6) months'? If the answer is yes I'm entitled to feel good, if it is no then I need to understand why and do something about it. A new technique for example!
In reality, every artist has confidence issues at one time or another. Sometimes it is relegated to the ups and downs of actually producing an artwork, and for others it is burden carried across an individual's life. I hope that by reading the points above, it will help some of you to look at it from your own unique perspective, and develop new ways to make more of how being an artist makes you feel. Remember, as the advert says - you are worth it!