Lessons from a Self-Taught Artist, Part One
I am not an artist.
At least, that’s what I told myself for 25 years.
The thing is that, growing up, I explored a lot of different creative pursuits. I’ve played the piano since I was eight years old, and I spent most of my high school career on a stage or in a choir room. When I got to college, I majored in English because I loved exploring stories and writing about it.
Basically, I thought I had my creative bases covered. Each of those pursuits came so naturally to me that I didn’t think anything was missing. Visual art was something I’d written off as “not my thing” because I had all of these other things -- shouldn’t be too greedy, right?
Then, hand lettering videos started popping up on my Instagram feed, and I could. not. stop. watching. them.
In early 2016, I was working as a writer/editor for the government, and more often than not, I found myself accidentally spending my whole lunch break hunched over my phone, mesmerized by swooping hand movements and flourishing letters. To say I was obsessed would be a dramatic understatement.
For the first time in my life, I was so sad that “art wasn’t my thing.” Watching those videos, the only thought running through my mind was, “Man, I wish that I could do that.”
A funny and remarkable thing happened next. The more I watched and studied, the more a small voice in my head whispered, “But..what if you could? Why can’t you do that?”
It was just a small inkling, really, and I had no expectations in terms of how “good” at it I would be -- but that small shift from “I wish I could” to “why can’t I?” changed the course of my career and my life. Now, I can most definitely say that art is “my thing.”
It’s been four-plus years since then, and though I have no “professional” training, I’ve learned some valuable lessons from researching and teaching myself -- some of them may surprise you.
1. “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” -Henry Ford
Turns out, your mind has quite an effective immune system for failure. If something appears to be the least bit hard, even slightly unattainable, it wants to prevent you from feeling the sting of defeat. That s*it hurts, so to avoid the hurt, it wants you to believe it’s not even possible.
For me, the difference between the “I am not an artist” Kolbie and the “art is my job” Kolbie was my perspective. All it took was that brave little voice challenging my mind’s healthy immune system: “Why can’t I do that?” And suddenly, my worldview expanded
Now, I’m not saying that believing in yourself will suddenly imbue you with magical powers or decades of art experience -- you still have to put in the work and grow at your own pace. But you’d be surprised at how many doors will open for you if you tell your cautious little mind-immune-system: “Actually, I think I can.”
2. Start where you are
Once you finally decide to jump all in to something new, it can be daunting thinking about how far you still have to go -- especially if you’re comparing yourself to all the pros on social media.
My advice is to remember that there is no race. You’re on your path, those other artists are on their path, and you are exactly where you need to be. If you worry too much about what’s ahead of you, you’ll just burnout and lose all motivation to try. Every expert started at the beginning and worked their way up one step at a time. And the cool part is that if you’re doing something you love, practicing and progressing is part of the fun.
3. Consistency > Talent
Look, I’m not claiming that some people have a more natural affinity to some creative endeavors than others. But it makes me sad when I get messages like “I’ll never be as talented as you,” or “You’re so lucky to be able to paint like that.” First of all, it implies that some people are destined to be artists, and some people never will be just by pure luck of the draw. That’s just not an idea that aligns with my values. I believe with my whole heart that if you have the passion and drive, you can make progress in any endeavor you choose.
I also believe that artists who rely only on talent will never tap into their truest wells of creativity. Some of the most successful and critically acclaimed artists don’t have the same natural talent as others -- one of my favorite illustrators and podcasters, Andy J. Pizza of the Creative Pep Talk podcast, talks all the time about how he’s not the best illustrator he knows; he just works really hard at both the business side and the creative side.
In my own experience, it was frustrating at first to feel limited by my own lack of skill. But the more I focused on how much I loved painting, the more I enjoyed practicing. And the more I practiced, the more I improved. It’s amazing to see the progress in just a few years. That had everything to do with consistent practice.
And my go-to response for when people compliment my work?
“Thank you so much. I practice a lot!”
4. Social media is for community, not creative validation
When I first started my art Instagram account, I’m not sure what I was looking for. Mostly, it seemed like fun to participate in the lettering challenges. But I would be lying to myself if I said I wasn’t thinking about rolling in thousands of followers and becoming “insta-famous.” I mean, everyone likes to be liked, right?
It’s been a few years since then, and I’m so grateful for the community on social media that has become such a key part of my life. And it’s taken me this long to realize that’s really what it’s all about: community.
I know, I know -- easy to say that with a large following -- but up until a few months ago, every unfollow and hateful comment hurt just as much as it did when I first started. And last year, when I was too sick and pregnant to really be present on Instagram, my engagement dropped by A LOT. Only a fraction of my audience ever saw my posts, and that really messed with my view of myself as an artist and entrepreneur.
Then, around the beginning of 2020, I was watching an online course about women empowerment, and the presenter talked about how a lot of people reflect their value off of other people’s perceptions, and I. Was. Shook. I’d never heard it phrased like that before (the reflection imagery is what got me). Suddenly, I realized that my entire life, I’ve sourced my worth and happiness from the praise I received from other people. I was relying on other people to validate my own desires, and it was affecting my mental health AND stunting my personal growth as an artist.
It was clear I needed an intentional reframe. I wanted to truly believe that my worth as a creative wasn’t dependent on the numbers. It’s taken a lot of deep breaths and self-talk, reminding myself that I will always be an artist, regardless of how many double-taps my latest post got. And if Instagram disappeared tomorrow, no one could take away how hard I’ve worked at my craft and how much joy it’s brought my life.
But the thing that would be missing is the incredible community that I’m privileged to be a part of. I’ve made so many real friends because of social media, and sharing my art and my story has helped me tap into my creativity in a lasting way.
5. You don’t need expensive supplies to make something beautiful
When I first started practicing calligraphy, I thought that if I bought all the expensive pens, my lettering would dramatically improve.
Spoiler alert: it didn’t.
Especially when you’re just starting, much more important than the quality of supplies you use is the practice you put in. Want to learn lettering? Start with a pencil, and draw some letters! Want to learn painting? Pick up a $5 set from Michael’s, and experiment with the colors! You need to learn the basics before you can get better anyway -- don’t let your supplies be the thing that holds you back from going after your creativity and exploring new skills.
New supplies can be fun, and quality stuff can help level-up your art -- but at the end of the day, the way to start is to start! You can use whatever you have to make beautiful things.
Reflecting back on how far you’ve come and what you’ve learned along the way is a practice I highly recommend. These are just a few of the lessons being a self-taught artist has taught me -- stay tuned for next week’s blog post to see part two!
P.S. If any of these lessons resonated with you, I’d love to hear! Feel free to leave a comment or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.