(And why they shouldn’t.)
If you have ever dreamed of making art, selling your art, or even if you have already successfully sold art, the question “What should I make?” will pop into your head. All creative people experience a loss or lack of direction at some point. Even after four years of making art full-time, I still have those moments. It’s part of the creative process, but trying to solve your lack of direction by asking others for guidance can be detrimental to your creative development.
It is far too easy to lose yourself when you open the door to any and all guidance, advice, critiques, etc.. Believe me, everyone has opinions, but not everyone has your artistic intentions and interests in mind when they share them.
Like today, my adorable six year old niece was watching me draw. I asked her “What do you think?” and she stood there with an unenthused look on her face and replied “Why do you only know how to draw swirls?” (Reasonable question, as my work has been swirly AF lately.)
“I can draw other things, but this is what I like drawing right now,” I said. She still wore a critical expression, and posed a slightly crushing followup question.
“When will you stop drawing swirls?” I couldn’t help but laugh, while pretending I wasn’t crying a little on the inside 😉
Clearly, my niece isn’t impressed, but that’s okay. Now imagine that conversation with an adult. I’ve had many conversations like this, and even though it’s not explicit verbal rejection, questions can be loaded, and all non-verbal cues can point to disapproval of your current direction. We’ve probably all been there in some way. Someone asks an innocent sounding question and suddenly your mind is filled with “OMG, you hate it! I suck! Why am I doing this?! Nobody is going to like this!”
I mean–no–I’ve never gone down that thought spiral before… *definite sarcasm*
We artists can be sensitive creatures. Any whiff of negative feedback can make us question everything we are doing, and accept guidance from outsiders. This guidance can sometimes result in losing touch with our own creative vision, and that’s where I have a problem.
Why do artists depend on outside opinions?
In order to prevent being swayed, or pushed away from your own creative authenticity, it’s important to look at why this happens in the first place.
1. You lack confidence in your art or abilities.
We all have to start somewhere, and in the beginning of creative explorations, few of us have built-in confidence that we know what we are doing. We ask our friends, families, and partners “Do you think this is good?” And we crave their validation as fuel to move us forward. This isn’t necessarily bad if you are talking to someone who knows how to provide the right feedback to keep you moving forward, but asking the wrong person can trigger the negative thought spiral above.
Over time, you will build internal confidence. (I wrote a blog post years ago on this matter.) Until then, be careful where you seek feedback on your art.
2. You are focused on selling art more than creating art.
I get it, you want to make a sale. This makes it tempting to look at artists around you who are selling a certain kind of art and think you should follow the same aesthetic. And it makes the suggestions from friends and family to paint what they saw on Pinterest or at a craft fair sound like a good idea–but you need to check in with yourself and determine what kind of art you actually want to make.
If you find yourself accepting guidance from others on what they think will sell, then you need to revisit why you are creating in the first place.
3. You haven’t found your style or direction yet.
Maybe you’re confident in your abilities, but you still don’t really know what kind of art you should focus on. Asking people around you what they want to see is okay if it encourages you to try new things and naturally find a style, but be careful that those ideas don’t override your own desires.
Whose opinions should you trust?
I want to be clear, I am not saying that you shouldn’t listen to anyone when it comes to your art. External feedback is really important when you are exploring your creativity. Instead of trusting everyone has valid input about your art, I just encourage you to select people who can understand how your mind works.
If you are looking to others to help assess your work, I suggest making them read this post about how to critique art. Critiquing doesn’t come naturally to people, but this post will help get artists and non-artists into the right mindset.
If you want to create art for others, then having someone tell you exactly what kind of art they want is welcomed. Let’s say you are doing contracting work, commissions, illustrations, or anything that involves bringing a client’s vision to life, then accepting guidance and giving up a good amount of control of the end product is expected.
When you just want to create, or find your own creative voice, then outside opinions will likely just distract you from your goal.
What should you make?
Make the art that you want to make. Other people cannot tell you what art is hiding inside of you. They don’t know, and sometimes even you don’t know, but that’s a journey you’ll have to take on your own. Finding your direction requires playfulness, time, and patience. Before you ask others for guidance, get your art supplies and try new things. See where that takes you. You don’t need anyone’s approval but your own.
Only you know what kind of art you should make. If you don’t have the answers now, you will find them over time.
If I internalized my little niece’s displeasure at my repetitive swirls, I’d probably be drawing rainbow unicorns and dancing donuts with sprinkles on them right now to make her happy. As fun as that would be, it’s a bit of a departure from what I love doing. (Though, outside of my work day, I will rainbow unicorn the sh*t out of my art. Maybe even add some glitter!)
Next time someone tells you to draw a barn near a wheat field instead of naked lady with a body full of tattoos, or a poured abstract acrylic piece–ask yourself if they are trying to help you find your authentic creative voice, or if they want you to make art that conforms to their personal ideals.
Trust the guidance of those who want to nurture the creativity that’s already within you.
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