To learn how to draw and paint, you must overcome a unique set of challenges. Mastering the skills required to capture what you see, and finding enough time to practice, are daily struggles for most students. And yet, they’re only half the battle. Perhaps the biggest challenge that you face is getting past your own doubts and fears.
A common fear afflicting beginners is what we call “process anxiety” – that inner voice that says “You’re doing it wrong!” If you’ve spent any significant time trying to improve your studio skills, you’re already familiar with process anxiety. It’s a sinking feeling that constantly nags you as you work. It leads you to second-guess every decision because you suspect your whole approach is somehow “incorrect.”
It’s easy to feel this way when you’re unhappy with your artwork. But even when a drawing or painting is going well, you can start to wonder if it could be even better… if you’d just done something differently.
Process anxiety can be debilitating. It’s hard to move forward if you don’t trust your method, or if you think there might be a better way that you haven’t discovered yet.
The good news is that you can overcome process anxiety. In this post, I’ll share a few tips that I’ve learned over the years for silencing that voice in your head.
Why We Experience “Process Anxiety”
Before we discuss solutions, let’s take a look at what causes process anxiety in the first place.
It’s actually pretty simple. Drawing and painting has a centuries-long history populated by “masters.” Rubens, Rembrandt, Velazquez, Bouguereau, Sargent… These artists, and many more, are household names who are often revered as gods-on-earth. When we begin learning to draw and paint, we do so under the long shadow of intimidation cast by such giants. The thought of trying to do something that the masters did so well is daunting.
To make matters worse, historical artists rarely documented their methods. In many cases, we simply don’t know for sure how a particular painting was made, but that doesn’t stop people from speculating. As a result, there is widespread disagreement and confusion in the art community about the basic “how to’s” of drawing and painting.
Amid this uncertainty, and stewing in the cauldron of various online discussion forums, artists tend to argue and stridently defend their preferred methods. Snarky dismissals of alternatives are commonplace and often sound something like this: “I only paint with genuine unicorn tears, just like the old masters did! Everything else is garbage!” or “If your palette knife wasn’t forged in the fires of Mordor, you can’t expect to get quality results.”
If you’re just getting started with learning how to draw and paint, you can quickly feel overwhelmed and confused. Should you try this technique or that? Should you follow this artist’s advice or someone else’s? With so many differing opinions, it’s easy to see how beginners can second-guess their approach and ultimately develop an inferiority complex.
Of course, this problem isn’t exclusive to drawing and painting, but it is perhaps worse than in other fields due to the deep history of art, and the fact that information about the techniques of the past is often frustratingly ambiguous.
How to Overcome Process Anxiety
Process anxiety can paralyze you, but there are ways to overcome it. Here’s how:
Stop Looking for the One “Authentic” Method
It’s common for students to say they want to “paint like the old masters”, but which ones? What we know of historical techniques suggests that they varied widely across centuries and geography. There is no single “old master technique” for making artwork, but a plurality of procedures that have influenced one another and evolved over time.
That variety of approaches survives today. In fact, it continues to multiply as artists embrace new methods and materials, yielding many valid to ways create artwork. So stop trying to find some secret “authentic” method. It doesn’t exist. Instead, pick one that works for you.
How do you do that? Start with these questions:
- What artists do you like?
- Are any of these artists alive today?
- Do any of these artists teach?
If you can find a teaching artist whom you admire, learn as much as you can about his/her approach. Many artists publish books, DVDs, YouTube videos or online courses. Start with one of those and see if it’s helpful. If it is, then try taking a class or workshop with that person and see how it goes. During this time, don’t get distracted by alternative pedagogies. Tune out the noise and focus on what your chosen instructor has to teach you.
Continue Exploring Different Artists and Methods
Even the most gifted artists and teachers can only offer you so much. Eventually, you’ll absorb everything that person can give you, at which point it’s time to move on and find a different teacher.
Just keep in mind that different instructors will likely have different points of view. Don’t panic! Teachers contradict each other sometimes. Again, stay focused and learn as much as you can. If your various teachers’ methods conflict, keep what makes sense to you and reject what doesn’t. Ultimately, you’re in charge of your own development.
If you’re like me, you’ll find your own method of working evolves into a kind of hybrid of what different instructors have taught you. That’s a good thing! Assimilating different ideas and techniques can yield unique results and help your work stand out from the crowd.
Beware of the “Shiny, New Thing” Syndrome
We all know that learning to draw and paint is hard. You should prepare yourself for setbacks and discouragements, because they’re coming. When you experience difficulty, however, don’t fall for the next “shiny, new thing.”
It’s easy to convince yourself that some new materials or studio equipment will help you make your next breakthrough. This is a seductive idea because buying new stuff is fun and easy, but it doesn’t often help.
Nobody, in the entire history of art, improved their skills overnight by switching to a different brand of pencils or a new recipe for painting medium.
If you’re struggling, it’s because drawing and painting are difficult skills to master. But if you stay the course and don’t get distracted, you will make progress.
Find Out What Works For You
One of my drawing teachers, Deane G. Keller, taught his students this simple mantra: “If it works, it’s good.” It was his way of defusing any arguments about procedural “correctness”.
One of the best ways to overcome process anxiety is to adopt this mantra. Find out what works for you and continue doing it until and unless you find something that works even better. It doesn’t matter if it resembles someone else’s process. Instead, forge your own process through study, practice and experimentation. In the end, your artwork will improve in a way that’s uniquely yours.
While learning about different methods and materials is an important part of developing as an artist, don’t let it derail your progress. It can be fun and productive, but it can also lead to indecision and process anxiety.
Learn from good teachers, but give yourself permission to do what works for you without worrying so much about what the old masters did. This will help silence that voice in your head so you can focus on moving forward.
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