Every amateur artist I’ve ever encountered has this idea in their minds of expected growth. They envision a slow curve of growth until they reach some sort of mastery.
It’s a pretty picture, for sure, but nothing like the reality. The reality of mastering any skill involves several plateaus, and, unfortunately, no mastery. Yeah, plateaus suck. You’ll slave away at a concept for weeks or months before you get that “aha!” moment and level up again. Back on the curve, until you run into another obstacle that stumps you for days, weeks, or months at a time.
And the ever-elusive mastery. Mastery is something that many “masters” don’t feel exists. It’s something that’s always just ahead, but never within grasp. Especially as an artist, you likely won’t ever feel like your work is good enough. Sounds like a life of misery, right?
I can attest that I’ve had several miserable moments as an artist. I’ve struggled to execute designs I’m happy with, though everyone is telling me “That looks so good!”
Regardless of what anyone else thought, I went back to the drawing table until I was happy with what I wanted to make. And if it still wasn’t perfect, I’ve had to occasionally deliver an imperfect product. Because “done” is better than perfect. I can always dissect what’s wrong with a design later and improve the next time around.
Major Obstacles in Growth
Now you know you’re going to plateau. You know that mastery is something you’ll never feel like you have. So let’s chat about some of the obstacles you might face as you develop any skill.
First up is impatience. Developing skills requires a lot of repetition. It doesn’t matter what the skill is. You’ll be doing repetitive exercises to land the perfect ollie on a skateboard. It takes repetition to draw the perfect human figure, learn a new language, or develop good taste in color theory.
If you aren’t prepared to patiently tackle these repetitive exercises, you’ll plateau a lot sooner than you’d like. And your expected growth curve will be completely thrown off.
Understand that it’s going to take a LOT of time to master a craft or skill, and you’ll be much more prepared to enjoy the journey.
Ignorance is bliss, but knowledge is power.
Ignorance is another major obstacle that a lot of people can’t grasp. If you don’t know WHAT to do to improve your craft, how will you develop good habits? That’s why I pity self-taught artists a little bit. They’ve had to work through trial and error to learn and unlearn habits that they might not even recognize.
If possible, find a good mentor or teacher to help you along the path to almost-mastery in whatever skill you want to pursue. Do some research, find people who know what they’re talking about, and follow their advice.
Sometimes your mentor might be an author or online community. It doesn’t matter, find guidance, take advice, and get better.
When I started tattooing, the only experience I had with mentors was in school and during my apprenticeship. Neither experience gave me a whole lot of guidance on how to create body art, oddly enough. Even the apprenticeship that I completed was more about the application, not so much about style, how to design for the body, etc.
Since moving to The Murder, I’ve been a part of a great team of artists who give me feedback on designs and critique my tattoos. So I can move forward with a specific idea of what I need to improve.
We all go through our rhythms. Accept it.
Natural rhythms are something else to consider. Yes, your rhythms can become an obstacle if you ignore them. We all go through phases of sprinting, marathon learning, and rest. It’s important to feel where you’re at in that rhythm. If you’re trying to sprint to learn new information when you need rest, you may end up thrashing until you burn out and not learn much in the process.
So pay attention to how you’re feeling. If you aren’t enjoying anything about the process you’re trying to perfect, take a break, take a breather, or slow down. Remember, impatience is an obstacle, too.
What’s an artist to do?
First, understand that your growth as an artist (or with any skill) is something that has no ceiling. You’ll learn until you decide to stop learning. I wouldn’t recommend that, though. Commit to the long-haul.
When you realize that you’ll never stop learning and growing, you can focus on enjoying the process. Because learning is an enjoyable process. You might plateau, you might get tired of specific subjects, and you might get frustrated at repeating the same exercises over and over again. Listen to what your brain is telling you, then find a way to enjoy it.
You may need to take a break, but that’s alright.
Diversify your skills.
One trick that I’ve found works well for me is to focus on both deep learning AND diverse learning. When I get absorbed in one subject, I can dive deep and keep diving. I could tackle figure drawing for weeks on end, and when I grow a little restless with it – I’ll study something else for a bit.
Maybe I switch to perspective and constructive drawing to make my skills a little more diverse. Or hand-lettering, color theory, still life, etc. Then I can dive deep on figure drawing again. By shifting my focus to related skills and cross-training, I can get better results out of every drawing.
I like being a specialist. But a specialist who knows enough about other topics to enhance their specialty can make more creative connections. It’s like a magic trick.
Revisit the basics.
When all else fails, revisit the basics. I love doing foundational exercises to see where my weaknesses are developing. Weaknesses can develop the same as strengths. And the foundations will usually reveal those weaknesses without mercy.
If my flowers aren’t looking quite right, it usually comes down to a fundamental form problem. If my figures look stiff, my gesture is probably weak. You get the point.
This applies across disciplines. No matter the skill, revisit the basics when you get frustrated. You might uncover a new way of thinking about advanced problems, just from doing simple exercises.
Go out and learn something new.
That’s all there is to it. If you’re getting frustrated about the learning curve ahead of you, just be patient and study. Study everything you can and enjoy the process.
Every so often you’ll have an “Aha!” moment that helps you get off of the plateau you’ve been stuck on. Speaking of which, why don’t you drop a comment with your favorite level-up moment. What helped you get there? How can you make it happen again?