Why am I so disappointed in my art? How can I overcome it?

“Why am I so disappointed in my art?”

I have heard this question asked many times by fellow artists and I have often felt disappointment with my art. I have thrown out or set aside (temporarily or indefinitely) plenty of dissatisfying art; sketches, paintings, digital paintings, and more. I usually joke that, upon completing an art piece, I give myself no more than 24 hours before the distress and displeasure for my work fully takes hold. And by that time, I feel that the only thing I can do is move on and forget about it. Sometimes I just see poor anatomy and sense of balance pour from my pencil onto the paper and there’s no way to make it better.

“Ugh! Into the trash you go!”

But where does this feeling come from? Why do artists seem to have to struggle with the constant let down of our own work? Over time, I have learned to consider this nearly constant disappointment is attributed to our mind’s evolving sense of aesthetic combined with the slow pace of improving our skills to be a better artist. Essentially, our expectation of aesthetic greatness (let’s call this the “Art Critic”) is mismatched with our physical ability as an artist(the “Skilled Worker”) to deliver that satisfaction that we desire. The more we train our minds about what is pleasing to the eye versus what is displeasing, our ability to evolve and develop skills is required to keep up or else the gap between expectation and ability becomes a broad chasm. The gap or chasm is the degree of disappointment and can mean the difference between giving up and striving to overcome it.

To illustrate this evolution of the skilled worker and the art critic, let’s go back to when I was young. As a toddler, I had little to no skill and had little to no expectation of greatness. Four vertical rectangles attached to the bottom of an oval, add a long neck with a small oval head, and then the long triangle tail. BAM! You have a dinosaur! Good enough for a young kid at least… but thank heavens I have evolved as both a skilled worker and an art critic. Since then, I have witnessed more artistic interpretations of dinosaurs and my expectations have changed. Thanks to famous paleo-artists and paleontological studies, I have developed a taste for realism, detail, and creating dinosaur illustrations with a medium other than Crayons! Along with my change in my expectations, my ability to keep up with those expectations has improved. I have learned to work with new mediums through experimentation and observation; watercolors, markers, and pen used to be intimidating mediums for me, but with two years of practice and experimentation, I have fallen in love with these art materials.

If either part of my artistic identity (the Skilled Worker or the Art Critic) were to have stopped evolving when I was three, my life would be entirely different. If my Skill evolution was stuck being 3 years old while my Critic evolution continued, I might have given up on art years ago. Which may be part of why I hear “I can’t even draw a straight line” or “I can barely draw a stick figure” so often from art admirers; they appreciate skill of other artists but their inner skilled worker never advanced and the critic gave up trying to expect any better from the skilled worker long ago. Conversely, if my appreciation of art remained as easy to please as it was as a toddler but my skills were able to evolve, it would have been very unlikely that I would have improved as much as I have. When there is no sense of disappointment, there’s no urgency to improve or try new things. “Why strive for anything better when I’m so satisfied doing this “rectangle-oval-crayon-o-saurus” over and over again? I mean, c’mon! This is AWESOME!” Ha ha! No. And sadly a small element of this happened to me before joining DeviantArt. I didn’t see as many amazing artists before joining so I rested on my laurels of being “a good drawer” in the opinion of friends and family. Once I saw how much more amazing I COULD be, the fire was lit under the butts of both my inner critic and my skilled worker to improve and expect more from me.

Considering how our want for change has to stem from a noticeable reason for change, I believe it means that our art critic makes it possible to see the problem with our work, the positive elements of other peoples’ work, and encourages us to improve. Meanwhile we as artists have to catch up with our skills as we find the way to enhance our techniques, understanding of anatomy, etc.

 

“How can I overcome this feeling of disappointment?”

Short Answer: Change.

But what kind of change? It depends on your situation but we can all make improvements. Finding satisfaction could mean changing the rate at which you work, your materials, environment, references, and so forth.

Is your workspace as optimal as it could be? How about a more comfortable chair, better lighting, and an actual desk? Now you’re talkin’!

Maybe you are rushing yourself and aren’t giving yourself enough time to finish a piece to the absolute best of your ability. Try working on a piece in short bursts of time while taking breaks. With some of my larger pieces, it will take me a few days to work on a piece and ensure I’ve done everything I can to make it the best it can be. If I’m unsure about anything, I will take a break (for as short as a few minutes or as long as a few weeks) to come back with a fresh set of eyes and, possibly by that time, I will have evolved; my art critic will find something wrong and my artistic skill has what it takes to adjust.

Perhaps you aren’t drawing often enough to allow for experimentation. If you draw only once a week, fear of failure may deter you from trying something new. If you can overcome that fear and experiment, you may develop a new skill, a new style or aesthetic which will satisfy you more. If striving for realism results in constant disappointment, there are so many other styles, subject matters, and mediums that may please you more. Possibly chibi art or more stylized illustrations present a smaller gap between your expectation and ability than realism could. The small gap between your ability and expectation for drawing a cartoon may be easier to overcome than the chasm you face with realism. By taking a detour from struggling to achieve realism until you fully understand realism and different mediums, you may allow yourself to grow then come back to it when you’re ready to make that leap.

Or maybe what you’ve been struggling to achieve with one medium is better accomplished with another. When working with traditional mediums, was spoiled with the bright colors I could achieve with digital. But working with digital helped me to learn glowing techniques that I was inspired to practice with colored pencil. I often find new ways to work with materials by trying other materials for a while to get a different perspective, then trying the first medium again. Pixel art is an abbreviated art piece that takes precision and the ability to communicate big textures (based off of contrast) and other effects in a small space. By perfecting my pixel art style over time, I had the opportunity to develop my highlight/shading aesthetic that I now use for my toony style of artwork in just about any medium. My ability to work with markers helped me to understand the quirks of watercolor; both are essentially a fluid-based medium that can be layered either wet or dry to result in a darker or erased/lightened appearance. I developed my toony  shiny eye style with Photoshop painting since 2008 but have since implemented and improved upon that style in my traditional and vector badges. Creating realism paintings with watercolor helped me to be a better Photoshop painter since I understood how to layer more efficiently and create better fur textures.

Or perhaps you aren’t using the right tools, techniques, or references. I constantly experiment with new materials. If I continue to use one brand or medium and never try something else, I won’t know if the tool I’m using are just getting the job done or if they’re getting the job done well. I used to ink the lines of my badges with thin Sharpies but started hearing more about Micron Pens. I tried a variety pack out one day and fell in love with the fineness of the lines and the richness of the ink!

Also consider referencing real animals/objects, 3D models/statues, videos of animals/people in motion, or multiple sets of photographs for a single subject. I have found this to be my best method for learning lighting, detail, and form without additions or edits that come from the interpretation of other artists. These additions and edits (assumptions, inference, or exaggeration) are crucial to an artist establishing their personal style. When you trace or reference another artist’s work, you can only emulate what that artist sees and expresses. This means you miss out on valuable experience that is learned from drawing real life animals and objects. You also run the risk of creating a poor copy of an artist’s interpretation of life. Like photocopying a photocopy, some elements of real life, detail, anatomy, and skill are lost. Additionally, you run the risk of being shunned from the art community as being an art thief or unoriginal.

Some artists allow tracing of their work but I’m not a fan of it at all. Tracing can be a great disservice to everyone involved. It’s not fair to artists when others steal their work, trace, copy, and so on. It’s also a poor way to improve due to how limiting it is to the tracer. When I was young, I would occasionally trace something for practice but I soon found that tracing a photo or cartoon character is very limiting and not very satisfying. I saw that a lot of quality, nuance, and detail was lost between the original and my traced image. Just about as good as using a stencil! It certainly is not something to be proud of, which is part of why seeing my work traced and reposted on the internet makes me cringe.

The limitations seen in tracing other artists’ work reminds me of those “how to draw animals” books. The book shows how to draw about 10 different animals, each animal is demonstrated in only four “easy” (but are actually over simplified and vague) steps on how to draw that animal. Good job, you can draw that one African elephant standing and facing left. What about an elephant facing toward you? Or one laying down? What about a baby elephant? Or an Asian elephant? And look, its in the style of the artist who illustrated the book. What did that artist get wrong in their interpretation of the animal? What parts of his drawing are assumed? What parts are accurate?

Let’s just take a moment for an exaggerated example: the old illustrations of animals by brave explorers visiting new worlds. WHAT EVEN ARE THESE MONSTERS?? Thank goodness elephants don’t really look like that, sheesh! But that is how those artists interpreted the different species with very little time to study their subjects. So when tracing another artist (who has an imperfect understanding of anatomy and nature) or when using that “drawing animals in four easy steps” book (which was illustrated with drawings from another artist with his own interpretations on anatomy and texture), what good did that really do for you? Not much! You see different ways to interpret life without understanding why they chose to do it that way and without seeing the original source. Which is why when people ask me to teach them how to draw animals or ask to trace my work, I tell them that my work is imperfect and stylized, and that they should go teach themselves. I don’t have the time or capabilities to teach a true understanding of anatomy and neither will my drawings.

To really understand your subject and develop your own style, you’ll have to search for some good photo references because you’re not going to get your answer from this simple book or tracing all the art on the internet! If you learn on your own without the crutch of another artist’s work, you will be able to create instead of just imitate. And creating from your own artistic abilities can be an incredibly rewarding accomplishment if you do your own work.

For real improvement, real life references and models are key. Understanding the world in a 3-dimensional realm helps you to convert it into a 2-dimensional illustration. Consider sculpting or photographing actual animals; these skills were both elemental in my development in understanding anatomy and nature. By photographing my Siberian Huskies as they grew up as well as creating small sculptures of dinosaurs and dogs, I understood better how these creatures looked from all angles. This is also why they sell 3D posable figures. Oh look, Hand, Horse, cat and dog figures too! Then once you get the pose and proportions down, check out some photos for texture, color, and other details! Way better than tracing or trying to use that silly “4 easy steps” drawing book!


With all this in mind, don’t despair when you find yourself hating your work. Instead take comfort in your disappointment since that is a difficult but crucial step to becoming a better artist! Skill can come from working with good references, experimenting, and practicing constantly. As an artist with a strong inner critic, disappointment will be there but you can continue to narrow the gap between your expectation and your ability as your skills evolve!

2 Responses to “Why am I so disappointed in my art? How can I overcome it?

  • The fresh eyes approach has served me well. And especially fresh eyes from a distance. If a piece had made it to completion but I’m still unsure, leaving it alone overnight always helps me.

    Sadly, on occasion I’ve noticed in others that their inner critic really needs a good talking to from my inner critic. But I keep my mouth shut unless asked directly. Who am I?? 😛

    • Oh yes! Fresh eyes definitely make a difference. There were years I would power through artwork into 3am or later and post at 5am. I was happy with those pieces but maybe less would have been more (in terms of futzing) and maybe more time to wait and come back to it later could have taken it one more level up. And when it comes to posting online, seeing at a distance (or in a smaller version of itself) helps to anticipate how a preview will look in a gallery site.

      (Which makes me realize another way DeviantArt kind of helped me grow as an artist: when you’re forced to see your work in a small 200x200px thumbnail, you’re able to see how your art fits in the space and engages the viewer. I think that’s part of the reason a heavy use of “glow effects” made some of the most alluring art submissions at the time with my peers; dark background, bright subject, OOH SHINY! haha!)

      Oh boy! I hear ya! I usually don’t contribute a critique if it isn’t asked for and even if it’s asked for, I might have a hard time coming up with the words and will keep my thoughts to myself. I believe that I may have to tackle when and how to critique in another post. I’ve seen quite a few people critique others when it wasn’t appropriate (whether it was harshly worded, or it was a comment on a commission that is complete and in the hands of a very happy customer, or an inexperienced observer critiquing someone who is twice their age and have been improving all their life) – tact and actual constructive criticism are key but often ignored by people that are far too confident in their opinion.

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