The most valuable truth I learned in art school is that you will only ever be as good or as mediocre as your own efforts. Once I started school, it didn’t take me long to learn exactly the type of work I needed to create to get a good grade in my studio classes. All I had to do was make work that would stick to the rubric we were given in every class and satisfy the taste of my instructors. I already knew how to create work that they would consider “great”. I realized then that I had nothing left to learn from doing the same kind of work over and over. Although I needed good grades to keep my scholarship, I realized that I was wasting my time and stalling my own development by sticking to their standards. I decided it was my responsibility to raise the bar for myself. I tried things I’d never done before and used software I wasn’t familiar with. My grades suffered at first because of it, but my skills and the quality of my work improved steadily. That’s how I learned the value of being ambitious.
Don’t be a one-trick pony
Let’s say you’ve been drawing for a while and you’ve gotten really good at drawing dogs. It was a lot of hard work and you’re very proud of yourself for getting this far. You would also like to draw people, but you know you’re not very good at that, so you stick to drawing dogs. It gives you comfort to know that there is something you can draw that will look good. You decide maybe drawing dogs can be your thing. You won’t even have to draw people since you’ve decided to specialize in dogs! Nobody has to know you’re only drawing dogs because you can’t draw anything else.
There is nothing wrong with specializing on something by choice. However, it is not a choice to specialize on something if it’s the only thing you’ve ever tried doing. You’re doing a disservice to yourself by avoiding things you’re daunted by. If you want to be a great artist, you have to challenge yourself and try new things.
You could start by writing a list of the things you would like to try or improve on. Be as specific as you can. Don’t write something vague like “draw people”. Write down specific tasks you can focus on to slowly build up your skills.
Here is an example:
-male/female facial proportions
-hands holding guns
-legs wearing heels
-men wearing top hats
-short curly hairstyles
Hopefully your list has somewhere between 50 to 100+ tasks in it. If you can’t get to 50 you are either not being specific enough or you’re not being ambitious enough. Don’t think about how difficult something might be. If you think it, write it down.
Once you’ve written down your list, don’t be scared by the amount of things you need to work on. The point of being specific is to allow yourself to focus on one thing at a time. Take your time with each task. Don’t think about skipping to the next one until you feel you have a thorough understanding of the one you’ve already picked. Be consistent and be patient with yourself.
Don’t settle/ Go big or go home
Maybe you have a personal project you’re working on and you have a fairly good idea of what you want to do with it. You feel confident that you already know the steps you are going to take and what it’ll look like in the end because it’s similar to something you’ve already done in the past. You basically already have a roadmap laid out in your head. You know the turns and shortcuts by heart. It’ll be a piece of cake.
Lots of artists work this way. They develop a process they follow and stick to it, creating almost the same thing over and over. Their work always looks good, but it always looks the same.
I’m not saying you can’t have a consistent style. What I’m saying is that great artists are constantly challenging themselves. They always want to outdo themselves; they always want to learn. You can’t learn from doing the same thing over and over. It’s a sad thing to see talented artists settle because they think they’ve reached it and they want to stay there. A great artist never feels like they’re there. There is no finish line. You can and should always go further.
I encourage you never to settle for the same familiar road. Make sure you always add a of couple roadblocks to each new project you make. Don’t be afraid of failing. Whether you fail or not, you will learn something new that will make your next project even better.
By being ambitious you will help yourself progress and develop faster. If you set the bar low for yourself, that is as high as you’ll ever get. Set the bar higher and higher and you will reap the benefits.