3 Life Lessons Learned through Art for Artists and Non-Artists Alike

Posted on Apr 10, 2013 in art, painting | 3 Comments
3 Life Lessons Learned through Art for Artists and Non-Artists Alike

1. If something isn’t right, you have two options: Leave it alone and live with it — or do everything in your power to make it better.

When I was 20 years old I was taking a college drawing class and working from a live model. I had a 3/4 view of the girl’s face and I was struggling. My hands, dusty, dirty, covered in charcoal, had drawn some really beautifully detailed eyes. But it was all wrong. My art professor and mentor (the brilliant and wonderful Ted Xaras) made his way around the class as we worked, and he stopped, looking over my shoulder. He could see it was wrong too– and very plainly, he told me the eyes were lopsided. My shoulders sank and I let out an audible groan. He was right, of course, but I opted to leave it that way…after all, I put so much work into it already and if I erased the troublesome eye, I might not be able to draw it so well again.

I’ll never forget what Ted said next: “If you did it once, you can do it again” and then he explained that if I left it the way it was, I would have to live with knowing that it could have been better. It could have been done right.

It was a turning point for me– art-making and otherwise. Why be fearful of fixing mistakes? It’s not helping you. Laugh in the face of that fear. And the truth of the matter is, until you learn to stop being afraid to fix mistakes, you’re going to have a difficult time making progress. Stop rationalizing your fear (or laziness) by thinking, “Oh, no one will notice” or “Well, it’s okay as it is.” You’re better than that! You’re capable of more! In order to better yourself, you need to learn to fix the bad mistakes (and understand the good ones.)

“In the end it all comes down to this: you have a choice (or more accurately a rolling tangle of choices) between giving your work you best shot and risking that it will not make you happy, or not giving it your best shot–and thereby guaranteeing that it will not make you happy. It becomes a choice between certainty and uncertainty. And curiously, uncertainty is the comforting choice” 
                                                       – Art & Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland

2. Take a step back and get some perspective.

It’s easy to get lost in what you’re doing. When your work is right in your face, you tend to focus on the details and it’s so so sooooo easy to forget about the whole picture. STEP BACK. When I’m painting at an easel, I’m frequently backing away from my piece to look with a little distance. It’s much easier to spot problems and/or plan your next move when you can see things and analyze them as a whole. Sometimes, a little bit of space can go a long way. Those troublesome areas don’t seem as daunting when they’re not screaming right into your eye-sockets.

This also counts for big, stressful projects that are puffed up with so much importance that any setback (no matter how small) can feel like the end of the world. Chances are, it’s not. It might be frustrating, annoying, and time-consuming, but I highly doubt that the world is going to implode. So relax. And again, STEP BACK. We all want to do our best and produce something we can be proud of– but ripping out your hair and running yourself into the ground is the least productive thing you can do.

3. Thicken up your skin!

Ah-hah hah. I hate to admit it, but my skin is as thick as an axolotl.

I have a really hard time not taking things personally, obsessing over impressions I make, speaking my mind, and hell, sometimes even speaking at all. I’ve become a master at the crossed arms, casual lean, intimidating snarl, tough-as-nails facade– but who am I kidding…out of my element, I’m insecure AT BEST…

…except when it comes to art criticism.

Part of making art is putting it out there so the world can see– and in return you’ll have people who will appreciate what you’re doing…and then you’ll have people who are downright cruel. And with the perceived anonymity of the Internet, many lose the inhibition to filter out things they’d never dare say to someone’s face, forgetting (or just not caring) that there’s a real person on the other side– someone who has poured their time and energy into producing a piece of work. And to them, I say, “Whatever.” I don’t waste my time with flames, and neither should you. Have the confidence to shrug it off…because something that’s whole point is to make you feel worthless, is by its nature, worthless.

However, don’t discount criticism and critique– they are gifts! When others view something you produce, they bring their own context, experience, and interpretation. They see things you might not necessarily see. Sometimes it might sting to hear the truth, to come to the realization that what you’ve produced is not necessarily flawless– but take it, put it in your pocket, and use it as a guide for your next endeavor. I’ve been sitting through critiques since I was a kid and have been active in online art communities for years– I’ve taken criticism and I’ve given it…and there’s nothing more annoying than when a thoughtful statement is met with full-force emotional defense. “You just don’t get it!” (<– my absolute favorite scathing reply. It’s obvious I don’t “get it” because you’re not conveying anything to “get.”) “It’s just my style!” “You’re wrong!” “All of my friends think it’s great!”
If you don’t want critique, hang your shitty art up next to all the posters of unicorns you’ve collected over the years and keep it to yourself.

Point is, if we always received flattery and straight praise, it’s likely that our motivation to better ourselves will dwindle. I’ve seen it happen many-a-time. Art is a skill that is ever evolving– and once you get comfortable, it’s easy to plateau. And maybe it’s just me, but what’s the point of settling for the comfort of mediocrity when you can strive towards mastery?

Yeah. That’s what I thought.


  1. Matt Dawson
    April 10, 2013

    Great Post. Also “Art and Fear” is a good book, thanks for the recommendation.

  2. Brooke
    March 13, 2014

    Wonderfully written – love the quote!

    Your thoughts on perspective are so perfect for so many areas of life! I’ve always found the need to back up from my sewing projects in order to really see what I’m dealing with – it’s just necessary to walk away for a while sometimes so you can come back and really see what’s going on.

    I love constructive criticism when I get it because it forces me to grow and be more objective. It’s the unexplained criticism that drives me crazy – give me reasons!

    Thanks for putting your work “out there” for others to see! I really enjoy seeing what you’re painting. Brings back memories of my college set painting days. =)

    • Heather M
      March 14, 2014

      Thanks so much for checking out the site and your kind words. 🙂
      I see so many people who really freak themselves out by building things up- but there are lessons in mistakes and when you stress yourself out so bad, you don’t allow yourself to see them.
      And yes…unexplained criticism is THE WORST. Open a dialogue with me- help me see the things I might have missed!


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