Sea Urchin, 24 x 36" / 60.96 x 91.44 cm, Acrylic on Canvas, 2007
I’m not talking about the kind of comparison you do when you identify your work with a certain movement or philosophy, e.g. ‘My work is ______-ist, much like the work of _____’. I’m talking about the kind some artists do when they compare their work or their practice to those of others who seem to have achieved the level they want to be at, themselves.
You know, like ‘How come _____’s work is hanging at ______ and mine is still stuck in the studio _____ months/years/eras later?’
I’d be lying if I said I was never one of those artists. And I think this might be something that happens to a lot of artists at different stages of their careers, but most especially to artists who might’ve been practising for some time, and are feeling a little stuck.
For what it’s worth, coming from me in my humble capacity, this post is for you <3
It’s Because of the Botanicals
I’ve actually been meaning to expound on this topic for a while, but what prompted me to do it now is the fact that I’m in the middle of preparing for my first online show. I think I mentioned in last month’s post that it’s going to be ‘at’ a museum. I’m painting ‘plant monsters’ this time around, which is another series I’ve always wanted to work on.
John (Cyrtosperma johnstonii) in progress
It was while I was studying the difference between a flower and an inflorescence (and what the heck a peduncle was) that it occurred to me to take a look at the museum’s current online exhibit. It was an amazing collection of non-rep acrylics by a young artist just a few years out of art school.
The artist was so much younger than I was, so I couldn’t help wondering what I was doing at his age and whether I would ever be anywhere near that good or accomplished. I think the artist might’ve been in his early 20’s, which is when I went to art school myself and when I think I might’ve had my first real taste of what it was like to ‘drink Compareschlager’.
"Compareschlager' is a fictional drink which life coach and motivational speaker Marie Forleo uses to refer to the unhealthy habit of continuously comparing yourself, in terms of achievement, to other people. I think I might've started chugging that psycho booze alongside my mostly younger art school classmates. I find it mildly interesting how it was there, and not while I was growing up seeing the other kids draw in academic or extra-curricular art classes that I actually started to compare myself to other artists.
I mean, I admired the skill of some of the kids back in grade school and high school and of course, some of my teachers. But it was more of an ‘I wish I were as good as them’ or ‘I hope to be as good as them someday’ rather than ‘I hate myself for not being as good’ or ‘How come they’re so good and I’m not’.
I’m not sure whether the difference is immediately apparent, but I’m thinking the former is more aspirational while the latter is laced with unhealthy amounts of self-pity.
Kenny (one of my five thesis monsters) in progress in the classroom
In any case, art school was worlds different from grade school or high school to begin with. In the former, some kids were simply better at drawing than others; in the latter, everybody was ‘best in art’ at the schools they came from.
It was like a contest, and even just getting into art school was sort of like a contest, too—I remember we had to take a ‘talent test’ to be accepted.
Anyway, by the grace of God I did manage to get into art school where I had classmates who were bonafide superstars, and not just technically, either. Anyone could see that these kids were going to go places, and some of them actually did go on to become pretty big deals.
The fact that I was older than most everybody else (art was my second degree) didn’t help, either—all that did was make me feel even more like ‘I have no talent’ / ‘I’m not a natural like these guys’.
Working in A Bubble
More recently, I used to pick up a magazine or two while getting my hair done ‘at the beauty parlour, just like anybody’.
I actually hate looking at magazines because all they do is make me feel horrible about my not-a-supermodel self ^^ But when you sit there for hours waiting on your hair colour with no internet you’re gonna havta look at something.
So in those magazines I’d invariably see not just my art school classmates selling their canvases at Christie’s, but my high school classmates who’ve made it as interior designers or artists of some other kind. And again, I’d be lying if I said I’ve never felt just a teensy bit strrrawberry jelly, and maybe more than a little sorry for myself ^_____^
I guess this is one of the reasons why I pretty much work in a bubble. For good or ill, any conscious effort to expose myself to the work of my peers has always been limited or very deliberate.
Dia Verde, 48 x 36” / 121.92 x 91.4 cm, Acrylic on Canvas, 2019
What I mean by this is that I haven’t been looking around like a whole lot at what other artists have been up to, whether it’s their work or what they’ve been doing to promote it. I’m afraid I’m often at a loss when people ask me whether I know the work of so-and-so, unless it was someone I actually know personally (and the truth is I don’t know a whole lot of people).
I do check out museums and galleries when I get the chance, especially when I travel, but that isn’t all that often (and for obvious reasons it’s a lot less these days).
But one reason I was doing this was so I wouldn’t get distracted from my own work. I didn’t want to waste my time wallowing over how come I wasn’t on the cover of some art magazine like whatsername or other. Again, in the words of Miss Forleo, I just wanted to quit the Compareschlager cold turkey before I became a 'comparaholic’.
Now I’ve always known it was essential to know what was going on in art, and that’s something that’s recently been brought home to me with a lot more emphasis than ever. I’ve also come to realise that my being a professional hermit crab has very likely done me more harm than good.
But I have to say that working with blinders on for the reason I’ve just described has worked out pretty well for me, so far.
Life Lessons from Dragonball
Anyone who knows me knows that cartoons and comics (anime and manga in Japanese) are cornerstones of my being. And anyone who’s been patient enough to trawl through my ramblings here might notice how I have the awful habit of drawing life lessons from pretty much anything I read and watch (to shreds, if I love it enough).
As one of the aforementioned cornerstones, Akira Toriyama’s Dragonball/Z has always been a major source of inspiration for me. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Dragonball (apart from ‘you’re a gajillion times more powerful when your hair changes colour’), it’s that no matter how good you are, there will always be someone better than you.
There is only one Son Gokuu, and even he got his Saiyan behind kicked in more than once by more and more ridiculously powerful baddies. But that didn’t stop him from continuing to train to be the best version of himself, and that didn’t stop his obviously-not-even-the-dirt-between-Gokuu’s-toes less powerful allies from continuing to train, either.
For them, it wasn’t about training to be better than Gokuu someday (unless you were Bejita LOL)—it was about working hard to become the best they could be.
No one ever accused Gokuu of being an intellectual, and he never had any of the superhero hang-ups that, since Batman, everyone seems to think is a superhero prerequisite. Gokuu just enjoys fighting, and if the fate of the world or whatever hung on his defeating a bad guy, he’d work toward that end, and once achieved, he’d just go back to training.
Luckily, I started watching Dragonball in my late teens, but it wasn’t until much later, way after I got out of art school, that I fully appreciated this lesson he and his friends taught me. Maybe it’s simply because I know I really don’t have what it takes to be as good as the Old Masters ^0^; and I’m just making excuses for myself, or something.
But maybe it’s because I’ve finally learned, in my old age, that the only other artist I need to compare myself to is me.
Cellies, 40 x 40” / 101.6 x 101.6cm, Acrylic on Canvas, 2019
Be A Better Artist Than You
So I guess what I’m really trying to say here is that perhaps the best way to put a stop to a degenerative habit of comparing yourself to other artists, is to compare yourself, instead, to the you of yesterday. Okay, maybe not yesterday, but maybe the artist you were the year before, and the year before that, and so on.
If you’ve been working continuously, consistently day after day, month after month, doing what you gotta do and generally paying your dues, there’s bound to be some improvement—and you will have become a better, practising artist.
Maybe that doesn’t make your work better (yet) than so-and-so’s on Instagram or whatsisname’s being featured by that big, fancy gallery—but it does make your work today, better than your work from how many days before.
And in the end, isn’t that all that matters? The ‘art world’ (whichever one you belong to) isn’t one giant art competition, after all (okay, maybe that’s debatable)—you’re not in it to ‘win’ it (okay, admittedly, that one’s also up for debate) ^o^;
I’m just saying, if I may paraphrase a certain juvenile drug addict giving advice to an angry teenager on a police station sofa:
‘You ought to spend a little more time dealing with yourself, and a little less time worrying about what your brother artist does.’
* Interested in any of the pieces in this post?
Drop me a line to let me know
and I'll let you know if it's still available,
or how soon I can make something similar just for you.
I don't purport to know everything. Yet if the little I do know can be of any help, you are more than welcome to it.