I was chatting to someone keen to learn to draw/paint about coming to my beginner’s drawing and mixed media workshops, trying to be encouraging because she believes she’s “so useless at drawing” (her words, not mine), when she said something along the lines of:
“I’ve been to beginners classes before and everyone there could already draw.”
It’s stuck in my mind overnight, and this blog is “thinking aloud” about this.
I think there are two aspects to this issue:
1. There’s no way of defining “beginner” as an absolute. People who lack confidence will call themselves a beginner long after they’ve mastered basic skills while others will consider themselves to definitely not be beginners when what they’re producing still lacks fundamentals.
You can’t say a beginner is someone who’s never drawn, because few of us didn’t draw as children. Say this to an anxious adult beginner and they’ll tell you what was done as a child doesn’t count. Yet we wouldn’t say that the learning the alphabet and spelling and grammar we did as children doesn’t count in our adult lives; we’re simply more accustomed to using this every day.
And no matter how much you learn, there will always be something new. If you’ve mastered pencil drawing and then pick up pastel for the first time, are you a beginner or are you starting at a point a bit further down the line? A bit of both, I think: you’re a beginner in using the medium of pastel but not a beginner as you’ll have drawing knowledge that is transferable to pastel.
2. Part of learning to draw and paint is learning to reconcile yourself with the fact that there will always be someone (many!) who is better than you (defined as: “doing what I wish I were doing”).
Don’t judge what you’re creating against other people’s work, but against what you did last month, six months ago, last year. It’s all too easy to think we’re not learning anything (“getting better”) if you don’t look back, which is why you shouldn’t throw pieces out for a while.
Look at other artist’s work for inspiration, for motivation, for goals to strive toward. Study it to pinpoint what you’re admiring (or being jealous about, let’s be honest), work towards learning these things, and then make it your own. Copying other artists as part of learning has a long tradition (this is not the same as presenting it as your own).
If you judge what you’re doing against what they’re doing, it’s apples and pears, an unfair and unequal comparison. Yet, yes, we do compare, but do it constructively, not as an excuse to run yourself and what you’re doing down. There will always be someone you think is better than you, so get over it already and get back to what you’re creating.
If you’re in a workshop and like what someone else has done, gently tell them so (don’t gush and overwhelm them). The odds are they’re also anxious, nervous, uncertain, pleased with some of what they’ve done and not with other bits, beginners class or not. And if someone does it to you, a gentle “thank you” suffices. Resist doing the “thank you but this bit here and here and here sucks” thing.
Repeat after me: Every artist was a beginner once. If it’s not mostly enjoyable but also a challenge, you’re doing it wrong. Every artist was a beginner once.