“Is this good?”
“Do you like my art?”
“Ugh, my art is so bad!”
When I hear my students speak about their art in negative terms or ask for constant reassurance that they’re on the right track, I hear a lack of confidence in what they’ve created. Their words speak volumes about what’s going on in their heads. I can see that these otherwise strong and assertive pre-teen girls have attached what they make to who they are instead of separating themselves from their paintings, drawings or sculptures. My students begin to see themselves as their art, and fish for compliments or ask for praise in order to reassure themselves that they’re still good and smart young women.
Instead of the girls’ art remaining the inanimate object that it is, the art becomes, as one of my RISD professors used to say, too “precious.” When I was in art school, I remember this professor using “precious” as a negative comment during critiques on a regular basis. I could never quite understand what he meant by that, but of course I never asked, either. It was hard enough to hear him speak about my classmates’ work with so much criticism, and it felt impossible when it was directed at mine.
The nature of creating in itself can be a pouring out of emotions, secrets, insecurities and love. It is earnestness embodied in paint and paper, and because of that, for many of us, making art puts us into a very vulnerable place. It starts to feel like it’s a reflection of our character and essential being, making it feel nearly impossible to hear criticism without taking that criticism to heart. That’s when art becomes precious.
At the time, I didn’t understand why keeping my art precious was such a bad thing. I wanted to hold my art close to my heart and I dreaded sharing it with others. I secretly feared that I would be called out as a fraud. I believed that being given advice on how to change and improve my work really meant that I needed to change and improve myself. I realize now that the reason I didn’t understand the concept of preciousness at the time is because I held the same lack of confidence in my art that’s exactly the same as my students have today.
For the first year and a half of my time in art school, I didn’t know how to separate myself from my artwork, and I struggled to avoid feeling like a fraud when I compared my work to that of my classmates. Even though I’d been accepted to one of the most prestigious art schools in the country, for that first year and a half I didn’t feel like my creativity and artistic abilities merited being in class with so many brilliant artists. When I received constructive criticism during critiques, I took it personally, seeing my mistakes as failures or reacting with defensiveness, instead of seeing the criticism as a means to learn and improve.
In their article “The Confidence Gap,” Katty Kay and Claire Shipman describe how a lack of confidence affects women and girls in their connection to performance and outcomes of projects or tasks. They write, “We also began to see that a lack of confidence informs a number of familiar female habits. Take the penchant many women have for assuming the blame when things go wrong, while crediting circumstance—or other people—for their successes.”
So, as women and girls with low confidence, when we hear criticism about our art that we’ve poured our souls into, what do we end up doing? We take the blame for it, faulting our abilities in art and doubting that our ideas and creativity are worth sharing. As a way to protect ourselves from that growing shame and insecurity, we begin to use the words of criticism ourselves before anyone else can say what we fear they’re already thinking. We begin to ask for reassurance and fish for compliments. We begin to say things like, “Is this good?,” “Do you like my art?” and “Ugh, my art is so bad!”
Where does that leave us?
How can we overcome these diminishing beliefs?
Kay and Shipman explain that “confidence is a belief in one’s ability to succeed, a belief that stimulates action. In turn, taking action bolsters one’s belief in one’s ability to succeed. So confidence accumulates—through hard work, through success, and even through failure. […] The natural result of low confidence is inaction. When women don’t act, when we hesitate because we aren’t sure, we hold ourselves back. But when we do act, even if it’s because we’re forced to, we perform just as well as men do. […] To become more confident, women need to stop thinking so much and just act.”
With that in mind, how can I help to build my students’ confidence in art? The solution is to start focusing on ways that they can continue to take creative action, even if that action might lead failure. I can frame those creative risks as experiments and encourage the girls to start testing things out. I can challenge them to ask for feedback that spurs them to take the next step in their artwork, instead of asking for feedback or praise that focuses solely on what they’ve already accomplished. As their teacher, it’s my responsibility to guide them in the direction of artistic resiliency, of continually moving forward, and of reflecting on art as a means to grow and learn instead of as a means to judge or criticize.
And this is exactly what happened to me. Halfway through my sophomore year of college, I took a class that functioned more as an internship with a visiting artist at the RISD Museum. With her gentle yet direct manner, she continually prodded me to share my ideas. She asked for my feedback on her work, modeling the role of an artist as a person filled with curiosity and a desire to learn. She gave me feedback that made me feel like even though there were aspects of my art to be improved, my creativity and viewpoint were valid. For the first time, I felt like an artist who had something to say. From then on, my confidence began to grow, I began to take more creative risks, and I began to make art that expressed who I truly was while avoiding that dependency that led to preciousness.
Now that I’m in the role of the art teacher, I use the same manner of being gentle yet direct. I prod my students to share their ideas, I ask them for feedback on my lessons and I give feedback freely in an effort to help my girls improve while respecting the fact that their art has something to say. We talk about the nature of feedback candidly, and discuss the differences between fishing for compliments and asking for advice. I suggest questions they can ask that come from a mindset of curiosity and growth, and encourage them to add their own feedback questions to the list.
Ask For Feedback
If your confidence is lacking when it comes to your art, begin to flip your mindset by intentionally asking for feedback. Here are a few questions you can ask.
- How can I improve the colors in my artwork?
- How can I change the balance of my artwork?
- What details can I add to the background?
- What suggestions do you have for improving the craftsmanship of my work?
- Where can I add a stronger sense of texture?
- How can I make my point of view more visible?
The commonalities of these questions are that they are specific and focus on particular areas of the work-in-progress. They aren’t questions that imply judgment on either the strength of the artwork or on the artist’s character, but instead have the intention to drive you to further creative action. By intentionally focusing your attention on your actions and creative risks, you’ll begin to build your confidence as you grow as an artist.