WHAT I WISH SOMEONE HAD TOLD ME ABOUT ARTISTS: Be Inspired, But Be Yourself

Luann Udell discusses how easy it can be to lose track of our own vision.
Luann Udell discusses how easy it can be to lose track of our own vision.

When we follow someone else’s vision, it’s easy to lose track of our own.

Continuing the series about advice for young artists (and us older ones, too!)

Years ago, before the internet was available to the general public, I met an artist who always did one-of-a-kind work, across a wide variety of media and processes. Each one was distinctive, and beautiful.

We were talking one day about “inspiration”, and I mentioned that sometimes, I paged through books and magazines, looking for new ideas.

They replied that, to the contrary, they drastically limit how much they looked at other people’s art. Since I usually found it enjoyable, and fun, I asked them why.

Their answer has stayed with me for decades.

They did not want to be distracted by someone else’s work. They did not want to “take on” another artist’s artistic “persona”: vision, process, aesthetics, etc. They wanted to focus on their own vision, aesthetic, and process. It was their way of keeping their work unique, faithful to their own style, and not diluting it by trying to imitate someone else’s work.

 I think about this a lot. Especially now, with a world of images available to us daily, wherever we go with our phones, on the internet, on social media, especially apps like Pinterest and Instagram.

It’s fun to search for unusual color palettes and combos. It’s educational to see the different ways people sculpt bears. It’s informative to see the newest trends in jewelry (unfortunately, minimalism is back—ACK!!), the latest gemstone shapes and colors, etc. It’s like browsing through those old JC Penney’s catalogs, seeing all the new designs, colors, styles available. (Er….did I just date myself here??)

I can learn a lot: How to make my own ear wires. Find what new tools I could work with. Exploring better ways to cram more stuff into my space use my studio space more efficiently.

But that artist’s words come back to haunt me when, eventually, I find the work of someone whose style/aesthetics/use of color are simply jaw-droppingly good. And how that sometimes made me feel “less-than”.

 Feeling “less-than” is not good for creative people.

Oh, it’s good to get a grip on our ego from time to time. Yes, there are people whose techniques are better, whose stories may be more powerful, whose skill set puts ours to shame. It can challenge us to mix it up, to improve our own skills, to step outside our comfort zone and experiment a little.

But comparing ourselves to others is usually unpleasant, and self-defeating: “I’ll never be as good as so-and-so!” “That person’s work is really on-trend, why can’t I ever get ‘on-trend’???” “That artist’s landscapes sell like crazy, maybe I should do landscapes, too….” “I’ll never be as famous as so-and-so, so why bother??”

Alas, another dangerous road also lies ahead, one where we consciously or unconsciously try to emulate that art hero, taking on their subject matter, their style, their techniques.

This rarely ends well.

In short, enjoy poking around. Borrow ideas (but don’t copy!) Use the inspiration to broaden your horizons (but value your own aesthetic.) Try something new, learn something new (but only use what makes YOUR work better.) Transform your views of their work into something you can truly call your own.

Look around, be inspired. But stay true to your inner vision, not someone else’s.

When it gets overwhelming, go back to your creative making space, and focus on what works for YOU.

Because you are the only YOU in the world. Honor that, respect it, and make the work that matters to YOU. Trust me, it will speak to someone else, too.

Tell the story only you can tell.