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How to Be a Happy Artist: 3 Roles of Constructive Self-Criticism

There are ways to treat ourselves as a friend. We are often our biggest critics. How do we make our self-criticisms more constructive? We know that art can help with anxiety, stress and possibly even depressionTreat yourself positively  remembering that you are part of your support system. Treat yourself as a person and friend you like and admire. You are your own best mentor.

People who focus on what others think rather than their own concept self-value tend to be more stressed and angry with relationship conflicts and eating disorders, according to a study published in Journal of Social Issues which tested the impact of relying on external sources for self esteem. This may mean that for artists, focusing on internal ideals of morals and self standards will yield better results. In the study, there was a link between internal self-esteem and academic performance. Knowing that our creative voice has it’s own unique meaning is a powerful thought.

The University of Waterloo found that self compassion toward ones flaws achieved a more positive self image. Those who accept imperfections were found to deal more easily with negative events, setbacks and life in general.  In your tone and words with yourself, even if you are frustrated attempt to be positive and practice gratitude. There are three main roles we can take when guiding ourselves: teacher, coach, and lawmaker:

1. Be Your Own Teacher and Student

You are your best teacher. A teacher identifies a problem, explains why it is a problem, and then helps discover choices so that the student can decide which is best for them. You’ve heard the proverb “Teach a man to fish and you’ve helped him feed for life.” As your own teacher, you are focused on helping yourself learn rather than just doing what’s easy in the moment. A teacher also gives clear instructions. Rather than saying “Solve this math problem”, a teacher will explain to you how to add and subtract. This is the same method we can adapt as an artist.

“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” William Arthur Ward
A teacher builds trust in a student’s ability to learn understands the frustration of the learning process. In his TED Talk “Trust, morality – and oxytocin?”, Paul Zak talks about how trust is an important chemical process for individual happiness.

Your script: Ask “Why?”

“What is the specific problem I want to handle and why?” followed by “What are the steps involved in coming up with a solution?” Be specific with yourself as possible. We might want to be a great artist and make amazing work, and at the same time that’s very vague to tell ourselves to be great and amazing. What is great and what is amazing? How do you create work that you like? If you had a teacher to tell you what that means, how would they guide you? As your own teacher, look into what you can practice in drawing, review and grade your work, and then assign yourself new “homework” to improve your art.

2. Be Your Own Coach and Player

You are your own best coach. A great coach accepts a player’s strengths and abilities. What are you currently able to do? Achieving a win in today’s game means using each player’s strengths as they are now. Asking yourself to draw in ways you’ve never drawn before isn’t likely to be a very fun or successful venture. A new artist starts by learning to hold a pencil, observe how lines appear on the paper, see and draw simple objects. Building on this understanding, we slowly get better. Coach the player you already are rather than who you wish or imagine you’ll become.

“The person being coached is not lacking, they simply need someone to tap on their microphone and turn up the volume so they can hear their own sound.” Suzette Hinton

Being a coach also means that you’ll have to put your players in the game. Players struggle and encouter new situations. On the field in any team sport, both teams will have a unique set of strategies and players that create a new dynamic every game. No matter how much practice there is, you just have to go into the game and play your hardest. This is what makes sports exciting and less predictable. When you create your art, you’ll have your own unique challenges and struggle in completing them.

A coach puts a player on the field and let’s the game happen. So every day, find a way to put yourself in the game. Find ways to finish your art, your assignments, and share them with the world. Share unfinished pieces, share rough sketches, share random ideas. Coaches and players don’t wait until they are finished to show their score. They let people see their progress as they get wins and loses, play after play, and season after season.

A study conducted by Ryan Howell, assistant professor of psychology at San Francisco State University and SF State graduate Graham Hill shows that if we spend our money on life experiences rather than objects, we tend to be happier because we aren’t bored of happy memories. Focusing on your role as a player means focusing on the immediate experience that you’ve “bought into” as an artist. You bought supplies, materials, and now it’s time to experience

Your script: Use “I want…” statements.

Where am I and where do I want to be? How can I get there?” Rather than torture yourself with what results you wanted, you’ll want to be your own supporter. When you start telling yourself something like “This painting is terrible! The colors are all wrong”, you might reply to yourself with “Actually, I want to be able to paint better, here’s what isn’t working: the green is muddy and brown compared to my reference. What I want is a brighter green, which I can achieve by adding more yellow.” The coach role is focused on supporting our wants, then supporting us with realistic steps to take to move in that direction.

3. Be Your Own Lawmaker and Enforcer

You are your own best rule maker. Your limits aren’t value judgments. They’re not good or bad. They’re what you do for your own safety and protection. You make rules that limit negative consequences. Think about crossing the street. Do you look both ways because it’s “bad” not to? Or do we look both ways because we don’t want to be hit by a car?

Being our own rule maker means that we understand our own problems and how to deal with them. We don’t justify breaking rules when we already know the consequence is something we don’t want. When you justify your procrastination, it’s denying the negative impact we already know it’s had. Rather than worrying, threatening, or nagging ourselves we can just accept it is our responsibility to hold ourself accountable.

“It is wrong and immoral to seek to escape the consequences of one’s acts.” Mahatma Gandhi

Changing just one small habit can set the tone for our exploration into having more creative ideas. A study shows that on average it may take 66 days for a complex habit to form, though a simple habit can form in as few as 20 days. The study also showed that immediate gratification and visible benefits is easier to make a new habit the easier the habit is to form.

Accountability is the opposite of perfectionism. This means that yes sometimes we will procrastinate, you’ll slip sometimes, and you’ll break your rules. When you break your rule, what is the consequence? Coming up with effective consequences can be tricky. You might decide if you procrastinate, you’ll have to delay watching your favorite television show the next night so you can make up for the time on your art. This reaction has to be reasonable as well, you probably would be foolish if you thought you’d give up television forever to force yourself never to procrastinate again. Being accountable also means beings flexible at times. You will have to take up the lawmaker role again and again, revising the “rules” that didn’t work and the reactions that didn’t help you feel happier and empowered.

“Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour … If at my convenience I might break them, what would be their worth?” Charlotte Brontë

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Once you’ve made a rule, you’re no longer the law maker. Your role is now the enforcer. Rather than be accountable strictly for results, be accountable to yourself for your decisions. This is often where we fall short. Even during the creative process, stopping to evaluate early on in our composition has huge benefits. Often enough I’ve reached the end of a painting only to realize I’ve worked very hard on a weak composition. It would have been better if I started over before putting in that much time.

Research suggests that we often continue working on projects that aren’t working. The studies suggest that when we set up criteria in advance, we are more likely to evaluate whether our original goals were viable and change course as needed. In my painting, I create a rule that I start with a rough thumbnail and five minute quick composition study. I might also commit to a rule of reevaluating my painting every half or hour of work to make sure I’m heading in the right direction. I evaluate every step and making any adjustments earlier in the process makes a huge difference. At this point, I have rules and just have to enforce them.

Your script: Use “If/then” statements.

“If I don’t work on my painting tonight while I’m free, then I won’t have time to work on it over the next week since I’m so busy. Therefore, I’ll work on it right now and take a raincheck on this last minute party invite.” Note that the “If/then” set by this limit is just a natural cause and effect, not a punishment. “If I stay up late tonight finishing this drawing, then I’ll be too tired tomorrow for my meeting. Therefore, I’ll go to bed at 11pm”. Setting positive limits for yourself and others is healthy and realistic. With each statement, you’ll find new ways to say “I can turn this situation into a positive moment.”

 

Being part of your own support system is essential for our overall happiness. Having a greater network is still a helpful tool, though the more we diversify our approaches to success and happiness, the more likely we are to achieve that kind of well being. In approaching ourselves and others, we can be a teacher, coach, and lawmaker. Most of all, we can be a happy artist. What scripts do you use to motivate your creative work?

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Uncanny Creativity is a podcast and blog with advice, tips and ideas about the creative process. Do you have a question our community can help answer? Record your audio or written question via this contact form. Email b@uncannycreativity.com, write on Twitter @uncannycreative, or on our Facebook page.

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Brian E. Young

I'm a graphic designer (portfolio), classical pianist and artist in Baltimore, MD. I host the Uncanny Creativity Podcast helping to demystify the creative process and creator of Funlooksfun.com, an online shop for apparel and games. Twitter: @sketchee

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