my fear: am I a real artist?

This is a guest post from Megan Eckman.

"Coming Home" by Megan Eckman. Click for info.

The hardest part of being an artist is not feeling like one. Deep down, I wonder every day if I’m a ‘real’ artist. I don’t live and breathe my work. Heck, sometimes I go a week without drawing (though I’m miserable during that week). I don’t smoke or do drugs or wear vintage, paint-splattered clothes like artists should. And yet, here I am, selling my artwork like a ‘real’ artist.

This fear (and that’s honestly what it is) started in art school. I worked in a medium no one else did with a subject matter that didn’t convey a political or social message or a historical nod to long-dead artists. Heck, it didn’t even express some sort of dark, underside of me. In other words, my art told a childish story; my art was a joke. A joke the teachers didn’t know what to do with.

I was passed around from teacher to teacher, pushed toward other media, and told to get ‘serious’. But I couldn’t.

For some reason, I loved the way I worked. I graduated and then, unlike most art students, I started a business selling my work (I have a promise to my business-major mother to thank for that). Yet, even that accomplishment didn’t make the feeling that I was a fake go away.

For months I feared I’d wake up and everyone would have realized I was a fake and have boycotted my shop. Orders would stop and I’d have to go back to retail or something equally awful.

I still get that fear inside of me when I have a week without a sale. But I realized, in one of those epiphany moments after I’d been crying (yes, honestly crying) because nothing seemed to be going right, that I was made to do this.

The universe designed me to create artwork.

My stubby fingers are shaped for a pen and my near-sightedness is perfect for small details. My addiction to reading gives me endless inspiration. And my overactive imagination gives me the power to create new stories (along with horrible nightmares but that’s another story).

So, you see, whether I’m a ‘real’ artist or not doesn’t matter because I’m doing what I was made to do. I was made to make people laugh with my silly, old-fashioned, pen and ink drawings.

Do you ever feel like you’re not a ‘real’ artist or knitter or writer or PR person? If so, ask yourself if you were made for it.

I believe that if you truly love doing something, you were definitely designed to do it, and thus you’re as ‘real’ as can be!

Megan Eckman is the quirky pen and ink illustrator behind Studio MME. She also works as the community manager for Create Hype, a site invested in helping women learn to market their creative small businesses. And if that wasn’t enough, she’s also an associate editor for *bespoke* zine, the adorable blog and magazine created by Aussie jeweler Jess Van Den. In her free time, Megan enjoys reading children’s books and exploring the photographic possibilities of antique cameras.

29 thoughts on “my fear: am I a real artist?

  1. Thank you for writing this. I too, sometimes don’t feel like a “real artist”. “Real Artists” make “real art” which hangs on a gallery wall or a museum. My schema of a real artist is someone pushing envelopes artistically, painting “masterpieces”, doing conceptual pieces that nobody understands but nods solemnly anyway.

    I was told things in art school, too…that I was “illustrative” and “didactic”. When you’re in fine arts being called “illustrative” is not a good thing!

    But 20 years later I’m still painting and making art and mostly enjoying it. :-)

    Dixie

  2. The “Coming Home” image grabbed me immediately, at a deep, visceral level. The 8-year-old in me, and the 24-year-old, too, flashed bright for a moment. I’ll think about the feelings more when the piece arrived: I didn’t hesitate to order my own copy. For the reflective time I anticipate spending with the picture and with my memories, I give thanks, in advance.

  3. I love that I recognized the artwork as soon as I opened this, and knew who had written the post! I’ve been foloowing your work for a couple of years now, and I’m a big fan.

    Your fear is a real one, and one that I (and probably most other artists) share. It’s hard to know when you’ve “arrived” in a profession with few real benchmarks – and where success looks different to every person who strives for it.

    I also share your uncertainty over subject matter – my work looks “childish” to me as well, and does not carry any kind of message or statement. I paint things that are pretty, things in my home that I like looking at, things with interesting lines or shapes – and I don’t use a lot of shading. I’ve never had an instructor tell me that my subjects weren’t valid, but I’ve often wondered if they can hold their own against other artists’ more “meaningful” work.

    I love what you do, and that your inspiration comes from your love of reading – blending two passions into one, in a unique way. Please keep it up!

  4. I think art school is a dangerous place. It can be a squasher of intuitive visions and inclinations. I also went through the process and felt awkward as one of the few people who didn’t wear black, piercinging, Doc Martens, whatever, and who leaned toward realism. But then I thought about all of the working artists I knew, whose work I loved… and they were just ‘regular’ people like me (at least in appearance).

    As I’ve explained to my 13-yr-old daughter who’s also an artist, we are what we are because of the way we see the world + and the irrepresible urge to make things. Doesn’t matter if it’s a movie, a piece of clay, a story or a blog post… we can’t help ourselves. I didn’t have anyone to guide me along like she does. I just felt like a freak most of my life. I still do, but now I realize there are lot of freaks the same variety as me, and it’s a good way to live. People respond to the things I create in a way I can’t control, predict, or anticipate. I do what I love and they love what I do. I feel lucky. I hope you do also, your drawings are lovely.

    1. Thank you so much! Your daughter is truly lucky. Your work is awe-inspiring! I agree that you can never control what other people will like. And when you realize that, how can you do anything other than what you love?

  5. I am currently reading Steven Pressfield”s book, –the War of Art: Breaking Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles– and he talks about that on pg. 39, “Resistance and Self-Doubt.” “If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), ‘Am I really a writer?’ ‘Am I really an artist?’ chances you are. The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.” BTW, his book is fantasic!!

    1. Oh, thanks so much for the book suggestion! It sounds awesome! My roommate said she could always tell how far along I was on a piece by my shouting. Haha. When I stopped shouting, I was finally done and had won the battle. :)

  6. Yes! I feel very much the same, especially since a lot of my work is done digitally. The word “artist” has always had such a pretentious air about it in my mind, that it has been a huge leap for me to begin to call myself that.

  7. This fear is sooooo common in all creative circles. While I’m not making a living directly off my writing, it’s certainly the core of my new business. I’ve doubted whether or not I can call myself a writer for all of the same reasons you list, plus some. But, with the urging of a fellow writer in the same position, I decided one day that I’m going to choose that label for myself rather than let outside circumstances dictate my worthiness. I’m glad you did the same. <3

    (BTW – I *love* the pic you used to illustrate this post. It so reminds me of Francesca Lia Block's writing. If you're not familiar, check her out. I think you'll dig it.)

    1. Ooh, thanks for the writer suggestion. I agree about picking your title. Now that I think about it, only a really mean (or blocked) person would try to take a self-given title away from us.

  8. I also have this fear. I wonder if I can consider myself an artist since I didn’t even go to art school (I worry sometimes that there is some secret truth that is imparted there that I will never know about), and work in a decorative art medium. Plus I don’t meet any of the artist cliche’s, I go to bed early because I am most productive in the early morning, wear ordinary clothes, don’t have any dark problems or addictions, and dislike coffee.
    As silly as all that sounds, that stuff affects me on some level, and feel intimidated by ‘real artists’. It is great to hear that others have these same insecurities.

    1. Oh goodness, yes, we all feel that way. My boyfriend and I were the most normal art students in our school and we felt like outsiders. But getting piercings or starting a drinking problem were too expensive. :)

  9. What an interesting perspective. I’ve never thought about how a person is built as a basis for what they are meant to be. But I’ve often struggled with this, first as a musician and only recently as an artist, even though I’ve been doing both all my life. Somehow I decided I was a writer at a young enough age that I’ve never doubted that. With music, my passion is for singing but my ability is in my ears and piano fingers. I tried to reconcile this irony for years and it still pains me to the core sometimes but I know that I cannot not sing, it would kill my soul. While I have made things with my hands since I was tiny, and I went to school for graphic design, it has taken me years to even consider calling myself an artist because most of what I make is practical. But it is what I do. I can’t help it. Sensations come in, they tumble around and they insist on getting out.

    1. Haha. I have a passion for singing but am terrible. I limit my singing to solo parties in my studio (aka the kitchen area) and my car. :) I do think that giving ourselves our artist label at a young age helps.

  10. As I went to art school with you, I know how you feel! I think being in any creative field involves a certain amount of bipolar feeling towards one’s work. I love it!
    I hate it!
    I should get an accounting degree!
    I should sell everything and dedicate my life to art!
    I’m a failure!
    I’m awesome!
    Getting grad school rejection letters was probably one of my tough points (as I had ridiculously high expectations despite the current economic/educational situations). I can only think to myself, “What if… (I had a better HS art education? I paid more attention in college? I practiced more? I never slept? I went more places? I did more things?) Would that make me more successful or more happy with my work?” Rhetorical questions will never answer that. But you know you’re meant for something for sure when it causes you physical pain to be away from it for too long. You always come back to it, no matter what. That’s what makes you know.

    1. Yes, getting the grad rejections hurt like hell. And then you have to say to yourself, “I don’t care. I’m better than that and I”ll make it anyway.” Looking back, I think I’ve almost flourished more without because I’ve had to work harder, but I’ve also been free to do exactly what I want without having to worry about others critiquing it.

  11. What a great question to ask: “Were you made for it?” It shifts the mind from focusing from what “you’re not” to what “you are”. And what you are is just what is. You have to do that for yourself no matter what the outside world says. You are the most influential person in your life. Good to remember that (me says to me).

    I asked myself if I’m a writer? Here are the clues that I found about myself:
    – I have Writer’s Block (only writers can get that)
    – I run for the note pad/pen or computer whenever something “comes to me” otherwise it continues and goes to the next person open to receiving it.
    – My writing keeps me up (if it doesn’t keep you up, it won’t keep anyone else up)
    – I am always thinking about what to write next.
    – I started a blog recently to dare to share the writing
    – I take classes to hone my skill
    – I have a dog named Sonnet (only a writer would have a dog named after a form of poetry!)
    – I don’t write and edit at the same time. First write. After it’s all out, the editor may come out.
    – I struggle with all of the above to feel into my creative edge and the tension pushes me towards a vision I hold for myself.

    Yup. I’m a writer and you’re an artist. :)

  12. Oh my goodness this is also me! I am a designer/maker of childrenswear and I feel like a fraud every time I say that! I feel like I can’t possibly be the real deal as until a few months ago I was also a legal PA and a year ago I was still getting to grips with threading a sewing machine! But like you I feel like I was made to be doing this. There is nothing else that gives me such a high and gives me such an outlet for my long-buried creativity. Looking at your truly beautiful work I don’t think you have anything to fear – you are far more an “artist” than many that would proclaim themselves such!

    Thank you for such a refreshing and honest post!

    PS – google “impostor syndrome”! I think a lot of us creatives seem to suffer from it to some degree! x

  13. I definitely have these moments. Art is defined by the viewer. I’ve seen many ‘successful artists’ derided as fakes & ‘amateurs’ defined as artists, it’s a time honored tradition, going back, probably as long as there have been artists. Many of the grand masters thought of themselves as commercial & had contemporaries that said they were not artists. I think that as long as you are saying something with your art (even if that something might be for children or the child inside) you are an artist, regardless of what someone else (even an art instructor or ‘expert’) says & regardless of whether your medium is a currently accepted medium (there are still people who say that photography is not an art form). Sometimes, though I forget this & listen to all the ‘experts,’ it’s easy to forget that it’s an only an opinion, not set in stone.

  14. Thank you for sharing this, Megan. There’s a little voice in my head that sometimes suggests that if I can’t render bowls of fruit photo-realistically or if I’m not being a wacko who does weird shit with stuff then I’m not really an artist and I certainly shouldn’t have to develop a style. I suspect a lot of people stop making art or never begin for similar insecurities. There are a lot of practical philosophies that hold as true for art making as they do for life that I can fall back on at this point and placate such insecurities. Enjoying the process and not being in a rush to get to the end is a good one. Another one is that nothing worth doing is easy. Both rock solid, clichéd, but rock solid. However, the one thing that gives me an instant dose of concrete certainty that I am doing exactly what I am supposed to be doing is remembering how I felt about art when I wasn’t making it. It hurt to look at beautiful things I didn’t create. They gave me a deep-down emotional ache. They made me feel intensely jealous of the person who created it. A particularly exquisitely sexy piece of eye candy could even make me angry in an upset kind of way. For anyone out there who doesn’t know what to do with their lives, doesn’t know what their passion is, think of the thing that makes you feel like that and go out and do it. I suppose this is kind of the dark side of the “do what excites you” coin – “do what pisses you off because you’re not doing it”. No matter what insecurities come up for me in my art making from here on out, it doesn’t matter, because I wield their kryptonite.

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