Sunday, November 9, 2014

Self Critic, A Powerful Enemy

This blog post is a long time coming – I’m about a month and a half late on it.  It’s a catch-up post and it’ll also go through the process between ‘Self Critic’ which, I think, marks a fairly big step in my illustration process. 

Self-doubt is a struggle I (we) constantly have to deal with.  Thoughts like “There are so many illustrators better than you”, “Face it, your writing isn’t good”, “If you were great, something would’ve happened already,” pop up constantly before I start something, in the middle of working on something and right before I finish something.  Sometimes it stops me.  Sometimes I give up. 

But other days, I tell myself to shut up and keep at it anyway.  That’s when the critic comes in.  He’s the one that really makes me question what I do.  The one that tells me my anatomy is off.  My color choice is wrong.  My lines are ugly.  My dialogue is not believable.  My story isn’t interesting. My plot point goes nowhere.  You have no style.  You’ve lost your voice. 

It’s really hard to stop listening to myself.    

It was this past Summer when I was hardest on myself and this self-critic was seeping through all aspects of my life and affecting me negatively.  I was (undeservedly) hating my job, scared whether I was moving forward, and I was worried about literally moving.  I had set a personal goal to move out of my parents place and into New York City by age 25, which was (is) coming up in January. 

But, as always, I kept going, with much less confidence as I was before.  I’ve talked about how little steps on a consistent basis is a great way to keep moving forward but at that point, even that way of continuing was in question.  I wondered if I was taking the wrong steps, moving sideways rather than forward or, even worse, taking steps back without knowing.  I questioned my decisions, my efficiency, my career choices. 

Again, I didn’t stop. 

I focused on the one big thing that was nagging me – my move to New York.  As usual, I compartmentalized whatever I wanted into actions I could take.  I started looking for apartments. 

I looked at many apartments and the process felt strangely like a job search - I felt like I needed to impress people and was generally unprepared for the competition.  It should be no surprise but at all points in time, people are looking to move to New York.  At one of my lower points, my self critic instilled fear in me and having found a great apartment with willing roommates, I stopped myself.  I questioned if I could really move, if I really wanted to.  I lost the apartment due to fear.

That’s the problem with your self critic.  It can be helpful, nudge you in the right directions.  But sometimes it can be paralyzing, stopping you completely and throwing you in a deep, slippery crevasse where your own critiques pull you deeper.

After some time, I did find an apartment.  A great one in fact.  Concurrently, my job promoted me to full-time, a change I wasn’t sure how to take.  Again, my self critic told me that I’d have less time for the things I truly wanted.  I questioned my happiness and wondered if I was just becoming comfortably pointless in my own life.

The move eventually did me well.  I started to regain perspective and focus on the positive aspects of myself and the big change in my life.  I mean, I moved to New York.  It had been a dream of mine ever since I went to NYU now 4 years back.  So was getting a full time job (something I’ve now learned to appreciate). 

But I was still worried about my art.  That lingering self critic latched on to the criticisms that dug into my skin but I wasn’t going to let it win. 

Throughout this time I had been working on Janaris, my personal concept-world project but my big issue was – how can I get art directors to look at my work?
There are many answers, one of which was, create editorial work as if you were working for an art director.  But where to start and most importantly how?  That’s when I decided to use my self-critic as a weapon against itself.  Self-criticism is something we all deal with and I wanted to represent that.  So I had started with this sketch.

It wasn’t great.  The colors were a bit off and I was trying to mix realism with cartoony elements in a sloppy way.  I held off on it for a long time.  Fast forward in time and I was in my new apartment, with a brand new work set up.  What did I want to do?  Draw.  I opened up the ‘Self-Critic’ piece and made a pained face.  I stared at it for a long time.  I asked myself honest questions about the piece and what I really wanted from myself.

For some time I was starting to be really unhappy with my art.  It seemed to want to be something it wasn’t and rather unimpressive.  There were things I made I liked but not recently.  I tried to think about what I liked about my own work and basically I said “fuck it”, put a gray sheet on top of my work and started it all over.

I worked with black lines, worried less about realistic anatomy (which was an issue in the original sketch), kept a loose, sketchy style, and really just stopped thinking so much.  I can compare it to playing sports – whenever you overthink something that has become learned through practice (hitting a tennis ball, shooting a free throw, etc) you’re going to mess it up.  So that weird-colored sketch turned into this (A few of the characters changed as I colored the piece, so you're seeing an edited sketch here):

When I was working on this, I kinda just did what I liked.  I stopped worrying how “good” things looked, how accurate and just went for feeling, not in an artsy way, but what I was trying to convey (self-criticism) was the sole motivation for my drawing.  After a rush of drawing, I stopped and exhaled.  This was much better.  I worked on colors and eventually ended up here.

I can go through the specific changes and mention why each element was better than my first attempt but honestly, this change was less about that, it was about letting myself be myself and not worry so much about where I want to be.  Sometimes the urge that started a journey (drawing) gets lost by the search for perfection or approval.  Getting back on the original path is important, because that’s the only way you’ll be satisfied with what you do.