A Self Confidence Discussion
I was recently emailed by a NUA student (Mollie, who you can follow and view their work here) who’s currently studying the same degree I completed over 5 years ago.
She asked some truly fantastic questions about creative confidence, both with creative people themselves and within their work. It was, as she mentioned in the original email, something I had touched upon briefly in a talk I delivered at the Norwich Gaming Festival earlier in the year. As I began to answer the questions, I thought about the subject more and received her permission to post the questions and answers as a blog post (and potentially elaborate on them further because it’s very hard to shut me up).
See below for the fantastic questions Mollie sent over and my - hopefully - coherent answers!
A: I have recently come to realise that there’s a much better alternative to “fake it til you make it!” I read somewhere that “hone it whilst you own it” works much better to communicate what we mean. If you can project yourself as a professional who knows what they're doing, whether you feel like you do or not, you’ll find clients and audiences will trust your abilities far quicker. So long as you’re confident you can deliver - or learn to deliver - what the client and/or audience is after then there’s no problem in assuming that role. There’s of course still nothing wrong with being honest about your limits, but if you behave in a way that any established pro would, folks will be more likely to speak to you (and pay you!) as a professional.
In more general terms when it comes to building confidence, I found that my turning point was figuring out which artists I felt were confident then reflecting their behaviour whenever I could. I see folks at networking events and other gatherings having the bravery so be proud of their work an act as such, so I think one day I just started trying it out and nothing bad happened. The earth didn’t crumble, nobody put me in a box and shipped me off to “what are you doing” land, it all turned out ok! So I just kept doing it and now it’s just second nature.
A) Confidence in your own illustrations is a fairly constant battle unfortunately, or at least it is for a lot of us! We are seemingly always walking a tightrope between feeling inspired and feeling full of imposter syndrome. I get this especially when looking at other artists’ work online or at trade shows. In April of this year, Bologna was the biggest test of this for me.
Whenever I have days of self confidence, it tends to be when I’ve made the effort to share my work and/or experiences with my peers. Finding good creative groups (like NorwichAOI, Good Eggs Club, or just a group of friends in your industry) has been a huge milestone in my journey to be a more mentally healthy illustrator. By sharing inspirations, struggles, and being honest about how it’s all going, it helps break that feeling of ‘omg I’m the only one who isn’t happy with their work’ and instead replaces it with a feeling of camaraderie and drive to improve OR give yourself a break.
Also, if you find yourself feeling bummed out by looking through other people’s work on Instagram or anything, close the app straight away! I used to keep scrolling and I felt worse and worse as the work seemingly got better and better. Just close the app, go to the gym, have a cup of tea, pet a dog, have a nap, do whatever helps you reset.
Q) With social media, be discerning with what you put all your effort into. I found it a huge relief to give up on Facebook. Out of the key three (Instagram, Twitter, & Facebook) I found FB to have the lowest engagement, views, and participation, for my audience anyway. So I cut it out. I know a lot of creative folks have a lot of success on FB, but for me it just wasn’t worth my efforts. I now only regularly update my Twitter and Instagram.
Making use of the Instagram stories has been surprisingly helpful too. After having a meeting with a fantastic design agent a few months ago and having them explain to me how powerful the stories can be in terms of bringing folks to your page, I now put real effort into keeping them updated! By using the right hashtags and keeping content light hearted, I’ve brought in almost 3x the number of page visits to my account. I almost use the stories as an informal view into my day to day work and life then the permanent posts act like a condensed portfolio. For me, it’s the ideal balance between a formal service and an actual human being; two things clients would love to see.
Third party apps like If This Then That are incredibly helpful when it comes to updating multiple platforms at once as well. No more clumsy Instagram links plastered all over your Twitter or a Facebook page full of links to somewhere else. ITTT will post organic images rather than links to help keep pages look curated and cared for.
Active engagement is also important. Ask questions, answer questions, create polls and giveaways, make sure your audience feels part of the experience instead of just an onlooker. Comment on other people’s posts and share their work too. The more you help your industry and community, the more it’ll help you.
A) Oh boy, I was a VERY unconfident student. I had no pride in my work, I really struggled to get to grips with projects, and I just generally had a difficult time. It was incredibly frustrating, especially having come from A Levels and my Foundation Diploma where I flourished and got A’s and Distinctions across the board (subtle brag, sorry not sorry).
I realised one of the reasons why I felt like this was I was trying to create work I thought my tutors would like instead of work I would like to produce. Every step of the way with projects was wrought with thoughts of “oh what if they don’t like this palette, they prefer block colours, they want to see this, they mentioned that” instead of “I am passionate about this so I’ll do it”. It meant at the very core of the projects I chose to do, I didn’t care about them. They felt like client jobs for a really boring brief.
I also struggled to find a niche within illustration where I felt like I would fit. I often feel that I am still searching for that niche but for some reason I felt like I should’ve found it by then. A lot of those worries came from comparing myself to my fellow students, something that never helps. Peer support and critique is useful; self deprecation and comparison is not.
Overall, I’m glad I went to university. The sheer amount of mistakes I made helped me learn what I should do and what I enjoyed doing (and what I didn’t!). Sure, it was through trial and error and wasn’t particularly pleasant at times, but I’m sure I would not be where I am now had I not learned those lessons when I did.
A) I believe a lot of the worry and confidence problems at university can often stem from fear of the future, it certainly did for me. The panic and rush to find a niche, to find a ‘style’, often grows from the impending anxiety of ‘how the hell am I going to earn a living from this’.
To help lessen that, I know universities, especially ones specialising in the arts, have to put more time, effort, and funding into teaching their students business essential, professional practice, and practical industry skills. Things like marketing yourself, writing an invoice/contact, knowing your rights (copyright, IP, licenses, etc) are things that are all too often glazed over for a myriad of reasons. It’s why I co-organised the NUA Enterprise Society when I was a student there and why I am constantly referring student, aspiring, and established artists over to The AOI as their business masterclasses and information packs are invaluable.
Our industry is so full of mixed messages and blank spaces when it comes to actually running as a business. Very little information about pricing and professional practice was available, especially when I was a student. It has since got a lot better, in thanks mostly to The AOI but also universities are starting to pick up on this need to learn how to earn a living instead of solely learning how to create work. It’s no good having a beautiful professional portfolio and no knowledge or skills to earn money from it (if that’s what you want to do, of course).
But aside from that, the arts is an unbelievably hard thing to teach as it’s so incredibly subjective. As I’m not a teacher, I can only speculate, but I must imagine it’s quite hard to disconnect personal preferences and be totally neutral when it comes to marking and critiquing the students work. Students often feel that their work simply isn’t good, purely because the tutors might not be huge fans of the ‘style’ or direction the students’ work has gone in. This does not mean the work is bad, it just means it’s not something that one specific person is into. But we often have already bruised egos, so it doesn’t take much to break the camel’s back and send us spiralling into loss of self worth!
A) When it comes to selling face to face, a confident and warm vendor is always a strong factor in whether you’ll make a sale or not. People will feel much more comfortable and happy to buy your wares and help support your business if they like you as a person. A good smile, polite conversation, and having a keen eye for who is happy to chat and who is much happier being left to their own devices is very important. Even something as simple as “Oh I love your necklace” or “Got any goodies from the market yet?” will go down a treat. My experience in retail and working with kids has certainly helped to hone these skills!
At the end of it though, some markets, print fairs, etc, can be useful is more ways than just selling work. I’ve found it hugely useful in building relationships with other artists by getting chatting to stall neighbours and swapping business cards. It helped me grow interest in NorwichAOI as well as being a perfect source for feedback and suggestions about my events! It’s also a perfect marketing opportunity. Make sure business cards or other free takeaway items with your details on are clearly displayed as sometimes people will buy online, want to commission you, or will just be more likely to remember you when they see you at the next market.
A) Illustration as an established industry is relatively new and it’s currently growing alongside the rise in awareness of mental health and self care, so the theory and underlying issues of the industry are definitely not as fully explored as they could/will be. I most definitely believe that self confidence and wellbeing in this industry needs to be addressed more. The cliche of ‘a suffering artist’ is 100% in need of retirement, especially considering the current financial and social climate. We can’t afford to be ‘sad and suffering’ any more than any other professional can be (thanks, capitalism.)
It’s hard as there’s no easy fix to this problem. It’s not a case of pump a load more funding into it or pat the artists on the back more. It’s an engrained problem and needs to be addressed on a much wider front. Remedies like communities and meet-ups to bridge that gap between you and the outside world really need to be utilised more but on the whole, artists are notoriously introverted! I discuss the importance of creative communities a bit more here.
A) Mental health is a subject that’s particularly important in the creative industries (and to me personally) because when we are putting work out there, the work is often part of us. Because of the nature of art, because there’s no ‘right or wrong’ answer to our briefs or creative problems, we are presenting audiences and clients a part of us and when that’s rejected or ignored, it hits a lot harder. It’s why - I believe - that the ‘depressed artists’ trope became a thing, on top of other reasons.
In reality, if anybody says you need to suffer for your art or ‘use the pain’ to create work, you can thoroughly ignore them, block them, and salt their fields. A stressed artist is creating work out of panic, not out of the inspiration of being stressed.*
*stress is not inspiring. It’s stressful.
Social media has also had a huge impact in how our brains process our successes and struggles. I am a huge advocate for social media, it’s invaluable to freelancers, the perfect connection tool, and just generally a wonderful thing. However, it is very easy to overdose on it and fall victim to it’s censorship. Everybody - myself included - who posts their work/life/dogs/whatever on social media will be curating an censoring the entire time. For example, I will post a picture I drew that I’m happy with. I will not, however, post the 50 other drawings that came before it that I’m not happy with. To me, that makes sense. To some audiences, it will communicate that I only draw good things and my work life is easy, #wonderful, and going Just Great™️ all the time.
It’s vitally important to remember that everybody is going through similar struggles with creative work and social media is a wholly inaccurate and unrealistic representation of reality, much like photoshopped models in magazines. A quote I read years ago always sticks with me: “People don’t look like the models in magazines because not even the models in magazines look like the models in magazines.”
I believe that creative people need to get better at cutting themselves some slack. A horrid combination of our dire financial situation in this country (freelancers not getting paid, nobody having budgets) and the capitalist mindset we’ve been conditioned into (“everything must be monetised otherwise it’s a waste of money”) means we prioritise productivity over health, both mental and physical. It’s causing serious issues that are only just being addressed and the more people who choose to look at it closely, like yourself, the better!
Self confidence and self worth in the creative world is hard as hell.
It’s an industry full of folks not knowing what direction to go in, worrying about the direction they’ve chosen, and generally not feeling great about their abilities. We don’t have a clear ‘ladder’ to climb like other careers do. We are often working as sole traders or limited companies so it can feel like a lot of responsibility piled onto our shoulders.
Fortunately, folks like Mollie and many others are becoming far more aware that there needs to be significantly more support and understanding of this business, for both the sake of the clients and the practitioners.
Everybody on this journey will have peaks and troughs, it’s not unusual and you’re not the only one experiencing it. But there’s plenty of things you can do, read, listen to, and generally participate in to help the journey be just that little bit smoother!
I’ve put a bunch of links to them below:
I also want to say a huge thanks to Mollie for taking the time and initiative to reach out and ask such thoughtful questions. If anybody has anything they’d like to add, please do comment on this post and I’ll make sure she receives the answers, they’d be incredibly helpful for her dissertation.