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How to become a self-taught artist

By Wenlin Tan

I’m what others call a ‘self-taught’ artist. Essentially, it means I’ve had little formal training in what I do. I studied art as a subject till I was 14 but then gravitated towards the sciences. Everything I’ve learnt has been through self-guided learning.

I decide exactly what I want to learn, when to do it, and how to learn it.

Sounds like a piece of cake, right?

Except, it’s not, really. Like many other self-taught writers, or artists, while learning to become a self-taught creative, I faced many obstacles. Often, I had to learn things the hard way and wasted a lot of time in the process. Looking back, I wish someone could have helped me to get over them.  

Here’s a summary of the 5 key obstacles to becoming a self-taught artist & how to overcome them:

1. I don’t know how to start:

Lack of guidance/structure is one of the key problems, especially in the beginning. Thankfully, there are a dozen resources & help you can find on the net; many of them free.

  • The more challenging or daunting a task seems, the less likely you are to do it because it seems too impossible to complete. The secret to is to start small & specific but think far. For example, over 30 days, focus on establishing just ONE habit that builds towards your final goal e.g. paint a watercolour self-portrait daily.
  • Learning/working aimlessly (i.e. lack of direction) is likely to result in minor and sporadic progress. Learning research indicates that people learn best and most efficiently with focused, goal oriented practice. Maximize your outcomes by have focused, progressive learning goals.  For example, to master watercolour painting, you may decide to start with learning the basics (brush techniques) first, then move to portraitures, landscape painting etc.
  • Be open to ways of learning: You might think you’re a visual learner, or prefer to learn in a classroom setting. Ask yourself why. Open yourself up to other ways/mediums for learning e.g. audiobooks, videos, etc. Studies have demonstrated most effective way for us to learn is based not on our individual preferences but on the nature of the material we’re being taught.
  • Good books or video tutorials are a good starting point, particularly those that are modular, with levels of increasing difficulty/dexterity. It’ key to work through all of the exercises, not just what interests you. Artsy, ArtProf and Coursera are great places to start.
  • I’ve found that keeping a  journal, digital or physical, can be helpful. Start by writing down questions that you have about this journey. This will help you to learn and also provide structure & a record of your journey.

2. I keep putting it off

One of the biggest obstacles to self-directed learning is lack of accountability. With no one looking, it’s easy to procrastinate.

  • You can make yourself accountable by setting goals: write them out on paper, listing your motivations, obstacles and strategies for overcoming them. These goals can be personal e.g. to write an autobiography, or public e.g. to win a prize for the short story competition.
  • Then, make yourself accountable sharing your goals with others – those who you know will cheer you on (friends, family) that you are embarking on this. Log your progress, reporting on it each day. This not only makes you accountable to those goals, but also provides you support & encouragement during your struggles.
  • Peer pressure can also be helpful- by joining a peer self-learning group, you are committed and accountable for your progress. This group, whether online or in flesh & blood, also facilitates shared learning.

3. I don’t have the time

Learning takes time. Successful writers/artists commit a substantial amount of time to hone their craft so they can become good at it.  If lack of time is your main problem, consider this:

  • First, review your current schedule. Is there time not utilized? Maximize your time by scheduling learning in pockets of free time, squeezing e.g. a chapter of reading on the train journey from work/school back home.
  • If there isn’t much/any free time, consider: what do you spend most of your time doing? Are these crucial for you? List out the activities/tasks you are doing, consider what can be deprioritized to make time to learn.
  • If you don’t already have one, a daily or weekly routine for yourself can make a big difference in your life. The best routines often come at the start or end of the day — This helps you get a great start to your day, and to finish your day by ensuring you  get done all the things you want to complete/learn & preparing for the next day.
  • Scheduling a fixed time to learn/work e.g. writing for an hour, on weekdays, right before going to bed, ensures you get regular practice so you can get better.
  • Observe yourself – What times of the day are you most creative? When are you most attentive? Maximize your outcomes by studying/working when you are most attentive and by focusing on recreating the conditions that made you creative and attentive.

4. I can’t focus / I get distracted  

Whether it’s writing or making art, lack of focus can be a key barrier to creating effectively.

  • Declutter. First, identify the essential things- the ones most key to you, the things you love the most. This simplifies things, leaving you with space to focus on the essentials & learn/work effectively. Remember that this applies to your life in general, social commitments, work, emails/communication, and even social media.
  • A common problem for self-taught learners is waiting for the PERFECT time to practice/learn/work. It never comes. You just need to make time &  force yourself to do it. Maybe you prefer a table that is slightly higher, or painting by the window with natural light. Create the right space/time so that you can quickly get into the zone for learning/creating.
  • Consider scheduling intentional distraction brackets, for your mind to wander & explore. This way you’ll know that there’s time for you to play and explore, and time to get the ‘boring’ tasks/work done.  

5. I keep getting stuck / I don’t seem to be improving  

First, ask yourself the possible reasons for the lack of/drop in progress. You might think you’re not improving, not realise you really are. Lack of proper assessment can often be a barrier.

  • Keep a record of all your efforts– your attempts, successes, failures. This could be a physical notebook, an excel spreadsheet. It’ll help you see if you’ve improved and how you’ve improved/grown.
  • Use exercises and self-tests to assess your progress. Another great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to create/build something e.g. start a blog, write an essay etc.  Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where a) nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and b) you n
  • Become a mentor. Even if you are a beginner yourself, you can always teach and give something back to those who are just starting out – this can be through online forums, or learning groups. Teaching others challenges your existing knowledge & expertise, consolidating it, pushing you to become better at what you know. You don’t have to be a master to teach/guide others.
  • Acknowledge that it will take time. You can’t expect results in one week – it takes years to become a successful self-taught creative, and it takes months for the first results to show.

Often times it could be the lack of inspiration.  

  • If you feel like the well has run dry, inspire inspiration.  Take a creative pause – watch movies, go for a walk, try an activity you’ve never done before. Give yourself the room to be curious, to wander, to play.
  • Surround yourself with people who inspire you. They don’t necessarily have to be working in the creative field. What matters is that these people are people you respect; people you consider to be role models. Their presence will serve as a constant inspiration to you on this journey.
  • Learn from the masters, reinvent it & make it ‘yours’. It’s key to understand & reference the thought/work process or style & explore how it applies to you, so it is uniquely yours, instead of copying directly.
  • Don’t be too attached to your ideas/creations – they can cause unnecessary stress & stop you from moving forward. Believe that the next idea/creation will be bolder, better. See what works & doesn’t- if it doesn’t, think about why it doesn’t work. It may not be the right scenario for this idea/style, or you could need a bit more practice to execute it; if so, keep it and make a note to return to this later. Then, let go of it and create something fresh and completely different.

Another possible reason is lack of feedback, which is crucial for improvement.

  • Share your work as much as you can. Use whatever medium is relevant- social media, your official website, etc. This not only enables you to collect feedback, this also enables those who would potentially love your work to find it. Don’t worry about people stealing your work – your biggest enemy is obscurity.
  • Seeking knowledgeable feedback is important. Find a mentor – seek out professional creatives or teachers of the medium/scope of specialization. They are in a good position to review & appraise your work.
  • As a writer/artist it’s important to cultivate the capacity for self-appraisal, i.e. to be able to assess your work objectively and decide if it’s worthwhile to keep/improve or to discard & start over. This enables you to continue learning & growing even in the absence of external feedback.

The path to being a self-taught artist/writer isn’t easy, but it’s extremely rewarding. Here’s a list of prolific self-taught creatives to look up to: Vincent Van Gogh, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, Henri Rousseau, Ai Weiwei, Frida Kahlo, Yoko Ono.

Questions? Comments? I’d love to hear them. Leave a comment or email me 🙂

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