How to Teach Yourself Art

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In 2009, there were 2.1 million people making a living as an artist in the US (0.7% of the population). A little over 1 million of those artists made their living through fine art, designing, and animation.

“One should not become an artist because he can, but because he must. It is only for those who would be miserable without it.” Irving Stone, The Agony and the Ecstasy

How do you teach yourself art? Can you become an artist without going to a formal art school? Can you reasonably expect to make a full-time living from art?

The best advice comes from someone who has already “been there and done that”. So I interviewed an amazing person who makes her living as an artist.

Let me introduce you to an incredible lady named Gwenn Seemel. She has lots of great advice to give you if you’re interested in how to learn art.

Get Insights on How to Teach yourself Art from Gwenn Seemel

Gwenn Seemel is an artist currently living in New Jersey. Her work has been written about by the art historian Richard Brilliant and featured widely across the Web, including on sites like Scientific American, BoingBoing, and Hyperallergic.

I've done a bit of research on this topic myself (even though I'm not an artist!), and I've added my own thoughts as well. So Gwenn's insights are included in orange text throughout this article, while my own are in grey text.

Are artists just naturally gifted, or can anyone learn to be an artist?

A natural gift might make a person want to pursue art because they get lots of positive reinforcement for the art they make, or the gift might make someone feel like being an artist is too easy.

We all have complex relationships with our natural aptitudes, whether it’s art or something else.

With art, the only thing that matters is doing the work and listening to yourself. What do you want to give to the world through your art? How can you do that?

Is it possible to train yourself and then make money from art? Yes! The truth is that nearly anything is possible if you want it and work at it.

Of course,
everyone is different, and I don't know what your skills are, so I can't answer that question for you, but I can tell you that is has been done.

The BBC published an article detailing the success of two self-taught artists: Jack Vettriano and Beryl Cook.

Jack Vettriano was working as a mining engineer who taught himself art. He entered two of his paintings into an art competition that was open to all artists, and they both sold on the first day.

This was the beginning of his journey into making a living as an artist. Since then, he has become widely known and quite successful as an artist. In 2004, one of his paintings, The Singing Butler, sold for £775,000 (about $997,000 US Dollars).

Beryl Cook was a normal lady making her living as a landlord when a friend of hers decided to sell some of her paintings for her. She hadn't had any formal education in art, but taught herself and practiced on her own.

Her paintings became popular, and she exhibited her work nationally. Her paintings were used on all kinds of stamps, posters and greetings cards.

Beryl died in 2008, and after she died, one of her paintings sold for £69,000 (about $88,000 US Dollars).

So if you're wondering, "Can you become a successful artist without formal training?", the answer is
that there are people have done exactly that.

Formal Education or Teach Yourself- Pros and Cons

Pros of Going to a Formal Art School

  • You get exposed to a lot of tools and media and resources that you might not have been exposed to before in a formal education setting.

  • You get to hang around with and be a part of a community of like-minded people. Self-taught artists might find it hard to be part of a like-minded group or community.

  • You might be able to advance your career in some way with the resources and credentials provided there.

  • Provides a competitive environment, which is good for some people.

Cons of Going the Formal Education Route

  • Student Loan Debt and Expense!

  • Takes time – often several years – to complete the program

Here is what Gwenn thinks about going the formal-education route versus the self-taught route. You can read more on her blog.

The Qualities Artists Need to Have

So are you cut out to live an artist's life? What does it take to be an artist? What qualities does an artist need to have? What should you expect if you want to make a living (or just some income) from art?

To be an artist, you don’t need to come from a certain background, but you do need to have courage, passion, and persistence.

Check out more of Gwenn's insights here.

There are some other traits that would serve you well if you choose to pursue an artist's path. These skills can help you in other areas of your life, as well, so take a look at the list and see if there are any you'd like to incorporate (or improve) in your own life.

  • Be willing to be different and not just "do what everyone else does".

  • Handle insecurity and uncertainty fairly well (especially in terms of sporadic income)

  • Be able to handle criticism and constructive feedback

  • Know that your choices and your identity do not depend on what other people think about you. You're able to walk your own path and do your own thing.

  • You don't allow fear to hold you back. You can feel fear but do it anyway.

  • You feel okay taking calculated risks.

  • You're able to delay gratification. In art, as in life, some things take time to develop or pay off. Being able to persevere (as Gwenn noted) is a crucial skill if you want to pursue being an artist.

  • You understand that not everything is perfect, and mistakes are just a part of life. Some people try to create something, but when they can't get it to be "perfect", they get frustrated and give up.

  • They constantly develop their observation skills. They learn to see things differently or in greater detail. They take time to really notice things and see them in new ways.

How to Build an App From Scratch

What are the Best Books and Resources

Ben Shahn’s The Shape of Content was important to me early on in my career, and I love Louise Bourgeois’ Writings and Interviews.

Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture is about why copyright is bad. And Kent Greenfield’s The Myth of Choice is good for being a more empathetic person and, by extension, a better artist.

Mostly though, I read a lot of fiction —Octavia Butler’s oeuvre is a favorite and I just finished Cixin Liu’s The Three-body Problem (the full series).

I learn from everything I read and do—both things to imitate/try and things to avoid. I think that’s an important skill for an artist: figuring out how to be a curious critic. Not being the kind of critic that wants to tell other artists what they’re doing wrong, but being one that wants to apply all the lessons they learn to their own art.

I wrote a book about why copyright is bad for artists and bad for art. You can read it here.

If you're interested in learning how to draw, The Practice and Science of Drawing by Harold Speed is a good resource. It's an old book, though, (originally published in 1913) so you have to deal with outdated language, but you can get it for free here.

I found How to Draw What You See to be extremely helpful and useful when I was trying to learn how to draw and was trying to teach my kids how to draw.

Why Artists Quit

Artists generally quit and give up their dream of becoming a successful artist for a couple of reasons:

  • They don't realize that being an artist requires a lot of hard work.

  • It requires a lot of varied skills, not just with art, but with organization,
    marketing, and business,
    as well.

  • They really don't have a deep passion and drive to follow through and do what it takes to be an artist.

  • They can't handle the freelance lifestyle. You have to be able to deal with a bit of instability and delayed gratification.

How to Best Use Your Time if You Want to Go From Mediocre To Great

Do you mean “mediocre” and “great” in terms of your art’s actual value or its perceived value?

For actual value, you just have to keep making art and keep challenging yourself technically and conceptually. Doing the work is the only way to get better.

For perceived value, you need to accept that half your time will be spent making art and half of it will be spent marketing it. I recommend finding a kind of marketing you enjoy, or else you’ll have a hard time making yourself do it.

For example, I like blogging and vlogging about my art, so spending a lot of time doing that doesn’t feel like a burden.

How to Deal With Burnout

If something happens or you're feeling like you're just burnt out:

  • Acknowledge the Problem

    Don't just continue on as if nothing is happening. Denial just makes things worse later on. Take a break for a while if you need to. Or do something that is different and contrary.

  • Get Help

    Get help from a trusted friend,
    family member, guru, or therapist. Find someone who can help put things in perspective and help make things right again.

    I take a different approach. If my mood is too blue and no one else can inspire me, I think about those people who told me I would never be an artist, and that I shouldn’t even try.

    When I’m in a crisis, I repeat the things they’ve said to me, worrying my memories of them like stones in my pocket. The possibility of proving these naysayers wrong — of defying their narrow and colorless reality — is always enough of a spark to get me moving again.

  • Be Gentle with Yourself

    Take care of yourself. Eat well, exercise, and stop the negative self-talk. Practice some self-love.

  • Focus on where your art comes from and nurture that place in yourself

    Sometimes it helps to forget about the external motivations for doing art, like recognition, approval, and creating an identity as an artist.

    Instead, focus on why you want to be an artist. When I’m struggling, it helps me to be conscious of the contribution that artists make to society, to recognize the role artists play in helping their communities dream.

Read some more helpful tips on dealing with burnout here.

How to Keep the Fresh Ideas Flowing

I view it in terms of input and output. I need to be consuming art and living my life in order to be able to create something.

I read a lot and spend a lot of time looking at art and experiencing the world. I always come back to the studio with ideas. 🙂

Furthermore, as you get deeper into your practice, it’s useful to start noticing patterns in how you work. Is there a theme to all your art? Did you used to work one way and now you’ve evolved to do something else? What would going back to that old way do now? Things like that.

Basically, be your own art historian. Dig into your own practice and repeat yourself without repeating yourself.

How to Make Money as a Freelance Artist

There are many ways you can make money as a freelance artist. Here is a chart showing my income breakdown:

A Typical Day in the Life of an Artist

Here's a video of Gwenn talking about the things she does every day to make her a better artist and a better person:

How to Market Yourself and Your Art

Marketing art is a big part of being able to make a living. As you’re developing your artist’s voice, you’ll also be developing your marketing voice. It’s all about creating context for your art. I get more into that in this book (that you can read online for free)

If you'd like to hear more ideas on marketing yourself and your art from Gwenn, check out this 25-minute talk.

When You Teach Yourself Art, Should You Focus on One Area or Should You Take a Broad Approach?

There are a lot of aspects of art. Art is very broad. There’s sketching, painting, sculpting, digital modeling and digital art, illustrating, drawing portraits, etc.

When you’re learning, should you focus on one thing or try them all? Do you need broad skills, or should you just focus on area and develop that skill?

Everyone is different, but I’ve found it useful to do a bit of both.

I oscillate between focusing in on something and then broadening my interests again.

When I was a kid, I did a lot of drawing and painting, and that focus helped me gain confidence.

Then, starting in high school and going through college, I was exposed to a ton of different media. Some of it was overwhelming, but it helped me to find my artistic self —it helped me identify my voice across media.

After school, I went back to my first love: painting. Later on in my career, I started drawing again more and doing more photography.

I was adding things back in as I grew more confident with my painting. Now I’m adding ceramics back a bit too. It’s a cycle.

If You Want to go to a School, What Should You Look For?

If you want to opt for a formal education program to learn art, there are some things you should look for.

I think the most important part of your art education is exposure to many techniques, which is why, if you are going to go to a school, it should be well-equipped.

Does the school have a ceramics studio including a kiln? A print studio with access to acid methods and a decent-sized press? What about silkscreen equipment? Laser cutters, 3-d printers, digital labs, cameras, etc.?

Once you’ve tried a bunch of things, you’re much more able to decide what materials you want to invest in personally when you’re out of school.

As for mail-order art courses or online courses, I think they’re great too. All education is good! 🙂

That said, how can you know how you would express yourself in metal if you’ve never welded? That’s why I put the emphasis on access to equipment and a multitude of materials.

Should You Copy Others’ Work to Learn? If So,
How Much?

We all copy (in art and in life), and doing so is vital to our learning process.

But of course, it’s also important to find your own voice as you’re copying. Some people have an easier time with this than others, and I’m not really sure what the secret is, though I do know that the process of making and sharing art is a great teacher.

So how do you know if you're copying too much from other artists? Gwenn has made a video discussing that. Check it out:

Be sure to check out Gwenn's blog because she is always adding new, interesting, and helpful advice and information.
What Do You Think?

Have you taught yourself art? Do you want to teach yourself art?

Tell us your experiences in the comments below.

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Michele Swensen is a writer and web designer who loves learning, animals, writing, reading, and playing the piano. She’s a member of Mensa and a college graduate.

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Michele Swensen is a writer and web designer who loves learning, animals, writing, reading, and playing the piano. She’s a member of Mensa and a college graduate.
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This article covers a lot of topics that helps you understand how to teach yourself art, and what being an artist really means (and requires). We talk about making money with your art, as well. Some of the topics we cover here include:

  • Get Insights on How to Teach Yourself from a Professional Artist, Gwenn Seemel
  • Are Artists Just Naturally Gifted, or Can Anyone Learn to be a Good Artist?
  • Formal Education or Teach Yourself - Pros and Cons
  • The Qualities Artists Need to Have
  • What are the Best Books and Resources to Learn Art on Your Own?
  • Why Artists Quit
  • How to Best Use your Time if You Want to go From Mediocre to Great
  • How to Deal With Burnout
  • How to Keep the Fresh Ideas Flowing
  • How to Make Money as a Freelance Artist
  • A Typical Day in the Life of an Artist
  • How to Market Yourself and Your Art
  • When You Teach Yourself Art, Should You Focus on One Area or Should You Take a Broad Approach?
  • If You Want to Go to a School, What Should You Look For?
  • Should You Copy Others' Work to Learn? If So, How Much?
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