I recently got an email from one of my painting students who asked me if she should continue in the class “since everyone else is so much better”.
To say that’s a common emotion is not to say it doesn’t suck when you feel that way. I know because I’ve done it and probably still do, without realizing it. But it’s also bullshit and left unchecked can be very damaging.
It’s very difficult for most of us to tell how good we are as we’re developing and growing as artists. Practically the only metric that’s available for us is to compare our artwork to what others are doing, and comparing yourself with others is a terrible way to assess such a subjective and emotional undertaking as learning to make art.
The exception to that would be your relationship with your heroes, to whom we can look to for guidance. For instance: “what color combo might Degas have used?” or “How might Georgia O’Keefe have drawn this?” or “How might Beuys have thought about this?” We’ll always fall short if we compare ourselves to them, which is ok. It’s not a bad thing to reach for something you’ll never get if you like the reaching.
Another useful analogy might be: as you’re driving, you can use a stationary object to judge your distance behind the car in front of you (counting “one thousand one, one thousand two” is considered a safe distance). You can’t use something moving to measure against, you need something that’s a fixed point. Comparing yourself to other artists around you is like using a moving object trying to judge your distance from them.
Just about everyone thinks they’re worse than somebody. Some don’t care, some use it as motivation, and some succumb to the pressure of trying to keep up, as they see it, usually to somebody else’s definition of art. It’s really about whether you enjoy painting. Yes it’s very frustrating at times, which is why exercises that teach you to work without expectations are important. Embracing failure for what we learn from it crucial to progressing as an artist, but what is true failure is not painting honestly, meaning you’re painting what others want you to paint, or you’re letting what others think be how you gauge success. To quote Mother Teresa: “In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.”