Q: Hi Tom, big fan of your drawings. Your book has had a huge effect on my art and is really helping me progress. However, I (as I’m sure many people do) hate my own artwork. I’m hugely over-critical and feel like people are being nice when the compliment it. Anyway, my question is, do you ever look back on your YouTube videos of caricatures you drew back then (1993) and think,”Oh dear God,why did I do ‘X’ that way” or “if I drew that now I’d do ‘Y’ like this instead”?
A: The balance between self-confidence and self-doubt if a tricky one for any artist, but especially for one trying to make a living with their art. It’s natural for an artist to be insecure about their work, party because they can’t help but become emotionally invested in it and therefore crave validation that it’s “good” thorough the praise of their peers and others, and partly stemming from their continued growth as an artist. One of the principal pieces of advice I try and impart when I talk to young artists is that they should be confident and happy with their work today, but not be happy if they are doing the same work tomorrow. As a working artist, you’d better have some confidence in what you are doing, or you’ll never be able to keep doing it.
I assume you are exaggerating when you say you “hate” your own artwork. Being critical is healthy, being “hugely over-critical” is not. Insecurity in your work is what drives your development as an artist. Once you feel your work is top-notch, you are not going to grow much anymore. However you will beat yourself down if you find nothing redeeming about your work, and that will hamper your development. Getting excited about seeing improvement in your work is as important as being objective and recognizing flaws in it, which you can then work to correct.
Regarding old work, THAT is the stuff you can grow to really hate. I look back on my early comic book work for NOW Comic’s “Married…with Children” title and seriously wonder how I ever got hired to do that comic. It is so badly drawn I am literally embarrassed by it. I cringe a bit at some of my early MAD work as well . . . after 13 years I see glaring flaws in that work that would never have gotten past me today. That is all a sign that my skills and my eye have continued to improve and develop over the years. However I do recognize that, at the time, that work was representing the best I was capable of. I worked hard on it and was proud of it when I did it. It’s only after continued growth that the blinders have been pulled aside a bit more to expose the deficiencies. That is all healthy, but I still wince when I see one of those “Married… with Children” issues… shudder. Likewise those caricature videos you mentioned. I did those as part of a looping promo that played on a TV at some of my live caricature booth locations, and they are not up to my standards today.
Live caricaturists really go through the wringer with this. When I drew full-time at the parks, I drew so much that every day I’d go through swings where I’d be drawing really well for a spell and then do a few duds and get frustrated, then get back in the groove again. That artistic microcosm really had nothing to do with getting better as an artist, but the sheer amount of drawing I’d do did force faster development with my drawing skills over the course of the summer. What I did discover, and what I think still holds true today, is that the level of my frustration or dissatisfaction with my work would increase right before I made a breakthrough or leap in my abilities as an artist. I think an artist’s eye is a few steps ahead of their hands, and they start to recognize something is wrong with their work right before they figure out what it is and fix it. With that in mind, it was always kind of exciting when I was really down on my work at the park, because I would know I was about to take a leap forward.
I am hoping that ten years from now I look back on the artwork I am doing today and can honestly say, “Meh, there are a lot of things about this work that I don’t like.” That will mean I have continued to grow as an artist in the intervening years, and that is always a goal. That doesn’t mean I can’t be confident in what I am doing right now, even as I look for (and do find plenty of) flaws that need work.
Thanks to Craig Kenny for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here.
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