It’s easy to throw around the term skill without fully understanding its definition or application in the arts. So, what is skill? And how do artists use it?
Hi, my name is Carrie and here on Artist Strong I help artists build their skill and develop their unique voice. Today we are digging deeper into the term skill and how our mindset about this noun helps or hurts our artistic growth.
Let’s start with a textbook definition of skill. According to Merriam-Webster, skill is:
Take a minute to digest this definition. Sit with it. So many times we assume a full understanding of a topic without really thinking about its nuances. For example, did you observe that several of the definitions included the word, “LEARNED?”
I hope that sinks in. LEARNED.
Learned means something we can develop, grow, take in, change… I think you get my drift. But it’s really important to emphasize this because countless creatives in this community have used the term skill in reference to other artists that they feel a bit envious of or look up to in terms of ability.
So anytime that inner critic starts whispering in your ear, remember: skill is LEARNED.
I really want you to feel empowered that if you feel lacking in any skill, technique, or artistic approach that YOU have the power to change your circumstance. Because skill is something you can learn, develop, and grow.
In fact, I recently re-read the classic Drawing on the Right-Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards* and she talks about something called a global skill.
A global skill is something that, once you learn, you never lose it. For example, if you learn how to ride a bike, or swim, you don’t forget how to do it, no matter how long it is between bike rides or swims.
Drawing is another example of a global skill! Once you learn how to draw, you don’t forget how.
It’s important to discuss definitions of skill because when we face a mean or loud inner critic, it means we can do something about it.
It’s also helpful to talk about our development as we grow up and how and what types of drawing we do depending on our age, because this can help us see how our skill starts to develop and what we can do about it today.
Again, reviewing Drawing on the Right-Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards* reminded me of these stages.
In early childhood we start with a bunch of scribbles. Once we are toddlers we start to draw objects around us, creating symbols we use on repeat to portray things like people or dogs. A few years later we start to observe details and add things like fingers or legs to people, and maybe even clothing. Finally, around age 9 or 10, we become really interested in learning how to portray things realistically. At this age we are technically capable of achieving this, too.
This is often where many young artists become blocked. They want to learn how to achieve realistic effects but are not given the tools to do so. Additionally, often well-meaning teachers, parents, or other authority figures can say something that discourages us from exploring our art further. And thus our skill level remains at the age of our 9 or 10 year old self.
Now let’s come to adulthood. We miss that drawing or art activity we did as a child, but we feel vulnerable starting up again. But maybe we show up and try anyways. When we observe our artwork and our skill level skill shows up like our 9 and 10 year old self, that not only feels frustrating, but often we can feel embarrassed. Somehow, magically, we expect ourselves to be better at something we’ve spent no time working to improve.
I sincerely believe it’s this moment of feeling discouraged that keeps creatives moving in and out of block. That childhood memory of being rejected or told we weren’t good at art comes right back in our mind, loud as ever, and the vulnerability that comes with improving a new skill holds us back from trying or sharing with people who might help us improve.
Let’s return to that Merriam-Webster definition we started with today. And that repeated word again was? Oh. Right. LEARNED.
No matter where you are in your creative journey, if you have an interest in improving your art skill it’s entirely possible. And I hope today’s conversation helps you really own that truth.
Let’s pause here a moment to thank today’s sponsor. This post from Artist Strong is brought to you by The Artist Strong Studio, our community of patrons who believe in and wish to support this community. You can become part of the Artist Strong Studio for a small monthly commitment as low as 1 dollar a month. To learn more visit https://www.patreon.com/ArtistStrong.
A special thank you to current patrons, I couldn’t do this work without your support.
Now it’s your turn: instead of sharing the many horror stories we all share of being discouraged with our art, I ask you to write in the comments below what you would tell your 9 or 10 year old artist self instead. Let’s create a list of positive, encouraging statements of love for our inner child.
*Sometimes I share links to books and resources I wholeheartedly support and use myself as references. These are affiliate links, which means it’s a small way to show your support and help Artist Strong keep making content (at no additional cost to you).
Keep playing with your drawings, watch tutorials, and even copy other peoples work as you practice.
I recently found that doing a jigsaw puzzle was interestingly helpful, as a small little piece of the puzzle seemed like it was from a different box, there was no purple in the photo, yet it actually did belong in the shadows. Breaking an image down into small pieces I found things weren’t quite as what I thought it was. Another example, the windows on this puzzle piece are so much smaller than other windows on the building or from the image on the box, but in perspective, it was as it should be. In my head, or if I had been drawing that, I wouldn’t have been so extreme in differences in size, because we think we see them the same.
So many fun ways to learn.
Elsie such good advice. We can train our eyes to see in a variety of ways, that do not always have to include drawing!
Thanks Carrie. I have recently been experimenting with water media instead of oils. And, I am a child again. At first I was intimidated and then I remembered to just play. I haven’t yet decided if I will learn how to paint with watercolor or acrylic. However, I will remember that it will take time to learn and develop the skill just like I did (and still am )with drawing and oil painting.
Barbara, YES YES YES. It’s so easy to forget when we become more comfortable with a medium what it felt like to start with it. And that’s how we learn with each one. You’ve got this! Have fun and explore. And you’ll know which medium is your next focus as you experiment and play 🙂
Carrie your wise words keep me going. I have been painting in acrylics on and off for many years but I always thought I couldn’t draw. I tried several times and yes, they looked like a child of about 6 had done them. Then I came across your ‘Drawing Drills’ challenge. Although I still haven’t finished the seven days yet, due to things outside my control, it gave me the confidence that with practice I can, and have, got better. Thank you again for your support and guidance in my learning.
You are so welcome Margaret. I’m grateful our paths could cross! And it makes my heart glad you can see the possibilities in your art again <3
My 9 or 10 yr old self should have been told, keep going, do what you love, and make art part of your life.
I also believe art came back into my life right when I needed it.
Christine, I’m so glad art has returned to you with the right timing <3 and I love what advice and encouragement you have for your younger self <3