Have you ever felt like something was too easy? Like maybe you should have to work harder to achieve a certain result? Maybe you use the grid method sometimes, or other tools artists have that we sometimes feel bad about using. Why? And why do we associate these skills and techniques with the word “cheating?”

And what exactly does all of this have to do with mastery?

Hey there! 👋 I’m Carrie. Here on Artist Strong I help self-taught artists who have a home studio, feeling stuck with their art, move from wondering what’s next to confidently expressing themselves through unique, original art. To date, thousands have joined the community.

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Let’s first discuss this idea of cheating.

Cheating, by definition, means finding an unethical shortcut at someone else’s expense to get the results you want. It’s usually in a competitive context where someone is the winner, and someone or many someone’s is the loser. Or, you’ve achieved something easily that you think should be hard. 

Oxford dictionary offers two definitions:

Act dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage, especially in a game or examination.” And,

“Avoid (something undesirable) by luck or skill.”

Learning artists ask this question all of the time.

Is tracing cheating? Is using the grid method? How about working from other people’s photographs? (I hear all the photographers out there about to have a field day in the comments. Let’s be specific here and say royalty free photographs).

These are just a taste of the ways creatives talk about cheating.

👉🏽👉🏽👉🏽   I’m curious, does one resonate with you? Or do you have another to add to the list? Be sure to share in the comments below.

Whether we think we’ve cheated some system and have more skill than we should OR that we are winning a rigged game, both have clearly negative connotations. It almost sounds like you can’t win.

Now let’s discuss the experience of learning. 

How easy is something the first time, say, playing an instrument? How does it sound? Overtime, as we practice skills we can get faster and create better sounding notes.

This is exactly how art skill also develops. Things that were once super hard, like copying a photo reference at scale, freehand, becomes easy.

Here’s where our mindset can get a bit murky. We can grow accustomed to a certain level of skill, and that can even be how we all see ourselves. Which means our identity as an artist can be tied to a certain level of skill.

Then we have this culture fixated on achievement and quick results. But we are also told achievement is hard. Work hard to get a payoff. And yet we also say talent is effortless.

Anyone else’s head spinning yet?

So when we break through to new levels of skill and understanding, it’s easy to dismiss the previous effort and state of discomfort we were previously in. And when something once difficult comes easy, well, we sometimes think we must be cheating.

And if we think we are cheating (remember: immoral and bad!) it’s pretty easy to start feeling bad about our art.

Here’s the thing: when it’s easier for you to get a specific result it’s not cheating, it’s actually a sign of mastery!

So what is mastery? 

It’s acquiring a specific level of skill. Our friend Oxford dictionary states mastery is:

“Comprehensive knowledge or skill in a subject or accomplishment.” 

(or, “Control or superiority over someone or something.”)

As we develop and grow our repertoire of skills we are increasing our mastery of the subject.

Signs of mastery

When we grow more accomplished, with musical skills, we start to play increasingly difficult songs. Certain things feel easy now, but when we have ambition or goals for our music, we strive for new challenges.

And the process begins again.

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To learn and grow is uncomfortable. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it many more times.

Discomfort and comfort isn’t a sign of your failure, it’s a sign of mastery. It’s a repeated process of acquiring skill, experiencing a level of comfort, then seeking more and finding discomfort again.

Learning, or acquiring new skills, requires a level of discomfort. A symptom of improving at the new skill is growing comfort and ease with the technique.

For me, this journey has taken a LONG time to understand. My perfectionism has always had me thinking my lack of skill or the difficulty in acquiring a skill was a reflection of failure on my part: I was and just never would be good enough. And my path to voice and proudly sharing my art took WAY longer as a result of those beliefs. 

I sincerely hope this conversation helps you look at your artistic growth with fresh eyes and understand each time things get hard, those moments are new stepping stones to your next level of mastery.

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And if you are a self-taught artist who has a home studio but feels stuck and like yet another online tutorial won’t get you where you want to go, I’d love to speak with you. 

If you’re looking to integrate art into your life and confidently express yourself through unique, original art, choose a time from my calendar to discuss how I can help you.

Let’s return to this idea of cheating. 

We use that word because our process has in some way changed, possibly because we’ve improved and upgraded our skill, and now things once hard are now easy. And instead of celebrating that, we forget the hard work and effort we put in to achieving this new level of skill and understanding and feel it was “too easy.”

You deserve to celebrate the jumps in your skill you experience!

So the next time you worry about cheating with your art, ask yourself that very question.

The only time I worry about “cheating” ourselves

Tracing, gridding, or drawing an image to scale can actually become cheating when we use these tools to avoid all the discomfort of learning. This is important when we desire a certain level of skill and are avoiding the practice. Then my question is, are you cheating yourself of the artist you want to be?

As always, thank you so much for being here.

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Remember: proudly call yourself an artist.

Together we are Artist Strong!