We look at other people's art we love. It can go two ways:
- It inspires us
- It makes us feel inadequate.
I’m the first to advise you to look closely at the work of great artists to study their techniques, use of media, style and composition.
I’d recommend that you research these artists by reading, watching videos and - best of all - visiting exhibitions in order to improve your own work.
But chatting to a client the other day, I realised that there is an important flaw in my advice.
Because when we look at someone else’s work, we subconsciously compare it to our own. And depending on whose voice we hear, the outcome will be different.
What on earth do I mean by ‘whose' voice’?
Critical Faculty Versus Inner Critic
I’m talking about the constructive voice of our Critical Faculty versus the destructive voice of our Inner Critic.
Your Critical Faculty
Your Critical Faculty is your visionary art director - responsible for making important creative decisions, deciding the direction and scope of projects, and even selling the idea to other people with intriguing descriptions.
Your Critical Faculty:
values your individual way of creating and looks for ways to enhance it
mixes and matches ideas from within and influences from without
Your Inner Critic
Your Inner Critic is like one of those really negative magazine columnists (or maybe one of your art school tutors?) - a repressed artist who didn’t pursue his dream and instead takes pleasure in sadistically undermining other creatives.
Your Inner Critic:
only recognises and values your work when it looks like someone else’s
persistently tells you you’re not a ‘real' artist
It doesn’t sound like it would be that hard to differentiate the voice of the Inner Critic from the voice of the Critical Faculty, does it?
But the Inner Critic is a world-expert at undermining our creative impulses. To do so, he uses some very insidious yet seemingly-plausible arguments.
Let me give you an example.
John’s Destructive Inner Critic
When he can get past his Inner Critic, John does these wonderful loose, flowing drawings of the human figure. There’s a touch of Sargent in them.
The Dance - John Singer Sargent, 1907
(study for El Jaleo after Jean Baptiste Carpeaux)
Black ink on off-white wove paper 20.5 x 12.9 cm
But where I see Sargent, John's Inner Critic sees messiness and inaccuracy.
His IC likes photo-realism. Anything that isn’t that isn’t ‘real’ art according to him.
So John spends a lot of time looking at photo-realistic art and feeling inadequate, instead of working on ways to improve and expand his own particular style.
Karen’s Constructive Critical Faculty
Karen also does very loose drawings. She’d be the first to tell you that she’d never make a photo-realist in a million years.
Yet when she saw this photo-realist piece by Glennray Tutor, she got excited.
Trio (Now!) by Glennray Tutor, 2015
Oil on canvas, 58.4 × 78.7 cm
The idea of combining the idea of a monochromatic background with a brightly coloured foreground turned her on her Critical Faculty
She went on to incorporate that idea into her work, finding a way to fuse it with her lose, flowing style. The result is a new way of working that's still true to her natural creative abilities.
Stimulate Your Critical Faculty
So next time you look at a piece of art you love, make sure it’s your Critical Faculty that’s ruling the roost -and not your Inner Critic. Ask yourself questions like:
How is my work similar to this work? Where can I see overlap?
How is it different? Where can there NEVER be overlap.
What is it in this work I admire? Don’t be satisfied with a generalisation. Be specific, keep digging for clarification. For example, is it the colour treatment, subject matter, texture, tonal contrast, palette…? (Devise your own list if it’s not a visual medium.)
Without changing my own, natural way of working, how might I fuse this aspect into my own? Think laterally here! Brainstorm different ways you might do this.
Defeat Degradation with Aspiration
By using this kind of positive questioning when you study someone else’s art, you can stop your Inner Critic undermining you and empower your Critical Faculty to find ways to improve and expand your personal style.