At its best, art school can help us develop powerful critical thinking skills and innovative creative techniques, and the degree is worth its price in ways that can't be measured by a future income. Unfortunately, that deep and rewarding learning experience is often accompanied by a tradition of blistering and sometimes humiliating critiques that do not represent constructive feedback or well-intentioned criticism, but are instead designed to break the spirits of young creatives in order to test them or "toughen them up."
The result regularly crushes students' creative passion and many of us spend years struggling to get it back.
Fortunately, there are powerful tools available to help us identify the specific pain points that are holding us back and reconnect with what we truly want in our creative lives.
Art School Critiques Have a Problem
In 2012, I graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts with an emphasis in painting from the University of Colorado Boulder. For the next seven years, I barely touched my artwork, and progress was spotty for two more after that. This was highly unusual for me, as I had been drawing compulsively and consistently from the time I was a toddler until my final semester at CU, and I had been highly motivated in the early years of my degree path.
Art school is killing the creative passions of thousands of students every year, and many of us are not bouncing back from it.
As the years beyond graduation passed, I'd often reconnect with friends I'd met at art school to find they'd had a similar experience. These conversations soon became predictable in a way that made my heart sink. In fact, it was almost always the same conversation. If you've been through a traditional art school environment, I'm guessing this conversation will sound familiar to you as well:
"Hey, how are you? I don't think we've talked since school. Are you still working on your art?"
"Not really. I took a break from it for a while and now I'm just working a lot at my job and don't really have time for it. I'm hoping to do more again in the future though. How about you?"
"No, not really. I started playing with a new medium recently, just as a fun low-pressure thing, but I never really got back into what I was doing before."
As the number of these conversations reached double digits and beyond, it became impossible to believe these were unrelated experiences. Around 2017, I picked up a copy of Juxtapoz and saw one of the featured artists mention that she had stopped making art for many years after art school, and eventually began creating in a different medium that felt "low-pressure" to her.
Shortly after, I shared some of my personal story on Instagram and received numerous comments from people I'd never met, both in the US and elsewhere, saying they'd also had tremendous motivation for art throughout their lives and then stopped abruptly following art school.
I finally had to admit that this wasn't just me, and it wasn't just a handful of my friends – art school is killing the creative passions of thousands of students every year, and many of us are not bouncing back from it.
I never had the fortune of discovering a guide or article on this topic to help me reclaim my true passion for art. Instead, I slowly stumbled my way back into it through a combination of reading, learning, experimenting, and perhaps not surprisingly, therapy.
I am not any kind of mental health professional and none of this should be considered medical advice, etc. I am just an artist who struggled for far too long to make peace with my past. In the hopes that the things I've learned can help you get back to your passion faster than I did, I want to share the information that enabled me to finally eliminate the mental and emotional barriers in my path and get back to doing what I love most in life – making art.
1. Recognize You've Experienced Trauma
I don't expect you to fully accept this idea right now. If it immediately makes sense, then I'm happy for you. You are several steps ahead of the rest of us. If this sounds outrageous, then all I ask is that you carry this idea with you and think about it, checking back in now and then to see how it feels.
I would've been highly resistant to this suggestion in the past, but I do not say this lightly: the most pernicious and challenging aspect of finding my creative passion again was recognizing that I had, in fact, been through a traumatizing experience.
As recently as late 2019, seven and a half years after graduating, I was actually still defending the harsh criticism of my critiques. I had even embraced that same style of critique on a moderately popular music blog I ran.
In my album reviews, I adopted the voice of a particularly savage art professor of mine who would crack jokes about people's art while verbally destroying their efforts. I believed this type of discourse was natural and important, that we all needed to hear some harsh criticism about ourselves now and then to wake up and take a hard look at ourselves.
I couldn't possibly disagree with my past self more than I do now.
"If you and I want to stir up a resentment tomorrow that will rankle through the decades and endure until death, just let us indulge in a little stinging criticism – no matter how certain we are that it is justified. When dealing with people, let us remember that we are not dealing with creatures of logic. We are dealing with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudices and motivated by pride and vanity." - Dale Carnegie
I have never met a person who did not carry deep insecurities and emotional vulnerabilities inside of them, no matter how successful or confident they appeared to be. People live hard lives, busy lives full of distractions, and many of us struggle to believe in ourselves enough to chase our dreams even without the harshly critical voices of others ringing in our ears. To this day, I have never seen criticism create the same results as supportive guidance and feedback.
I have, however, seen criticism create immense pain and resentment.
Over the course of three years writing my music blog, I began to clearly perceive how much damage I was inflicting on the artists whose music I was reviewing. It became increasingly difficult to believe that I was doing was anything more than spreading pain into the world, a fact that was at sharp odds with what I was learning about psychology, mental health, personal growth, and the importance of healthy social connections in our lives.
One day, while absorbing the tremendous life philosophy in Wayne Dyer's Your Erroneous Zones – and specifically reading a section about critics – I came an ugly realization: I had stopped making art after experiencing harsh criticism in art school, and instead of facing my fears and failures and pursuing my own creative path, I had put myself in the position of a critic where I could tear down other creators who were putting themselves out into the world.
Acknowledging that many professors' art careers haven't gone as well as they hoped, I believe they could benefit from a similar reflection.
"The real doers of the world have no time for criticizing others. They're too busy doing. They work. They help others who are not as talented, rather than serve as their critics... Moreover, you may be using your criticism to absolve yourself of the responsibility for your own ineffectiveness by projecting it onto those who are really making an effort." - Wayne Dyer
Since then, I have noticed a pattern in discussions with my friends from art school. Although they express discomfort or even aggravation with what we went through, they still defend the harsh critiques as necessary or valuable. Based on my own history with this, I believe I understand why this is: it feels like a weakness to admit we were harmed by art critiques.
After all, we were told those experiences were good for us and necessary to "toughen us up," right? And the last thing any of us want is to admit weakness to a group of people we're trying to impress and fit in with. When we're young and full of ambition, it's easy to dive into the culture of an environment and try to adapt to it without properly questioning whether it's in our best interests or not.
Is it true that some people make it through the art school experience without any setbacks and continue making the art they love? Absolutely. Does that mean that you should've also made it through undeterred?
Not at all.
People have different personalities, temperaments, and life experiences, and we all react to different environments in different ways. If you loved your art and worked hard on it up to art school, then suddenly stopped or saw a significant decrease in your enthusiasm and output, it is not a coincidence, and comparing your experience to other people's creative journeys will never help you get back on track.
After nearly a decade of reflection on this topic along with years of experience on the giving end of criticism – including two years as the A&R rep for a record label and two years working on a master's degree in secondary education – I no longer believe for a second that it is a weakness to have experienced lasting emotional harm from the art school environment.
In fact, I've learned the hard way that dismissing the harshness of the critiques and keeping our armor up is the worst thing we can do for ourselves.
2. You Do Not Need to "Toughen Up"
If you take nothing else away from this article, please hear this:
You are not weak, you are not deficient, you are not emotionally fragile. You do not need to toughen up.
In fact, "toughening up" is very likely at the heart of why you stopped pursuing your creative passions in the first place.
We're often told in art school, either directly or indirectly, that the harsh criticism we endure is designed to build up our tolerance to it. Or, as one professor admitted to me shortly before graduation, to see if it would cause us to stop making our art!
It's no wonder myself and many of my friends walked away without touching our favorite medium again.
Willpower and "toughening up" will gain us nothing, and they will never get us back to a healthy place with our artwork.
In my time at CU, I saw students run from the classrooms with tears of heartache and humiliation on their faces. I saw them stand and sob into their hands through the duration of critiques. Others – myself included – reacted with anger, and critiques devolved into angry shouting matches. I saw little empathy or good intent from professors in many of these critiques, as students' work was compared to the contents of dumpsters or they were told outright in front of their classmates that they were not artists and should change their degree path.
Anyone willing to tell students in the first week of classes that they'll never succeed in their dreams desperately needs to get familiar with Carol Dweck's research and her book on Mindset.
I personally was told on more than one occasion that I would never find success with the style of art I was making. An exceptionally talented friend – who now owns a beautiful and successful tattoo studio and gift shop in my town – was told the same.
In a modern world in which we have an abundance of information available on what healthy and growth-oriented relationships look like, we must stop believing these are constructive or well-intentioned interactions between adults. Like many forms of abuse, they are rooted in adherence to tradition and a belief that the behavior of past generations is acceptable and suitable for new generations.
I believed for years that I must not have truly loved what I was making, or else I wouldn't have stopped making it. Similarly, I believed I lacked the emotional fortitude to withstand the real art world. If you carry these same beliefs, it is the result of victim-blaming and a hazing culture in art school in which students are emotionally abused by professors and told they should like it.
In these cases, willpower and "toughening up" will gain us nothing, and they will never get us back to a healthy place with our artwork. The mind is simply more complex than that. In any difficult environment, whether it's work, sports, family, break-ups, etc. "toughening up" simply amounts to burying our emotions.
This can serve a practical purpose in the short term – for example, to keep us moving forward through a difficult divorce or the death of a loved one – but in the long term, this creates a disabling pattern of behavior that moves us further away from the things we truly care about in life.
Once we are no longer in the art school environment and no longer face the intense judgment and criticism of that world, it's time to drop our guard and let out our emotions.
3. Find Guidance in Your Emotions
To reconnect with ourselves as artists, we must open back up to all our emotions, learning how to lean into and embrace the full spectrum without feeling overwhelmed by it.
Susan David's book Emotional Agility was an enormous help to me in this process, teaching me to recognize the value of our less-than-savory emotions like anger, sadness, and fear. To borrow the analogy she uses at the start of the book, our emotions are like a lighthouse, guiding us out of the darkness and toward the things that are most important to us while alerting us to potential danger.
At the same time I read David's book, I began seeing a therapist for the first time. I initially sought this person out due to anxiety over upcoming surgeries that would be both invasive and expensive. However, instead of talking to her about the surgeries, I immediately began sharing my frustrations at the fact I had not worked on my art seriously for years.
She quickly identified the suppressed emotions in me and encouraged me to venture into those emotions mindfully, exploring them in my body and listening to what they were trying to tell me.
I did, and following an outpouring of emotion on a long drive one night, I soon found myself making art regularly again with the excitement and enthusiasm I had been missing for nearly a decade.
"Our natural guidance system, which developed through evolutionary trial and error over millions of years, is a great deal more useful when we don't try to fight it." - Susan David, PhD
If you have strong emotions around your experiences with art school, allow yourself to feel every bit of them. Find a safe and comfortable place to let them out, but do so with intention and mindfulness, exploring the emotion and questioning what it's trying to tell you. Our truths and dreams can be found in our emotions, especially the ones that don't feel great in the moment.
Anger, sadness, fear. These things carry important clues about who we are as artists and what we want our lives to look like.
As David points out, human beings have roughly nine identifiable emotions, and only one of them – happiness – consistently feels good in the moment we experience it. One other – surprise – can go either way. That leaves seven emotions we typically find undesirable, and if you're like me, many of those are closely tied to the experience of art school.
It may have been long enough now that you've actually forgotten how you felt about your critiques, or worse, you've begun deceiving yourself about them. I believed I'd made peace with my professors and the culture of the classrooms they maintained. But once I opened myself back up to those memories I remembered how intensely angry I had been in the years immediately following graduation.
I had been unable to sit quietly at my drawing table and work without experiencing painful emotions and the echo of sharply critical voices in my head, and that pain had become directly linked to my art process.
As it turns out, our associations with pain are fundamental to why we stop chasing our dreams, and to clear that hurdle, we must get honest about what we want for ourselves.
4. Overcome the Lies About What You Truly Want
One of the weirdest and most disheartening things I have learned about human beings is that we often convince ourselves we do not want the things we truly want. We will even argue against those things when people who love us try to push us toward them.
Tell me if any of these statements sound familiar:
"It would be great to do more with my art, but I'll never develop the skills to compete with the talented people out there."
"I'm just not cut out to be an artist. I don't have the right mindset for it and I don't have the work ethic to put in the long hours."
Or the grand-daddy of all self-deception:
"I thought I wanted to be an artist, but once I got into my current career path I realized this was a much better fit for me. I'm perfectly happy not working on my art anymore."
These lies we tell ourselves are rooted in the pain and fear we have associated with our creative process, and the reasons for it are explained perfectly in Tony Robbins' book Awaken the Giant Within. Along with the similar psychology and neuroscience behind Jud Brewer's life-changing work with Unwinding Anxiety, Robbins' book has been immensely helpful to me in identifying the ways I associate pain and pleasure with different activities in my life. In turn, I have been able to build new and healthier behaviors, and ultimately, dispel the lies I had been telling myself for nearly a decade.
For me, the most valuable takeaway from Awaken the Giant Within is this: all of our behaviors are rooted in the associations we make with pain and pleasure, and these things can be consciously re-worked through self-awareness.
When we experience tremendous pain around anything in our lives, the mind believes there is a real danger to us, and it will attempt to move us away from that thing. Like putting a hand in a flame, experiencing scathing criticism of the things we care most about, particularly in front of our peers, creates a powerful neurological link between our art and feelings of pain.
Even after we leave the academic environment and no longer feel the heat of those critiques, we still retain our mental association with pain and the brain continues to steer us away from our own creative process because it believes our art poses a danger to us.
It's a survival mechanism, and it's very effective – even after it's no longer needed. This association may have served us at the time of the critiques, but now it's just holding us back.
"Any time we're in an intense emotional state, when we're feeling strong sensations of pain or pleasure, anything unique that occurs consistently will become neurologically linked. Therefore, in the future, whenever that unique thing happens again, the emotional state will return." - Tony Robbins
Robbins has an exercise in the book called "Take Action Now" designed to identify the ways we associate pain or pleasure to different behaviors in our lives and discover how those associations are holding us back. That exercise was invaluable to me in identifying the specific sources of pain I was experiencing around my artwork.
For years, I'd held a medley of excuses and ideas in my head about why I was no longer working on my art, and it became impossible for me to tell which were the real culprits and which were nonsense. I knew I'd had a challenging experience in school, but also felt I had "toughened up" properly and simply didn't feel like working on my art anymore.
But after doing some thinking and journaling for this exercise, I suddenly held in my hands, in my own writing, the exact things that were holding me back. It was like a fog had lifted and shown me what was right in front of me the whole time. Once I could identify these things fully, I could cast them out to sea and be rid of them once and for all.
I'll share some of the conclusions I reached through the "Take Action Now" exercise to show the level of specificity that was helpful to me in identifying the cause of my stagnating creativity. Some of these may even feel familiar to you:
"I haven't taken action on my art in the past because I have doubted whether I could succeed. I felt it would be painful to put in years of hard work and fail.
"I linked pain to my art during art school when I felt rejected, criticized, and shamed for making the art that I love. I felt it was wrong or stupid to create the art I wanted to make.
"I have gained short-term pleasure in the past by avoiding taking action on my art because it allowed me to feel safe and protected me from additional emotional harm. It was safer and easier to pursue other hobbies and focus on work in unrelated fields instead."
I did this exercise at the same time I was reading Emotional Agility and talking through my emotions with a therapist, and the combination of those things caused the labyrinth of mental barriers, excuses, misdirection, and conflicting emotions within me to clear out simultaneously, leaving me with incredible clarity about what I truly wanted.
I hope that some or all of these steps can work for you the way they did for me. If they do, you will likely encounter one more major obstacle, and that is getting yourself back into shape creatively.
5. Take it Slow
Creating art is just like physical fitness. If you've been sitting on your couch for years without exercising, you wouldn't expect to head outside one day and tackle a five-mile run. The same is true with art. If you've been inactive or mostly inactive in your process for years, you aren't going to be able to suddenly jump back into a 10-hour painting session.
That's completely fine. Don't rush it.
Your art-making muscles are a little flabby, and it will take time and patience to get back into shape. You can also think of it like restoring a classic car that has been in the shed for years. Just aim to get the engine running first, then see if you can drive it around the block. With some work and patience, you'll have it running smoothly out on the interstate again. But you have to knock the rust off it first.
When I was in art school, it was not unusual for me to hit 12 hours of work on my art in a day. But after years of inactivity, I struggled to even work for one hour without losing focus. That was frustrating, especially because I wanted to make up for lost time by launching back into a rigorous art practice.
Making art is hard work. It demands concentration, effort, and that mysterious thing we call inspiration. The inspiration will come by putting in the hours (more on that in a future post), but you need to be able to clock those hours in the first place. And that requires patience and practice. A bit of timeless advice from author James Patterson got me back in the right headspace:
Dedicate one hour each day to your craft.
This is meant as advice for aspiring creators, but it works just as well for those of us who have been out of practice for years. Just work one hour on your art each day. Make that your goal and your practice and stick with it. It doesn't matter what time of day you do it or if it always happens at the same time or not. Just give yourself the gift of relaxing into your art process for one hour each day and give it your full attention.
Hang a paper calendar on your wall where you can see it and mark off each day you do this to keep yourself honest. Once you've been able to do this consistently for a few weeks and your calendar has few or no missing marks, bump your routine to two or three hours and do that for a month.
You will get stronger. Your brain will gain clarity and endurance, and you'll stop hitting the wall as quickly. You'll see steady progress on your projects and gain even more excitement and motivation for what you're doing. Just like physical exercise, the muscles will build back.
About six months after I committed myself to working on my art for one hour each day, I reached my first 10-hour day in nearly a decade. By nine months, I could consistently go wall to wall on my art in a day with no setbacks. It took time, but that endurance came back for me, and it will for you too. Once you are back in the groove, your endurance will be much easier to maintain.
This Is an Ongoing Discussion
It is my sincerest hope that you won't spend another day away from making the art you love. We all have a unique vision to share with the world, and nothing is more important than keeping that vision alive with clarity and belief. The things I've shared here have helped me tremendously and flipped my attitude toward my art within just a few months.
If you've stepped off your creative path following art school, you are far from alone. It has nothing to do with your mental or emotional fortitude and has much more to do with the complex workings of the mind and our relationship to pain and pleasure. This relationship can confuse us and cause us to create myriad excuses and self-deceptions to prevent us from any further pain, often without us even realizing what's happened.
I was able to break free from the limiting beliefs and painful associations I had built up around my art, and I know you can too. I hope some of what I've shared here helps.
I plan to write much more on this topic, but in the meantime, I'd love to hear from you about your experiences with art school and staying true to your creative passion. Leave a comment below or email me through the contact form with your thoughts and story. I look forward to hearing from you.