When the “Self-Taught” Artist is Taken Seriously

There is a story behind anyone who is authentically self-taught. This is not to be confused with the idea that most artists figure some things out on their own. Again, I reinforce, not. the. same.

Let me illustrate.

Artist A selected a handful of materials that appear to be of value and started messing around with them until something was produced. This product was created with absolutely no prior schooling past cutting out construction paper lanterns in the second grade. Artist A spent no time watching how-to videos.

Artist A was simply playing around.

Slowly, Artist A gathered more tools and added them to the pile, practicing new techniques entirely intuitive to their creation. Perhaps they began creating larger forms of the same stuff, or tried new mixtures, learning through trial and error. Artist A was very clear about what they were proud of and what was crap, and the crap did not deter them. They just stopped making the same mistakes. They were glad people happened by and shared their appreciation. Ultimately, Artist A was not seeking approval. Instead, they knew they had something interesting, but it was the process that drove them.

Artist A started figuring some things out. On their own. Despite the new attention it gained from others, it was just a naturally good time.

When loved ones suggested they take a class – you know, to improve – they quietly declined, on the basis of pure desire to learn on their own. They avoided outsider influence. They had their own internal voice, a knowing, a confidence. An outside voice would sound like noise and bring the chill of expectation.

Mostly, Artist A did not want anyone telling them that the traditional way was thee way.

In contrast, we have Artist B.

Artist B has been guided and instructed and molded all along. Someone said, “Here, try this.” And then they were encouraged in one or many directions by friends, family, and eventually experts. Whenever Artist B fulfilled someone’s idea of what was exceptional, or highly skilled, they were given approval and encouragement. Eventually, they were motivated to gain a focused, deeper study of their art in a college or university, which everyone hoped would pay off in the end. They were willing to compete with others for awards, earn exclusive gallery exhibits, and boast of reputable, sometimes expensive, influences.

Artist B is impressive, and their expertly directed learning shows. They have a vocabulary for talking about their art. They understand what tools do what, and what mediums work under what conditions. They have risen to the level of professional artist, and that is nothing to scoff at.

Artist A knows they may never measure up, since they did not in fact have that scholarly experience, that refined and highbrow, polished path. Artist A was just trying something new because they were alone and bored. They were following a calling. They were naturally experimental.

But deep down, Artist A has had the wonderful history of watching their craft evolve under their own intuition, their own brave decision about what is acceptable, and having to rely upon their own vision, their own notion of whether that creation meets the original, private dream.

Artist B is wonderful, but they should not identify as self-taught, even if they learned some tricks on their own along the way. They can never underestimate the impact of what they were taught externally. They can be proud of their path as it is, cultivated by mentors.

Artist A may have had one or two conversations along the way, but no formal schooling ever occurred. Artist A will have struggled a lot more but should take full credit for what it has been – spectacularly independent and intuitive, if not a bit primal.



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