The modern artist knows this feeling: thumbing down some app and stopping in your tracks as an artist’s work yanks you out of autopilot.
Maybe they have spectacular draftsmanship, funny ideas, a huge fanbase, or that studio job you dreamed up for yourself. More often than not, it’s all of the above. Oh, and they’re younger too, because of course they’ve done more in less time than you.
A vague sense of discouragement typically follows moments like these. A little voice tells you that if you were really any good, you would be where they are now - that your life would look like theirs. Whether you’re a student or budding professional, I can tell you that this feeling may never go away. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make peace with it. One of the most valuable lessons to learn as an artist is that one person’s success will never take away from your own.
Competition only goes so far
Young artists are taught to believe a myth that some unknown enemy is lurking about in the shadows, vying for every gig you’re after. If you so much as take a pitstop, you quit the race entirely. While a lot of us in the arts want the same types of jobs, every project can be made to feel like a battle royale so early in our careers.
When I was in art school, I fed into this myth big time. An artist I looked up to said in an interview, “while you’re sleeping, someone else is grinding, trying to take your spot.” I internalized that, as most hungry and impressionable artists would. The words were noble, and spoke to a spirit of hustle I already subscribed to.
And sure, I worked harder because of that advice, but I also became competitive in a way that wasn’t healthy. It made me unapproachable and contributed to a class culture based on overworking. I felt threatened by anyone in my orbit and resented peers as a result. I had to be ready for what the real world would throw at me after all, right?
Post art school, things were a little different. Nobody was out to get me. I could sleep. I could take that pitstop. My creative fight or flight response was always on, but the job-predators never came. What I saw instead were communities of people helping each other, sharing resources, and boosting each other’s work. In the working world, competition means valuing your peers enough to want to grow with them. Not in spite of them.
Value your peers
It’s hard to celebrate your peers’ successes if you see them as threats to the space you carve out for yourself. When I made a thread on Twitter talking about this, artist Nico Delort summed it up perfectly, “Competition can be good if it helps you push yourself, but in the end it’s not a zero sum game; there’s enough followers for everyone.” It’s so easy to forget that as artists, the audiences for the things we make overlap; that’s not only OK, but a win-win for our fans.
There’s this old meme out there that shows artists as bakers. One artist may bake a small, simple cake while the next artist’s is large and ornate. While either artist may think it’s a bake-off, the audience is just glad that there’s cake at all.
In the same thread, illustrator John Lee gave a perspective from the other side when he mentioned that it feels shitty to be antagonized for making art and that it can cause artists to shut down. Subscribing to an unhealthy idea of competition leaves out room for empathy. The people you feel jealous about may wish their work was completely different, or they may have a hard time even making work at all. When your blinders are up, it’s easy to forget that each artist is a person with their own challenges and insecurities.
Be fair to yourself, too
The artist you may be comparing yourself to may have had resources afforded to them that you just didn’t have access to. You’re not only grading yourself against another person’s art - you’re grading yourself against their finances, quality of education, proximity to industry opportunities, support systems, and then some. Every privilege and disadvantage in that artist’s life has contributed to their work in some tangible way. By comparing yourself to another artist, you separate their work from their history. That’s not only unfair to them, but neglects your own history and inspirations. Remember, every path is valuable, and that includes yours.
You own your lane. Ultimately, the work you get will come to you because your voice is unique. Art directors approach artists with something to say. The only standard you’re obligated to hold yourself to is to hone the ways you can visually represent your ideas and opinions. When you do that, you’re competing against yourself, which I personally find to be less stressful and more productive. Each artist has the potential for truly groundbreaking work by using every project as a stepping stone forward, picking out the highlights from every previous project.
Nobody knows what they’re doing. That’s the best part.
Being an artist online is tough! There’s no manual for how to pick up followers, turn a following into a way to make a living, or if followers even matter at all. In the creative industries - freelance artists, especially - the only resources for career growth we have are each other. It’s imperative that we continue to cultivate a community built on uplifting one another and holding each other accountable. It’s also important that we tear down the myths of unhealthy competition plaguing younger artists that may feel this industry is shark-infested waters. In today’s sociopolitical landscape, maintaining tight knit communities and taking care of one another are not only radical, but necessary for survival.
Chris Kindred is an illustrator, cartoonist, and writer in Richmond, Virginia.