Am I a “Real” Artist?: Creative Imposter Syndrome
Compared to many art school students, I came to art pretty late. I didn’t know I wanted to be an artist when I was little — I didn’t know what I wanted to be at all! In middle school and early high school, I was far more interested in music, theater, and writing. I didn’t take any high school art classes until my junior year, and I only started to seriously consider art as a career as a senior.
When I applied to a summer pre-college program, I was positive that I wouldn’t be admitted. And even after I was accepted, the insecurity didn’t end. As I drove to my dormitory on the first day, my excitement quickly turned to anxiety. What if, when I got there, I didn’t belong? After all, I wasn’t a real artist. I’d only taken that one art class, and I knew plenty of people who could draw infinitely better than myself. I was convinced that everyone at this program was going to be leagues ahead of me, and I would just be a kid who got in by some fluke.
When I arrived, I was surprised to find that everyone was at all different points in their artistic journeys. Some had been making art since they were tiny, while others, like me, had just begun. After a few weeks, my even work began to be well-received by my professors and peers. For that summer, I felt like a real artist.
However, even now, waist-deep in my art school experience, the feeling of being a fake lingers. I find it difficult to call myself an illustrator, since I don’t align with my vision of what a professional illustrator should be — constantly creating work, filling sketchbooks, using digital software.
But attaining that “perfect standard” of what an illustrator should be is unrealistic at best. It was a fantasy that I created in my mind just by looking at and reading about other illustrators’ work — artists who I didn’t know personally, whose work ethic I really had no idea about. Especially in the age of social media, the public persona of an artist can be so different from what that artist is actually like in real life.
Holding myself to that kind of unrealistic standard can be physically as well as mentally unhealthy. Being in work mode at all times is never good for your body or mind because creating art is a cycle. During active periods, you’re working really hard and quickly pumping out artwork. During passive periods, you rest, rejuvenate, and look at the work of other artists, whether they are your peers, professionals, or someone you don’t know. Absorbing work by others is critical not only because it can inspire you to create more work but because it can filter into your subconscious and influence what you make on subtler levels.
At one point during school when I was feeling particularly exhausted and burned out, I was able to take a break and played the game Kentucky Route Zero, a fantastic adventure game that really energizing me creatively and motivated me to continue working. Later in the semester, because it had such an impact on me, I ended up created a piece inspired by the visual style of that game.
Taking breaks also allows you to focus on other interests and activities, all of which can enrich the art you make. I find that the things I spent time on in high school other than visual art (such as theater, music, and creative writing) actually improve my art, or allow me to create pieces I never would have otherwise. Ironically, these were some of the things that prevented me from considering myself a “real” artist.
For example, I recently made a drawing inspired by the tradition of the ghost light, which is a lamp left lit in empty theaters overnight to ward off spirits. I learned about it during my time with my high school’s theater club, and I doubt I would have found out about it otherwise. If I hadn’t had that previous experience, I never would have made the piece.
Most artists have had imposter syndrome at some point in their journey, especially at the beginning. Keep in mind that you don’t need anyone’s permission to be an artist. When you sit down to make art, there is no one is looking you over with a checklist, making sure you have the all the proper prerequisites. There are no prerequisites to be an artist! You don’t need to work with any special method, and you certainly don’t need to go to art school. Plenty of well-known artists started quite late in their lives, or never had a “proper” education. The truth is: if you create, and you consider what you create to be art, then you are an artist.