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Growing Pains: Middle School Fan Girl to Thoughtful Artist

Yannis Kwon

Art is a field that frequently induces self-hatred for many artists.  Even throughout my middle school years when encouragement on my artwork was plentiful, I’d always been extremely sensitive towards even the slightest hint of displeasure from anyone looking at my art.  If I met someone who I thought was more talented than I was, the fact that I would never be talented enough would be my only consideration. According to older artists I spoke to, entering high school meant that I’d be surrounded by harsh criticism and artistic savants. This was absolutely terrifying to me. Worst of all, I’d have to learn how to draw realistically in order to compete with the more experienced artists I’d meet in class.

In the seventh grade, my inspiration came from Anime and artists on Instagram. I specialized in poorly composed comic strips, fan art, disproportionate girls, and several “philosophical” drawings of a girl crying, complete with a quote from the book, The Fault in our Stars by John Green. I was the epitome of a middle school girl discovering the joys of art. (I mean that in the worst way possible.) I matured and began to develop my own ideas and style in art, but I still had no skills in drawing realistically. To me, realism was always a boring way of drawing that was cool if you could do it, but it definitely wasn’t for me. Why should I have to invest my time to strengthen an art style I had no interest in?

Yannis Kwon, High School Art Student
Yannis Kwon, Watercolor Painting

Despite the panic I was feeling at the end of eighth grade, my summer was easy going. I spent the summer developing my personal style and occasionally making realistic drawings of Phil Lester or Dan Howell from a picture I could easily copy.

That peace of mind inevitably ended, and the first thing to greet me in my high school art class was the Visual Arts Scholastic Event, an annual state of Texas competition where high school students enter their art to be judged one-on-one at regionals in hopes of making it to state and eventually win a Gold Seal.

Though I had done Junior VASE in the eighth grade, it was much easier at the time. Junior VASE had fewer rules and no opportunity to make it to state, meaning less risk was involved. For Junior VASE, I entered a watercolor painting of the moon phases displayed on a cartoon “space queen.” (left) This painting truly was the pinnacle of my eighth grade art career. However, I was so anxious about this piece, I even went as far as crying before my interview, resulting in me barely getting a perfect score.

Given the stress I felt during junior VASE, the amount of pressure I felt going into actual VASE was exponentially higher. After my high school art teacher told me that though my art style was fine, realism was more successful in VASE, I had an unhealthy amount of anxiety. For my high school VASE piece, I decided I would submit a watercolor painting that had warm lighting in order to show the beauty of human interaction. (right) The month before VASE, I spent thirty hours painting, the most I had ever worked on any artwork. My final submission was a painting of my friends engaged in conversation.  The painting wasn’t hyper-realistic, but it was as close to realism I had ever gotten to.

I managed to get a perfect score at VASE, but unfortunately, I didn’t make it to the state competition. That said, I’m content with how that painting turned out and the feedback I received from the judge. I got to know more people in my art class and exchanged feedback with them as well.

Yannis Kwon, High School Art Student
Yannis Kwon, High School Art Student

I absolutely despise that many people think that realism in art is the only way to impress people and be successful as an artist. Art is a culmination of the artist’s identity expressed visually as enjoyment and loving others and themselves. Any work of art is impressive if it’s made with the artist’s best intentions.

Nonetheless, realism can help in developing a personal, consistent art style. Ever since my high school VASE experience, I’ve been working hard to improve my skills in realism, and that has drastically improved my personal art style as well. Learning to observe the world is essential before you can transform what you observe into your own interpretation. My art is not longer a giant trail mix of other artists’ styles, but rather something completely my own.

I have seen that there is an unhealthy amount of self-consciousness in the high school art community. In my experience, I haven’t met an artist who was genuinely happy with their artwork. Many conversations I’ve had with other artists were just us arguing over who was the worst artist.

I really, really want to encourage any artist, regardless of age or experience, to resist the temptation to hate your artwork. Most people  will not actively judge you.  Even if one day you find out later that you didn’t really have a reason to be confident about an artwork you did a month ago, that’s okay. By creating that artwork,  it’s inherent that you improved through that experience, and you’ll keep improving. That’s all that matters. Taking pride in your artwork may be hard to balance with trying to always improve yourself, but once you can find a healthy balance, the joy will be worth it.

Art is whatever you want to make it. You can choose to be unhappy with your artwork,  and hold yourself to an unreasonable standard, but you won’t be happy. Focus on your artistic growth and celebrate your mistakes and progress. Make the artwork you want to make. Who cares if people say your artwork is “basic” or “weird?”

Being an artist means that you are part of a creative community. Reach out to your peers, share your ideas, have constructive critiques, and flaunt all the artwork you’re proud of. I wish you joy as y’all continue in your beautiful art journeys.

Thanks to art teacher Ross Hines for his support and help with this article.

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