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Yannis Kwon, High School Art Student

Growing Pains: Middle School Fan Girl to Thoughtful Artist

Yannis Kwon
Guest Columnist

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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3 responses on "Growing Pains"

  1. Hey Yannis! This is definitely an experience that all artists go through in some way. For me, my parents pushed me from day 1 to develop my skill in realism, and with this under my belt, it felt like a double-edged sword. Although I could tackle a still life or even a portrait with my technical skill, I had a difficult time being myself, and creating something special almost never happened because I would revert back to rendering images like a robot.

    My “robot” problem became very obvious to me when I entered a summer program at an art school. For the first time, I was surrounded by artists that were around my age, and I was extremely discouraged when I saw how easily they tackled visual problems. Although definitely not realistic all the time, their images had more life than my own, and I beat myself up a lot over it.

    However, building an environment I was comfortable with helped me break out of this funk. I made other artist friends who would give me constructive advice, and I made sure to try new things and love my experiments, because whether they were a pass or fail, I was always learning more about myself.

    Art is definitely whatever you want to make it, and always striving to grow and discover yourself in this field is very admirable. Thank you for this great article!!

  2. Hi Yannis! What you’ve shared is absolutely true about artists in high school. I was also very anxious about my work, especially as a freshman. I remember at one point I completely stopped making work because I was so afraid of getting negative feedback and looking bad, and that is absolutely not the right thing to do. I learned too that no matter what, I had to keep creating and recognize that I was going through a learning process.

    I live close to Britt and also submitted many times to the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, and after years of making barely a splash in the competitions, it wasn’t until I was making my AP Portfolio that one of my pieces got a Gold Key! In all honesty I was surprised when my teacher told me, since I had not necessarily given up hope, but was rather just focusing on college, my own work and doing what made me fulfilled.

    Over the years, I’ve learned that whatever I’m doing, it somehow impacts my art making. I agree that through, learning to draw realistically isn’t the goal, what you do with it to make your own work interesting and dynamic is even more powerful. I hope you’re still loving what you make!

  3. Yannis, this is a really great column and I relate with a lot of what you mentioned. While we didn’t have VASE where I am from, we did have the The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, and I participated in them one year. The awards for it were split up between honorable mentions, Silver Key and Gold Keys. And then like VASE, there were nationals, but the thought of that was far too intimidating for me.

    Just like you, I worked harder on one piece than I ever had before, I was craving the approval that a Gold Key would give me, I felt like all the art I had done up to that point was riding on that approval. in the end, I submitted that piece, and another I had created for my AP Studio Art portfolio, and I ended up with an honorable mention and a Silver Key. While at first I was absolutely crushed, I realized the whole experience just encouraged me to be the best artist I possibly could.

    I couldn’t agree more with the points you brought up in this article. As someone who has also struggled with confidence in her work, your advice is something every up and coming artist should take to heart. Listen to all your critiques, learn what you can do better and just make some sick art!!

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