Don't worry - you're still an artist

How long after not doing art is one still considered an “artist”? Is it a month? A year? Less? Longer? If I haven’t painted in over 6 months, am I still considered a painter? And if the answer is no, then who the fuck am I anymore?  

I’m a working artist, and for the past six months, I’ve been in the midst of a severe depressive episode. Aside from art that I have to make for my job, I haven’t made anything. In six months, I haven’t finished a single painting, poem, or drawing. My sketchbooks and canvases are filled with half-finished drawings, scratched-out and restarted sketches, and written pieces without endings.

There’s been more than a few times in the past six months that I’ve dedicated an entire day to “just getting over it” and making something. I thought that, if I could just get the base sketch of a painting perfect, I would somehow “cure” my creative block and finish it all the way through. I ended up starting four different, intricately drawn sketches on my canvases, just to find myself frustrated with all of them. Instead of painting, I spent that night weeping; grieving the artist I once was, convinced that something in me had died, and I would never be able to make art again.

In my working life, most of the art I create involves film, photography and editing. And although I’ve been able to complete these projects (mostly, because if I didn’t I would actually be a starving artist), it’s been an unending source of frustration most days. Recently, I was taking photos for an event and I found myself doubting my camera settings over and over again, adjusting them constantly throughout the shoot. Photography requires you to be confident in the moment; to trust your instincts. Depression, of course, is always working to fill you with self-doubt and loathing.  

When I reviewed the photos afterwards, I saw that the first series of photos I had taken were good, but that the photos got consistently more absurd and awkward, until they didn’t even vaguely resemble my usual work. It was like watching my own depression in action, like a stop-motion film.

But, I have to remind myself, that those first photos I took were good, and maybe I didn’t finish those paintings, but at least I drew something. I did something. On days when just getting up is an achievement, and showering and eating are even bigger ones, that’s something that I have to hold onto. Something is still there – even if it’s just the desire to keep trying.

Like many things, with depression, you have to start slowly. Recovery is all about slowly, consistently practicing the things you did naturally when you weren’t depressed, so that eventually, they’ll be natural to you once again. For example: I make myself get up at the same time every morning, so that I’ll fall asleep at the same time every night. Eventually, my body will re-learn how to sleep normally; baby steps.

Equally frustrating and fascinating is the fact that I’m essentially going through the same steps I did when I was first learning art: taking small steps, making mistakes, starting over. The big difference is, when I was first learning art, I wasn’t suffering from depression. When I was starting out, I was frustrated with learning a new skill – but it was easier for me to keep trying.

These days, it takes more convincing. But as long as I can convince myself, as long as I can tell myself to do something small, I’ll get there, eventually.

Failing at one thing doesn’t make you a failure. Failing at one task in your artistic practice also doesn’t mean you’re no longer an artist. People – especially artists – are failing all the time. Even when I was at my most productive, I still took photos I hated, or mixed the wrong colours – and sometimes, when I made mistakes, I actually liked them more than what I had originally set out to do.

Making art – any kind of art, and even just trying to make art – is enough to make you an artist. The key thing to remember is that art is a practice – as long as you’re living, you’re never really going to be finished.