Comparison is an artist’s drug of choice

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Illustration by Robby Day

It’s easy to joke about artists taking drugs, but there’s only one drug that all artists truly take: the act of comparison.

Obviously, comparison is an act and not actually a drug—as far as I can be sure—but it can sure feel like it is. It can act as either a stimulant that helps spark creative flames or a depressant that diminishes our self-worth.

Comparing your work to others’ is extremely common, maybe sometimes more than we realize. Though that’s not a bad thing—comparison can be pretty important for us as we figure out who we are, what we like, what we want to do, etc.—it should be something that we are mindful of and try to balance.

When you’re an artist, comparison is extremely valuable because it provides perspectives and critical thought needed for better, more complete understandings.

Like many things, it just depends on how we approach it. That was something I learned the hard way.

A few years ago I was preparing for the Sophomore Portfolio Review here at Portland State University. Around the time I was getting ready, I was still fairly new to the design program and behind in classes that were required for Portfolio Review submission.

I would have to take three design studios during my spring Portfolio term—something that got me several looks from peers. Taking three studio classes was fairly intense on its own, and doing Portfolio on top of that was pushing it.

It was going to be a lot of work, and it was pretty intense going in. It only got more stressful for me when I started that term.

I found myself surrounded by so many talented students who I believed had a better grasp of design elements and tools than I did.

I constantly compared myself to them and felt out of place, like my work could never match theirs, and I was some kind of phony. That self-doubt would inspire more comparison, and the cycle continued.

Other times, that comparison was empowering. Seeing the astounding work made by people around you is energizing, almost like the rush of endorphins or a hundred cups of coffee. There was so much great work that spring, and I couldn’t wait to add my voice to a sea of inspiring voices.

For the first few weeks I became too focused on comparing the work I was creating to others’—trying to match them, riding those highs—and as a result a lot of my work felt very unfinished and not very good.

I lost sight of my own aspirations and focuses and what I wanted my work to do. Not only was my work bad, but so was my enthusiasm for what I was making.
What was the point?

It took me a while to find a way to not let comparisons, be they good or bad, dictate my own work. It turned out I was reflecting outward too much and inward too little.
Comparison is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s far from it.

As artists, we compare for inspiration, contrast, prompts and so on. Comparison can only damage us when we compare and beat ourselves up too much for the wrong reasons.

Alternatively, when done with the right mindset, comparison can make us stronger. It can provide valuable lessons and insights for us. However, if we don’t take a few steps back, we fall too far into comparison and distorted self-perceptions.

We can make work intimidating for ourselves. Most of the time we’ll be comparing our work and ourselves to people we like, respect and admire. It can feel like those people and their works are untouchable. If they’re still alive, their awesome work doesn’t stop, and only keeps getting better.

How the hell can we keep up?

I don’t think that we do.

We learn from their paths and then pave our own. Comparison can help us do that. Consume everything and question everything. Figure out what defines you, and be aware of what’s around you at the same time. That was a lesson I learned the hard way, and in many ways I’m still learning how to properly balance.

For most of us when we compare ourselves to others, our greatest enemy isn’t our observers, critics and competitors, but ourselves and self doubt. As we become more aware and discover ourselves more through art and actions, that’ll be less of a problem.

This article will also appear in the Annex Winter Term Issue, the Portland State Graphic Design zine. It will be available Week 9 in the Art Building.

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