How to Become an Artist

By Sophia Aigner

When you’re twelve, a friend tells you that every successful artist has, at one point or another, painted a nude portrait. This makes you nervous. Turn to her and blush profusely.

“Every artist?” you say, fumbling your fingers.

She nods her head. “You’re not a real one until you do it.”

Inhale uncomfortably at this new information. You are gullible at this age. You haven’t discovered sarcasm yet. Believe her even though you don’t want to. 

When you’re home, sneak up the stairs. Think you’re a spy from James Bond. It’s clear that you’re not. Carry your sketchpad and tip-toe into your room. Be inconspicuous. Close the door fast. On the computer, start googling naked women. Regret this. Look at all the nude women on the screen. Your eyes widen. Your nostrils flare. Become horrified. You can never unsee this. Shake it off and remember that artists do what they have to do. Start drawing. 

Pick up your pencil and just move it. Anywhere and everywhere. It will glide across the paper like an everflowing stream. You have never felt happier. Draw the shoulders. The stomach. The legs. The hands. The feet. Then, stop at the face. Stare back at your reference photo and notice the model. She looks familiar. Her expression is dull and emotionless. Wonder why adults never smile. You think the world has lots to smile for. You are naive. 

In the middle of your drawing, you hear the door creak. Hope it is the wind. It is actually your mom. Oh god. 

“What are you doing?” she asks. 

“Nothing,” you panic. 

Your heart pounds and your cheeks tint. Silently curse to yourself. Crumple the drawing of the naked lady. You think you can do this fast. You are wrong and very uncoordinated. Your mom sees a glimpse of your paper. Her eyes widen. Her nostrils flare. “Give me that right now!” You try to dodge her grasp, but she snatches the paper hungrily. You want to die. 

Mom doesn’t talk for a while. She is not sure what to say. Never look up at her. She cuts like a blade. You hate that about her. One day you’ll see that it’s not her fault. She is struggling. Struggling with the bills. Struggling with her husband and even her father. She doesn’t tell you this because she knows it is her fight, not yours. 

“Don’t draw this,” says Mom.

Her voice is flat. Her expression is emotionless. She crumples the drawing and throws it to your feet. She leaves disappointed. 

Uncrumple the paper. The picture changes. See all the flaws you missed. The arms are too small, the hands too big. Her face is ugly. Feel stupid. Tell yourself that this is just part of the process. You only half believe this. Don’t draw for a week. 

Decide for the next three years that you will draw eyes—only eyes. Blue ones. Green ones. Brown ones. Big ones and small ones. They are the windows to the soul. You read that somewhere. When people ask why you limit your subject so narrowly, try to be funny. Say, “I’ve been told nude portraits aren’t really my forte.” No one laughs. You’re the only one who gets it. Stick to art, not comedy.

One day it hits you that you can make money with art. Take advantage of this. It definitely won’t last. Make a small business where you draw unflattering, bloated caricatures of teachers. It’s a big hit. People love you. They think you’re hilarious. Much like any celebrity, fame starts impairing your judgement. Start signing your caricatures with your name. You’re funny, but not very bright. Mrs. Budkizer is able to identify you and taps you on the shoulder the next day in homeroom. She has one of you’re drawings. She is not happy. In her hand, the top of the paper reads, “Mrs Butt Kisser” and a mole on the side of the figure’s face is accentuated to an unnecessary degree. Even when you’re caught, you can’t help but feel a little pride. It was one of your best pieces. Scream in your head. From thereon out, your entrepreneurial endeavors come to a halt. 

In high school, sign up for Art I. You don’t think you’re good enough, but something tells you to give it a try. On the first day, fumble into the studio like a horse tripping over its hooves. Tell yourself it’s apart of the process. During attendance, raise your hand like you’re questioning why you’re there. Start sketching when you get a moment. Mrs. Waterman observes you from afar. You see her in the corner of your eye. Ignore her. If not, you’ll get nervous. She saunters to your seat. Sense her presence. God, you hate it when people stare. Expecting the worst, you’re thrown off when she meets you with a smile. “You have such a way with blending,” she says. Breathe for the first time all day. Those words were all it took. Smile weakly. Tell her thank you. The bell rings, cutting the conversation short. You feel good.

If you’re going to be an artist, you need practice. Sketch everything you see. Your bedroom. A clock. A vase. The mailbox. Your friend eating. Your friend yelling at you because you’re drawing her while she’s chomping away. Draw your hands. They are soft like cotton and as smooth as silk. They are nothing like your mom’s. Hers are pristine like glass and as rough as sandpaper. She rubs them anxiously against her palm. Over, and over and over…

Show it all to Mrs. Waterman. You begin to trust her. Get excited. When she scans your sketchbook, the smile leaves your face. She doesn’t seem amused. She says the drawings are “a good start, but…” 

Nothing good ever follows but. Mrs. Waterman tells you to stop drawing what’s on the surface level. This hurts. Remember failure is temporary discomfort. Say, “Okay, Mrs. Waterman, I’ll try.” Walk away. You know she is trying to help, but disappointment sets in anyway. You really thought you had it for once.

Spend a lot of time sitting in your room. Watch the world going by your window as you wait for an idea. Occasionally, you have a creative breakthrough. On these days, don’t do your homework. Ignore all responsibilities. Stay up late. These rushes of genius are what you live for. Watch your ideas come to fruition on paper. Intoxicate your lungs with the aroma of paint. Enthral yourself in your brush strokes. Remember how this feels. It is a joy that only you can replicate.

The assignment this week in art class is to draw a self portrait. This makes you nervous but also excited. You want to do something that you’ve never done before. Decide that you should make a monochromatic painting in the color red. To you, red is an explosion of life. A fiery ball of energy. A ripe apple growing on a summer’s day. Unfortunately, no one in your art class agrees. Someone says your painting is sunburnt. Another girl whispers loud enough for you to hear that it looks like period blood on canvas. Throw it out. Tell Mrs. Waterman that you’d rather restart your project at home. She allows it. 

Go home and sit in your room. Being an artist is exhausting. Realize how ridiculous this sounds. Instead of focusing on your new self portrait, think about the people who insulted the first one. Usually, you stomach disappointment. This time, fuel it into anger. Art is good for this. Decide that you won’t be upset. Decide that you’ll make the best damn portrait the world had ever seen. Turn on the radio and get to work. 

Move your pencil and draw the features of your face. Draw your eyes. Your nose. Your lips. The scar on your chin. The creases beneath your eyes. The birthmark you’ve always hated. Your drawing is a secret between you and the paper. Grip the pencil so tightly that your fingers dampen with sweat. Stare back at your progress occasionally. Smile. You learn an artist must be imperfectly perfect. 

In the middle of your drawing, you hear the door creak. It’s your mom. 

“What are you doing?” she asks. 

“Nothing,” you respond, instinctively panicking.  

Your mom stands behind you. Feel nervous. You can sense her gazing at your work. You hate it. Will you ever be good enough? Don’t look at her. You know how she cuts like a blade. She hates it when you draw. 

She comes in with clean laundry. “Stop what you’re doing and fold these up,” she says.

Groan. “Mom, I’m kinda busy here. I’m working on a piece that’s due.”

She whips her head around. Her face crinkles in confusion. “You’re taking an art class?” 

You become meek, like you’re instantly four years old. “Um, yeah…it’s for a semester. No big deal.”

She scoffs. “You know Louise, one of these days you have to get your act together. You should be taking English and math. Not art.”

This hurts. “Mom, I’m serious about art. I’m not messing around. My teacher says I’m probably good enough to get some college scholarships—”

“Absolutely not.” She turns to walk away. She doesn’t want to be apart of this conversation. 

People tell you to be bold. Now is your time. “You know mom, we all know you went to art school when you were young! Why is it so bad that I want to do the same?” 

She stops. A pause falls between you both. You’ve struck a chord in her. “And I struggle everyday for it. Don’t end up like me, Louise. You have potential.” She leaves.

You try to swallow, but your mouth is dry. Replay that conversation in your head. Consider what was said. Twiddle the pencil in your hand. Bite the side of your cheek. Think carefully. Realize that you are nothing like your mom. You will not quit art. It’s your passion. So be it if it’s a bad habit. It’s like what Mrs. Waterman says: “It’s not a bad thing to do what you love.”

The end of the semester approaches fast. This means finals. Finals mean death. On the bright side, Mrs Waterman says your class’ final exam will be an art show. You’ve never had more than two people look at your work at a time. Feel nervous but also happy. You’ve gained a newfound confidence this year. 

From here on in, work like your life depends on this art show. Stay up until 3 AM for the next week. Spend this time painting new portraits and landscapes. Take them to school and put them in your display case. Make sure they’re straight. Presentation is everything. Stand back and look at your work. Feel proud. Feel like an artist. 

People start to crowd around your stuff. For once, you don’t hear snickering. No one is making jokes. And the people who made fun of your self portrait can’t take her eyes off of your new one. Everyone loves your art.

Mrs. Waterman says that your class should make invitations for the guests. You hate this part. 

Stare at your mom’s bedroom door. Grasp an invitation in your hand. Hold your breath. Feel the blood pumping through your veins.

Do I even dare? 

~~~~~~~

Decide to wear a dress for your art show. Presentation is everything. Stand next to your display case and watch people pass by. Smooth the creases out of your dress. Some people stop at your display. They tell you your stuff is good. This makes you happy. As the night carries on, more and more people pile into the art room. Feel claustrophobic. Realize that you don’t really like people. 

Watch the crowd of people in front of you. Suddenly, they part. You think it’s nothing. Then, your breath hitches. 

It’s mom. She came. 

Watch mom walk to your display. She doesn’t speak for a while. She is not sure what to say. Look at her. This time, she has softened. She smiles. You haven’t seen her do that in a while. Let your body relax. 

Say something. “Um, do you like it?” 

Mom nods her head. Her eyes lock on your self portrait. It’s a painting of you and her. She opens her lips. “I like it a lot, Louise.”

Catch yourself smiling. See Mrs. Waterman out of the side of your eye. She’s walking in your direction. Wave to her. Watch how she extends her hand to your mom. Their small talk muddles in your brain. Suddenly, a suppressed laugh escapes your lips. It’s been there for a while. Close your eyes and take a long, well deserved breath. 

You feel good. 

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