Thursday, September 18, 2014

The 7 Deadly (Art) Sins: ENVY

-By Lauren Panepinto

I've decided to start a new series, based on the art applications (or implications?) of The Seven Deadly Sins. Or, if you're going old-school catholic school, The Seven Cardinal Vices. First up: Envy. I've been seeing a lot of great discussions going around in the art world on this topic lately, and I wanted to start my series of art sins there.

Before we begin, let's define terms. People use envy and jealousy interchangeably, but they aren't the same thing:

Envy is a "feeling of discontent or covetousness with regard to another's advantages, success, possessions, etc.

Jealousy is a "mental uneasiness from suspicion or fear of rivalry, unfaithfulness, etc., as in love or aims.

So, in short, you are jealous of the things you have, and envious of the things others have.

First of all, don't feel bad or guilty that, as an artist, you suffer from envy. Almost every artist I have talked with about this has suffered from envy at some point in their career (me too, of course), and for most artists it is a common feeling. But just because envy is a perfectly understandable thing to feel doesn't mean you need to let it rule you. A little envy is understandable, but being consumed by envy will ruin your career, and your life. Theodore Roosevelt said "Comparison is the thief of joy" and it is absolutely true in art and creating. How can you enjoy the process, if you are too wrapped up in how the end product is going to compete with others?

Giotta di Bondone "Charity and Envy" 

Let's break it down a bit, and I'll try to summarize what I've learned about each particular flavor of envy:

Envy of another's skill
There is a difference between appreciating someone else's skill (a positive, glowy, happy feeling) and being envious of that skill (a sinking, pit of the stomach, crappy feeling). The difference has nothing to do with the other artist. It has everything to do with you. That feeling comes from insecurity and self-doubt. Sometimes it's more of a whine: "It's not fair that it comes so easy to them." Sometimes it's despair: "I'll never be as good as they are." I have found it helps to flip your thinking from a passive place (what they are, that you have no control over) to an active place (back to yourself, which you DO have control over): "If they could do it, so can I. I just have to keep working at it until I get just as good."

Karel Dujardin "Athena visiting Envy"

Envy of another's success
I think it's easy to see a very competitive field and get scared that there are too many artists and not enough jobs. I'm going to be book-centric here for my example, but it applies across many art fields. "If another artist get a book cover, then that's one less book cover for me". That seems to make sense, but as an Art Director, I'm here to tell you that's not quite how it works. Trends ebb and flow, and nothing convinces Editors that Illustration is the new trend than an amazing illustration on a cover that really sells a book so well it becomes a hit. For example, I've never had an easier job selling my editors on commissioning illustrations than after the James S. A. Corey Expanse books took off, due in very large part to the amazing Daniel Dociu illustrations. The success of those covers made more opportunities for illustration commissions for other artists, not the other way around.

Every successful book cover illustration, every article in Hi-Fructose or Juxtapoz, every Spectrum annual, every gallery show that pushes SFF art into the mainstream makes more opportunities for other artists in the same community. So celebrate each other's successes, and pull each other along.

Theodore Gericault, "Madwoman with a Mania of Envy"
Envy of another's opportunities
This sin has been exacerbated in recent years with the rise of social media and the universal onset of FOMO. The Fear Of Missing Out. This is going to be especially relevant this week, with Illuxcon happening. Everyone there will be posting amazing pictures of all the artists, paintings, art directors, fun dinners, lobby hangouts, and general carousing. Everyone not there will be imagining all the great times they are missing out on. Now don't get me wrong, Illuxcon is fun, but it's also a lot of work, exhaustion, con germs, awkward conversations, and nasty hangovers. Through the lens of social media, you see all of the awesome moments and none of the crappy down times in-between. I know I am especially guilty of this sin, and it's not on purpose. Who doesn't like to celebrate the fun times? Who goes out of their way to post the bad pictures?

The important thing is to remember you don't see the whole story. This isn't just about cons and events. This is about seeing the artist getting a gallery show, but not seeing them struggle to make rent. Or seeing an artist's career take off, when their health or relationships might be self-destructing. No one is spared hardship and difficulty. I'm not saying we need to share the bad things on social media, in some depressing attempt to be more honest…I'm just saying look at your own life. There are great times and shitty times, and that's exactly the same for every person you are envious of, whether you see it or not. You don't know the whole story. Don't assume it's been a cakewalk.

Pieter van der Heyden "Envy (Invidia)"

Envy of another Envier
Ok, that sounds a little convoluted, but the fact is, many of the people who admit that they are burning with envy of another artist are very often the target of another person's envy at the same time. Sometimes the very artist that is envying another artist is simultaneously being envied by that same artist. It's ridiculous but it's true. I can't name names, but trust me, it happens more than you think. If it seems ridiculous to you that someone would be envying you, it's probably because your first response would be something like "well, if they only knew what I went through to get here…" Exactly! Take comfort in the universality, and comedy, of this circle of envy, and then try to brush it off.

Ok, let's summarize:

Envy = Awe + Insecurity.

If you take out the Insecurity, you're left with Awe.

Awe = fuel for Inspiration and Motivation.

Envy and Inspiration are two sides of the same coin. Just flip it over to the positive side, and it's no longer a sin, it's an asset.


  1. I love the summary. I've noticed that it is a lot easier for me to be inspired by people who have 15+ years of experience on me. I don't feel like I have to compare myself to them. Whereas, I get envious when I look at people at a similar career stage. Great post, great advice.

    Jameson Gardner

    1. Oh absolutely true. The holy-crap-theyre-so-young-and-have-done-a-ton-more-than-me-already was my worst envy, and it was sneaky because I felt justified because I wasn't mad at them for doing well, I was mad at myself for some perceived "falling behind"

    2. Hey I'm 34, only started with this art thing at 33... I try to look at it as, "you're never to old to start" and "if I started younger would I have anything to say?" :)

    3. James, Just keep it up. You have made remarkable progress since the first time I had you in class not so very long ago!

  2. Thank you Lauren. I don't want to go out and say I've never envied someone before, that would be a lie, but I have always felt that I have used that envy in a positive way. Seeing someone better than me has always encouraged me to become better myself. It always makes me sad when I hear people say, "Ah they're so good, I'll never be that good." Well I say, "Challenge accepted." We all have our own creative paths that we walk, and well, that's just awesome isn't it? :)

  3. I'm not envious of others' talents (aside from "gee, I'd love to be that good someday") but I am envious of their life circumstances - being young, or male, or well-connected, or having had parents or friends who moved in artistic circles, or being well-off enough to go to art school and make connections, lucky enough to find mentors, having supportive friends and family, etc. The talent development and hard work is one thing you can always control yourself, but the opportunities you get from things that you were born into, that's another. One imagines that things just seem to magically "happen" for other artists partly because of these life circumstances. Not sure to what degree that is really true, but that's the type of envy that bedevils me most of the time. I don't let it stop my own course, but I try not to think about it. It's extremely counterproductive.

  4. Thanks for this great advice. I am tickled that you explained that envy and jealousy are not interchangeable words. Although, I always considered jealousy to be the uglier sister of the two, and definitely a useless emotion. Jealousy is not only suspicious of anything that could sabotage what you have (e.g., someone flirting with your husband), but it always struck me as a Schadenfreude, of sorts. I can envy a person's talent and want it for myself, as well; or, I could be jealous of that talent and not want that person to have it. Jealousy is closely linked to Greed (idea for next in the series, perhaps?). I want it, and you can't have it too!

    But, envy doesn't serve us well, either. It is fine to acknowledge the fortunes of others if it motivates you to obtain it for yourself. To be bothered by it is just a waste of energy. It is easy to admit to the flaw in thinking, but difficult to change it.

  5. Terrace, I feel where you're coming from in a way, with getting a late start at the age of 35 in art it was easy to be envious of kids coming directly from art schools or ateliers, but the path of envy leads you astray from your own aspirations. Whatever life circumstances you have had can become fuel for your art, no matter how divorced from that path they may seem. In my case, I've come to view the last 10 years of working in marketing no longer as 'lost time' from an art career, but as something that will help me with the business side of art. In the case of envying someone who's young, male and affluent - that's one voice that we've heard a lot from in this society, and whatever life experiences you have come from, they will give you a voice that is unique and different, and that may end up being advantageous.

    “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
    ― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

  6. This was wonderfully written and a great bit of...inspiration! Huzzah! Thanks so much, Lauren. Looking forward to the others.

  7. I love the last bit. I think we have all felt that envy of others. No matter where we are in our careers there is always someone who seems to be getting better jobs, having more success, painting better, whatever. It's easy to go there because we are all taught that contentment equals stagnation, so we are always reaching and wanting more and better when it comes to our art. I have heard just enough of the horror stories (ruined relationships, financial struggles in spite of great work, etc.) to know that it's not always rosy behind the apparent success. I have found that having balance in life helps even out the moments of envy. When I appreciate where I am in my career, spend time with the ones I love and then dedicate myself every day to creating my best work, I find that good things happen.

  8. Lauren, your posts allways give me a positive energy to be a better artist and person! thank you!

  9. I hope to eventually attend Illuxcon & see pro artist wearing I'M A FAN OF A FAN T-shirts.

  10. This is so great! I like the part about awe being motivation when you take away insecurity! I almost want to draw that personification! I'm sad I couldn't pick your brain at Illuxcon this year and envy your awesome tights. Do you think you could do maybe the Virtues of art? So that it's good to know what to work on to be a positive influence in the art world? Thanks again for writing this article!

  11. I completely agree with James and Lauren about the envying people close to your own age. I used to say those exact words, "I'm falling behind." It's so poisonous because it seems justified, but there are other things to consider. For example, in school when I was contemplating concept art, I used to get so annoyed when people would come up with much better/complex ideas than mine. But when I started talking to these people and hearing that they had been to Europe, Asia, etc. I realized that it wasn't that I wasn't drawing as much or trying as hard but that, having grown up very poor in a small town, I didn't have the visual library they did. I think as artists we never want to admit that outside circumstances play a part in our lives... it feels like an excuse... that if we only drew one more hour a day it would make up for a poor upbringing or a major health issue that set us back in our career. I've found this to be true in my own life... I feel ashamed for even partly justifying this perceived gap in ability, but at the same time not acknowledging it at all is harmful because you end up blaming yourself for something that might be out of your control. It took me a long time to start being comfortable acknowledging that sometimes privilege/luck does play a part, to not have that realization make me bitter, and to, instead, have it rest softly in my mind as simply a fact I had to work around and not beat myself up for. This freed me to look for what life experiences, stories, and viewpoints I did have to share with the world and not try to catch up with everyone else's experiences.


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