Guidance for the journey from eternal art student to full self expressed artist

“Not all those who wander are lost.”

JRR Tolkien

{This post is a Tara Special, meaning it’s epically long! I recommend a beverage and maybe some sort of snack.}

In the beginning…

I remember when I was getting back into my art after a long hiatus.

I’d been sidetracked from my love of art in my twenties, by ongoing depression, trying to hold down jobs, and questionable life choices that attempted to manage the depression.

So I was thirty when I turned back to the art. I’d moved to a new city {by the sea}, found a little flat, and holed up there to recover.

Discovering a whole new world

It was then that I stumbled on a burgeoning online world of blogs and ecourses, and fell into a magical rabbit hole of wonder.

I didn’t know then what a turning point this was; all I knew was that there were people out there on the other side of my computer screen, making art, sharing it on blogs, talking to and encouraging each other, and offering courses for others to learn.

Already a massive introvert, and always inclined to choose solitude over being in groups, the more traditional ‘in person’ ways of learning art were not going to work for me at that time.

But this – learning online in my own space and at my own pace – was a dream I didn’t know I had, come true!

I dived in with gusto, taking courses in making textured backgrounds, drawing, painting whimsical portraits, painting abstracts and landscapes, expressive art, whimsical art, photography, art journaling, and many more.

I started a blog and found some kindred spirits. Being the days before social media was really a thing, this was both a revelation and the main way I connected with other artists.

I suppose in a way it was my first real glimpse of the possibility of living in a way that was completely different from how I’d been brought up, which was very much the traditional school, uni > 9-5 job > marriage > house > kids format, and into which I’d always struggled to fit.

I’m not prone to dramatic ‘this one thing changed my life’ statements, but looking back, although this period was incredibly hard and I still wasn’t very well, it was a turning point that would in fact change everything, over time.

Hitting a snag

After a few years of this, and becoming a bit of an online course veteran, I started noticing a common occurrence.

Both I and my fellow students often ended up making art like the teachers of the courses we took. In fact, I could often tell what course someone had taken by the art they made.

When you’re just starting out, and not confident in your abilities and voice as an artist, it can be very comforting to have your hand held. Copying, or being influenced by, those you admire and learn from, is very common and a completely valid way to learn {and teach}.

The issue for me was that there was very little guidance around moving out of that into becoming a more fully self expressed artist.

I had a pretty solid background in the principles of making art, and once I’d started to find my groove again, what I really wanted was to make art that looked like mine, not like the teacher’s.

And I saw that frustration in others too.

My first course

After a conversation with a mentor – in which she suggested I create my own course and I was certain I definitely couldn’t do that – I got curious, and decided to give it a go.

That led to the creation of my first course, Creative Spark, in 2013, which was aimed at beginners and ‘re-starters’ – in other words, those who were at the place I’d been several years previously.

The course was a rather hefty and very imperfect six week reintroduction to some basic principles of art making, designed to gently ease students {back} into artistic expression, with a solid underpinning of encouragement and support to help them grow in confidence, which is really a huge part of it.

{Creative Spark still exists, in fact, inside the Happy Artist Studio membership, although my own focus has shifted somewhat since then.}

My first group was small and enthusiastic, and I was blown away by how much it seemed to help them.

I think I had time on my side then; online courses were relatively new, so the novelty factor was strong! But it also genuinely helped people, and that was both astonishing and deeply satisfying for me.

Since then I’ve created over a dozen further courses, written hundreds of blog posts, run numerous challenges,  and seen hundreds of students not only go through my courses, but find real value in them.

Not bad going for an artist with no degree, a very shaky grasp on colour theory, and who didn’t believe she had enough of value to share!

But that’s kind of the point.

The ‘secret’

That’s why my courses, while not splashy, slick, or famous, have been able to help so many.

I create my courses from the trenches; I’m transparent about the ups and downs of process, about my struggles and how I’ve navigated them. I know the value of encouragement and holding it all lightly while feeling deeply called to make art.

And that helps people feel safe and seen, which is really the ‘secret’, if there is one.

You can’t fail to create meaningful work and a meaningful life – whether that means becoming a professional artist or making your art purely for the pleasure of self expression – if you have enough support and encouragement, with just a little guidance and accountability in there too.

The next phase

So there I was, creating courses, making art, helping people in a small way, and also developing my own artistic voice and expression.

And inevitably, I grew beyond the beginner/restarter stage, and developed more knowledge, more understanding, and new ways to offer those to anyone who needed them.

Because I’ve always taught directly from my own life and experience, I reached a point where the original reason I started and the issue I wanted to address – lack of true self expression caused largely by lack of experience and confidence – developed and refined into a new phase.

Behind all the courses I’ve created since then is the idea that once you’ve got the basics under your belt, you’re going to want to hear {and express} your own voice as an artist more clearly.

I’ve seen this over and over, and it’s been true for me too. Making art that looked like those who inspired and taught me became frustrating and uncomfortable.

I wanted to know what my voice and expression as an artist looked like, without the influences, as far as that’s possible.

Of course we never make art in a vacuum, and there will always be echoes and threads in our work from artistic movements and styles, but establishing your own voice as an artist is essential for most of us.

I did a huge amount of personal experimentation around this, and it resulted in lots of courses that have actually been quite hard to define or put ‘marketing language’ to.

I’ve since come to understand that my work as a teacher and ‘creative encourager’ meets people at the crossroads almost all of us reach at some point – how do I make my art my own?

I don’t teach people how to paint like me. Nor do I teach traditional techniques. My courses are a mix of sharing ideas, processes, and examples, looking at art history for context, and demonstrating how I do things, including losing my way and recovering {or not!}.

I don’t know of anyone else who teaches quite like this, and if I’m honest, at times it’s felt like maybe I was doing it wrong, or that what I offer isn’t really concrete enough to be lastingly useful. It’s very ‘soft’, and doesn’t like to be put in a box!

My ‘lovely file’ of comments from students and blog readers over the years suggests otherwise, but being different, as we know, is sometimes hard!

I still feel that the way I talk about my teaching work is itself a work in progress, but the message and principle feels very strong within me still, so I continue to share it.

The Happy Artist Studio is born

Last year – partly as a result of the pandemic, and partly because I’d been thinking about it for a while – I decided to gather all my courses, alongside a host of other resources and things I’ve created over the years, into one place.

I called it the Happy Artist Studio, based on my developing philosophy around what it means to be a happy artist, and what it takes to become one.

I created it because I acknowledged that many of us reach a point on our artist path where we feel ‘full’ from all the courses we’ve taken, and yet we’re not quite sure how to take all we’ve learned and evolve it into something unique to each of us.

I don’t see a lot of people talking about this beyond the abstract, but this is where my fascination kicks in.

  • What does it actually look like to make this transition?
  • What steps can we take?
  • How can we navigate the doubts and fears {the ‘demons’, I call them} that come up as a result of wanting to step into the new?
  • How do we decide what the next right step is?

I created the Happy Artist Studio as a way to address this strange place we can find ourselves in.

The Bespoke Art Degree

I talk about joining the Studio – especially the year long option – as an opportunity to create a ‘bespoke art degree’, because for many the cost, the time, or the approach of a traditional degree doesn’t work for them.

I created my own bespoke art degree when I spent a year in a mentorship programme, and saw for myself the {life changing, actually😉 } benefits of a softly structured process and container, where self motivation is key, but guidance and encouragement are available.

I envision the Happy Artist Studio as a place where artists who’ve reached the point of knowing how to make art – with a solid understanding of techniques and their own preferences, but uncertainty around their own voice – can step over that boundary into becoming fully self expressed artists.

Then they can either sink into enjoying the experience of making art that feels honest and unique to them {with the myriad mental, emotional, spiritual, and even physical benefits that can bring}, or they can move towards making art a source of income too.

My teaching has always sat at a crossroads, and I think that’s why it can feel hard to define into neat soundbites.

I deal with the invisible, the ‘secret life’ of the artist, the inward journey to Self through art, and the freedom that brings.

Do you identify with this crossroads? I’ve seen so many artists reach it – and as we’ve seen I’ve reached it myself so I know how it can feel – and I’m ever refining what I offer to better support artists who feel ready to move forward and aren’t sure how.

The Happy Artist StudioIf you’d like to check out the Happy Artist Studio membership, you can do that by clicking here, or the image on the left.

There are two ways to join – monthly or annually {which includes a free month} – and there’s a seven day trial with both options, so you can have a poke around and see if it looks good to you.

We just moved to a new platform this year, so I have lots of plans to develop it and make it more valuable for members, but at time of writing there are 14 courses in there – some very in depth! – and a host of other learning materials. There are many months’ worth of things to be getting on with in there! And coming this year I’ll be adding a community space too.

If you have any questions about the membership, there’s an FAQ section on this page, or you can email me at [email protected], or leave any questions in the comments below. I’d also love to hear about your own experiences and thoughts around reaching ‘the crossroads’ and becoming a fully self expressed artist!