Turning Disappointment into Creative Fuel


At some point, all artists struggle with being underwhelmed by a piece they’ve done or feel as if they have regressed. It’s easy to look back at a much better previous piece and compare it to your latest one and see the quality drop or having less of an impact.

I believe this happens to EVERY single artist out there, regardless of status or experience. I wanted to share some tips on how to overcome this self-depreciating mindset and move forward with your art. You don’t want to continue doing your work without letting go of a piece that got you down.

So how did me writing this come about? Well, recently there was a "Kubo" Deviantart contest that my friends and I decided to enter. We started this as a tradition a couple years back and do it as a fun collective experience. Just having come off a 31 straight days Drawlloween challenge, I was feeling pretty revved up and ready to go! And it’s good to go into a piece with this kind of confidence and have a standard that you expect to produce. The right mindset is key to create art.

It’s when you fall short of that expectation that you then have to deal with the negative aspects of art such as learning to compromise, being disappointed in your abilities, and accepting the glaring “failure” you’ve created staring back at you. It’s not easy and no one ever said it was or will be. This is what happened with my final entry piece for the contest. I thought it looked like something I would have produced a few years ago rather than it being my latest one. This can be an outright bummer. Having so much excitement and enthusiasm going into a piece and then having those feelings then be replaced with frustration and discouragement is never a good feeling


I had to go through some intense self reflection on why I believed it was so weak and why it was bothering me so much. I needed to fix this problem before I could properly move forward with a clean slate. So how do you move forward when you can’t shake off these negative feelings that are glooming over you to start a new piece fresh?Well, first accept what just happened. Don’t just toss it aside without first analyzing what made this piece such a failure in your eyes. Critically assess what worked in the piece and what didn’t. It’s easy to disregard the entire piece and mentally categorize it as a failure piece you’re not happy with it. Don’t do that. Instead observe what exactly made you unhappy with your piece.

Ask yourself as many questions as you can while you’re looking at the piece and pretend it’s not yours. This allows you to be more critical and see the piece more objectively. Having that 3rd person viewpoint detaches any emotional connection and you see it plainly. Then the questions come pouring out:

  • Was it the composition?
  • Was the character disproportioned?
  • Were the colors uninspired?
  • Did the lighting not read accurately?
  • Is the anatomy incorrect?
  • Does this area look sloppy or unattended to?
  • Did this area need more time to render out the details better?

And here’s the important part: Answer those questions constructively. And if you find yourself unable to answer those questions, then it’s time to buck up and do some research. For example, if you’re struggling with color, look up some color tutorials or go to pinterest and find some step by steps.

If you can indicate the problem but don’t take the steps to correct or resolve them, then you’re being lazy. No excuses. It’s incredibly easy to be self depreciating, down on your art, and talk bad about it because it’s harder to take the effort and time to figure out how to improve your art instead. Trust me, taking that time to do the proper studying will help BIG time in feeling better about starting your next piece without that lingering disappointment from the last one.

And I get it, after doing a piece that was a let down it can be difficult to get right back into that positive mindset and start a new piece with clarity. I know that it’s easy to say words of encouragement but it’s hard to actually feel it after a piece you just deemed a “failure”. But failure is not a bad thing. I actually endorse and recommend failing to everyone. The fear of failure cripples artists. You learn and grow as an artist when you fail, the times when you struggle most. This should show you that your visual eye is stronger than the pieces you are creating. You just need to bridge the gap with practice and determination.

This short video is a MUST watch for those going through this time: The Gap by Ira Glass

So when you do a piece that you feel is not at the standard you’ve created for yourself, or you become frustrated with the end results, be encouraged because this actually means you believe in yourself. Not sure why that makes sense?

Think about it.

If you were complacent with the piece when you finished then you accepted that piece and gave it a stamp of approval based on your current skill set and abilities. It’s only when you become frustrated with a piece that you realize you are better than this. You have a greater ability than what is being displayed. It’s odd when you think about it but it has proved to be very true. So embrace failure but take the effort to correct what you believed has “failed”. Having this “can do” attitude mixed with a humble mind of learning and growth will be your greatest asset.

Below is an example of a previous art block I had in which I was creating my illustration, "Red" and I could tell something was bothering me. So after really analyzing what I liked and disliked, I went back a couple months later and things were clicking. The colors, the rendering, and everything was falling into place. It took that initial frustration in knowing I could do better to even understand what was bothering me with the piece in the first place. Disclaimer: This will happen multiple times in your art career!


When you’re ready to start your next piece, take all that frustration and disappointment and rather than allowing it to overwhelm you with negative energy, convert it into pure creative fuel. Take those feelings and make your next piece showcase that you’ve learned from that “failure” piece and are stronger because of it.

Be thankful for the pieces that drag you down because they allow you to see that you are better than this. They remind you of your capabilities and push you to become stronger artists!

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  • Omar Domenech (dostovel)

    Cool read.

    Here's another dilemma... You know when you start playing Final Fantasy 7 and Cloud is at level 1, all spiky and blocky looking (for now) and you defeat one bad guy, he gives you very little experience points and yet you go up a level, and you're like, easy enough. You defeat the first Boss and its like 4 levels up. You get new abilities all the time, every battle is unique and you level up quickly.

    But then as you gather more and more experience points, to go up a level you have to fight lots of battles, since the experience points you have gathered are too few now in comparison to the whole lot you have accumulated thus far. Boss battles? pfff, big deal, they're no Sephiroth.

    Then you're just stagnated in level 86, the experience point gauge doesn't fill up, it is stuck half way, every battle is the same, you rather run then attack, you've fought all those bad guys before and you know how to defeat them all easily, you feel there are no novelties in the world, you've been through all the quests already, but you want to level up, you need a big breakthrough, not the final boss, he's been defeated ages ago... how do you keep the game going?

    I hope that was clear. :)

  • Tim Von Rueden (timvonrueden)

    Honestly, I've used this analogy before when talking with my own friends about this. I definitely relate to what you're talking about and how frustrating it can be when you are at that level seemingly unable to "level up" again since it used to seem so easy. Thanks for responding and that was a great tidbit to add on =]

  • Laura (tomato-cactus)

    Even though you tell yourself these things, sometimes it helps to hear these messages from others going through the same thing... A bit of 'pick me up and get me going again' kick in the butt :)

    It's funny because my biggest failures in art are happening now that I'm actually trying to understand what I'm doing -- why am I using this composition? Which colors work best and why? And so on. In the past I'd make whatever I felt like making, picking colors as I pleased, setting up a scene however I wanted -- really, not knowing what I was doing and why.

    And while I can see things wrong in those old pieces, I still feel they are better than my latest ones where I'm actually trying to apply concepts I've learned to create something better, more interesting. Aaah, the struggles, the struggles! :D

    Thanks Tim, this was just what I needed to lift my spirits again! :)

  • Tim Von Rueden (timvonrueden)

    Hit the nail on the head. It's like when you learn that as a kid you have full creative freedom. Then as you get older and start to learn more of the technical side of art (value, lighting, shading, etc.) we begin to replace that freedom with discipline. I think it's valuable to learn the fundamentals of art and refine your execution but often we lose sight of that initial freedom. That sense of just drawing, without any rhyme or reason besides just wanting to create.

    I try and stay aware of allow my intuition take over with pieces and try to ignore the technical side of my brain constantly nit-picking and second guessing all my design decisions. I believe there needs to be a balance where you're working with your creative freedom but you are executing the results with a refinement that came from understanding the fundamentals!

    Glad to hear your opinion on this as I've related to this idea recently and still have to turn down the volume on the technical side of my brain lol

  • Laura (tomato-cactus)

    Haha yes! It's a balance I still struggle to achieve, and it seems to get harder as I get older. Have to try to find that 'inner child' again LOL!

  • Mark Smith (me1958424)

    very good advice on turning negative to positive energy...
    own it as being a building block instead of a "failure"...

  • kamthegamer


  • Jose Miguel Hernandez (jmiguelhdezgmailcom)

    did you feel disappointed before submission? or did you feel disappointed with the contest result?
    I saw the winners and didn't thought they were better in execution. They were in fact less bold, they kept very similar art to the kubo movie. Same characters, similar color palette and art feeling. Perhaps that is why they won, i don't know.

    I think that sometimes self judgement is in the way, it would seem that criticism would lend to progress but many people abandon art because they think they are not good enough to do it. if you feel like your piece is a failure, imagine how i would feel about my own pieces. i am several years of practice away from doing the stuff that you do and who knows...

    i was reading art & fear, and i like it very much, i think it touch this subject very well.
    ironically, the dragons in your piece could represent exactly these thoughts of inadequacy, thoughts about being stuck or doing worse. They are the very chains that bound us to judgement and make us think that everything is futile. we shouldn't let me eat us, our happiness and our passion for art making.

  • clarissaferguson123

    Great post Tim!

    Even at this point in time I still struggle with negative feelings towards a works that I finished. But with me I think my particular problem is that I compare my work very often with other artists. Does not matter if they are professional or not, in my mind I am thinking, "What is my competition doing? What makes their work 'better' than mine?"

    I especially feel that way when I am learning a new skill or going back on my fundamentals and so on, but in a way I never felt like I had much of an issue when I learned something new, because I already expected that my work will not be good at first. However, until I practice over and over I can refine my skills.

    When I do begin a painting, I feel as though it has to be perfect, like everything has to look nice. So, I feel like I take forever studying or take forever painting because I am afraid of not meeting my potential as my "competitors" (I say competitors a lot because in my negative side of my brain I feel as though, if I am not good enough than other people will run me over LOL). I do not really want to have this negative mindset that it seems like everything I create or everything I do is "bad" when in reality it isn't. Plus I believe that an artists never stops improving, they might be at a stand-still for a time but they are not going backwards or anything.

    I just hope one day I feel happy with my work and not have to depressed by what I draw all the time!

  • Tim Von Rueden (timvonrueden)

    You should definitely not have to feel depressed by what you draw all the time. Being overly critical I see more as a benefit moreso than a deterrent but tread with caution. You should always be striving for greater pieces in terms of technical matters such as value, color, and impact but I've taught myself to be comfortable with what I create based on it's authenticity. If I create a piece that comes from a place of honest intentions and feelings, then the end results I won't break down as much because the core of the piece is pure. I've come from years of practice and I know my skills will always be better in the future, so rather than stressing over it, I've allowed myself to go along for the ride and do my best to stay true to who I am as an artist and the pieces I create.

    I hope this helps but know you are not alone in this thinking and that you should see your critical eye as a blessing opposed to a curse as it will help progress you faster as an artist!

  • Tim Von Rueden (timvonrueden)

    Oh no, I'm never disappointed with how a contest ends because I believe as long as I enter and I gave it a genuine shot then I can't be upset! I was however disappointed with my process with the Kubo piece in general. It was like walking on glass most of the time and at the end of that path, there was little reward because I was underwhelmed with the results. It's only a letdown when you enter a contest and feel it's not a showcase of your quality of your current skill level.

    The piece itself became an interesting one to work on because the dragons felt overwhelming and as the artist(Kubo), I felt like I was battling them. The dragons to me representing becoming better at digital art and I stood there ready to fight them but realizing they may be too big of a challenge to overcome at that moment. This is when the frustration started building and became difficult to finish the rest of this piece.

    In hindsight, I'm glad I went through this frustration but in the moment it does suck lol. So while I want others to recognize those hard times in our art career, it's equally important to overcome those challenges and don't let them stop or slow you down.

  • clarissaferguson123

    Thank you Tim!

    Hopefully as time goes on I won't have to feel so stressed about too many unnecessary things. I just want to enjoy painting and not be tied down my my perfectionist lenses. :)

  • Brandon Griffin (cgrifter)

    I am a computer programmer by trade, and I feel similarly stagnated. I know it's because I've lost interest in learning more, not because there's nothing more to learn. This is why I've decided to pursue 3D art - it speaks to my analytical mind and yet offers me a completely new perspective for my creative mind.

    The level plateau in FF7 (or any other game) is a function of necessarily limited design. It's not unreasonable to experience all the game has to offer because, compared to life, the game has very little to offer. (Don't get me wrong, FF7 was a long time favorite of mine.)

    Earth - the universe - the world of art - these are limitless. Perhaps a creative plateau is really an opportunity. What medium or subject have you not tried?

    I can't help but think of Bruce Lee: "If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there. You must go beyond them."

  • Ernie Schrepfer (lifeontheejs)

    Great article Tim! It definitely defines, and offers some solutions to the issues I've been having in making good concept art. I was never "the artist" of the family (funny that my mother and twin brother are great artists) and always took to more technical work (scientific study and software like Blender.) I'm really trying to improve myself, and it's slow going. I have to constantly remind myself of the things that are the most important when sketching out a character/figure/environment. I have noticed some improvement in my skills, but I've got a long way to go. I look forward to the seeing the improvements in my drawings in the future. Thanks for all of the encouragement in your tutorials as well as some sage advice from this blog entry and I look forward to your next installment of tutorials.

  • Omar Domenech (dostovel)

    Great advice. Or in other words, if you finished FF7, then stop and move to FF8

  • darnell123

    Very well said

  • Shawn Blanch (blanchsb)

    dostovel That is when you go attack the "Weapons" in the Final Fantasy 7 that can DESTROY you in one hit. You quickly realize you need a strategy to defeat them. It's not just about level ups then, it is a combination of risk and strategy. Seriously though have you ever beaten all of the WEAPONS in that game?!?

  • carlmason

    The failures are waiting for us at every turn, but we just cannot give up. Art is what inspires us to change the world for the better and lets us become more self-aware. I have figured out that creating a vision is critical to success and read a lot of information from this resource for students - https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/self-awareness/ about self-awareness. If you are turning all your life disappointment into art and creativity, it will just help you to get what you really need.

  • akun123

    Resilience is such an important ingredient in success. Good luck to you.

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