Every artist, be they a writer, painter, dancer, or musician, starts out in the same place. One day you decide to try something new, and mostly, you just really hope you aren't terrible at it. Some of us may even be under pre-conceived notions that we ARE terrible at it. That was me & drawing, me & sewing, me & puppetry, me & millinery, and me & blues harmonica (okay, let's be real -- I was, and still am, terrible at blues harmonica.) Where do we go from there?
Give It Your Best Effort
You want to be an artist? The first way to do this is try. Every day. Doodle during meetings. Make art when you get home. Make art with your kids. Keep a sketchbook (or a blog!). I didn't EVER draw until the day that I decided I wanted to have an illustrated blog. So I drew one picture. And then one more. And then a bunch more. And now I am an illustrator.
It seems so obvious, but you really aren't going to achieve anything unless you give it your absolute best shot. If you put in the time, you WILL improve. I used to roll my eyes when people told me to practice, but it's definitely the most important advice I've ever gotten.
It's both important and destructive to know your field. In the beginning, gathering inspiration from other artists is key to learning. That's why high school (and to some degree, post-secondary) art is so focused on learning the masters and making derivative works. If you do copy, or make derivative works, remember that they are for your eyes only. Have some respect for the style of other artists and don't try to pass off copies as original work.
You can try keeping a sketchbook for practicing techniques that you have seen other artists use. A whole page of calligraphic swooshes just like your favourite hand lettering artist will help you to develop a practiced hand when it comes to making hand lettering in your own unique style. Those kids in art class who had sketchbooks full of copied cartoons and anime? A lot of those kids are amazing artists now because they put in the effort and they learned everything they could from other artists while developing their own styles. The key is to eventually stop copying and come into your own.
You Already Have A Style
I drew in high school, but abandoned my pencils and pens in University after a particularly disastrous first term abstract drawing class. I didn't draw at all until I made my first blog post. I wasn't seeking a career in art, I just wanted an emotional outlet. My first illustration looked like this (left). Not the most skilled illustration, I am sure we can all agree!
Now look at this illustration from a year and a half later:
You can see that practice has paid off, but that the way I draw eyes, hands, feet, and pillows are all basically the same! I never put a thought into choosing how I was going to draw eyes. I have just always drawn eyes as circles with small black circles inside (or as tiny dots, in high school). Whatever artistic practice you are looking to follow, you already have a built-in barometer of some kind for how things should look. You don't have to stick to that forever, but have some faith in it! Just because your favourite cartoonist draws dot eyes, doesn't mean that your way of portraying it is wrong. You are also more likely to develop a unique style if you choose to develop the aesthetic you have now.
Experiment, Adapt, and Grow
This will seem contradictory to the last paragraph, but you need to work at constantly developing and innovating your style. Since that last example, I have worked on putting more expression in my cartoon faces. I dove back into the world of watercolours. Then I worked on making my watercolour illustration looser and more energetic. I am playing around at home with hand lettering. I made up a new way of drawing illustrated maps. I practiced with paper cuts, collages, and Adobe Illustrator. I began illustrating houses.
Once you have an artistic voice, you must keep moving forward. Not only is it pretty boring to never move on from what you consider to be your "best", it allows other people to catch up to you and copy you. Artistic voice is every artists most valuable tool. Although it's hard not to feel proprietary about your ideas and way of working, other people have every right to gather inspiration from your work and the only way you can keep your edge is to always be moving on and producing new work that improves on your last.
Also, as you become more confident with your way of doing things, it might be a good choice to step way back from other people's work and comparison's with other artists. I regularly feel crazed with jealousy about other people's painting skills and brilliant ideas. When I focus on my own process and ideas, the work I produce is so much fresher!
Advice & Criticism
People with great (or sometimes not so great) intentions will try to advise you on your art. I still have a really clear memory of my artistic dad explaining that birds in the distance need to be smaller than the people, because things in the distance are always perceived as smaller. It was making him crazy, watching me continually draw huge birds and tiny people. I was 5. By the time I hit grade 2, he had given me several lessons on perspective and I was popping out drawings of 3-D boxes like no tomorrow. It's hard, especially in the beginning, to stick to your guns and draw things your way. Especially if you are five, and it's your dad telling you to stop drawing huge birds. Of course, he was totally right, but that's not the point.
In the beginning, you should probably accept advice and constructive criticism. At least try out suggestions in your sketch book and see how you really feel about it once the sting of having someone not fawn over your work fades. We all learn this way, and being able to take critique well is key to being an artist. We must have thick skins!
Once you are more confident in your work, you can take or leave stylistic advice as you see fit. There is no way that your art/music/writing will please everyone. That's the way it should be. It's better that you are proud of your work and constantly improving than worrying about other people's opinions.
Here are some other helpful links on developing your voice, in a couple different genres.
John Hendrix - How To Find Your Voice (Super helpful notes from a lecture)
Alt Summit - Top 7 Tips For Finding Your Voice (Tips for bloggers & writers)
10 Tips To Find Your Own Artistic Voice (Covers some things I passed by, mostly for visual artists)
If you have any other tips or helpful links, please feel free to post in the comments!