Fear of Failure

Overcoming a Painter's Most Debilitating Emotion

One of the most debilitating emotions for a painter is the fear of failure. Whatever form it comes in — fear of starting a canvas, fear of ruining what was initially put down on the canvas (causing one to protect what’s there) or fear of finishing a painting — this emotion is one the artist absolutely needs to overcome.

Fear has its root in the various life experiences of each artist, and the reasons vary, but the net effect is a state of creative inertia that keeps one from achieving a satisfactory result in the painting process. Knowing this, each artist must discover for him/herself a personal solution to the problem.

Some helpful questions to ask yourself along with tips for success are as follows:

1. What have I got to lose?

It’s just a square of canvas and a few daubs of paint. Buy big tubes and paint on small scraps of canvas-(5×7-6×8). Execute these in one half hour and paint like a millionaire! There is not much of a time or monetary investment here, so doing this will help loosen you up. With some practice, after a while, you will feel more confident on the larger pieces as well (see examples of half-hour studies above).

2. Am I fearful because I think the painting might not be good?

Results are the product of “process.” In this case, process involves sound observation and sound execution. To skip the process for results only says that you are not truly painting, just hoping for a masterpiece! Think about that, engage in the process of painting and have fun exploring and learning. The sheer act of painting, if done with understanding, will be as rewarding, if not more so, than the finished product. Remember: observation precedes understanding and understanding precedes execution. Knowing this, each artist must learn the basics — of drawing, color, value, edges and texture or brushwork. Make a study of these, go after them with a vengeance. This is your key to “process!”

3. Am I fearful because I want others to think I am a good artist and I might disappoint them?

This pressure can be strong when on location and the crowd gathers! Slow down, take a deep breath. Remember the process, which should be your real joy. Lose yourself in the moment, find joy in the journey, a good painting will be the natural result!

Summing up, what have you got to lose? As FDR once said, “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” Whether starting, working on, or finishing a painting, force yourself to do it with gusto; breakthroughs usually happen on the cusp of failure. A confident brush-stroke, even if wrong, is always better than a timid one. Jump in and have at it, the only thing you have to lose is your fear!

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