Facing Our Art Fears

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Many artists approach the world from a place of fear.

‘Am I good enough? What if no one likes my work? Why can’t I sell? I’m rubbish, aren’t I! If I’ve not made it by the time I’m 30, I’m never going to. Picasso worked really hard every single day, what the hell’s wrong with me? If I don’t have lots of shows every year, they’ll all forget about me.’

And so on and so forth…

Photo by Alex E. Proimos, used under a Creative Commons license

I’ve been actively trying to get away from that angst-ridden headspace in recent months. But taking a step back from those ingrained fears feels like stepping off a mountain path in the dark. I don’t know if I’ll fall. Maybe there will be soft mossy grass under my feet or bouncy heather? Or maybe there’s a 50ft drop!

My own first lesson in letting go of these Art Fears is to ignore the temptation to desperately apply for exhibitions in 2010. While applying for exhibitions can certainly be useful and necessary, I’m tired of it. If applying for exhibitions works for you, that’s great. It used to work for me too. However, right now it makes me feel sad, pitiful, powerless and often quite angry. It makes me feel like a beggar outside the temple of art and I’m DONE feeling like that.

Naturally, if things come knocking on my door, I’ll certainly consider them. I do still want exhibitions and other cool opportunities. Nor am I sticking my head in the sand: I’m still visible and active both off and online and I wouldn’t rule out applying for something if it was perfect for me. But I’ve stopped pushing constantly. It’s a difference in attitude.

Somewhat to my surprise, this new approach seems to be working, I’ve been offered several great opportunities lately including the ECCA talk in London last month and I’m taking part in this exhibition later this month. Yet it’s still scary as hell to stop pushing. I want to believe that the Universe will catch me, that I’ll be OK without all that frantic busyness but believing that goes against a lifetime of conditioning.

What are your Art Fears? Can you trust yourself enough to walk away from them? Can you step off a mountain with me? We could hold hands and jump…

Photo by danorbit, used under a Creative Commons license

I am an artist & purveyor of obsessive projects based in Hebden Bridge, England. My work involves the accretion of large numbers of small objects - pins in fabric, knots in string or hundreds of envelopes - to make sculptures that deal with fragility, loss, repetition, obsession and time.

18 thoughts on “Facing Our Art Fears

  1. I have the most ludicrous amounts of art fear! Not being technically skilled enough, not been sincere enough, certainly not working hard enough. I have something of a block – and have had for a few years- and seem to find it physically impossible to draw anything for fear of not being good enough (except in life classes). I do define myself as an artist even despite this, which seems silly to me at times.

    Age is also a worry- I think even being 27 is enough to make me think I haven't worked hard enough in my youth to improve enough now!

    Exhibitions are a hard one. If you thrive on deadlines they can be very useful, but you certainly don't want to be applying for things without it enriching how you feel about your practise. Time out to think can be very useful at times.



  2. I do enjoy exhibition, Joanne, but I've become increasingly disillusioned with the process of applying for them. It's not that I don't get in – I often do because I'm fussy about what I apply for – but I don't like feeling like a supplicant in competition with hundreds of other artists. I'd rather play my own game.

    I can relate to all your other art fears too – I think perhaps most artists have them. Maybe if you don't have them, that's when we should worry!


  3. I am not a fearless knitter (or crafter). Always worrying that I am not fast enough or good enough as the stitcher next to me. When I give a gift of a knitted item, I always blow off the compliment or thank you with a “It's no big deal”. But it is a big deal.

    We are our own worst enemies.

    Great blog.


  4. The applying for lots of things is a real problem for me too. I'm not as disillusioned as you by the process yet, but i'm terrible at taking on too many things and ending up not being satisfied with any of it.


  5. You wrote this one just for me it seems! I have even been contemplating not taking any more classes, just forming a group of artist friends to discuss work with, because I find myself waiting for tidbits of praise and being constantly disappointed. Not that the tutors are being deliberately 'mean' or unfairly critical – I just find myself comparing my work to the others', looking for hints that I might be 'good' and feeling constantly inadequate.

    Perhaps I shall follow, quaking, in your footsteps and stop looking for these external encouragements. Audience and viewed do matter, yes, but not at the expense of the work.


  6. Great post. (and I found you via your Wisdom of Mistakes post on Make & Meaning which is perhaps my most favorite post on art, ever) So timely a topic for me to stumble on. I think we must all have these fears at times. I've certainly been approaching my art with fear. I've been stuck too. Fear + stuck! Yikes! However I'm also feeling inspired. Making changes. Making mistakes! Finding my center again which drowns out the doubt. I'm approaching it playfully, inspired very much by the way my 3.5 year old son does art…without questioning himself. Thanks for the inspiring two posts!


  7. Your fears are mine! Did you get inside my head or something? ;)

    Late last summer, decided to free myself from the exhibition pressure, realizing I was going nowhere fast, on a small island where there are only two (yes, two) fine art galleries. (And not many dealers want to work with an artist living in a remote outpost.) I let go of the pressure. Of course this happened around the time we made the choice to relocate to greener pastures. The big move is still pending, but it's imminently right around the corner, and I couldn't be more excited about new possibilities.

    So yes, I've stopped pushing, too. Sometimes the only choice we have is to step back, re-evaluate and let things be.

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom, Kirsty. It's great to hear your approach is working- what good advice!


  8. Great post. I know I feel much less artistically afraid than most (those who have the fear of mistakes you talk about in your other article), but the fear still stops me getting anywhere!
    My main fears are:
    I'm not a 'real artist'
    I'm not creative
    No one wants to buy my art
    I don't have a 'unique style' which will prevent me from ever becoming successful.
    I can't become a full time artist without compromising my artistic integrity and becoming a full time marketing machine/business woman.
    I will never be able to quit my day job and survive as an artist..

    Arghh! I didn't think I had that many!
    Perhaps I should just quit my job – the main problem I have is a total lack of time…
    But I'm afraid that's the wrong mountain to step off?


  9. It's a constant struggle, isn't it. There's always the sense in the artworld that there isn't enough to go around so when opportunities come up we all tend to grab them violently without stopping to wonder if they're in our best interests.


  10. Oh, that's a hard one, Caroline. I think we all need praise. I'd encourage you to surround yourself with people who do like your work. Of course, we sometimes need criticism to grow but if you're in a vulnerable place, it can just completely destroy your ability to work. You do have to protect your muse and your art.


  11. Oh blush, thank you Amber. It's great to hear that.

    Children are a wonderful inspiration when it comes to making art. I love sitting down with the 2 daughters of my friends and just drawing. They always want me to draw cats – which I do very badly but they don't care. I'm looking forward to making art with my niece and nephew once they're a bit older (they're both still under 1, so it's going to be a couple of years yet)


  12. It's tough when you're geographically isolated, Stephanie but you just have to keep believing that you'll find your 'right people'. Fortunately the internet makes this easier than it ever has been. I think if you're making good work and putting it out there, it'll eventually find an audience. I take great solace from the fact that Louise Bourgeois didn't become famous until she was in her 60's!


  13. It's a bit unnerving how many art fears lurk in our unconscious mind, isn't it. I try to keep a lid on mine but they do emerge from the attic and rampage through the house on occasion!

    A lot of artists have day jobs, Francesca, even quite successful ones. Sometimes a day job can even help, it stabilises your income of course but it can also be a source of inspiration if you're in the right job. Some artists kept their day jobs for their whole life, even after they could have quit. And many a writer has written their novel on company time. Have you read Carol Lloyds book, Creating A Life Worth Living. It's a good book on careers development for creative people and she really 'gets it'. There's a great chapter called The Drudge We Do For Dollars about finding the right day job to fund your practice.


  14. i love your comment about not pushing any more…i think when we let things happen organically, instead of forcing it, it helps relieve fears, doubts and stress. i've decided to stop forcing a career in art and just see what happens. i'm tired of pushing so hard and letting other things fall to the wayside, it's not easy letting go of a dream but am feeling way less pressure and for now that's a really, really good thing!!


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