“What separates artists from ex-artists is that those who challenge their fears, continue; those who don’t, quit. Each step in the artmaking process puts that issue to the test.”- David Bayles & Ted Orland
When I was a kid, making art was simple. When sharing my work, I was fearless and people loved it. In high school, I had challenges, but nothing too bad. Now, even after some success, every time I start anything new the voice of my fear talks to me: “They wont like it”, “Your work isn’t as good as… insert famous illustrator’s name here“-or even worse- “Nobody is going to care”. What happened? … my second year of art school. My first real taste of paralyzing defeat and fear was in college. During a review of my work, at the end of my sophomore year, a professor (along with other negative comments about my work) said, “Maybe illustration isn’t the major for you.” My first reaction was anger. I told people I was going to leave and go to a different art school; so glad I didn’t. After the anger, I was depressed, but friends gave me a pep talk that got me back to my normal self. Yet the thought,” What if I’m really not good enough?” stayed with me. In the beginning, this feeling pushed me to get better and to devote most of my time and energy to prove the professor wrong”. Even after the person who tore me down praised me, magazines commissioned my work and I did work for public events, the fear of not being “good enough” was still there.
“[F]ears not only continue to exist, they exist side by side with the desires that complement them, perhaps drive them, certainly feed them.” – Davis Bayles & Ted Orland
David Bayles and Tod Orland comment on the feelings of anxiety and uncertainty that come with pursuing a creative career in their book Art & Fear. The authors start with what they think are the causes of the fear. One is: not knowing where you fit in the art community. Graduation does this to many art students. We spend four or more years in school doing art to be critiqued by professors and our peers. While graduation offers freedom to go in any direction with your art, it can be bad if you have no goal in mind. Another is the frustration of never being able to do exactly what you imagined in your mind (no matter your level of skill). Other fears are the fears about others and the fears about ourselves.
“In a general way, fears about yourself prevent from doing your best work, while fears about your reception by others prevent you from doing your own work.”- David Bayles & Ted Orland
Art & Fear explains how these fears hold us back. One example is when we don’t see ourselves as “real artists”. When we do this, we downplay the value of our work; this of course will cause others to value it less. While it’s true there will be people who don’t value our work, we don’t give them the opportunity to see our work’s value when we devalue it ourselves before we show it to anyone. Another is the myth that making art is all about talent. We all know a talented, but lazy person who peaked early and didn’t do anything of much significance after high school. On the other hand, we also know a person who started as no one special but with discipline and hard work accomplished great things. Most often when things come easy we expect them to be easy forever, so the habits of putting in the hard work needed to reach our fullest potentials sometimes are never made.
The authors continue the book with our fears about how others will view our art. We are expected to do work that is both personal and easily understood by strangers. On top of that, our work has to be both new and different, but also similar to our older work. This is a struggle for those who haven’t developed a style of their own. Even those who have a style can sometimes feel restricted by it. Another fear is not being taken seriously. This can lead us to do work that mirrors other more celebrated artists. While imitation is the way we learn and our artistic roots are good things to draw upon, we need to be true to ourselves. If we are not, we risk hurting our own development. When things are good we don’t really feel the pressure of these expectations, but when we are contemplating changing our artistic direction or experimenting we feel these fears. The authors propose a solution to this; that is to have a space of time between the production of the artwork and when you share it with the world. This has worked for me, but it can also lead to the temptation of not showing it at all (so it can be counter-productive).
In the second part of Art & Fear, Bayles and Orland touch on subjects of academia, competition and censorship. I will also share some personal experiences and my opinion on these subjects.