Have you ever felt the fear you’ll ruin your painting?
It sneaks upon you insidiously, when you’ve been painting in flow for days, and you’re least expecting art fear to overtake you. But suddenly there you are, one morning, studying your painting-in-progress, coffee cup in hand, and it happens: you know your painting needs something. Just one or two little tweaks, a more dramatic brushstroke across the sky, highlights to perk up the water . . . and then it will be complete, a masterpiece, perhaps your best painting ever.
Except. You fear you’ll ruin it.
Your arm is frozen, you cannot squeeze pigment from a tube of paint, you hesitate to pick up your favorite sable brush. You really, really don’t want to ruin your painting.
Your need for perfection will ruin your painting every time.
That desire to make it perfect, that fear of ruining it, will always lead to painting doom. That need to control—in a medium where total control is actually undesirable—will yield a forced, out-of-control painting, no longer reflecting your style and your soul. So don’t go there. Take a step back, put down your coffee cup, and have a heart-to-heart talk with yourself. Ask yourself some questions, like
- How exactly might I ruin this painting?
- What’s the absolute worst that can happen?
- Why am I so afraid I’ll ruin it?
- Will this (irrational) fear subside if I do something else for a while?
- Is there someone I trust to share my painting (and my fear) with?
- Why does it matter if I don’t think it’s perfect?
- Will anyone else really care if my painting isn’t perfect?
- Or is my voice the only demanding, hyper-critical one I hear?
Listen to your answers. Discover why you’re afraid of what you enjoy about painting. Accept the joy in just making art.
Don’t let fear become the biggest influence in your creative life.
Think about what’s influencing you: Fear. Fear of ruining it. Fear of finishing it, and it not being good enough. Fear you won’t like what you’ve painted. Fear of [insert your fear here] ________.
If a painting were meant to be perfect, crisp and thorough in every detail, it would be a photograph. And if that’s what you demand from your art, you might be happier making photographs instead of paintings.
But if you’re a painter, and it’s part of your soul and the way you breathe, you know it, and you have a special gift. The price you pay for that gift is that you’ll have to let go of your perfectionism. A painting can never be perfect. It can be pleasing, it can thrill its viewers, it can be admired for its technical prowess, it can be calming or bold, provocative or evocative, but perfection isn’t what painting is about.
Painting is about the process. And the process is messy. It’s an unknown journey, in a way—not unlike traveling and child-rearing and life itself. It’s about getting there, learning, experiencing and all of the wonderful tactile pleasures of making something with your hands. It’s about your memories, your fantasies, your moods. It’s more real than you may realize. There is truth in what you paint.
Fear is not part of the process. It cannot be. Because we can never be fully engaged in what we fear.
Stay committed to your love of painting.
If fear becomes your overriding influence, you’ll need to re-engage your desire to remain committed.
How do you stay committed? You keep on going. You keep doing it. You adopt the What the Hell attitude.
“What the hell, I can always paint another one.”
—Jo Ann Brown-Scott
Brown-Scott seldom starts a painting “with the goal of perfection—because I just don’t believe it is a noble pursuit. Sometimes I have a composition in mind and sometimes I just want to be following the paint . . . because I am convinced that the paint speaks to me.” Have you ever thought about just “following the paint”?
Find your commitment to painting again by delving into your fears. Be fearless. If you’re not feeling fearless, Act As If (to borrow a well-known self-help group’s phrase). And bolster your commitment with these resources:
- 5 Fears that can Destroy an Artist at the SkinnyArtist.com: You’re not the only one.
- 5 Timeless Books of Insight on Fear and the Creative Process at Brainpickings.org: From Claude Monet to Orson Welles to Twyla Tharp, the great artists we admire have dealt with staying committed.
Finally, take comfort in da Vinci’s (yes, that da Vinci) approach to commitment:
“Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
Fearful or not, I publish my paintings HERE. I’d love to hear what you think.