Someone asked me a while back, what’s the best advice you’ve ever been given? And I said, “Don’t be afraid.”
The advice was given years ago by this lovely lady, Karen Walton. She was my painting teacher. It wasn’t something she said once in the course of my instruction, she said it rather often. She had a sense for when that “oh no.. what do I do now?” feeling was coming up. If you’re an artist of any kind, you know what I’m talking about. It begins with the fear of the blank page, and comes up again when you’re not sure what’s wrong with the thing you’re working on but something’s wrong, or when you’re not sure what the characters are supposed to do in the next chapter or whether you’re finished with the drawing or not. Fear, it seems, is part of art. The more attached you are to the final outcome, the more the fear paralyzes you. This happens to me every time I accept a commission.
“To require perfection is to invite paralysis. The pattern is predictable: as you see error in what you have done, you steer your work toward what you imagine you can do perfectly. You cling ever more tightly to what you already know you can do — away from risk and exploration, and possibly further from the work of your heart. You find reasons to procrastinate, since to not work is to not make mistakes. Believing that the artwork should be perfect, you gradually become convinced that you cannot make such work. (You are correct). Sooner or later, since you cannot do what you are trying to do, you quit. And in one of those perverse little ironies of life, only the patterns itself achieves perfection — a perfect death spiral: you misdirect your work; you stall; you quit.”
— From Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Baylee’s and Ted Orland
Maybe fear is preventing you from making art at all. Maybe you wish you could make art, but ever since Mrs. Smith the art teacher in elementary school told you that your work was not good, you’ve told yourself you “can’t draw a straight line.” But you love to create, so you make regular trips to your local hobby store and do “crafts,” by which I mean follow someone else’s instructions for creativity. Don’t misunderstand me, I am a crafter and I am not downplaying crafting, which is a vehicle for the artistic spirit, but if you limit yourself to paint-by-number and adult coloring books and step-by-step Pinterest projects, you will never discover what you can do, and you will never learn to trust yourself.
So, back to my story about Karen. She would say this, “Don’t be afraid.” When I was working on my second painting, the portrait of a horse, I meticulously painted a highly detailed and perfect eye on it… and then realized it was in the wrong place. And then I froze. Karen came over with her paintbrush, dabbed it in my paint, and then painted out my carefully crafted, wrongly placed eye. That’s the glorious thing about oil paints: at any point you can paint over the thing and start over. I did. I was so proud of that painting.
I don’t know when I realized that this was a lesson for life, too. I journal every day (I will talk more about that later), and I thought about how fear paralyzes us in doing The Thing, whatever the thing is. We marry ourselves to the outcome in our minds, and it’s much nicer as a fantasy than it is as a dream that failed, so we take the safe route and don’t try The Thing. In our minds, we could have been amazing at it but life got in the way. It’s not life that gets in the way. It’s fear.
So I’m telling you this: Do The Thing. Don’t be afraid. And when your first efforts get painted out, treat it as a new blank canvas to start fresh, whether you had to paint over a tiny aspect of your project or the whole damn thing.
The world needs people who believe in themselves this much.