How to Overcome Fear and Create Your Most Authentic Art
I have the privilege of living in one of the most beautiful places on earth. I suppose I’m a bit biased, but here in northern British Columbia at the intersection of prairie and mountain we enjoy a landscape that is ever-changing and has a wild beauty that has always inspired me to paint.
I learned photography because I needed reference photos for my paintings, and as my photographs have improved, so has the burden on me the artist. How on earth could I ever try to replicate the majesty, color, light and intricacy of my best photographs?
Even if you don’t paint from photographs, it’s easy to feel defeated by our goals for our paintings. I want to paint exceptional art. I want others to feel the same uplifted awe that I feel when I chance upon beauty in a sunset, a snowbank, the play of light and shadow in the unseen corners of my world. Truthfully, I always fail. I will never equal (and certainly never surpass) the beauty of the natural world in my landscape paintings. It’s easy to feel defeated before I ever begin if my goal is to create that perfect “says-everything” painting.
If my art will always fall short of the reality of my world, is there any point to painting at all?
Process, Not Product
I once thought that I would know success as an artist on the day I painted a perfect painting. I’m nearing 25 years in, and that painting hasn’t shown up yet! That phase of my artistic journey was marked by an emphasis on the product; my goal was to paint scenes that matched my reference photos. I felt a responsibility to the photo to create something that “did it justice.” I always fell short, made mistakes, lost focus, and the outcome was a poor reflection of the original scene. Basically, when my goal was a “like-the-original” painting, I was putting myself under pressure to create perfection and guaranteeing my own failure!
My art journey changed forever when I reframed my thinking to redefine success. It hasn’t meant that I’ve “settled” and accepted a “less-than” kind of art, rather, I’ve gained a new understanding of what is truly valuable in the artist’s heart, hand and mindset, and it’s given my art wings. I’m a far better artist than I ever thought I could be, I’m deeply fulfilled by my work, and every day brings new excitement over where my art is taking me. It’s powerful!
Fear, Doubt & Anxiety: The Quest
The artist’s journey is often a lonely one. We are on a quest to learn how to create our deepest, most authentic work, and there’s no guidebook to show us what that looks like! I love stories of the hero’s journey, Dorothy through Oz, Frodo in Mordor, and their model of a circuitous route that doesn’t follow timelines or keep to the straightest path from A to B. It’s a path that is often difficult, and our hero doesn’t always step boldly; sometimes they struggle with the lions, tigers and bears of fear, doubt and anxiety. They continue moving onward because they are convinced of the importance of the journey, even when the way is dark and rocky, and the next step seems to fall into a dark void.
Fear exists. Fear tells us, “you’re not equipped for this.” Like our heroes, however, for YOUR artist journey, YOU are the ONLY ONE who can take on this quest. There is no one else who can create your most authentic work but you.
Your Position is not your Destination
Continuing the analogy, let’s remember that Frodo knew he was on a journey. He didn’t waste time repeatedly trying to skip the journey and destroy the Ring on his own. I think this analogy can apply to our perspective on our art as well.
If you are making art, positionally, you ARE an artist - you are making art! But you are also in a "sanctification" process, if we can steal a biblical term - a process of refining - becoming the artist you are meant to be.
Is your job to make a perfect painting? To succeed in making masterpieces day after day? Not if the artist you are meant to be hasn't arrived yet! You aren't perfect yet - so you trust that the good work of the artist you are meant to become will be carried to completion as you live this constantly changing creative life. Most of this transformation isn't up to you; short of showing up to paint, you can't decide how quickly you will learn, or when the breakthrough will come.
Where you are is a great place to be! I don't think there's any ideal place in the artistic journey. I envy beginners for the opportunity for rapid growth, while I see much more incremental progress. I'm thankful for the joy I feel when I give myself into playful painting, and painting feels like an ordeal when I'm pressuring myself to meet certain expectations. Learning how to love the process of painting, even when the results don't turn out, has brought me the greatest joy and growth in my work. What you are learning as you paint will add value to the rest of your life.
How does this help me paint like my photos?
Well. It doesn’t. I can’t promise that you will ever be able to copy the beauty you see in your reference photos, or over the top of your plein air easel. I can encourage you to trust that this process of painting from your truest self will create work that is even better.
Every time you create a painting, you have an opportunity to tell your story.
I am reflected in my work, even when I don’t intend for this to be the case! In the early days, what I was able to show most was my inexperience. My paintings reflected my decision making process, which often let me down. Indecision, doubt and fear were often evident in passages of over-working, lifting out and hasty, anxious brush strokes. I still feel tense when I look at those older paintings; they exude tension!
My transformation and mindset reset came from a combination of factors. First, I was mentored by artists who modeled a passion for the process over the product. They weren’t focused on productivity — creating an impressive body of work — they just loved the work of making art!
Secondly, I started to pay attention to myself! I noticed that in the early stages of a painting, I felt freer as I splashed paint around loosely. I could get lost in beautiful passages of flowing color, and excited by dancing, intuitive mark making. Time would slip away as I played, and drag when I moved into the more finicky, detail stages where I was striving to make my work look more realistic so “people would understand it.” One day I thought, “Who cares if no one understands my work? It makes me so happy to paint like this; I want to do more of that kind of painting!”
My story shows in my work and it’s a story that doesn’t have an obligation to mirror nature; rather, I get to be inspired by nature and show my heart for both what I see in the world and how I feel about watercolor. My art shows who I am and how I connect to my world, in fact, it always has, but when I stopped fighting to be better and learned to just be, the story became truth, beauty and peace, instead of anxiety, beauty and ego. And I’m happier for it!