Art & Fear

date Aug 5, 2011
authors David Bayles and Ted Orland
reading time 12 mins

Starting is hard

Writing is easy: all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.

Ideas in head are easier

Often the work we have not done seems more real in our minds than the pieces we have completed. And so questions arise: How does art get done?

Making art with no audience

Making art now means working in the face of uncertainty; it means living with doubt and contradiction, doing something no one much cares whether you do, and for which there may be neither audience nor reward.

Be your own voice

In large measure becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive.

Creatures having only virtues can hardly be imagined making art.

With flaws

It suggests that our flaws and weaknesses, while often obstacles to our getting work done, are a source of strength as well.


even the failed pieces are essential.

The process

The point is that you learn how to make your work by making your work, and a great many of the pieces you make along the way will never stand out as finished art. The best you can do is make art you care about — and lots of it!

The motivation of doing art

Artists don’t get down to work until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working. - Stephen DeStaebler

Not to quit

To survive as an artist requires confronting these troubles. Basically, those who continue to make art are those who have learned how to continue — or more precisely, have learned how to not quit.

Quitting vs stopping

Quitting is fundamentally different from stopping. The latter happens all the time. Quitting happens once. Quitting means not starting again — and art is all about starting again.

Goal and depression

There’s a painful irony to stories like that, to discovering how frequently and easily success transmutes into depression. Avoiding this fate has something to do with not letting your current goal become your only goal.

Art is me and me is art

And with good reason: your desire to make art — beautiful or meaningful or emotive art — is integral to your sense of who you are. Life and Art, once entwined, can quickly become inseparable; at age ninety Frank Lloyd Wright was still designing, Imogen Cunning-ham still photographing, Stravinsky still composing, Picasso still painting.

Fear and self-doubt

Making art precipitates self-doubt, stirring deep waters that lay between what you know you should be, and what you fear you might be.

There’s always fear

Fears arise when you look back, and they arise when you look ahead.

Fear always arises

If you’re prone to disaster fantasies you may even find yourself caught in the middle, staring at your half-finished canvas and fearing both that you lack the ability to finish it, and that no one will understand it if you do. More often, though, fears rise in those entirely appropriate (and frequently recurring) moments when vision races ahead of execution. Consider the story of the young student — well, David Bayles, to be exact — who began piano studies with a Master. After a few months’ practice, David lamented to his teacher, “But I can hear the music so much better in my head than I can get out of my fingers.” To which the Master replied, “What makes you think that ever changes?”


Lesson for the day: vision is always ahead of execution — and it should be.

Imagination becomes less important after the first step

The artwork’s potential is never higher than in that magic moment when the first brushstroke is applied, the first chord struck. But as the piece grows, technique and craft take over, and imagination becomes a less useful tool.

In the head

Kunitz once commented, “The poem in the head is always perfect. Resistance begins when you try to convert it into language.”


The artist’s life is frustrating not because the passage is slow, but because he imagines it to be fast.


But where materials have potential, they also have limits.

Making art

What counts, in making art, is the actual fit between the contents of your head and the qualities of your materials. The knowledge you need to make that fit comes from noticing what really happens as you work — the way the materials respond, and the way that response (and resistance) suggest new ideas to you.


Simply put, making art is chancy — it doesn’t mix well with predictability. Uncertainty is the essential, inevitable and all-pervasive companion to your desire to make art. And tolerance for uncertainty is the prerequisite to succeeding.


Fears about artmaking fall into two families: fears about yourself, and fears about your reception by others. In a general way, fears about yourself prevent you from doing your best work, while fears about your reception by others prevent you from doing your own work.

lots of work

You make good work by (among other things) making lots of work that isn’t very good, and gradually weeding out the parts that aren’t good, the parts that aren’t yours. It’s called feedback, and it’s the most direct route to learning about your own vision.


Talent may get someone off the starting blocks faster, but without a sense of direction or a goal to strive for, it won’t count for much.


The point here is that whatever his initial gift, Mozart was also an artist who learned to work on his work, and thereby improved. In that respect he shares common ground with the rest of us. Artists get better by sharpening their skills or by acquiring new ones; they get better by learning to work, and by learning from their work.

Err is to human

If you think good work is somehow synonymous with perfect work, you are headed for big trouble. Art is human; error is human; ergo, art is error.

The process

What you need to know about the next piece is contained in the last piece. The place to learn about your materials is in the last use of your materials. The place to learn about your execution is in your execution. The best information about what you love is in your last contact with what you love. Put simply, your work is your guide: a complete, comprehensive, limitless reference book on your work.


But for most art there is no client, and in making it you lay bare a truth you perhaps never anticipated: that by your very contact with what you love, you have exposed yourself to the world.


What is sometimes needed is simply an insulating period, a gap of pure time between the making of your art, and the time when you share it with outsiders.

Learning new things

the far greater danger is not that the artist will fail to learn anything from the past, but will fail to teach anything new to the future.


THE WORLD DISPLAYS PERFECT NEUTRALITY on whether we achieve any outward manifestation of our inner desires. But not art. Art is exquisitely responsive. Nowhere is feedback so absolute as in the making of art.

Ideas to reality

Between the initial idea and the finished piece lies a gulf we can see across, but never fully chart. The truly special moments in artmaking lie in those moments when concept is converted to reality — those moments when the gulf is being crossed.

Art and timeliness

Your reach as a viewer is vastly greater than your reach as a maker. The art you can experience may have originated a thousand miles away or a thousand years ago, but the art you can make is irrevocably bound to the times and places of your life.

Learning from art

The surprising (and probably disturbing) corollary to this is that we don’t learn much about making art from being moved by it. Making art is bound by where we are, and the experience of art we have as viewers is not a reliable guide to where we are.


If, indeed, for any given time only a certain sort of work resonates with life, then that is the work you need to be doing in that moment. If you try to do some other work, you will miss your moment.


That’s also to say that usually — but not always — the piece you produce tomorrow will be shaped, purely and simply, by the tools you hold in your hand today. In that sense the history of art is also the

Younger vs veteran

younger artist tends to experiment with a large and varied range of tools and materials, while the veteran artist tends to employ a small and specific set.


In time, exploration gives way to expression.

Useful forms

The discovery of useful forms is precious. Once found, they should never be abandoned for trivial reasons.


The hardest part of artmaking is living your life in such a way that your work gets done, over and over — and that means, among other things, finding a host of practices that are just plain useful.


Over time, the life of a productive artist becomes filled with useful conventions and practical methods, so that a string of finished pieces continues to appear at the surface.

Students and teachers

The dilemma facing academia is that it must accommodate not only students who are striving to become artists, but also teachers who are struggling to remain artists.

Dilemma of a teacher

Typically, the artmaking rabbit disappears first. If you teach, you know the pattern already. By the end of the school week, you’ve little energy left for any artmaking

Danger of being a teacher

The danger is real (and the examples many) that an artist who teaches will eventually dwindle away to something much less: a teacher who formerly made art.


Training prepares you for a job; an education prepares you for life.


There are many good reasons for wanting to teach, but avoiding the unknown is not one of them. The security of a monthly paycheck mixes poorly with the risk-taking of artistic inquiry.


But it’s that third question — Was it worth doing? — that truly opens the universe. What is worth doing? Are some artistic problems inherently more interesting than others? More relevant? More meaningful? More difficult? More provocative? Every contemporary artist dances with such questions as these.

Starting rules

We do not long remember those artists who followed the rules more diligently than anyone else. We remember those who made the art from which the “rules” inevitably follow.

Beginner vs advanced

for the beginner there are many paths, for the advanced, few.


At any point along that path, your job as an artist is to push craft to its limits — without being trapped by it.

Art vs Craft

The difference between art and craft lies not in the tools you hold in your hands, but in the mental set that guides them.


For you, the artist, craft is the vehicle for expressing your vision. Craft is the visible edge of art.


Indulge too many habits, and life sinks into mind-dulling routine. Too few, and coping with a relentless stream of incoming detail overwhelms you


chances are that whatever theme and technique attract you, someone has already experimented in the same direction.


habits are style. The unconsidered gesture, the repeated phrasing, the automatic selection, the characteristic reaction to subject matter and materials


Viewed closely, however, style is not a virtue, it is an inevitability — the inescapable result of doing anything more than a few times.


science is about classes of events, not particular instances.” Art is just the opposite. Art deals in any one particular rock, with its welcome vagaries, its peculiarities of shape, its unevenness, its noise.

The world

The world we see today is the legacy of people noticing the world and commenting on it in forms that have been preserved.