I thought it was just me, but talking with a fellow artist, I found out I was not alone in this: the fear of starting. When we actually analyzed it, I think we both realized it’s actually the fear of failure but we are avoiding it by failing to start.
It happens like this. You create a good painting. You bask in the glory of having done something successfully. You are happy. You like how this feels.
Then you turn around and realize the easel is empty again. Okay, let me throw another canvas (or piece of paper, or whatever) up there and get back to work. But then the doubts start to kick in. The what-ifs come around. Sometimes it shows up in in-decisiveness. Shall I work in oil, or pastel? What technique should I use? And what subject matter?
Having too many options means I can drag my feet a little more and convince myself that there is some magical creative decision making that has to be worked out. And frankly, I think it’s just another form of procrastination. I’m beginning to understand this block may be one of the reasons artists often work in series. You don’t have to make too many decisions other than how to maintain the trend. On the other side of that, sometimes your series just suddenly feels stale. The muse has left the building.
I can also look at all my studio props or reference photos or even my list of potential and past plein air locations and decide in a fit of pique that none of them will work and none of them speak to me at all and I must certainly go out and find different things to paint. And I can easily spend days or weeks doing just that. I’m a representational painter, so I’m not sure what excuse painters of abstract work use here, but I’m pretty sure they have something.
I can trick myself sometimes and give myself a deadline or a commitment like going out with friends on Thursdays to paint in plein air or know I have to have at least four paintings ready to hang by a certain date because I promised someone I would. What I produce may not be wonderful, but at least I produced. And sometimes I get lucky and produce well.
But things only seem to get worse when I put that first mark on the canvas or paper and things go from bad to worse and what I’m doing really isn’t working. My energy is low, or my focus is off, or my joints hurt, I’m hungry, tired or just annoyed with the world in general for some reason. Worse, my brain has a great idea and my body is not cooperating and producing what my mind’s eye sees. My hands refuse to paint a straight line or follow a curve correctly. The lightbulbs are wrong, the sunlight is in my eyes, the wind it blowing sand in my paint… whatever. Frankly, much of what I paint just sucks. I’m better off to wipe off and start over. I think my work will improve when I learn to do that more.
The problem is that I flat out lie to myself and believe the negative self talk that I’m failing and that I suck as an artist. Overall, overwhelming, a failure. And that’s why, sometimes I have such a hard time starting. I don’t want to fail and I sure don’t want to listen to my negative self calling me names. Easier to just not go there.
And maybe that’s the secret. I have to learn that it’s okay to screw up, take it as a learning experience and know that it really is just a few bucks for a panel or piece of paper and even fewer bucks in paint or pastel and that failed experiment is just an experiment. It’s time to play and just see what comes out. When I have done that. Just played, I’ve had some really cool outcomes from time to time. Consistent, not at all, but for now, that’s okay. I have to remind myself that I’m really new at all this again. And that’s okay, too.
Oddly enough, one of my best techniques for getting started lately has been to just put up that paper or canvas and then ignore it. Clean the studio, walk around it, sort of gradually sneak up on it. Make a mark with a bit of charcoal or maybe sketch out a couple of thumbnails and pin them up next to the blank page. Don’t sit down, don’t set up a whole palette, but at some point just pick up a brush or a pastel stick and start. Just one mark. Step back and see what happens. Normally, I step forward again and the second, third and fourth marks quickly follow. The rest seems to lead to a finished work pretty quickly.
Anyone else out there experience the Fear of Starting and have tricks for getting past it?