Fear of the Start

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?


6 thoughts on “Fear of the Start

  1. I think that you have an understanding about the fear of starting, you are correct, it is ultimately the fear of failure. I really like how you have been dealing with that fear of starting and I wouldn’t mind trying that out. I have been giving this some thought for a long time and lately I have been delving more into the fear of failure and needing a painting to be fantastic each and every time. I think painting many loose and quick paintings is a good way for me to let go of that desire and need for a painting that matters. Not trying to control the entire process is crucial for me because then I allow the painting to just be a painting and not an extension of my ego. My painting is deeply tied to my self esteem and I have been trying to delineate the two because that is where lies my angst. I appreciate this thoughtful post. 🙂


    1. I think you have nailed it: our painting is tied to our self-esteem and if a painting fails, perhaps (in our negative self talking) that means we have also failed. Maybe that is exactly it. I guess we just need to find a way to remember WE are NOT our paintings (or at least not our bad ones.)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I honestly think this is the reason I’m drawn to craft rather than art–even if the product isn’t “art” or perfect or beautiful, it’s useful. I have a degree in art, took all the courses, etc., but would never have the confidence to call myself an artist. But I still create pretty, and useful, things that makes me happy!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love weaving for the same reason. I can always find something to do with the fabric I create even if it’s just hanging on the wall for a couple of days as a study sample. Spinning even more so. If it holds together, it’s yarn and it’s purpose will be revealed. I have a goal of spinning all the yarn needed for weaving fabric to make myself a piece of clothing. I may never get ALL the way there, but I did make a vest which included handspun which was made into the fabric for most of it. Now to spin yarn for the warp as well as the weft. Actually, it is now about finding the time to do that… or rather making the time. I keep forgetting that spinning is a good TV time activity.


  3. I hear you about this fear of starting – that stone cold twist in the pit of the stomach! Sometimes I think it is because the picture looks SO GOOD in my head that I am afraid to bring it out into reality, other times I think it is because I am too focused on the end product and not on the process – the interesting thing, to me, is that if I put my work down for a while, especially days or weeks, then I have “this fear to restart” that comes over me when I try to start again!! My best technique for getting started is definitely to promise to do a commissioned piece for someone and have a pretty short, be doable, deadline.


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