Friday, October 28, 2011

Passion and Fear

Have you ever felt afraid to start on a blank surface, hesitated after getting a good sketch down on it or paused from panic halfway through a good painting? You're not alone. Fear of painting or drawing, whether it's fear of starting, fear of continuing or fear of showing it to anyone is common. I'll scare you one step farther. It has some basis in reality and isn't just an irrational phobia.

It's socially acceptable in the Western world and especially in America to mock artists, either in general or specifically.

We're held to an unreasonable standard by the public. A common point of view is All or Nothing, the attitude of your typical alcoholic gets picked up by people who had no connection with substance abuse. "No one can make a living at art." Superstar or Nothing - you're either Picasso up in the million bucks for a sketch price range or your work is worthless and you should spend your time doing something productive like watching television.

Yes, I'll make fun of the mockers.

If you listen to everything they say, they'll come out saying that when you add up all of what they said. The fact is, they won't pick on you for spending all evening playing video games, tweeting or watching television. A lot of "Normal People" have no creative outlet at all. A sizable number of them are lashing out because a long time ago, they had dreams of becoming artists or musicians or writers and got shut down by exactly that social pressure.

This is environmental. It's a work hazard. It's not just you. Don't put yourself down as a wimp because your feelings get hurt when people attack you socially and disrespect your work. You're taking up an avocation or profession that gets flamed everywhere by anyone not in it.

If that isn't enough social risk, within it a tendency toward snobbery, elitism and trendiness rejects good work on arbitrary grounds of style, subject and conformity to a different set of expectations. Copy the style of a 20th century avant garde master with even the slightest variation, like using a different photo reference, and wow, you're So Original. Even though what you did is entirely derivative.

I've seen that end of it more than once in circles where the money gets very big.

So what does that make you, friend?

It makes you brave. You're standing up to some real outside pressures that wouldn't be there if you studied chartered accountancy or devoted all that energy and passion to calisthenics. Some activities are socially acceptable. Others are not. Art and the arts hold so many intrinsic rewards that if you let go of other people's opinions and paint for the people who like your paintings, you can build a glorious life. One that's an exciting adventure!

I chose my whale painting to illustrate this one because it's out in the middle of the ocean, no shore in sight, seeing one of the largest creatures on earth dance with those waves and start to dive into its natural environment. Live large! Be you! Paint with passion!

Today's essay was prompted by a forum discussion where a friend posted this link: Fear Art Quotations. Right near the top, one of them jumped out at me as a theme that demands to be written.

Fear melts when you take action toward a goal you really want. - Robert G. Allen.

Why is that one so important, when the page is full of beautiful, heartening quotes? Because it's not just morale. It's literally true.

Fear and excitement are exactly the same physical state. Both of them are an adrenaline surge in your body. Adrenaline readies your body for Flight or Fight - but modern life in any industrialized country has its greatest risks in ways where throwing a punch or running away are bad ideas for how to deal with it. You can't beat up the landlord if you're about to get evicted. Running away when the boss chews you out will get you fired. Running away if someone makes fun of you at a party is what the bully wants! You'd get laughed at again for running away.

To face social challenges, you need a clear head and a strong heart. You need to be articulate, expressive, most of all confident enough not to lose your head and start shouting or acting aggressive. Assertiveness wins hands down in social conflicts, especially in the long term. It's not just more ethical, it's more effective in a functional sense. It will draw more positive people into your life and more opportunities open up.

So what can you do with all that anxiety? Anxiety specifically is a crippling physical and emotional pain that comes from being cornered socially where neither fight nor flight will do you any good at all. You become inarticulate because back in the Pleistocene, you would not have stood a chance trying to talk down that Smilodon fatalis who wanted to eat you. You had to throw rocks at it, run away or both.

Our bodies are still living on an African savannah, chasing some animals from dinner and running away from bigger predators. But we painted in those days. Some of those paintings are so breathtaking that to this day, without any cultural context, we stop and stare in wonder and awe, we buy prints of them to hang in our living rooms. Or copy them as murals, as one Arkansas artist I visited did. Her living room was gorgeous with Lascaux horses galloping everywhere on earth toned walls with clear areas where her horse paintings hung.

Copy a cave painting on your wall to remind you who you are.

What you do is human, it goes back much farther and deeper than professions like programming or accountancy or retail sales. It's something innate to you. You have the capacity for it, most of all if you love it.

The best way to blow off that anxiety is to put a great big canvas on your easel. Pick up a big brush. Paint what you love. Don't even do it to sell, though it may come out wonderful and command a high price later. Do it for your heart.

Dance around painting and stepping back to look at it. View it from different angles. Mix paint. Splash it on. Work hard, physically, make it something wonderful that grows with every stroke. Fall in love with it again.

When you read that adrenaline as excitement, you have released boundless energy to do something about it. If you do dry mediums, get an 18" x 24" pad of newsprint or cheap recycled paper and do charcoal gesture renderings. Swing your arm from the shoulder. Move around. Put some music on and paint or draw to the rhythm of the music.

Work up a good sweat and then look at what you accomplished. It's probably better than you'd have done if you just curled up in a chair scared to do anything and wibbled in a little sketchbook.

I have physical disabilities especially for standing and walking that make it impractical for me to dance with my art. But there are still physical activities I accomplish to turn anxiety into excitement.

Yesterday I faced an Art Jury for the first time in my life.

I went down to the San Francisco Arts Commission once-a-month Street Artists Program screening. You may recall from my first post that I used to be a street artist. I know the business. I did well at it until my health crashed partly due to some very bad economic decisions like moving too far away from my setup areas and dragging too much heavy stuff in a cart to improve my display.

I might never have been homeless if I'd gotten medical insurance and phoned up the Scooter Store back in those days. I'm glad I did though, because now I'll be doing it in San Francisco where it's not seasonal. I can do it year round with good sales in all but the Holiday Season. Guess when I'm starting up? Now. Yep. Swinging into the Holiday Season. Whatever I do in December and November is going to be the low end of the year's results from Street Artist work.

What I did to fight my fears was paint and sketch. I cut mats for all of my paintings. I cut back boards for all of my paintings. I sorted through all of my stuff to find the postcard size Top Loaders so I could display my example pen and watercolor postcard painting of Golden Gate Bridge. I forced myself to leave some works unfinished so that I'd have "Six unfinished examples." I read all the rules over and over, to make sure that I got everything they wanted to see into the bag when I left.

I even sorted what I was doing so that my tools, materials and paintings all fit in one rather light weight messerger bag in an organized way. At the last minute, this last week, I replaced my absent 48 color Conte set with a 24 color Conte set just so that I'd have my favorite hard pastels in hand to do an example in front of them.

When I went in, I was almost an hour early because I allowed for Paratransit to run late taking other people to their destinations. So I got to see other Street Artists get screened before it was my turn. They included jewelry makers, a musician selling CDs, crafters doing fabric art and ceramics as well as other visual artists doing wall paintings.

I saw a good third of them get disqualified and told to change something in their wares or have some of their works thrown out because they didn't fit the rules for the Street Artist Program. Some of them were rejected completely, others just got only some of their works qualified. The musician was also a producer and discovered that he could sell only the CDs that had his vocal or instrumental performances on them, not the ones his friends did that he was promoting. That's how the program works.

It's strict because it gives preference to artists who sell their own works. Period. That's the point of it - to give jobs to San Francisco artists and crafters. That protects me from someone who buys art wholesale at a pittance from other painters and has it shipped to San Francisco to sell. I agree with those rules.

I was also dead scared that the Screening Committee would throw out my paintings for lack of quality. Tell me to go back to art school and try again when I had salable works. Everything I did was original and none of it was even collaborative, other than my using photo references with the permission of the photographer. About half of my paintings were from WetCanvas Reference Image Library, where member artists share photo references from around the world.

When I got my table, I got up and ran around the table laying it out. I moved paintings, set three of them vertical against the wall and spread the rest out in a good dynamic arrangement on the table where together they formed a good composition. I spread out my prints in an appealing display with each of three prints laid out in a flattened stack so that at a glance, the jury could see those were the prints. I have high quality photo prints.

They had to pick up the prints and compare them to my original ACEOs to see that yes, those were prints but original artwork in the same style was sitting out next to the prints. One of the Committee members asked about my prints.

"Do you know that you have to label these prints as prints, to the buyer? What kind of prints they are..."

"Yes. Look at the back. I read the rules and made little inserts with what kind of print it is, my name and contact information."

She flipped it over, looked at my insert and laughed with relief. "You read the rules." She turned to the rest of the committee. "He read the rules! One of them read the rules!" They all laughed.

I was in, that fast. They mentioned that it gets windy out on Fisherman's Wharf so I should tie down my art or put it into a prints rack that my buyers can flip through. I certainly will, as soon as I get some sales and go purchase a good lightweight aluminum and canvas prints rack to go with my vertical display. I'll probably invest in some larger photo prints, mat them and put them in the prints rack.

I walked out in a happy daze, floating on the compliments of the screening committee. Every one of them liked my paintings and was impressed with them and with my presentation. I knew I could do this. The last big question is pricing, which I might spend $4 for a scouting trip to find out what others are charging for similar paintings before I price mine. I'd like to make the price dead average for size, style and skill so that price isn't a consideration - not bargain basement so the buyers think my work isn't any good, not overpriced so they say "I can get one this good at that other artist's booth."

I can't count the number of times these past three months when I looked at what I had and how much still needed to be done to get ready for that screening and thought "I'm nuts to do this. I failed at it in New Orleans. Why am I torturing myself with this? I should give up."

I felt that way mostly on sick days when I couldn't get up and do something toward making it happen. My biggest moments of courage were on bad nights when I fought myself not to post online "This is too much for me physically. I'm going to give up and stick to selling art online, I can't do it." Everyone would have accepted this, I do have physical disabilities and they did get the better of me last time I held this career.

Before they did, it was the happiest time in my adult life. Bar none, it was the best job I ever had. I loved it. Unless I went out too sick to sell anything, I had fun doing it. I looked forward to going out, setting up and getting real cash on the spot from buyers.

I got on the horse again. That's the courage part.

So when you feel those fears, do something physical toward making it happen. Sketch big. Paint big. Move around and sort your supplies if you do small format art or ACEOs - there's nothing like putting all your colored pencils, pastels or oil pastels sticks in chromatic order for giving your eyes the visual treat that makes you want to paint again.

Cut mats. Sort your paintings and mount them. Varnish finished paintings. Do the physical work of your art, whatever your medium, because that will burn up the adrenaline in your system and leave you the happy glow of physical achievement.

Or work on preliminary works if you have some reason that moving around isn't practical. Intense mental concentration can do the same thing with an adrenaline burn. On sick days I'll work out things that need to be done sitting down too - like researching those rules and checking my preparation to make sure everything fit the Screening Committee's strict requirements. When I do value thumbnails to prepare for a painting, I'm more confident about how well the painting is going to turn out because I know it'll have a good composition.

Every time I've done that, it's worked and made for a better painting. So mental effort is almost as good as physical for burning up the adrenaline. You will feel better emotionally and physically if you pour the energy of your anxiety into action of any kind toward reaching your goal.

That's just how we humans are built. It's why some people go from couch potato to Mr. Universe or get into a smaller dress size. Why dull calisthenics can give people so much satisfaction that they devote their spare time to working out. Nothing builds confidence like a long string of small daily successes.

Feed yourself those and you have facts to answer the naysayers. Reality is never as bad as the pessimists would have it. Plan for the worst case, the best case and results in between. Almost all the time, reality will hand you results comfortably in between, non-extreme, more or less what you'd reasonably expect.

The best therapist I've ever known, Roland Tolliver, once told me "You're overconfident about 10% of the time. That's a healthy balance. It's what they recommend for a top salesman."

So when you're terrified, make an effort. Do something to make your dreams happen, they're not dreams when you start working on them. They're goals. Little goals add up one by one and accumulate to become big goals. Don't lose sight of having some dreams too - getting into major San Francisco galleries or having a one man show at a good gallery is out in the "Dreams" category because I haven't moved toward it yet. But I made a good start yesterday with the Street Artists Program screening.

Last point. When someone criticizes your work, look at the criticism carefully. Take it apart, judge it critically. Is it useful? Is any of it going to improve your future work if you take it seriously? How much of it is worthless, information-free insults to your style, your subject or your personality?

Accept compliments uncritically. Just thank the complimenter, even if you don't agree. They're entitled to their opinion and may see something in the piece that you don't. I can't count the number of times I smiled and thanked someone who thought a quick sketch was better than my finished paintings only to discover, through classes and mentoring with better artists, that the compliment was true. The sketch was livelier than a stiff, overdetailed painting.

So look for real, useful information in the compliments, especially when they come from better artists whose work you admire. Either is as likely to be true, but paying more attention to compliments will keep you happy and motivated with that 10% overconfidence that can carry the day on charm.

Now that you're done reading, if you feel encouraged and motivated, grab your sketchbook and use that feeling. Seize the moment. Your art will improve every day you do it even when you can't see that!


  1. Wonderful article. I'm so happy for you.

  2. Thank you! I feel so good about this!

  3. Yes, wonderful post. I am so happy for you. I was first introduced to you through Johannes and the WetCanvas classes. I had to laugh yesterday when you posted that people needed to take their own notes for the learning to be most effective. You have been going above and beyond on that effort, glad to see you speak the truth.

  4. Thank you! Please do take notes. It's much easier to remember his hundreds of "Golden Nuggets" if you write them down, the process also writes them into long term memory. You rock!