July 17, 2019

Fear of failure

Lately, I have been struggling with painting for various reasons. It is summer, the sun is shining, vacation is approaching (these are all excellent excuses for procrastination), but above all, three out of four of my paintings end up to the bin (grrrr). This has instilled a paralyzing fear of failure in me. Surely, I do not have an artist’s block, since I have more ideas than I can handle. But I am always worried that my paintings will turn out bad. So I cannot drag myself to my desk to paint and even when I can pull this off, I start overthinking about what could possibly go wrong. So, I put down my brush and pick up the floor mop instead. Because suddenly cleaning the entire house seems more fun (even if I am the laziest person in the world). And what adds even more stress is that watercolor paper is expensive, plus I must make art frequently for my new etsy shop (www.mardatha.etsy.com).


Anyway, initially I questioned whether I should share this fear (and my bin art) in my blog, because it made me feel as a phoney artist. Who would buy from a painter who is afraid to pick up a brush? (honestly, if this is the case, I beg you to ignore the post). Until I came across a letter of Ernest Hemingway to F. Scott Fitzgerald, written on May 28, 1934 from the book “Letters of Note” by Shaun Usher. I quote a part that I particularly liked:

Dear Scott:

For Christ sake write and don’t worry about what the boys will say nor whether it will be a masterpiece nor what. I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket. You feel you have to publish crap to make money to live and let live. All right but if you write enough and as well as you can there will be the same amount of masterpiece material (as we say at Yale). You can’t think well enough to sit down and write a deliberate masterpiece and if you could get rid of Seldes and those guys that nearly ruined you and turn them out as well as you can and let the spectators yell when it is good and hoot when it is not you would be all right. …All you need to do is write truly and not care about what the fate of it is.

Always your friend,

Now if the genius Ernest can admit this in earnest, so can I. Upon reading this passage, I realize that:

  • Overcoming fear of failure in art is the same as trying to build a new habit (like fitness, eating healthy) or learning something new like a language. You must persevere despite all discomfort.
  • It is the artistic journey that matters, not the destination. It is of little importance, whether it will be a beautiful piece of art or it will be thrown to the bin. No art practice time is wasted.
  • Think of the fear of failure as treacherous, compulsive and malevolent torture you impose upon yourself so as not to finish the job. When the fear of failure strikes, stop overthinking and just do it.
  • Fear of failure may be a sign of procrastination or go hand in hand with other fears (like fear of reject). Observe and learn to cope with it.
  • Only those who do nothing, make no mistakes. Most artists face the same fears and agony (at least those that are not conceited or paint one black line against a white canvas thinking that this is art).
  • On a practical side, it helps to use a sketchbook for a while (since sketchbook paper is less expensive, thus more freeing experience) or take up a daily painting challenge to combat your fear.