Tuesday, August 12, 2008


I want to talk about a subject that’s very close to my heart—fear. We all know it. Some of us avoid it at all costs. Some of us welcome it as a motivating force. I fall somewhere in between.

I have been looking into the eyes of my fear for a while now.

For instance, I discovered that fear is what kept me away from art for so many years. I know it is my fear that prevents me from doing some of the things I really want to do with my life. Fear paralyzes me just when I get a good idea. Fear keeps me prepping canvases and making new glass palettes when I should be painting. Fear keeps me making excuses when opportunity knocks or people in my life get frustrated with my being stuck.

Most of us know, intuitively, that the creative process can only take place when we work and work and work. Make a hundred thumbnails. Draw all the stuff out of your head until you start to clarify your idea. We’re supposed to work some every day, even if we end up wanting to throw most of it away.

Many of us never get the process started.

I am starting to put names on my fears. I fear that I can’t paint a picture exactly the way I see it in my head, so I never start. I fear that I will finish a painting, and it will be the only one I have in me. I don’t want to let it out because then I won’t have it in me anymore.

Over the last several months I tackled the fear of trying. I had been avoiding art for so long that I was starting to deny I had ever created anything worth looking at. I went to drawing class, and I put myself in a position where I had to draw. I was there to draw and there was no way around it. I learned along the way that I can still draw exactly what I see in front of me. I also learned something new; I learned I can create right out of my head based on my reactions to the motif in front of me. I am no longer locked into strict academic drawing. I would never have discovered that if I let my fear keep me out of the studio.

Now I am realizing that even though I’ve been going to a class to learn to paint figures in oil, I am still terrified to paint. I have been trying, but I go home and never get my paints out and practice.

I didn’t know how to draw the way I can now, when I first started art school. It took a couple of years of instruction, and several more years of practice to develop that ability. Of course I can pick it back up and quickly get back to some level of mastery—I had already done so much work that it was like greeting an old friend. But I never got that sort of mastery of oils.

I learned to control acrylics and still have no problem with that. I even have some proficiency with watercolors. But oil is big. It’s complex and the only way to learn it is to keep doing it. I should not expect myself to paint like Rembrandt right out of the gate. That’s silly. But knowing I have to crawl again and produce a lot of crappy pictures has had my hands tied, because I take that failure as a definition of myself and as proof that I’m a fraud, that I can’t paint.

The only way I am going to overcome this fear is to start painting, if not every day, then as many times a week as I can make the time. I have to let go of the expectation that I should be able to paint well. I have never put any serious time into practicing with oils. I can do okay, pretty well for a beginner. I should take some encouragement from that, but I still imagine the “failures” and start looking for anything else I can do, any excuse not to start painting.

“I would have to leave a mess out.” Well, no one else lives here to be upset about the mess. “I will waste paint leaving it out.” Oils stay wet for a long time. A drop of clove oil or stand will keep them going when they might dry out. “I have to get some sleep; I can’t put several hours in at a time so why start?” That’s a cop out for all the same reasons.

Ultimately I have to face the fact that the only thing keeping me from my dreams is my fear. Fear isn’t real. Fear is just beliefs. I can’t hold a belief in my hand. It can’t beat me with a hammer in my sleep. I could never trip over a belief while walking down the street.

Beliefs are not permanent. We can question them and challenge them. We can change beliefs through thoughts and actions. Just working and getting better will dissolve those negative beliefs. But we have to take those first steps in the face of fear. And we have to persevere if we would overcome those nasty beliefs.

I have been reading a great book called Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It’s fairly short. I only started it last night, and I’m more than half way through it. So far they have talked about fears and reassured how common they are. They have talked about the myth of talent and inherent “magic” in geniuses. “…while geniuses may get made once-a-century or so, good art gets made all the time.” I highly recommend this book for identifying and learning about your fears and what prevents you from creating, or what caused or sustains your block, if you’re experiencing one. It’s applicable to any form of creativity from painting and sculpture to poetry and prose writing to music and performing arts.

While reading all of this material about creative fears, I started to remember the things I learned about beliefs from another great book. L. Michael Hall and Bobby G. Bodenhamer wrote Mind Lines: Lines For Changing Minds. This is a manual for identifying and challenging negative beliefs to remove the barriers that prevent us from living the lives we dream. It’s based on the Meta-Model of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, which is a model for thinking about thinking. Mind Lines is about conversational reframing, a self-contained system for changing beliefs that really doesn’t require any prior knowledge of NLP. It is an excellent tool for self work and is fairly separate from the things people think of as manipulative or unethical about NLP. I read this book in a completely different context, and I haven’t thought much about addressing negative beliefs for a few years. I remember when I first discovered it I used it to break a severely limiting belief and I can recall having a near-physical sensation of the belief dissolving when I finally got it. I never noticed a paradigm shift from a point of view almost outside of the situation before, it was wild experience, sort of like an altered state of consciousness.

I wouldn’t do conversational reframing any justice if I tried to explain it here, but I can say that it is a system where you identify a limiting belief. Then you figure out its mechanism from a view of “external behavior = internal state” which they explain as the structure of belief. (I am currently, and am about to, butcher this whole idea.) So you identify this belief, this thing like, “I am bald, so no one will ever take me seriously,” or whatever the belief is, then you challenge it until your mind just can not believe it any longer. They give you about 26 strategies for questioning yourself about the belief. Things like, “Is it true that no one has ever taken a bald person seriously?” and “Is it possible that people take bald people seriously every day?” and, “Explain the process of people not taking bald people seriously,” and “What will it mean if you still have this belief in five years?” It gets pretty deep and has a real power to help a person change their mind and open themselves up to tremendous new potential. Taking those beliefs away smashes barriers and can help make anything that anyone else can do a possibility for anyone.

There’s much more of great value in Mind Lines. I just wanted to touch on this one big technique for changing beliefs.

I really didn’t intend to talk about NLP and conversational reframing when I began this post. It all sort of just fell into place as I thought about my fears and the possibilities for overcoming them.

Tonight I began a still life that intend to bring to some state of completion before go to bed, or maybe tomorrow when I get home from class. It’s not great. There are some drawing issues I’m trying to ignore just to get on with painting. But it’s paint on canvas. That’s enough for now. Here’s where I was when I stopped for a smoke and started this post.

Still Life Practice

If you are experiencing a block, or if you have been avoiding trying anything creative or important in your life, I really can’t recommend those two books enough. Good luck!