Overcoming Fear of the Blank Canvas

This guest post is an excerpt from artist and author Elena Parashko’s new Survival Guide for Artists from Xanadu Gallery’s RedDot Press. The excerpt below comes from Chapter 1

 

Have you ever experienced the discomfort of staring at a blank canvas, unable to begin painting?

BlankCanvasYou are not alone. Authors describe the same sensation as “writer’s block.” Once you understand the cause of this procrastination about beginning a new work, you will discover easy ways to overcome the problem.

Fear is often at the heart of this creative block. As humans, we are biologically wired to automatically feel fear as an emotional reaction to perceived danger, whether that threat is real or imagined. The typical behavioral response is to flee, freeze, or fight. A creative block is simply an attempt to avoid (flee) what we fear in beginning a work of art. Sometimes the block can even appear later in the creative process with fear about completing the piece (freeze). Dissatisfaction or frustration with how a work is progressing can also lead to an impulse to destroy it (fight). As a result, artists become skillful in creating convenient excuses to delay painting and therefore avoid facing and overcoming the underlying fear.

What, exactly, do we fear when faced with a blank canvas? There is no real physical danger; instead, the fear is based on worry about possible future consequences. A fear of failure can prevent starting or completing a painting if you have the following concerns:

“What if I make a mistake?”

“What if this painting is not as good as my last one?”

“What if it is not accepted into that exhibition?”

“What if I can’t sell it?”

“What if my client doesn’t like it?”

As strange as it sounds, a fear of success can be just as debilitating as a fear of failure. There may be an underlying fear of success if you feel you are not deserving of recognition and reward, you dislike being the center of attention, others are jealous of your achievements, or you worry about how you will cope with change. (For more insight into managing success, make your way to chapter 20.)

You may not even be aware of the reason for fear, but it will express itself in a host of excuses as to why you can’t start an artwork. To break this pattern of self-defeating behavior, there are some simple strategies that can be implemented right now to eliminate these excuses and get you creating again. Once you can recognize the excuses, work through procrastination, and get into the flow of creating, fear of the blank canvas will no longer be an issue.

  1. Focus on the process rather than the product

Stay in the moment for as long as possible, and focus on the satisfying process of creating rather than on how the finished artwork will look and what will happen with it next. Worrying about all the what-ifs can be paralyzing. Enjoy the feeling of inspiration and the excitement of a piece coming into existence. Remember your passion for art and why you are doing this. When you are in the creative moment and doing what you love, you have no room to worry about failure, success, or anything else.

  1. Practice a positive mental attitude

Whether you think positively or negatively is just a habit of thought. If you are a “glass half empty” person, then consciously practice seeing the glass half full, and eventually you will shift your perception. If you must think beyond the painting process, then instead of automatically imagining the possible negative what-ifs, practice thinking about positive outcomes such as the following:

“Wouldn’t it be fun if this painting flows smoothly and easily?”

“Wouldn’t it be satisfying if this painting is even better than my last one?”

“Wouldn’t it be exciting if it is accepted into that exhibition?”

“Wouldn’t it be great if it sells?”

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if my client loves it as much as I do?”

If you have difficulty staying positive about these specific outcomes, then it may be easier to focus in a more general way on what you enjoy about creating. Try the following:

“I really like expressing myself artistically.”

“I’m so glad I can spend this time doing nothing else but focusing on my art.”

“I just love the colors in this piece.”

“I feel satisfaction when other people get pleasure from my artwork.”

“I get so much joy from being an artist.”

  1. Have a designated painting space

Even though you may have practical restrictions about where you can do your artistic work, be territorial, and create a special space just for you. Some artists are fortunate to have a studio, while others work out of their garage or in a corner of a room shared with the rest of their family.

No matter what your circumstance, it is better to have even a small designated area where you can leave some of your equipment setup at all times. This will make it easier to pick up a brush or tool and get straight into creating when the opportunity arises.

It was a few years into my journey of becoming a professional artist before I was fortunate enough to have a studio in my home. Before I established my own painting space, I was using the kitchen bench to paint on, and I stored canvases behind the sofa and frames in an unused shower. When I wanted to paint, I had to wait for my young children to go to school, and then I would retrieve and set up all my equipment. At that stage, I didn’t even have a large studio easel, so when I worked on big canvases, I stood them on the floor, leaning against the kitchen bench, and I sat on the floor to paint. It seemed like just when I finally got into the flow of painting, I would have to stop and pack everything away again before my children came home from school. This time-consuming chore of setting up and then packing away often became an excuse to not even bother painting that day. Some days it felt like too much effort. If you have no alternative but to set up and pack up for each session, then make the process as quick and painless as possible.

  1. Identify your ideal working conditions

What are your personal ideal working conditions? Everyone is different. Some artists have more energy and focus in the morning, while others at night; some like to paint with music playing, while others prefer silence; and some like to paint with people around, while others need isolation. Identify what works for you and your lifestyle. Don’t force yourself to paint in situations that don’t suit your preferred working style, as this will make painting harder than it has to be. Make the surroundings where you create as pleasant and inviting as possible. If your designated space is physically uncomfortable (too hot, too cold, drafty, or dusty), then the thought of having to physically endure such conditions can become another excuse to delay working or avoid it completely. Your painting time should be something to look forward to, not an endurance test.

 

Additional tips for overcoming the fear of a blank canvas in the Survival Guide for Artist’s first chapter include:

  1. Establish a regular painting routine
  1. Manage distractions
  1. Recognize when a break is needed
  1. Reignite your inspiration
  1. Replenish your emotional resources
  1. Pick up a brush and start

 

Learn more about Elena Parashko’s Survival Guide for Artists or

Order Today!

Other topics included in the book:

PART I: ISSUES COMMON TO THE MIND, BODY, AND SPIRIT OF CREATIVE INDIVIDUALS

Chapter 1 | Overcome Fear of the Blank Canvas
Chapter 2 | Get in the Zone
Chapter 3 | Be Inspired
Chapter 4 | Develop Your Artistic Voice
Chapter 5 | Deal with Isolation
Chapter 6 | Acknowledge Your Sensitivity
Chapter 7 | Maintain a Healthy Body
Chapter 8 | Be Kind to Yourself
Chapter 9 | Set SMART Art Goals
Chapter 10 | Plan Your Creativity

PART II: ISSUES THAT ARISE WHEN ARTISTS TAKE THEIR CREATIVITY TO THE OUTSIDE WORLD

Chapter 11 | Live the Dream
Chapter 12 | Enlist Supporters and Manage Saboteurs
Chapter 13 | Cope with Rejection
Chapter 14 | Be Persistent, Not a Pest
Chapter 15 | Build a Reputation
Chapter 16 | Communicate Effectively
Chapter 17 | Accept Challenges
Chapter 18 | Deal with Stress
Chapter 19 | Recognize the Myth of Luck
Chapter 20 | Enjoy Success

Learn more about Elena Parashko’s Survival Guide for Artists or

Order Today!

About the Author: Elena Parashko

Elena Parashko is an artist, teacher, and writer based in Sydney, Australia. She has a bachelor’s degree in education and a master’s degree in adult education and nearly thirty years teaching experience. In only ten years Elena transformed her life from a college literacy and communication teacher to being a full time professional artist who annually has teaching and exhibiting residencies in Fiji, Hamilton Island, Norfolk Island, Italy, Bora Bora, and Tahiti. She is a contributing writer for Professional Artist magazine in the United States and Leisure Painter magazine in the United Kingdom. Her artwork has also been published in numerous art and home-decorator magazines in Australia. Elena's Survival Guide for Artists is a best seller in Amazon.com's Business of Art category.

32 Comments

  1. Maybe I’m more unique than I originally thought. Reading through the list of reasons for a blank canvas. I guess I can add one: “What if I cannot think of anything to paint that’s meaningful even only to me?” That’s where I am, lately. My exercise in this case is to imagine a visual expression of what I’m feeling, which invariably turns out something far from the realism I normally paint. That canvas is, at least for the time, designated as a personal piece, rather than a show piece…but who knows…

    1. In writing, that’s almost the definition of writer’s block. Common exercises to relieve it are free association and keeping a file of ideas. In painterly terms that would translate to: sketch something (whatever’s in front of you, if nothing else, and never mind if it’s “interesting” or not) and keep an idea file. Jerry Yarnell has oven 80 binders full of visual references, I happen to find early 20th C postcards to have wonderful compositions and colorways (I also find anime to be full of wonderful landscapes). Another thing I like to do is variations on a theme: rework a fall landscape into a winter, change the antique delft porcelain in a still life to rustic earthenware, reinterpret a blue-dominant abstract in shades of orange. Betty Edwards, in her book Colors, mentions a color exercise she’d giver her students: they’d take a patch of print fabric and stick it in the corner of their canvas, then divide the rest of the canvas into four zones. The closest zone would extend the pattern of the fabric with the colors contrasted (across the color wheel), then the next zone would reverse the values, the next would reverse the saturation. They were displayed as part of a student show, and people actually wanted to buy them!

    2. Your just moving on to the next level. When you’re bored with your own work it means that you are ready to evolve. The hardest part of being an artist is developing your inner imagination which will eventually express itself through your art. Keep pushing through this rebirth it can be daunting at times.

      1. Developing your inner imagination is the best part of the creative process, you live in it, it takes you all, and then the magic happens, it begins to appear on the paper or canvas , and it’s never a boring process…

  2. Well, I can’t speak as a painter, I am a photog. But I hear the same complaints from other photogs…they don’t know what to shoot. Being that people are my landscape all I have to do is to be around people to have an opportunity to do art. Of course, just being around people wont guarantee masterpieces, but at least it gives opportunity.

    Here are some of my thoughts from a previous post on this topic.
    nsfw

    https://danielteolijr.wordpress.com/2016/01/24/lost-my-mojo/

    I find if I expose myself to all avenues something usually clicks for me. That was how I got the idea for a number of my artists’ books. I not only look for great individual photos, what I prefer are projects made up of great photos.

  3. I think that at some time or another all of us go through an artistic challenge, an “artist’s block,” or a “dry period.” I’ve found that if you truly need a rest or a break, take it; just don’t allow it to become an excuse to stay away from work! And when I’ve had some of my most difficult moments artistically they usually preceeded some type of understanding or breakthrough. Keep walking the path…the signposts will show up!

    http://johnrussellartist.com

    https://www.nyip.edu/photo-articles/student-success/john-russell

  4. My problem is that I’m so poor, I’m always “saving” this canvas or that for a “special” painting. I finally got to the point where I’m using the backsides or my more embarrassing watercolors, but it’s harder to paint over my acrylic canvases. (That, and I’ve used a variety of varnishes over the years, so I’m not sure what to do with a particular canvas to get it back to a paintable surface.)

    1. Wendy…I am so sorry you are struggling. I have had the good fortune of friends giving me supplies, of also finding supplies at sales, including yard sales. People have been generous and I have an abundance of supplies. When I was young it wasn’t that way….and I would paint until I ran out of canvas and paints…..then I would get a job for awhile, make some money, but more supplies and paint some more. Don’t be afraid to use up your supplies….it’s better to do that than to have a lot of supplies and not use them. Have faith…..do your art despite your poverty. I painted on an empty stomach for three days on time just to do it….I decided if I didn’t just paint and put that in front of my stomach I wouldn’t do it. I hope you don’t have to go hungry…..there is not enough support for artists and art in this country….I was told by Europeans I’d do really well over there, especially in France….never got there, so I don’t know…but I do know that doing art in this country can be a continual struggle if you are doing art for art’s sake and not for money. I will keep you in my prayers. God Bless….

    2. There are any number of make-your-own Gesso recipes online. Choose one and cover your old canvases. I have bought canvases at resale shops that were discarded. Some were even framed, the whole thing for $5. I did my self portrait on one.
      I attended an art show last fall for veterans. One woman vet had painted a dramatic 3′ x 5′ scene with India Ink from her Viet Nam experience. The painting was on stock cardboard she bought from a UPS store. What struck me about the piece was, she purposely chose cardboard because of its fragile nature, much like the frail life she observed in wounded soldiers she patched up. The brown background contributed to the mood of the scene. As former medics we connected.
      Canvas is durable and time honored but remember pastel is on paper. Watercolor is on paper. Collage is on paper. Some sculptures and even ancient Chinese paper mache are made from paper. You might even consider another medium until you can buy the supplies you want.

    3. Wendy, I have used isopropyl alcohol to remove varnish from a acrylic painting. Then successfully did a new painting over the old. Saturate your painting then cover with a plastic film so it stays wet awhile. Then it should wash off. Hope this works for you. I would think a paint stripper would work too.

  5. I’m on the other end of the spectrum. I have so many ideas I don’t have time to get them all on the canvas. I’ve been using and teaching an intuitive art journaling practice for 15 years that gives me an outlet to generate images and put ideas on paper quickly and without the need for them to be perfect. I use oil pastels in the same colors as my acrylic paint. This way if something great happens in the journal I can easily reproduce the imagery with paint on canvas. Sometimes I get stuck in the middle of a painting because I’m not sure how to get an effect I want or I’m afraid if I continue I’ll ruin it. At these times I put it aside and either work on another painting in progress or start something new. I think keeping some kind of art journal is essential for artists to keep ideas flowing, work out techniques or just keep practicing.

  6. When this happens, it’s been helpful to put down the paintbrush and do something else that’s creative for a while, like making jewelry or cooking or writing. I think of these other creative activities as “keeping the pump primed.” Sometimes a fallow period stretches into a few weeks and it used to really scare me because I thought it meant I’d “lost it” and might never paint again. But now I’ve learned to trust that there’s something going on at a deeper level and that these “breaks” are obviously a necessary part of my own process, because when I come back after stepping away, my work has changed and grown better or deeper in some subtle (or sometimes not-so-subtle) way.

  7. I have never experienced “artist’s block,” or a “dry period” since I started painting in 1962. Indeed, my greatest frustration is that time is now running out and I need another 10,000 years of life to paint the subjects recorded in my mind that are begging within for expression. My computer database records show that I have painted over 3,800 original paintings since 1995 when I started keeping accurate records. The actual number of original paintings done is my lifetime is well double that figure. Add in several thousand original sculptures and it has not even begun to scratch the surface of the works I want to complete. My sense of urgency is acute. I could not even begin to pretend that I know what “artist’s block” is like, having never experienced it myself.

    1. Funny you have written on that feeling of urgency about getting all your ideas out. I turned 52 last year and that very idea of running out of time has appeared in my consciousness. Yet my older artists friends who are wonderful mentors keep cheering me on. I guess we will paint until we drop and depart this mortal coil. We don’t have time for the famous artist block.

  8. Interesting subject. I know for myself the key was to teach myself to paint consistently. Once it was a habit I no longer suffered from this. In fact when I do have a night off I’m left feeling like something is missing. Funnily enough since this happened I also don’t struggle to find things I want to paint. Its usually the opposite where I overwhelm myself with the number of paintings I want to do. Behind what I need to do professionally is a huge long list of experiments I want to make. Its all kept in detailed notes and images in a pile next to my desk. So as soon as I finish one I pick up the next project. Its true that having a set area for painting is helpful although sometimes that spot for me might have to change from my typical studio space (which is actually a corner of my lounge room) so I need to be able to paint where ever that is. In those times having a familiar set of materials is comforting and a way in which I carry and store them. All materials are stored away each night or I will wake up in the morning to a couple of colourful children and painted walls! However set up and clean up has become part of the routine. So I guess what I’m getting at is that I have found making it a habit and routine is what has helped me the most. I cant remember the last time I struggled to find something to paint. It was definitely many years ago.

  9. I think momentum really helps me have less blank canvas syndrome. Probably the best way to keep momentum for me is working on several at one time so there’s always one in the works. I also find working in series is real helpful since the ideas continue. It’s a little like the addage that the best time to look for a job is when you have one. Probably the hardest time is when I return to the studio following a long hiatus. That’s when I work on little 8×10 cavases in short sessions so I loosen up–a little like playing scales if you’re a concert pianist. There’s less of a sense of preciousness with short little canvases-little paint, little time-so if it’s a dud it’s not a huge investment. It’s not paralyzing.

  10. We sometimes fail to recognize that the brain may need a break. As an artist, I try to spend a few hours every day working on a painting whether it be sketching an idea or actually applying paint. This is work – perhaps not physical, but definitely work for the mass between our ears. The brain is a form of muscle and just like our triceps or biceps
    become exhausted when overworked, so does our brain. Perhaps the ‘blank canvas’
    or ‘artist’s block’ is our brain telling us it needs a rest.

    1. I encourage my students and artist friends not to paint every day. Heresy!! Take a break … your brain needs it. I firmly believe the work must be conceived, evaluated, composition determined, and all those nuances solved before you ever pick up a brush. Then, there is no such thing as blank canvas fear. Disregard those who tell you there is – it is only an absence of deliberation. Surely I’m not the only one to have figured this out. Who attacks a canvas with blind action (unless you’re Jackson Pollock)? A blank canvas is nothing to be “fixed.” It is fine china awaiting a superbly prepared dish. Don’t dump everything in the refrigerator into a pot before studying your recipe.
      Without a firm strategy for the piece you will have fear. Back away. Employ your carefully determined plan and there is none.

  11. This article sounds like it was written by a phycologist and not a practicing artist. An artist has to learn themselves and their process. It takes years of figuring this all out and along the way your voice and style will appear. If you find yourself at a loss in front of a blank canvas then you have not done your homework. An artists life is a process of collecting and observing all the quirks, thoughts, doings and beauty of humanity and this should all drop effortlessly into your sketchbook. The ideas, thoughts, colors, textures, emotions, collected in your sketchbook will eventually fill hundreds of canvases. Don’t try to walk before you can run (sketchbooks before canvases) and never, never, never, give up on your passion keep reaching for it; and those feelings of discomfort, well, learn to live with them, they are a part of your introspection and vital for an artist. I wish I could show you here how to properly utilize your sketchbooks, its something that is rarely taught or understood.

  12. Blank canvases never scare me….it is finishing work that intimidates me…..especially plein air paintings that were painted on a location without time to finish……I have over a dozen such artworks glaring me in the face. It seems so often when I get around to actually being able to paint, something comes up….to distract or engage me. The times I have been able to seriously do my art with full passion I have had to become a hermit. It is hard to do….to alienate oneself from others and shut the door on friends and family and other things to become immersed…but those are the only times that I have really been productive. All the rest of the time I am trying to find my way back there again…and seriously, if I was in that space, I wouldn’t be reading my emails or on the internet right now. So good bye for now…much love to you.

  13. What happens to me is I have no energy sometimes to go up the stairs to my Studio. This usually happens when I am in the middle of a particularly difficult painting. I found the real problem is…”What if this painting is not as good as my last one?”
    I have to convince myself either that A) it is or B) it doesn’t matter of it is as good or not.

  14. I have the “Blank Canvass” syndrome.
    I have them on the wall, staring at me….for 3 years…THREE.

    I have painted on them, in my mind, thousands of paintings over and over…all ready to go.
    I have all the supplies and paints PLUS plenty of gift cards to buy more…so the worry of the ruined $60 canvas and $40 of paints has been taken care of.

    Yet here I sit.
    It might be a fear of failure thing.
    I am going to move my work space and start from scratch

  15. Having a designated painting area has made all the difference in the world. Four years ago I finally got one in the form of a two car garage, which never houses cars, but is a creative space instead for my husband (a wood worker) and myself. We divided it in half with a large canvas wall and my side is completely MINE!! It is not connected to the house. I cannot hear the phone when I am out there painting, only my favorite music. I keep my computers out of there so that I can’t get distracted by Facebook, e-mail, Twitter, etc. I have 3 separate tables set up with all the necessary materials for each technique (i.e., one for oil painting, one for acrylic and one for watercolor and drawing). It is such a joy to enter my studio, sit down at one of the tables and have everything all in one place. My oils space has only oil paints, oil brushes, oil mediums and canvases. At the end of the day, all I have to do is clean my brushes. In the past, I used to have to clean my up my materials, my space and the rest of the house because it was time to cook dinner, or whatever. Not anymore! I am so lucky!

  16. Thank you for this helpful article. I am only at the very earliest start of my painting journey, and can definitely relate to all these fears — the blank canvas initially, finishing a canvas that is going along OK (what if I really mess it up?!), and wanting to destroy / paint over immediately a finished canvas that isn’t somehow up to my expectations. Since I only paint for personal pleasure, the tip about staying in the moment and enjoying the process seems to be the key concept. I am trying to give myself permission to be a beginner, to be less than perfect, to fail, even to create BAD ART (not deliberately, but bad art never hurt anyone)! But creating NO art out of fear is a very sad thing… Those of you who cannot relate to this article, who are bursting with creativity and self-confidence — rejoice in your great luck!

  17. I am a new painter (a year or so) mostly working on small cavasses with 8 or 10 inch sides. I very much want to but find going to a bigger canvas scary. I know the items I paint now such as trees and hills will be so much bigger and thus the faults will be so much bigger. I also realise the cost of oil paint and dread wasting the stuff. This said, I will progress because I want to master full size pictures but wanted to share the anxiety issues I have.

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