What is the Scariest Thing you Face as an Artist? | Overcoming Your Fears

Happy new year! As we begin the new year, I’m looking forward with great optimism and hope. Even though there is much conflict and turmoil in the world, I feel confident that the human spirit will prevail. I see so much to be hopeful about, and I feel that art can be an important part of making the world a better place.

At the same time I’m upbeat about the future, I understand that it’s not always easy to remain positive, and that doubt and fear have a way of creeping into our minds. As I’ve interacted with artists over the last year, I’ve heard a lot of concerns and worry expressed. Being an artist is hard and sometimes scary.

I’m not an artist myself, so I can’t understand all of the challenges and difficulties you face. However, as an artist working to sell your art, you are a small-business owner, and as a fellow small-business owner, I have faced many of the same issues you have faced in building your business.

At this point, my gallery has attained a certain level of stability. Though there will always be bumps along the road, experience has given me a certain level of placidity about the day to day issues that arise in any business. I know that things work themselves out.

This wasn’t always the case. For the long, initial years of our business, I spent many sleepless nights worrying about how we were going to get through our challenges. How were we going to pay next month’s rent? What could we do to increase sales? What would I do if the whole gallery thing didn’t work out?

I could taste my fear.

I don’t mean to imply that I don’t still have concerns about the future, there will always be some level of uncertainty in any business, but at this point, it’s exactly that, concern, not fear.

Growing up in an artist’s home (remember, my father is the painter, John Horejs), I saw first-hand the adversity that comes into the life of a struggling artist (and his/her family)!

Just to provide a short list, I’ve observed that many artists experience the following challenges:

  • Fear of Failure. This is a pretty universal fear, no matter what your undertaking, but for artists, the fear of failure attacks on several levels. First, there is a fear that your work itself might be a failure – that you will be unable to live up to your vision because you aren’t able to master your technique or craft. There is also the fear that the public won’t catch your vision or respond to your work in a positive way.
  • Fear of Criticism. This one is related to the first, but I know that many artists are afraid that other artists or art “experts” will find their work lacking. I’m sure that many of you have been on the receiving end of harsh criticism. It’s not fun, and not every critic is good at turning their criticism into constructive criticism.
  • Fear of the Unknown. This is one that I can understand directly. As you work to establish your art business, it’s likely that there is much that you won’t understand right out of the gate. How can you get your work in front of potential buyers? If you are showing your work directly to buyers, what will you say when discussing your work with potential buyers? How will you handle the mechanics of a sale if someone does buy? How do you ship and install artwork? What about sales tax? Income tax? Just thinking about all the moving parts that are required to run a business is enough to make the heart palpitate. It’s especially overwhelming when you are first establishing yourself.
  • Artistic Uncertainty. As an artist, you make critical decisions about the direction of your work that will make a huge impact on your creative direction. What if you choose poorly at some point and go down a creative dead-end?
  • Lack of Support. Okay, that’s a nice way of saying it. The fear I often hear expressed by artists is that friends and family will think you are crazy for pursuing your art instead of something stable. They probably have good reasons for thinking this, and they likely have your best interest at heart, but it’s also clear they don’t understand how important your art is to you.

I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface of the fears you face as an artist, and I hope you’ll share others in the comments below. Whatever your fears are, however, the important question is how can you overcome them?

I have several suggestions from my experience as a business owner. I don’t mean to imply that fear can be easily overcome, nor that these suggestions will revolutionize your life by helping you instantly vanquish your fear. You can start conquering your fear by doing the following exercises:

    • Face Your Fear. Over the years, I’ve learned that hiding from my fears, or burying them somewhere in the recesses of my mind, only serves to compound the impact of my fear. I’ve also discovered that when I deny my fears, they can poison my outlook on life and my ability to take action. It is better to identify what you fear, call it what it is, and start working toward a resolution.
    • Get to Work. Fear can be paralyzing. Giving into that paralysis doesn’t help resolve your challenge, and time has a tendency to compound your problems. No matter how daunting the challenge is, I’ve found it’s best to just start working, even if it seems like the small amount I’ll be able to do today won’t make a dent in the problem. Most problems are eventually overcome by the myriad of small actions you take to resolve them. I’ve discovered that the opposite of fear is action.
    • Make a Plan. In conjunction with getting to work, I try to approach problems and challenges systematically. For me, that usually means making a list. I love to-do lists. Listing what needs to happen to tackle a problem, and then checking off work as it is completed is therapeutic, and listing out each step of the process helps me see my problems in a different light.
    • Obtain Knowledge. The more you know, the less you fear. Learn everything you can about your art and your business. Some of your fears are irrational – based not on a potential negative outcome, but rather on your lack of knowledge.
    • Network – Build a Support System. It’s hard to imagine there’s a single difficulty that you are facing that hasn’t been seen and overcome by someone else in your community. Network with other artists or business owners to draw from their wisdom. This kind of networking shouldn’t be a one-way street. If you look for help in your network, you should also be willing to share your experiences and help those in your network when they are in need.
    • Identify the Worst Case Outcome. This one is going to sound a bit counter-intuitive, because we’re always told to be positive and think about the best-case scenario. Doing exactly the opposite, however, can help you conquer your fears. If there’s something I’m afraid of, I’ve found that thinking seriously about the worst-case can help sooth my nerves. When a problem looms unexamined, my tendency is to think of it in a vague, “this problem could signify the end of the world” kind of way. Thinking about what will really happen if the situation unfolds in the worst way possible usually shows me that the negative outcome is  less serious than my imagination might have made it out to be. Better still, it’s rare that everything will occur according to your worst-case outlook. This means that as events unfold, you will have the pleasure of saying “well, that wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be!” In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that I’ve taken this idea (and many other thoughts on overcoming fear) from a book, which leads me to the next suggestion:
    • Read Dale Carnegie’s  Book “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.” This book is brilliant. It’s been years since I’ve read it, but it’s safe to say that it has a daily impact on my daily life and outlook.

  • Talk Out Your Problem Or Conflict with The Other Party. Finally, I would recommend that you reach out to whomever may be on the other side of your fearful scenario and work with them to overcome your problem. For example, in 2008, after the economy had tanked and very little art was selling, I found it impossible to pay the gallery’s monthly rent. I lost night after night of sleep as I tried to figure out what to do. I imagined the landlord locking us out of the building and our business dissolving. Days turned into weeks as we got further and further behind. It was soon clear that we were going to end up several months in arrears. I eventually screwed up my courage and called the owner of the building for a heart-to-heart conversation. I explained what was happening and the problems we were facing. Our landlord would have been well within his rights to shut us down, and I know this happened to many businesses. I was fully prepared for this to happen (see my worst-case scenario tip above), but it turned out that our landlord was accommodating instead. I’m sure that he could see what was happening in the economy and realized that if we failed, he would likely be sitting with an empty storefront. He asked me what I thought we might be able to do to solve the situation, and together we came up with a plan to modify the lease so that we had a shot at making it through the recession. Here we are all these years later, but we wouldn’t be if I hadn’t faced my fears and made that phone call. I’ve had other situations where the outcome wasn’t so positive, but I’ve always found that I’m better off talking it out with the other party and trying to work out the problem.
  • Gain Experience. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not that I no longer have anything to be afraid of, it’s just that now, having faced and overcome many challenges, I know that every problem has a solution, and that everything can be worked out.

Remember, courageous people aren’t those who have no fear, but rather those who face their fear and overcome it.

What are your Fears, and How do you Overcome Them?

What are the things that you’ve been most afraid of in your art career? What are the things that you most fear right now? How have you overcome your fears? What advice would you give to an artist who is facing fear right now? Share your thoughts, experiences and suggestions in the comments below.

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About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of Dad was an Artist | A Survivor's Story and best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of ARTsala. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business. Connect with Jason on Facebook

36 Comments

  1. My fear is a lack of Creative Energy, As I get older I still have plenty of ideas but I’m often unable to find the energy to step into my studio or to pick up a paintbrush. My productivity has gone down over the past five years from 89 paintings in 2015 to 20 paintings in 2019. I’m taking vitamins and eating well and sleeping 7-8 hours a night but often cannot get myself to take the first step. Sometimes when I have a deadline I can force myself to work, but in general I am struggling.

    1. Hi Phil, I don’t know if this helps, but I immediately thought perhaps you should add another medium or approach to your studio practice for those low energy days. Have you considered working at a much smaller scale or limiting your palette to 2 or 3 colors? I purchased a small plein aire easel that folds up and I can prop that up in front of the TV and just work at my leisure. I know many artists who carry with them a small sketch book and they will draw throughout their day when something inspires them. To add, Photography is an example of a very instant form of creativity that requires little physical effort, of course depending on your chosen subject matter. I regularly turn to photography when I don’t feel like painting and I find that the images I capture can lead to many new ideas on the canvas.

      1. Lisa, Thank you for the good advice. I actually started a second type of art 5 years ago when I lost most of the vision in my left eye. I started painting abstracts on canvas instead of just the small detailed impressionistic paintings on glass I had been doing for 12 years. I definitely increased my artistic energy and productivity. I suppose I am just going thru a phase and I’m determined to break thru the barriers again this year. Have a great 2020.

    2. Phil, I completely understand and commiserate! What has helped me is to realize that creativity is full of hills and valleys – and that this is a good thing! In fact, thinking we can stay on a high-productivity creative path for a long time is unrealistic, exhausting and (at least for me) can lead to guilt, anxiety and and even further lack of energy. I now honor my slumps in productivity, realize they are my body’s way of saying ‘slow down’, and take the time to focus on other things – such as spending more time with friends and family, spending more time outside, picking up other mediums (like Lisa suggested), and best action: taking a 3-week* vacation armed with my camera to just appreciate color and light without even thinking about how I might paint it.

      *My dad always advised 3 weeks off – first week to clear your mind of work, second week to be truly on vacation, third week to ramp back up into work mode. I agree with him – too short of a vacation and I’m still in my head (which isn’t where my creative muse is!) I find myself so refreshed after a long vacation that my creativity switches back into full gear when I get back! Hope this works for you!

        1. All good advice thus far, Phil. I’m a fellow artist, and my first reaction to your dilemma was: Do you exercise, or get out for some fresh air when you’re feeling lethargic about working? Maybe move/dance around to your favorite music? Or, perhaps you should see a primary care doc? Low physical energy due to some easily treatable biological imbalance (anemia? other reason?) may be exacerbating your low creative energy. Commercially produced vitamins aren’t always as effective as we’d hope. Wishing you contentment in your art and your health!

  2. One of my greatest fears is not generating sufficient sales and interest to sustain a viable art career. After always pushing my art to the corners of my life, I left my office job just about 12 months ago to focus on more time in the studio, making ends meet through freelance work. So far so good. The extra time has allowed me to focus and make significant progress with my art making and I’ve had the pleasure of building a new freelance client base that affords me the opportunity to work on new and interesting projects. However, the holidays really took a toll on my freelance pipeline, folks are frustratingly unresponsive, and so I’ve been trying to stay engaged by doubling down on my time in the studio. I am really doubtful about how early 2020 is going to look in terms of my income sources, and I dread the idea of having to back into 9–5 “lockdown” while so much is happening in my studio. It would be a shame not to see this through. You wrote that we are business owners and in my case I feel that I have started two businesses at the same time. Many a sleepless night for me as of late!

    1. Lisa,
      Don’t be discouraged by the Holiday slump which often extends into January. I’ve been running my own art business for over a decade and always expect a slump in large ticket sales during this time. My niche audience doesn’t tend to spend that kind of money on themselves during after Thanksgiving and instead buys small ticket items such as (12×12) paintings, prints, cards, books and other gift-priced items.
      It really depends on what you create, who your niche audience is, and what their buying tendencies are, but if you have a slump during the Holidays, that doesn’t mean that your clients won’t come back in full force soon!

      1. Hi Beverly,
        Thank you so much for your feedback. It helps me a lot to know your own observations on the holiday sales slump and that it is real. I thought about creating some smaller ticket items such as those you mentioned (prints and cards in particular) and perhaps this experience is my lesson learned and the motivation to be prepared for next year’s holiday season. Great advice and thank you again.

  3. My greatest fear is not finding galleries that will partner with me and my work. My paintings are a bit different. What happens if know one likes them enough to have me join their gallery or purchase my paintings for a price that makes sense? Every once in a while I think if I croak my kids will be left with all these paintings that never sold and my family will say, “ Charisse was always a dreamer.” What I do is remember inch by inch life’s a cinch, yard by yard life is hard. However, sometimes I think if I become a realtor I can do both and I’ll make money at least that way. (Your Classes are a big help!)

    1. Charisse – You peaked my curiosity when you said “. . . a bit different”, so I looked at your website. Your artwork is stunning! It’s very fanciful and imaginative. The first thing that came to my mind is that publishing houses would love your artwork for a variety of books. I know you are wanting to show them in galleries, but maybe you might want to contact both galleries and publishers. Best wishes for a successful 2020!

  4. My I fear that paintings are becoming irrelevant. You might not see it outside of the two coast urban areas yet but we artists, here and there, are seeing it. We refer to studio visits and exhibits as “ artetainment” because it’s the experience that people are after; not the art itself. Collector’s are aging out. Everyone who comes by “to look” seems to be looking for lessons , “how to become an artist” or to show their own art to you for an opinion. It’s very different than 10 years ago.

    1. Marian, you have clearly expressed what I am also experiencing, after 27 years as a full-time artist – “Artertainment” says it! I continue trying to figure out how to fit into this current reality as my collectors are also aging out. Lessons have been a steady mainstay for me throughout the years, although my students are now all adults because children are kept too busy for lessons.

  5. Is it too boastful to say I sometimes fear success. It means I might have to gear up for more production, which could result in lack of quality, or being in so much demand I can’t live as I want to.
    This is probably all just wishful thinking…

    1. I can so relate though it is a bit different. My fear of success comes from shaming during my childhood. I spent most of my younger years hiding for fear of humiliation when I succeeded. However, what I have found is as I grow more competent with practice I can produce more with even better quality. I paint because I love to. This year I painted seventy-one paintings (ranging in size from 6x6in to 3x10ft) and produced ninety-six greeting cards. This was all to meet deadlines for solo shows as well as group shows. Have not managed to get into a gallery yet. I would love to sell more and I am learning about how to do that better too. Apparently I am successful whether or not I sell. I must admit to a slight storage problem though… :))

  6. I am facing that my career came to an almost standstill when my glass artist husband died. We had a synergy. I miss him every day. I am not dependable anymore despite having almost too many racing creative ideas that I sketch out and write down. My fear is that I will not get my drive back to complete them. It eats away at me. I miss having that wonderful feeling when I wake up and my feet hit the floor and I rush out to my studio and have a coffee with him and hit the work in progress.

    1. Dallas, my heart goes out to you, with sympathy for your loss and the void you feel. I wondered if, when you’re ready, you might seek out another artist or two nearby (of any age and medium) who would like to share workspace/work time? — if only for a few hours at a time? Even working in the presence of a child budding-artist can be very uplifting and motivating. Just a thought. Wishing you peace and joys.

  7. My greatest fear is a lifelong personal one, a fear of loss of vision that would affect my output and ability to make a living as an artist. Two years ago, I was diagnosed with Macular Pucker, a wrinkling of the retina, that caused distortions in my vision. I’ve had two eye surgeries in my left eye. The Macular Pucker still remains. Being a painter of the wilderness, it’s a good thing that not much of my work requires straight lines as they all appear curved to me. I rely on rulers and straight edges when I need a straight line.

    All other problems associated with being a full time professional artist pale and seem minor and very solvable compared to deteriorating eyesight.

  8. I don’t experience much fear in my life. I’ve overcome so many challenges that now I’m pretty sure I can get through anything. When I gave it some thought the only thing I came up with, is that I will never create what I consider my masterpiece. Even long after the artwork has sold I can always see something I could or would do better. Also as I’m now hitting retirement age, I may run out of time. Sigh!

  9. My fear is how to stand out in a crowd of so many talented artists. I try not to worry about it too much since God gave me a gift that I largely ignored since I had no support from family. But it has called me back, so I figure it’s in His hands to make a way. Also I do see that younger folks like to look at and appreciate fine art but not willing to pay for it, which is understandable since most have huge debts to pay off!

  10. My fear, like many have it seems, is not finding buyers for my art. Where can I find my niche?
    I work a regular job full time and try to schedule art time but a piece can take so long. It’s almost
    impossible to have a substantial inventory for an exhibit or portfolio. My age plays a part in the
    energy needed but I am hoping to have a business to step into when retirement comes. Collectors
    are not as plentiful it seems and native art is taking a down turn too. I will keep plugging along and
    appreciate the advice and suggestions in this blog. Thank you!

  11. Hi Jason: as was mirrored earlier, my fear is about aging. I just turned 65, and I don’t believe that true artists retire. Do you have any suggestions for how to slow down a bit without loosing my momentum and all the popularity I have worked so hard to create.

    1. Sharon, I would encourage you to remain positive. I can’t believe you are worried about ageing at 65. I am nearly 82 and I am working hard for 2 upcoming solo exhibitions in the next three years. My last exhibition was very successful, and my passion for painting only increases.
      I find my subject matter is my main motivator. As a landscape artist I am so blessed with living in Tasmania, which abounds in so much natural beauty. I have been able to walk into our wilderness and sail our rugged coastline. Every time I revisit these experiences by recapturing them in paint, I am transported back to places I could no longer hike to. Now I can still find and add gentler subjects and view mountains from lower levels.
      Keep working and you will find your own level, count your blessings and everything will fall into place.

  12. This article is serendipitous to me. I’ve been working on a series of paintings for an exhibition which on the surface is amusing and oneiric, however I’ve recently identified the paintings as being about subconsciously facing my fears (fear of the unknown & artistic uncertainty) but taking the leap anyways.
    This new year (2020) is going to be full of adventure for me!

  13. As I’ve expanded my ‘art business’, I took a really big leap and established my own gallery, it was on my bucket list, I saw it as a logical part of my path. However, as I’ve done this my overheads went through the roof, well, that’s how it felt. The worry about keeping on top of those, what things I could do to ensure some stability, to employ or not, has significantly impacted the kinds of paintings I produce which worries me. I also dislike constantly talking about my work, particularly to people who are only hanging around until it’s time to go and have a coffee. My method of dealing with this: I’ve set up a greater buffer zone in my bank account, once I go below a certain level I will only spend on necessities. There are no consistent things that sell, one month it might be the large paintings, the next it’s my junk art. I have recognised that it will be critical to gain people’s email addresses, so I now ask for them, particularly if the people are seriously interested in my work. I also keep my conversations brief with time wasters, and change up my story, or tell other stories so I don’t feel like a robot. I’m yet to find a way I’m comfortable with to ask for the sale, but after hearing you talk to Emanuel at Art MBA it is constantly at the back of my mind. I know that having painting to do in the gallery is great, but if I look too involved people seem to walk away. Oh, and I’ve ordered your book 😃

  14. I am not making this up…….I wonder what will become of all my unsold paintings and drawings when I am gone. I still have some 300 pieces unsold and hanging on my walls. Most months bring only a handful of sales and it seems that people are disinterested in art (my art) and only give a passing glance at a distance or their eyes glaze over when I mention that they might like to look at my work more closely. I try not to visualize a giant bonfire as being the final “solution.”

  15. Hi Jason and others in the same boat. I find your courage and stamina admirable. To be able to go into a business that happens to be volatile and unpredictable is highly stressful. I could never leave my main job, being main provider for the family after my spouse became disabled. The problem with art, there are maybe many art lovers, that doesn’t mean they are art buyers or even art connaisseurs. In today’s time, if someone wants to decorate their home, they have a lot of cheaper options than buying original art. Even the process of home “beautification” has its limits: space of the housing and art/stuff already owned. The number of people actually “needing” art is very limited. I see even another trend which is to get rid of things owned. People get fed up with things. Let’s face it – art is a want, not a need. My fear is what the general public wants today is not art, it is gadgets, travels and experiences overall, rather than things. I read an article the other day about it, and it made me think: this is also what I want. Declutter and live life. It should not stop us as artists, I guess, but it makes it harder for us and we should not be oblivious to reality.

    1. Steph,
      Great points and I agree that these are the issues we are up against:
      1. People decorate with cheaper options
      2. People want to declutter

      I look at this as an opportunity!
      It is our job, as artists, to educate people! When they chose to buy lots of cheap options to decorate their home they are simply accumulated stuff that will devalue and clutter their homes in the long run – and, as you noted, they will eventually get tired of it and want to get rid of it.

      Conversely, when they buy original artwork, they are tapping into much more – a connection with true art and artists, an investment that goes up not down, and since the purchase is more expensive, the original artwork that they end up buying really speaks to them. It isn’t just a thoughtless buy to fill space, it is a piece of art that spoke to their soul.

      1. Hi Beverly,
        I think you got the right attitude. Very positive at least. But then the thing is: when do you really “educate” the customer? They already walk into a gallery with their knowledge, their personal tastes and those should not be judged really and what you are left with is to maybe infuse them with your personal vision and opinions during a very short time they would be willing to listen. And then, let’s say they already have a few works on walls and do not intend on disposing of those. They might not be interested in acquiring more once they filled that space. That is my “beef” with our situation as artists: we try to fit within someone’s limited budget and space.

  16. Happy New Year Jason! I would say the thing that I struggle with most as an artist is the fear of criticism. It’s always hard because like they say beauty is in the eyes of the beholder and everyone has a different interpretation of what looks good. I think the thing that has helped me overcome this is to realize that not everyone is going to like my work, but that’s okay. The people that do like my designs are my ideal audience. Everyone can create their own tribe of art followers.

  17. 1) Place burning down…I lose everything. Beside social documentary photography I have a huge archive that covers 140+ areas of collection. Vintage photography, small gauge movie film, audio tapes and VHS archive. I’d hate for all that work and history to burn up.

    2) Losing digital files. About 15% of my archive is digital. ‘M’ discs are very permanent, actually more archival than film. But things get lost and are as above are not fireproof.

    3) Having a escalation from a street photography challenge that leads to a death.

    Even though it is my right to photograph in public places people have a warped sense of entitlement that they should disallow my right. Some of them get physical, some of them get nasty. I am always armed to one extent or another and am ready to defend myself. I’ve been at it for 50 years. Developed a highly skilled technique for candid photography. Still, shit happens.

  18. I’m of the belief that fear is a good thing! It keeps us running away from the saber tooth tiger (or in the art world, keeps us fresh, on our toes, in pursuit of new opportunities). It is negative self-talk that’s the killer.

  19. Always love getting a RedDotBlog and reading not only the main article for the day but also the honest and clear responses. What is working for me right now is not to complain, or over evaluate my life or fall into ingratitude. I found that annoyances of any kind can use up your creative energy. I begin with gratitude, relax a bit, perhaps make a list and see if any of it can be done that day.
    I go to my studio daily, no matter what…even if I just sit there and listen. I trust my instincts to either work that day, send a collector an image of what I just did, advise a fellow artist that may be struggling and if that little devil “FEAR” shows up, I ask myself what do you need to do that moment to offset that negative energy from entering your beautiful day and life. We were given a wonderful gift and we are stewards of it. A sweet angel message will push you in the right direction if you let it in. Please note that I am 77 years old, pastel paint every day or photograph or go to You Tube and see who is doing better than I at the moment and then go from there. I’ve been a Creative Director, Art Director, free lancer made money, made very little and as a Broadway show song says “I’m still here”. Do I worry, YES, but not for long. A piece of advice I give my older art students: write down the date that you will be 100 years old. From today until that date you have much to experience and share. Love more and see where it leads. Happy New Year to all—you are dearly loved and appreciated.

  20. I finally have arrived at the point where I am relaxed about money coming in from the business. Beyond basic fears of injury or loss, I occasionally worry about one of my chandeliers falling part and having to fix or one falling down and getting sued. So, I build them extra sturdy.

  21. I’m 73 this year. I’m afraid I will not be able to paint and grow my work as much as I would like with the time I have left. Yes, I do plan to live long and have some longevity in my family, nevertheless.

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