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.

Starving to Successful

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About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of 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

41 Comments

  1. I fear I’m too late in the game. I also fear that the economy will soon tank again and I won’t be able to sell as much as I’m selling now. The good news is I can’t control either one of these situations and just have to keep plowing forward. Once you know you have no control I think it helps calm the situation down.

  2. The best advice I could ever give another artist is to keep moving. Whether all is rosey or all is gloomy. Don’t let disappointments take up space in your mind. Keep moving. Stay motivated. That’s the only way to a positive future.

  3. Fear of Success, and the responsibilities that come with it. Hard to believe that successful artists have a hard time living up to their own reputation but it takes a lot of tenacity to carry on and come up with new ideas that challenge your thought process and entertain your audience at the same time. I feel that I am often trying to re-invent myself and some days I just want to take the safe road and work with the familiar styles and tools of my past. All that and keeping up with marketing your art work, can be quite the juggling match but as artists, we carry on. I try to keep working, and to make art, not excuses.

    1. Oh, thank you for your comment! I was going to ask about this very thing. I am an artist, but also teach, and my class numbers are soaring and I am traveling more to accommodate different students. My art sales in 2018 were the best ever. My success is thrilling, but scary. I think, “What if I run out of people to teach”; “Is this year a fluke?”; “Am I now a successful artist?”; “Can I expect this success to last?” All of these questions run through my mind! I love what you said about “… keep working, and make art….” OK, I can do that!! Simple solution!!! And that’s what I need for this “overthinking” mind of mine. Thank you!!!!

  4. The worst thing for me lately is just being ignored. A recent submission was returned to me unopened-in the follow up phone call to the gallery owner he expressed a “so what” attitude.Continuing to create my best work and seeing how good it is-in spite of worthless people like that-lets me put it all behind me to a great extent. Looking ahead to and planning for new opportunities fills me with optimism and a positive outlook.

    1. THAT really sucked! Well, if the gallery owner was so rude, you are much better off without him/her. I know, I know it cuts deep at first and grinds on you too. I’ve known several “business ” owners , not just the art industry, who have been jerks in similar ways. To be sure, they aren’t the most well liked people in their community, and they will get their come-upence!!

  5. I believe fears like these apply to any self employed person and/or anyone in sales. Cold calls are scary because we fear rejection. Putting our art out there for public scrutiny is scary because we fear rejection. But if you just keep doing it; keep educating yourself about marketing; keep honing your skills; keep improving your quality of work; keep being kind to yourself; keep believing in your work; eventually someone will make a purchase and that one out of 100 will keep you going through the next 100, and so on.

  6. My artist girlfriend who follows you, Kathy Bennett, just read me your article. While as insightfull as it is about facing your fears and attending to what makes you fearful, I feel you missed one important aspect of facing fear. That is faith. If we’re doing what we’re here to do, then faith in what we’re doing can help conquer our fears. Knowing that we’re following our given path, with faith that it’s right, can calm our fears and encourage us to press on. Of course, also praying for guidance can help as help comes in many ways. Not trying to be a bible thumper. Just acknowledging the need for faith in what we’re doing here.

    1. Yes, but it’s hard to sustain faith even when you think you have seen miracles. You keep thinking about the cold realities out there, the questioning what you believe because it does seem crazy sometimes. How to sustain it is up to each individual but it isn’t easy. I have to remind myself of times when seemingly miraculous situations showed up in my life. Sometimes I even keep lists of synchronicities and things like that.

    2. Hi Justin—Your biography is wonderful and fun! What a great adventure you’re on 🙂 Thanks for the reminder that keeping the faith + sharing our mission can boost an art biz🌟💫🌟

  7. I feel I have overcome these fears as well as the answer to the question of what technique I use. The fear I try to face is finding creative ways to get my name and art out there and if I should be more successful at sales, how will I keep up with the demand. I, at this time, feel more like it’s a hobby, as I haven’t sold a whole lot. Demand hasn’t been an issue but I hope it will be even though it scares me.

  8. In recent years I have started to do Plein Air paintings. The fear I face is the market is literally flooded with Plein Air Artists. It’s become the “new golf” for empty nesters and retirees! My biggest “fault” is comparing myself to other artists in this venue. I enter Plein Air competitions, but never win. Right now I cannot even get into my studio as I am recovering from knee replacement surgery, and my studio is downstairs, with the stairs being quite treacherous to navigate. Reading your article and some of the responses have helped me. I do consider myself a professional artist, as I have been painting for 40+ years. I can relate to the person who said they feel as though they came “late in the game.” This is how I feel about the Plein Air painting part of my creative journey. I see younger artists with a lot more stamina and with no physical limitations painting circles around me, and I get really depressed and “stuck!” But, I know within my heart, that if I just keep plowing ahead, and keep painting those things that I love, I can get myself out of these doldrums. Right now I am doing small sketches of the images that I want to paint when I can get to my studio. My hope that I will be so excited to paint that the images will just flow out of me and fill my canvases with pure joy! Then, in turn, when I show these new paintings, people will feel that joy, see the beauty and WANT TO BUY the paintings!
    Thank you for this timely article, Jason! Happy New Year!

  9. I have had all of the fears you’ve listed Jason. I always try to keep pushing forward & work through everything that comes along. Striving to be a successful Artist is extremely challenging but enormously rewarding when things are going well. Thank you for all your invaluable advice.

  10. I have a consistent, distinctive style. My fear is that it won’t appeal to the high end galleries and their customers that I am targeting. To my way of thinking, the strongest feed back is sales … and my sales are mediocre. However, I am not in front of my targeted market yet (still developing my marketing materials with Xanadu’s Business school). My confidence is wishy washy. I looked on-line for a professional to critique my work … but none of them resonated. Feed back from peers and family is good for the ego, but in my case, not valid for my lofty (and perhaps unrealistic) goals. For now, guess I will keep moving forward with the methodical, great Xanadu lessons, keep painting and trust that something good will come of it. What the heck … at the worst, I will have a collection of decent work to donate to Habitat for Humanity or Salvation Army. They both already get a lot of work that doesn’t meet my standards.

  11. My Greatest Fear as an artist is that I won’t be true to myself or my calling to do what I am fully capable of doing and lack the courage to seek it. With so many distractions and things to pull me away, I find I can make great excuses….so may 2019 be one of clearer vision and desire to take action with an open mind and heart to what lies ahead. Happy New Year everyone!

  12. I keep wondering what am I going to do with all this art work, will I ever make a living at it? So far I have been lucky, I have found space for all my art work and I haven’t had to be solely supported by it. I feel if I just keep working at it things will happen.

  13. Hi, Jason–Happy New Year! My biggest fear is not being able to please the customer in a commission–esp. when it’s kind of out of my comfort zone. However, I just go and put one foot in front of the other and get to work. I listen very hard to the client when he describes what he has in mind and then think hard as to how I can deliver.
    Another fear: I HATE starting a painting. It always looks so bad. And I know that the mistakes you make here will come back to haunt you in spades later. So, I am super-critical as to the composition and the execution.
    But I love to paint!
    Also, I don’t mind criticism. I actually like it–esp if the person is knowledgeable. I am used to winning and not winning (and sometimes being outright rejected). Whatever!
    But it is my passion nevertheless!

    1. Hey Chet, I was kind of chuckling reading about starting because I feel exactly the same. The comes a moment where I tell myself “what the h, let’s do it, the universe won’t implode (or could it?)))” Then I have that moment in the middle of the process where there are parts I like and other not so much, then I fix it somehow and at the very end “did I stop at the right moment?”. “Wasn’t there something else I should have done better?” Ending with another WTH moment. Last year joined a few facebook groups art related, naively thinking people would be engaged in interesting conversations/pertinent comments. I left most of them as they are more about getting “likes” on not so great works but criticism is rarely welcome. Outright rejection doesn’t bring anything positive but I believe there should be a place where dialogue (civilized and above-kindergarten level) is supported.

    1. My Biggest fear

      My biggest fear now, after 40 years making art, is losing the capacity or desire to undertake in-depth research into the people, artists, subjects, ideas or events that increasingly form the basis of my art work.

      I love the excitement and rewards of research and for a long time now have relied on it
      to initiate new work, using new means, and methods, yet still unmistakably mine.

      Research has enriched my whole art practice, sparking my imagination, forging unexpected visual relationships, releasing lots of creative juices.

      It’s also helped me gain confidence in the readability of the socially, politically and environmentally engaged art that now dominates my practice.

      My biggest fear is that without the reinforcement and excitement of my in-depth research, I’ll lose the desire and energy to start new work.

      However, in writing about this today, I can see that research has to be a big part of good political and environmental art – and I’ve probably been using my anger and outrage and intensely negative and passionate feelings to prop me up in what Jason described at the beginning of his thought-provoking article as a world of “conflict and turmoil “.

      I’m pretty confident that facing what I believed to be my biggest fear will mean that I can now put it to one side and positively engage again with the still-present more light-hearted, whimsical and beautiful aspects of our world.

  14. Success to us all in 2019 and beyond. Read all the replies and it’s obvious that we all arrived with the talent, the love of the process and the willingness to do the work. When I am painting I don’t think of any of my problems. I keep loving and working. When the pastels and paint brushes are down, I look at my list of the next important steps whether it’s a bill to pay or learn something new…I always ask myself “Why and what’s the purpose?” And move on. I do sell and if I don’t, I make sure I’m not making any excuses for not taking the next important step. Lesson, never lie to yourself…you’ll sleep better. Again, Success to us all!

  15. Doesn’t anyone fear not being able to make that next piece of art? I have to say that I probably struggle with that at some point in every painting…how do I finish this, how do I make the next one. My “rules” have something to do with always stretching…really always reaching for that elusive something, and sometimes that can be so hidden from me throughout the moments of creation. Experience allows me to “know” that I will always solve whatever problem I am facing but I have to remind myself that over and over again. Maybe I’m just not professional enough yet, but I’m no spring chicken and have been painting since I could first hold a paintbrush over 50 years ago.

  16. I agree with Jason’s comment that:
    “Most problems are eventually overcome by the myriad of small actions you take to resolve them. . . . the opposite of fear is action”.

    1. I have lost sight in my left eye and it has definitely slowed me down. It is much harder to do the small detailed work I love and I have started doing larger abstracts instead.

  17. I have been teaching art for ten years and have painted for many years. My teaching skills are still sharp and well received by my students. Unfortunately, I have developed a sense of fear when I personally start to paint.. I find myself “organizing “ my studios instead of painting. I know what has happened to cause this fear: the worsting of my macular tdeneration. I have very poor eyesight and now I have trouble distinguishing one dark color from another dark color.

    I have no idea what I expect anyone to do to help me but I just felt the need toreach out to someone.
    Thank you’ll
    .
    .

    1. Could you try using lighter colors for the most part and then see if your work finds a whole different mode of expression? Or how about a complete change of medium? Weaving, pottery…

      Are there any remedies for MD???

      Good luck!

      (And a hug)

  18. My greatest fear is what I am currently dealing with. The ability to find the time, desire, drive, to start the next painting. It has been seven weeks now and I am trying to motivate myself just to walk into my studio and paint. I am sure I will break that invisible barrier this week as I have a show coning up. My fingers are crossed.

  19. Jason, can you give me your gist on something…maybe anyone that posts?
    I have applied to a few galleries, showing them my work and they seem to like it but don’t have the space at the moment. They all say they’ll contact the owner and let me know. I don’t hear from them
    They all say they have a policy that says the artist shouldn’t re-approach them, to let them make contact.
    My question is, should I make contact anyway, to reacquaint myself and take the risk of being shunned or wait?

  20. Thanks for a good read and many well thought out comments (unusual for many blogs). Personally, in those rare moments of intense clarity that hopefully we have all had on occasion, I realized that my greatest fear is the fear of being afraid. It is paralyzing and totally unproductive and can usually be remedied but simply getting off my butt and taking a simple positive action … which leads to another, and another …

  21. Thank you! I really enjoyed all the reminders in this article & I’ve enjoyed your books.
    ( Very similar to artist / writerJack White, whom I really learned a lot from. )

    I’m building a new studio now, planning for the year, & starting new pieces. Facing new challenges, griwing my business, and of course learning something new daily.

    Being an Artist is not easy, yet it’s rewarding, & what I love!

    Thanks again!

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