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.

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 the Art Business Academy. 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.

18 Comments

  1. It’s difficult to be objective determining if my artwork is good or bad. It reminds me of the Groucho Marx line: ” I would never join a club that would take me as a member.”
    Rather than worry about what other people think, I create art that excites me. I’m fortunate in that I have a day job so I’m not depending upon the sale of my art to pay the bills. While this limits the time I have available to create art, it also liberates me from trying to second guess what pieces of art will sell.

    1. Leo, I also have a creative “day job” that allows me to not have to depend on the sale of my art to pay my bills. I have been working for the past year on creating a body of work for a solo installation, for October 2021. These are all larger panels, but I am still able to sell the smaller works (36×48) that I have been creating as sketches for the larger works. Without gallery representation, I have been selling my work solely through word of mouth.

      My greatest fear is that I may not be pushing hard enough. Josef Albers once told his students to write their name on a piece of paper. Then he had them write it backwards. Then, he asked them to write it backwards and upside down. “This is the level of concentration that you need for drawing” he declared.

      If I can fully understand my own work, I fear that I am not concentrating hard enough.

  2. For me, the fear is about work being copied and then that person both uses and gets credit for it. I keep hearing horror stories about this happening for both two and three dimensional work. Not sure what can be done about it (copyrighting seems to do little). I’m open to ideas!

    1. I wouldn’t worry about being copied. Yogi Berra, my favorite philosopher once said: “If you can’t imitate him, don’t copy him”. My work is pretty primitive, so if someone wants to copy me, then good luck!

  3. Oddly, after years of painting and exhibiting, (but with few sales), I face each new canvas with trepidation! I am afraid to start! But I convince myself to break it down into steps – prepare the undertone, draw, put the paint out, then start! It usually works out and once I get going, I keep going. Now the fear that I set aside to the back of my mind is that I will die with so many good paintings unsold, and my fairly unsupportive family who do not seem enthusiastic about my work at all, will dump then at the Goodwill store!

  4. I sold my first art piece at 17 years old… I am now 64. I’ve been a self employed artist my entire life… some years were really, really lean. My biggest fear as a ceramic artist is my physical ability to make work for the rest of my life. The sales always seem to show up when I need them to, my last 10 years have been my best in my career. So to overcome the fear of not being able to work as I age, I have looked at it more realistically. I can hire a helper if need be. I have begun to slow down and concentrate on quality not quantity. I think sometimes the things we fear are always worse in our head than they ever are when facing them in the moment.
    Covid shut down all of my art fairs in 2020. I had my last show last March. 95% of my income comes from art fairs. I don’t know why, but I didn’t feel afraid…. I felt a bit relieved actually. This pause has given me time to experiment with new ideas, glazes, marketing etc. I gave up 9 art fairs this winter in Florida, my main income for the year. I don’t know exactly how or where I will sell my work, but something always comes. I am being proactive…I don’t believe sales will just fall in my lap.

    1. Oh my goodness Debra, you are a delight! I rarely leave comments on on-line platforms, but your sincerity, faith and wisdom really spoke to me. Your comment brought a huge smile to my face, tears of joy and a great sense of peace to my heart. Thank you for living your life in alignment with your life’s calling. You are an inspiration.

  5. It’s feeling like time for me to leave the west coast and relocate in the Mid Atlantic states, which was my alternate plan when I moved from Massachusetts/Vermont in 2007. My biggest worry is how to budget my work time once I do it so I can have a life outside it.

    Keeping my stained glass business going will be no harder, but I’ll have to decide IF I want to still do and market paintings. If I do I’ll basically have to start that business over, which as much as I have a solid plan I am certain would work, it would take about 6 years. I miss my days of running the garden style gallery in Vermont when visitors would come, and may want to put my resources into starting a brand new one just like it.

  6. As a “retired” professional and an emerging fine art photographic artist, I am fortunate that I can make ends meet for now without sales. I’ve been photographing high school sports for some years now as a side gig, and as boredom, repetitiveness and the rigid framework of allowable camera settings began to set in, I realized this wasn’t enough and that I needed a different approach to my work that allowed me more freedom to experiment. A chance image I made at a cross country event, with different camera settings and an approach than I would normally use, turned into a piece of art, and I had my “aha” moment. I also realized that my sports shooting, and professional career greatly influenced how I viewed my imaging and I am continuing to refine and define my aesthetic as I move forward. My first solo exhibition was hammered by the pandemic, with zero sales. I tell myself that it was the fault of the pandemic when in reality my artwork may simply not be that good. I’ve been told by reviewers that my work is cold and unemotional and without a supporting story.

    To counter this, I’ve begun a different direction to add feelings and mood into my work and my concern is that while my images are well executed, there may not be a compelling reason for someone to want to purchase any of my artwork. And so, I grapple with whether I just need to please myself and not worry about sales as a mark of the quality or success of my artwork, or, whether I need to consider pursuing a change in the general subject matter of my photographic approach to something more current, rather than something that pleases my core of imaging earthscapes in different ways.

  7. I used to be overcome with lack of confidence in my artwork, and was paralyzed by rejections. But over the years I had the good fortune to be a studio art professor, and as i saw these fears in my students, I wanted to help them and it turned out that in so doing I also helped myself. I began gradually to love what I do so much that I couldn’t think for too long about rejection or lacking confidence. As I encouraged my students to work hard on craft, to explore more imaginative ways of seeing things, and to maintain integrity , which involved being honest in one’s self-criticisms –neither to condemn nor to praise oneself but simply to look dispassionately on one’s art, this has cured the “my-art-is-not-good-enough’ fear and rejections , although painful, are balanced by lovely, wonderful and often unexpected affirmations as well. I love discipline. I love to make to-do-lists and to check off tasks; I love reading about artists in history which has also given me plenty of company in times of overwhelming temerity. I love the gift of being an artist now, and don’t want to squander it with worry. Earning a living is a concern, and bills must be paid, so I continue to find ways to balance out those obligations with selling my work, and like Jason said: I find that action cures fear. “Do the thing you fear, and your fear will lose its power.” That grows more true as I move forward with advice from those more experienced and wiser than myself.

  8. Since Covid, I missed all of my art shows. I relaxed and spent more time painting and getting a better direction in what I really like painting. Portraits are what I like the best, so I refined that area. I have been focusing on online marketing and learning a lot but I find it grueling. One of my biggest fears is approaching a gallery. I’m going to push through that fear in 2021!

  9. Thank you Jason for opening the conversation. Caroline Garrett Hardy you have enriched my day and if I pay attention my art making and my life-living. Blessings, Dianne

  10. An artist friend and I have decided to partner together to help one another meet professional goals for the next year. One goal we have set is to grow our email lists, and while I am glad we have set a specific goal (we have weekly/monthly/yearly goals to meet), I am also already feeling nervous and worried about how to ask for and get new email subscribers.

  11. I am pretty confident about the quality of my work, and I know from lived experience that I can produce a decent quantity of work. My biggest worry is that if by some miracle I do score gallery representation, I will screw it up, eventually get dumped by said gallery and ruin my reputation entirely. Because I am RUBBISH at maintaining relationships, and I would rather shoot myself in the face than ask ANYONE for help.

    That said, I feel like these are things I can change about myself. I have overcome significant psychological obstacles in the past, and I can think of no good reason to stop moving forward. This post has been very helpful, including the comments, and I am definitely going to read that Dale Carnegie book.

    Thanks, Jason!

  12. My biggest fear is that I’m simply not talented enough to make what I put on the canvas match up with the vision in my mind – and I give in to that fear by making endless studies or playing it safe with the subject matter, and never actually painting what I want to paint. It’s like I can’t convince myself to try hitting the target for fear that I’ll miss, so instead I aim for something slightly off-center. Yes, the more I paint, the more my skills increase, but I also end up feeling more discouraged because I think “It’s nice, but… this isn’t the work I want to be known for, so… why did I do that?” Anyways, I went out and bought the Dale Carnegie book, and I think it will do me a world of good. Thanks for the article and recommendation!

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