Overcoming the Fear of the Blank Canvas

At some point, most artists have experienced the discomfort of staring at a blank canvas, unable to start painting. What is the cause of this procrastination and avoidance in beginning a new artwork and how can it be overcome?

Often, the cause is fear. Fear is an emotional reaction to danger or a perceived threat, with the usual response being escape or avoidance of the thing we fear. Just as writers can experience fear of the blank page, artists can experience fear of the blank canvas, and, as a result, can become quite skillful in creating convenient excuses to delay painting.

But what exactly do we fear when faced with a blank canvas? There is no real physical danger to us. Instead, our fear is based on worry about future consequences that may or may not even happen. We may have a fear of failure, or surprisingly enough, a fear of success. We worry about making a mistake or that this painting may not be as good as the last, that it may not be accepted into an exhibition, win a prize or please a client. We fear success if we feel we are not deserving of recognition and reward, dislike being the center of attention, or worry about how we will cope with the change that success brings.

We may not even be aware of exactly what it is we fear. Our procrastination may be coming from very deep-seated issues that, in the long term, will need to be resolved if we are to break this pattern of self-defeating behavior. In this situation, professional counseling may be helpful. But in the short term, whatever it is that we fear will be expressing itself in a host of excuses as to why we can’t start work on a painting. Fortunately, there are some simple strategies that can be used right now to eliminate these excuses and get painting again.

1. Focus on the process rather than the product

Stay in the moment, and focus on the process of painting rather than what the finished painting will look like. Enjoy the painting process for what it is. Remember your passion 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 success or failure or anything else.

2. Have a designated painting space

Be territorial. Create a special space just for you to paint in. We all have practical restrictions about where we can work. Some artists are fortunate to have a studio space, others work out of their garage, others in a corner of a room shared with the rest of the family. No matter what your circumstance, it is much better to have even a small designated area where you can leave at least some of your equipment set up at all times. This will make it easier to pick up a brush and get straight into painting when inspiration strikes. Before I created my own painting space, I was using the kitchen bench and had to set up all my equipment after my children went to school and then pack it all away again before they came home. This time-consuming chore of setting up and then packing away easily becomes another excuse to not even bother starting to paint for the day. If you have no alternative but to set up and pack away for each painting session, then make the process as quick and painless as possible.

3. Make your surroundings inviting

Make the surroundings where you paint pleasant. If your painting space is physically uncomfortable, such as too hot, too cold or dusty, then the thought of having to physically endure such conditions can become another excuse to delay working or avoid it altogether. Your painting time should be something you look forward to, not an endurance test. Even if you paint plein air and enjoy being out in the elements, you still need to protect yourself from the harshness of nature. Don’t let physical conditions become a deterrent to doing what you love.

4. Identify your ideal working conditions

Some artists have more energy and focus in the morning, others at night. Some like to paint with music playing while others prefer silence. Some like to paint with family around, others in isolation. Identify what works for you. 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.

5. Establish a regular painting routine

Make painting a habit and not a conscious decision as to when, how, where or if you will paint today. Work out a time management plan where you schedule everything you need to do and want to do into your week. In life, we need to be flexible, as emergencies do come up. But if you find yourself regularly sacrificing your painting time to deal with other issues, ask yourself if you are actually using these dramas as a convenient excuse to delay facing the canvas.

6. Manage distractions

During your planned painting time, control distractions by diverting all telephone calls to an answering machine, not checking e-mails and informing family and friends that you are working. These distractions will very easily become another excuse to delay painting. Everyone who works from home must set boundaries to ensure others realize that even though you may be at home, this is your work time. Social telephone calls or dropping in unannounced for a coffee and conversation is not acceptable. Depending on where you are in establishing your career as an artist there may be different issues and expectations to deal with. Your friends and family may have more respect for the working time of an established artist, while they may regard emerging artists as “hobbyists” and not take your need for discipline seriously.

7. Recognize when a break is really needed

Recognize when you are just making excuses not to paint and when you genuinely are not in the right physical or mental state to paint. For instance, in times of illness or family crisis, forcing yourself to paint can be counter-productive. If you really need to take a break from painting, then be kind to yourself, and take it.

8. Reignite your inspiration

Sometimes staring at a blank canvas with nothing to give is not due to feelings of fear of failure or success but rather feeling nothing at all. You may not be inspired or excited about the painting you are about to work on. To reignite your inspiration, take some time out, change your routine or do something that you know usually inspires you like visiting your favorite places. Do something different that will expose you to new ideas and new people. Go to a gallery and look at the artwork of other artists, attend a workshop and learn a new painting style or technique, experiment with new art products or get together with inspiring and proactive people.

9. Replenish your emotional resources

There can be stressful and traumatic periods in life when your emotional resources are so depleted that there is just nothing left to give to an artwork. Look after yourself at all times and make sure your needs are being met. Nurture yourself physically, emotionally, spiritually, socially and intellectually. If you are prone to depressed moods, it is important to seek professional help before things get out of control.

10. Just pick up a brush and start

Some people believe if you are having trouble getting started on a task, you should warm up to it by doing related tasks that are less taxing. For example, cleaning the studio, sorting through brushes, etc., to get into the mood for painting. But this can turn out to be just another excuse to avoid the real work with the only thing being achieved is wasting more time. Rather than warming up by dipping a toe in the water, pick up a brush, jump in and just do it! What you’ll often find is that after only a few minutes into the painting you will become immersed and well on the way to working in the zone. Fear and worry quickly fall away as the love of painting takes over. All that procrastination and looking for excuses was more stressful than actually starting the painting. AC

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