A Treatise on Creating Art: Some Challenges and Potential Solutions

Buy this book at Amazon.com! By Mona Lisa Whitaker

This treatise was written for a class (Art 320 Issues in the Arts), an intriguing and rewarding upper division art class at California State University at Long Beach. One of the requirements was to choose an issue of focus, do the necessary research and write a comprehensive paper on it. I chose the fear of creating art as it was a problem I and other artists had experienced and felt this was my way of finding a solution. It is my sincere hope that my writing on this issue moves you to productive and creative action. I look forward to your feedback.

All artists, at one time or another, have struggled with several questions about their ability to create. Questions such as: Why am I making work that may or may not be accepted or understood? Why is (some other artist) having more shows and success than me? Am I really an artist if I am not able to be as well known as others? The prevalence of these questions seems to be an inherent quality of being an artist. However, this phenomenon can be very destructive to the individual and conversely, to society.

These questions stem from three main issues of concern: 1) Fear—How and Why we question our abilities 2) Fear of Success and 3) Perfectionism which leads to Procrastination. The guiding force of fear that it is within each individual interconnects these issues. An added dynamic to this dilemma is the fact that such struggles are rarely, if ever, discussed amongst other artists. This results in the sufferer feeling more isolated and deficient.

Fear About Ourselves and Success

Fear is defined as a feeling of agitation and anxiety caused by the presence or imminence of danger, a reason for dread or apprehension.1

We begin to question our abilities when we succumb to societal pressures and expectations. After the first negative reaction to an artwork, we unconsciously begin generating self-doubts. More likely than not, this event occurred as a child when we showed a drawing to a teacher or parent, who failed to acknowledge its value. They may have even rejected it as trivial. In our early desires to be accepted and yearning for this adult authority’s approval, when it was not given, we internalized their rejections. Whatever the instance, it unconsciously set the tone for our perceptions of our creative lives from that point forward. As we became adults, we may have made a conscious effort to “forget” the criticisms, however, on the unconscious level, it began to feed our negative voice/aspects of ourselves. Another added dimension is the fact that art is not considered “significant” to most people in our lives, so it causes us to further question our purpose. The underlying element to these questions is fear.

Buy this book at Amazon.com! In her book, The Artist’s Way—A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, Julia Cameron makes us aware that we possess incredibly enervating negative beliefs, which are destructive to the process of making art.2 In order to combat this problem, we must realize that they are beliefs, not facts. Although this book is a series of tasks to complete over a twelve-week period, one solution suggested by Cameron3 is the development of personal daily affirmations. She provides a list of creative affirmations such as: “I am allowed to nurture my artist”; “I am willing to create” and “I am willing to experience my creative energy” among others. These are to be used as guides after which the artist would list his/her negative comments that will arise from the subconscious in reaction to the affirmations. The next step would be to convert the negative comments into positive affirmations. This simple act is the first of many steps towards overcoming our fear and will inevitably begin providing a sense of hope and trust in his/her individual abilities to create art.

We have been taught to believe that negative equals realistic and positive equals unrealistic.

—Susan Jeffers4

Author Susan Jeffers, in her book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, points out how debilitating fear can be to our accomplishing our life goals.5 She suggests that we acknowledge our fear, let go of it6 and “push through it” in order to overcome it. I have discovered in my conversations with other artists when discussing this paper, very few realized that fear was the underlying problem to their starting a new painting or photography project. Usually, the artists felt they were simply being lazy or overworked at other jobs and so did not have the energy. I have also discovered that artmaking is intrinsically tied to self-esteem. If an artist possesses low self-esteem, he/she will be reluctant to take risks. I think that some level of healing is necessary for our artists to be open and willing to taking such risks. Discussing deterrents such as other jobs amongst a group of other artists, who are sharing the same difficulties, can be a remarkably useful tool to an artist continuing to create art. In my experience, as well as those of other artists, this provides one with a feeling of support and camaraderie.

In regards to success, in order to seek it, we must first deal with our fears (as mentioned) and change our perceptions of our abilities. We need to acknowledge that there is a limit to what we can control in our lives. The factors that we can control should be done with realistic and careful thought. Once we learn to see events that occur in our lives as challenges that serve as lessons, only then can we consider ourselves on the road to recovery from our fears.

Perfectionism That Leads to Procrastination

Buy this book at Amazon.com! The strive for perfection can cause paralysis for an artist. This manifests when an artist wants to make every aspect of a painting, sculpture, etc. have no flaws whatsoever. Artists who think this way have a tendency to set their expectations so high they are unachievable.7 They end up spending so much time with one painting or sculpture, their energy gets sapped and are unable to begin others. David Bayles and Ted Orland, in their book, Art & Fear, cite an experiment by a ceramics teacher in one of his classes.8 He divided the class into two—one side would be graded by “quantity”, the other by “quality”. The “quantity” group would be graded by weight, the “quality” group by one pot. The result was the “quantity” group turned out the best “quality” of ceramics because they learned from their mistakes. The “quality” group spent too much time thinking about how to create the pot (and learn from their mistakes) rather than doing it. The result of this philosophy is that he/she develops low self-esteem (especially since they could not accomplish perfection!), which is damaging to her/his confidence for future artworks. Unfortunately, many artists think that their work has to be perfect. What they fail to realize is that the so-called mistakes they make and perceive as flaws, are actually lessons, which will assist them in their next piece.

The alternative to striving for perfection is excellence. Excellence is defined as “possessing outstanding quality or superior merit; remarkably good”. In his book, Getting Unstuck—Breaking through the Barriers to Change, Sidney Simon9 points out that seeking to obtain excellence is much more attainable. The most useful way to begin (since it is a process) to rid oneself of such a habit, is to realize that we are human and have limitations. The next step would be to develop goals in small manageable steps.10 For example, if one wants to make a painting—take the time to draw a sketch, prepare the canvas and materials BEFORE attempting to paint.


Artists have many issues to deal with on a daily basis. When one has a question about her/his abilities, hopefully, one can feel comfortable enough to discuss such a problem with someone who can relate. However, I think for artists to overcome their fears, they must acknowledge that they have them, that they exist and it is a human quality. Overall, I believe (and have experienced first hand) that one needs to reconnect with her/his inner self to see what internal work needs to be done. When one is busy attempting to make a living to take care of her/his family, dealing with society’s problems and create art, it is easy to become disconnected. If any artist is to realize her/his potential to create the work they are meant to create, it is essential to re-establish this connection. When artists begin doing this, more art will be produced and society will benefit from their contributions.


(i) American Heritage Dictionary—Third Edition

(ii) Bayles, David, and Orland, Ted. Art & Fear—Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking. Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1993.

(iii) Cameron, Julia. The Artist’s Way—A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. New York: Putnam Books, 1992.

(iv) Jeffers, Susan. Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. New York: Ballantine Books/Random House, 1987.

(v) Simon, Sidney B. Getting Unstuck—Breaking through the Barriers to Change. New York: Warner Books, 1988.

(vi) Ealy, Diane. The Woman’s Book of Creativity. Oregon: Beyond Words Publishing, 1995.

End Notes

1 American Heritage Dictionary (New York, NY: Dell Publishing, 1994) p. 308.

2 Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way—A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (New York, NY: Putnam Books, 1992) pp.30–35.

3 Ibid. pp. 37–40.

4 Susan Jeffers PhD, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, (New York, NY: Random House, 1987).

5 Ibid. pp. 21–30.

6 Ibid. pp. 33–43.

7 Diane Ealy, The Woman’s Book of Creativity (Hillsboro, Oregon: Beyond Words Publishing, 1995) pp. 89–93.

8 David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear—Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking (Santa Barbara, CA: Capra Press, 1993) pp. 29–32.

9 Sidney Simon, Getting Unstuck—Breaking through the Barriers to Change (New York, NY: Warner Books, 1988) pp. 232–233.

10 Ealy p. 224.