The Psychology of Painting:  what, exactly, are we scared of?

Yesterday I started my Adult Painting fall-session class.  Within that group, I had three students who were completely new to painting.  Although this makes my life easy because there is so much I can teach them technically, the process comes with an undeniable hurdle.  Somehow I have to find a way to help them overcome their terror of putting paint to paper. Adults, many adults, are scared absolutely rigid.  You can see it in their body language.  Their shoulders tense up, they sigh, they apologize for taking up my time, they actually say they’re terrified.

It’s just paint we are talking about here.  There are absolutely no consequences if you try and fail.  It’s just a little paint and a canvas.  No big deal.  Let’s try it again.

The cliff, photo credit Josée raymondWhat, exactly, are we scared of?

Maybe it’s all about facing the unknown.  A blank canvas can be intimidating.  I’ve been painting for years and yes, sometimes starting a new canvas is akin to jumping off a cliff.  There’s always the possibility of failure and, on the way there, of feeling completely inadequate.  But with experience comes the excitement that maybe this one will perfectly realize the idea I had for it, and that it will convey exactly what I hope.

Sometimes it does!  Sometimes it doesn’t.  But the world doesn’t end either way because there is always more paint and another canvas… and another idea.

The kids I teach, especially the little ones, don’t pay attention to those fears.  I suppose they know very well that anything worth doing is worth a few bumps and bruises along the way.  My youngest son, Joshua, was so desperate to play with his older brothers that even before he learned to walk he learned to climb up onto the back of the family room couch so he could launch himself through the air into the thick of their wrestling. Fear was never an obstacle.

My little students are just as gutsy about trying art.  They just assume they can do anything they try – so they do.  And, by the time they’re 13 or 14, they’re competent enough to feel reasonably confident.  They’re not trapped in fear so it doesn’t take a lot of convincing to set them free to let go of expectations and just play.

Skinny Artist talks about this in his blog 11 Things That Scare Creative Artists (and what to do about it)  He says, “When we were children we heard praise about our creations all the time. People are encouraging when we are children. People make us believe we can do anything. People don’t expect children to draw or paint a perfect picture. They’re supportive and realize that the kid’s skills need time to develop.”

Art is one of those things that requires a long-term commitment in order to develop the physical and intellectual abilities necessary to get the results we aspire to.  So, when we become adults, if we haven’t invested the time to become a great painter, then we are not.  A new painter is pretty much guaranteed failure, frustration and road blocks.  He can’t see his way through by himself.

So what does a painter do about fear?  Here’s what I’ve learned over the years:

  1. Accept that you will fail and embrace the growth opportunities that come with that. Making the wrong colour and painting a really ugly cloud teaches you what not to do and puts you on the road to knowing how to correct it. As Dan, from Art Business Advice says in his blog  Overcoming the Fear of Failure: a Guide for Artists, “Failure is not an endpoint, folks, it’s the mid-point. It’s life’s educational tool, and we need it. Many of us have simply forgotten that fact in our transition from kids to adults.”
  1. Ask for help. But not from people who don’t know the first thing about painting.  A good painter can quickly guide you out of a dead end.  But your neighbor who has never painted will most likely lead you astray, discourage you and dismiss your inner voice.  I’ve had so many students show up to class completely discouraged after having consulted people around them about how to ‘fix’ their paintings.  Art loving non-artists somehow know when a painting works; it’s a natural instinct that most people have.  But when a painting doesn’t work, they have no idea how to fix it, so don’t ask them.
  1. Be as kind to yourself as you would be to a child who’s just learning to paint. Avoid self-deprecating speeches, both inwardly and out loud. Laugh at your mistakes; a bad painting is usually really funny.  And pat yourself on the back when you have done well – even if it’s only a small thing.
  1. Throw your expectations out the window. They will be of no help in your learning process and only make you feel like you have not met them.  At the risk of repeating myself, if you are a new painter, you will not meet your own expectations.  That is guaranteed.
  1. Let go of perfection. I am very, very uncomfortable with the concept of perfection. In a world in a constant state of change, how can anything ever be perfect? It’s an unrealistic concept that can paralyze the most capable of us.
  1. Breathe! Many of my new students actually hold their breath when they paint. It should feel sort of like meditating or yoga.  The better you breathe, the better you paint.
  1. Watch your posture. Keep your back straight and your shoulders relaxed.  Keeping your body in a naturally comfortable and relaxed position will keep your mind in a naturally comfortable and relaxed state.  And that is the number one ingredient in a good painting.
  2. Give it time. Becoming a good painter is a long journey. It requires you to form new neurons and new physical abilities.  Your hand has to learn to respond to your brain in new ways.  Your muscles need to develop the stamina to hold and move the brush freely.  Your mind has to learn how to look at the world, and how to look at every painting with the eyes of a painter.  It takes countless hours of practice.
  1. Above all: don’t be discouraged.  It’s a journey that will feed your soul at every step.  Painting is a powerful act.  It will stop time for you.  In life, with its constant disproportionate pressure to perform, we all need time to pause once in a while.  Painting will do that for you.

Above all, ENJOY!

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