An Artist’s Bookshelf – “Art & Fear” by David Bayles and Ted Orland

This is the first in an ongoing series where we’ll be talking about a small collection of  amazing books that deal with art and the creative process.  These particular books were chosen because they have dramatically changed my perspective as both a writer and as a human being

I truly believe that any of the books in this series would be relevant for all types of artists including writers, musicians, visual artists, photographers, or anyone else who’s work is creatively inspired.

It is my hope that you will enjoy them as much as I have . . .

“Art & Fear” by David Bayles & Ted Orland

122 pages Image Continuum Press

Available at your local bookstore and at Amazon.com ~$10

"Art and Fear" by David Bayles and Ted Orland

If I had to pick one book that changed my entire perspective on art and gave me the courage to become a writer, it was “Art & Fear”.  It is the one book that I have consistently recommended  more than any other to my fellow artists.  This partially because it is only 122 pages long (so they might actually read it), but also because of the powerful messages it contains for any artist who may be struggling to find their way.

The authors state in the introduction that “the difficulties artmakers face are not remote and heroic, but universal and familiar”.  In other words, we think that as artists we all face unique problems that we must suffer through alone, but it turns out that we’re all in the same boat. So although we may not be as unique as we think, we don’t have to suffer through these fears and doubts alone.  This, of course, is the idea behind Skinny Artist — to be able to connect all types of artists and give them both the information and the courage they need to live their art everyday.

Here are just a few of the themes and excerpts from this amazing book:

Great art does not depend on great talent. . . .

“This view is inherently fatalistic and offers no useful encouragement to those who would make art. . . it is a species of fear–the fear that your fate is in your own hands, but that your hands are weak. But while talent–not to mention fate, luck, and tragedy–all play their role in human destiny, they hardly rank as dependable tools for advancing your own art on a day-to-day basis.”

“Artmaking involves skills that can be learned. . . In large measure becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive. . . Even talent is rarely distinguishable, over the long run, from perseverance and lots of hard work.”

The need to separate the artist from their art. . .

” ‘Artist’ has gradually become a form of identity which (as every artist knows) often carries with it as many drawbacks as benefits.  Consider that if artist equals self, then when (inevitably) you make flawed art, you are a flawed person, and when (worse yet) you make no art, you are no person at all!”

Why an artist’s vision will always exceed her grasp. . .

What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it.  And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone. ~Joan Didion

“Vision is always ahead of execution. . . The artwork’s potential is never higher than in that magic moment when the first brushstroke is applied, the first chord struck. . . It’s the same with all media: the first few brushstrokes to the blank canvas satisfy the requirements of many possible paintings, while the last few fit only that painting. The development of of an imagined piece into an actual piece is a progression of decreasing possibilities. . . Finally, at some point or another, the piece could not be other than it is, and it is done. That moment of completion is also, inevitably, a moment of loss — the loss of all the other forms the imagined piece might have taken.”

Those who demand perfection end up with nothing. . .

“To require perfection is to invite paralysis.  The pattern is predictable: as you see error in what you have done, you steer your work toward what you imagine you can do perfectly.  Your cling ever more tightly to what you already know you can do, away from risk and exploration, and possibly further from the work of your heart.  You find reasons to procrastinate, since to not work is to not make mistakes.”

“To demand perfection is to deny your ordinary (and universal) humanity. . . yet this humanity is the ultimate source of your work”

Your work is your guide. . .

“The seed for your next art work likes embedded in the imperfections of your current piece.  Such imperfections. . . are your guides to matters you need to reconsider or develop further.  It is precisely this interaction between the ideal and the real that locks your art into the real world, and gives meaning to both.”

The answers you get depend on the questions you ask. ~Thomas Kuhn

“The lessons you are meant to learn are in your work.  To see them, you need only look at the work clearly–without judgment, without need or fear, without wishes or hopes.  Without emotional expectations.  Ask your work what it needs, not what you need. Then set aside your fears and listen, the way a good parent listens to a child.”

Opening our work up to criticism by others. . .

“Your expected to make art that’s intimately (perhaps even painfully) personal, yet alluring and easily grasped by an audience that has likely never known you personally.”

“In making your real work, you hand the audience the power to deny the understanding that you seek; you hand them the power to say, ‘you’re not like us; you’re weird; you’re crazy.'”

“The lesson here is simply that courting approval, even that of peers, puts a dangerous amount of power in the hands of the audience. Worse yet, the audience is seldom in a position to grant (or withhold) approval on the one issue that really counts – namely, whether or not you’re making progress in your work. They’re in a good position to comment on how they’re moved (or challenged or entertained) by the finished product, but have little knowledge or interest in your process. Audience comes later. The only pure communication is between you and your work.”

The value of quantity over quality. . .

“You learn how to make your work by making your work. . . and lots of it!”

“The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars. One of the basic and difficult lessons every artist must learn is that even the failed pieces are essential.”

“The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot -albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”

The only way you fail is to stop trying. . .

”What separates artists from ex-artists is that those who challenge their fears continue; those who don’t, quit.”

“Those who would make art might begin by reflecting on the fate of those who preceded them: most who began, quit. To survive as an artist requires confronting these troubles. Those who continue to make art are those who have learned how to continue – or more precisely, have learned how to not quit.”

Here’s what other artists have said about the book “Art & Fear”. . .

Artist Pete Hobden @PeteHobden

“It is a very smooth read, with a very direct,  non-psychological approach. No exercises or plans.  The authors identify many of the behaviours and reactions that are familiar to people who create. One feels recognized and thus calmed.

The authors emphasize the relation between you and your art, and the way a sort of dialogue exists between you and what you create – look for what to do next in what you’ ve done, in the past or what is in front of you.  They put you firmly in the driver seat, without anxiety. The only way to exorcise your fear is to create. Avoidance only installs your fear as a permanent companion and favours failure by your own criteria.

You have to live with falling short of your expectations, and move on to the next act of creation. It’s in the nature of making art.

Favorite Quote:

“Look at your work and it tells you how it is when you hold back or when you embrace. When you are lazy, your art is lazy; when you hold back, it holds back; when you hesitate, it stands there staring, hands in its pockets. But when you commit, it comes on like blazes.”

Artist Felicia Kramer Felicia Kramer

To ask me for a favorite quote from the book, I would have to start ” at page 1, and end ” at page  122. But ok, here’s one that hit me: “Fears about artmaking fall into two families: fears about yourself, and fears about your reception by others. In a general way, fears about yourself prevent you from doing your BEST work, while fears about your reception by others prevent you from doing your OWN work.”

Have you read Art & Fear?

Now it’s your turn, take a minute and tell us what you thought about this book and how it may have changed your outlook on creating your art.  If you’d like, you could also simply share your favorite passage or quote from the book. . .

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Comments

  1. says

    The paragraph from above (I’ve copied below) gripped me…it sums up a lot! Life coach/art coach…your still hitting the nail on the head Drew!

    Those who demand perfection end up with nothing. . .
    “To require perfection is to invite paralysis. The pattern is predictable: as you see error in what you have done, you steer your work toward what you imagine you can do perfectly. Your cling ever more tightly to what you already know you can do, away from risk and exploration, and possibly further from the work of your heart. You find reasons to procrastinate, since to not work is to not make mistakes.”

    “To demand perfection is to deny your ordinary (and universal) humanity. . . yet this humanity is the ultimate source of your work”

  2. says

    This is one of my favourite art books. I remember when preparing to buy it, I read a review on Amazon panning the book because it didn’t offer any step by step ways to get through fear. I think that was a an expectation the authors never sought to address.

    The great thing about this book is that it lets the reader sit with their own fears, and to recognize that they are pretty much universal among artists. My views on art, and my own sense of myself as an artist, were changed as a result of reading this book.

    I enjoyed revisiting it through your post.

    Cheers

  3. Drew says

    Amy,

    You’re absolutely right, the perfectionism thing has always been a problem (or an excuse) for me as well. I think I talked about in an earlier post how I used to obsess over the stupidest little details in my writing, which in the end did very little but keep me from actually writing.

    If nothing else, this website, has given me the opportunity to force myself to write and get something out there on a regular basis without all of the constant rethinking, re-editing, and second-guessing myself — that more traditional formats demand.

    Now whether or not the content quality has suffered as a result. . .

  4. Drew says

    Dave,

    It’s interesting that you bring this up about Art & Fear not containing a so-called “solution” to the problem by giving you an exercise or a worksheet to fill out. That is one of the things that initially really attracted me to this book.

    Instead of saying if you have problem “A” proceed to solution “B” – It simply discusses the issue as a fellow victim would do instead of sounding like some pushy therapist who seemingly has all the answers. As you say “it lets the reader sit with their own fears, and to recognize that they are pretty much universal among artists.”

    As much as I love Julia Cameron’s magnum opus “The Artist’s Way” (which we’ll be talking about in a few weeks, so get reading!) I have to admit that I found a lot of her “exercises” to be either not relevant to whatever situation I was dealing with, or simply one more thing that I should be doing but I’m not.

    In other word, while “The Artist’s Way” was incredibly helpful and informative, it still felt like I was in school listening to the teacher tell me what I was doing wrong (yet again!) — While “Art & Fear” always feels more like talking with a sympathetic and knowing friend.

    Like with everything else in life I guess, sometimes you want/need someone to tell you the solution to your problems. . . . and sometimes you just really want a sympathetic ear to listen to you bitch about them.

  5. Drew says

    Kirsty,

    Thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts on the book with us :) It’s always great to hear from you!

    I think you’re right about the value of rereading this book every once in awhile. I think it addresses so many different aspects of the creative life, and unfortunately no matter how far or how long we have traveled down this chosen path, we never seem to completely leave these fears of self-doubt behind.

  6. says

    I remember clearly the day I bought this book. This was before the internet and I heard about it and drove 30 minutes to get it the next day.
    What I learned was it’s ok to be afraid. It’s what we do with the fear that matters. Pushing through it means we are taking chances and this is how we grow as artists and people.
    I heard Ted Orland speak once and found him so inspiring.
    Thanks for reminding me about this book. It’s time to pull it off the shelf again.

  7. Drew says

    Thanks Dianne for stopping by and sharing your thoughts with us. I do fondly remember those days back “before the internet” where we actually had to drive to bookstores and could spend hours just wandering among the stacks :)

    That’s the thing about a lot of these fears is that they seem to lose some of their power over us once they are shared and exposed to the light. You do learn that it’s okay and “normal” to be afraid and that it’s simply a part of the process.

    By the way, your monster avatar reminds me of one of those chocolate Hostess cupcakes with the little white swirly icing. . . now I must find one!

  8. says

    I bought this amazing book years ago – even wrote notes in it and underlined stuff (I NEVER do that to books!) I found it again recently and put it aside to patch it up and revisit – then I started following @skinnyartist and came across this post – it’s a sign! Now where did I put that book……. when I find it I will never let it go!!

    • Drew says

      I know what you mean Sara, I hate it when I know that I have a book buried somewhere in the stacks but just can’t seem to find it. My solution is usually to go out and purchase another copy of the book, which when it arrives, will summon its lost brethren and I will find the lost copy almost immediately ;)

      I still find myself coming back to this particular book again and again because unfortunately, that sense of fear and self-doubt never really goes away no matter how long an artist has been working at his or her craft. Fear has a way of transforming itself into something new each time it pokes its ugly little head up. Just when you think you’ve moved past it, or at least outran it for a bit, it eventually catches up with you wearing a brand new disguise.

  9. says

    After years of struggling through ‘perfection paralysis’ in my art and a multitude of personal dilemmas, my husband and I found this book. I still can’t believe that was barely a year ago. The genuinely realistic view of it is something that I know I will continue to come back to.

    I just attempted to find one quote to share and felt as if I would copy the whole book! So instead I will simply agree that pages 1 through 122 are definitely the best parts of the book. :)
    {And to be completely honest, I was actually thumping through it again before I stumbled upon this article. I had to put it down to read this, need I say more? ;)}

  10. Engineer Shadi says

    Hello!I have just switched my career from engineering to art,painting to be exact.It’s a really hard thing to follow
    with every step i fell ambiguity the above statements were all great!thanks and please tell me how can i improve! thanks

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