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 ~$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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About the Author


Writer, teacher, and head custodian of the Skinny Artist community. His new book "Getting Creative: Developing Creative Habits that Work" is all about finding the time (and energy) to live a more creative life.

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