Some artists report periods of general anxiety that come and go during their careers. The condition may include heart palpitations, sleeplessness, panic attacks, depression and feelings of inadequacy. While some of these are just part of living, they can also be brought on by the insecure and sometimes difficult nature of the artist’s life. There’s that nagging fear that work is not coming up to expectations. There can be fear of change as well as fear of stagnation. Fact is that shadowy fears and tensions can block creativity, interfere with productivity, and drag down quality.
While it’s difficult at arm’s length to prescribe antidotes when specific professional intervention may be required, there are some tactics that often give relief. It’s good to keep in mind that most creators become more fussy and particular as they go along. What might look fantastic to a twenty-year-old may not be good enough for a fifty. With aging, we discriminate more, often against ourselves.
Healthy self-delusion can go a long way toward controlling the problem. “Naming and claiming” appropriated techniques and systems gives ego-power to the studio. Creators with ripe imaginations can successfully delude themselves that they are the centre of the universe. It seems some artists saddle themselves with too much reality. Artists that I admire often have an outrageous and seemingly unsustainable fantasy of self worth. It’s not always that nice to behold, but it’s the glue that keeps them from going off the rails.
Another often effective antidote is simply a change of medium. Working within given media has a “life” that an artist can expect may diminish or even die. It’s important not to get stuck in a medium when a shift from say acrylics to oils will press the refresh button. Doldrums induced anxiety can also be reversed by a wider, pro-active pursuit of variety and creative invention. The studio needs to be looked upon as the happy hunting ground of change. I often wonder how much of the anxiety that I hear about is the result of a boring routine and sameness that gives the solitary artist too much time to go over the negatives. Mature artists who beat this devil know that when personal processes become interesting in themselves, anxieties are somewhat diminished. For creators, there’s nothing wrong with being self-absorbed.
PS: “A creative block is the wall we erect to ward off the anxiety we suppose we’ll experience if we sit down to work.” (Eric Maisel) “Work done with anxiety about results is inferior to work done without such anxiety, in the calm of self-surrender.” (Bhagavad Gita)
Esoterica: Declining prowess, both real and imaginary, can give performance anxiety to older artists. There’s the fear that you’ve lost something that won’t come back. It’s good to keep on remembering that every work has to be seen freshly and caressed as if it was totally unique. Sustained interest and excellence are enhanced by nurturing and honouring the flow of love that goes into and comes out of the work at hand. I don’t think there’s a blue pill.
Assign new areas of study
by Linda Blondheim, Gainesville, FL, USA
I avoid general anxiety by focusing on the process of painting, not the end result. I never concern myself about whether I will do a good painting or a poor one. I love the learning experience of putting paint to canvas and I assign myself a new area to study each year. I always pick a subject that I don’t like and that I am not competent in to study. Naturally, I am doing a fair number of bad paintings until my skill level catches up with my aspirations.
No anxiety in Lornaland
by Lorna Dockstader, Calgary, AB, Canada
This year is the first time before an opening that anxiety hasn’t caused sleeplessness, irritability and restlessness. Instead there has been an inner sense of calm that is almost as frightening. So much painting maybe causes one to surrender, or ingesting more B vitamins and calcium, or as a result of continued encouragement. It’s probably a combination of all of them. It could be that calmness has resulted from practicing calmness as well. I quite like it here in Lornaland.
Not all about you
by Nick Farbacher, Pittsburgh, PA, USA
The reality of a buying public who shops discount stores for everything and “Kinkade” is a standard… or maybe a symptom. The question of why am I doing this often seems pressing. Inadequacy seems to be justified by marketing and late night TV offerings to a public who can match their couch with a print for $49.95 or less… depending on the “starving artist sale” or mall special… or truck art sold by “decorators” painted off shore in oil in third world “art factories” and marked up six times and presented with a disingenuous approach. There are only so many “artists who survive,” only so many that get hung on museum walls and then there’s the anxiety that is real. The answer is to be satisfied with small things, to develop a “faith” that there is actually more to life than recognition or BMWs. I find art is self-fulfilling in the act of creating it. It’s something that doesn’t come in a software package and of course there is that wonderful Christmas-morning-like experience when someone really truly loves a piece you’ve created… No you will not get rich, or famous, or be mainstream but you are an artist. That’s a wonderful problem shared by guys who painted ceilings when he would’ve rather been doing something else. By a Dutchman who never sold a thing, with a hearing problem and now they write songs about him and is copied so widely it’s a “school of thought” so be depressed and then get over it and paint something, you’re not alone and it’s not all about you anyway.
Art always comes back
by oliver, Austin, TX, USA
General anxiety is the bridge between the manic joys of creation, exploration, new revelations, professional acceptance and reward and the depression of self critique, professional rejection and stagnation. All are part of the roller coaster ride of an artist’s life. One must learn to use each part in a constructive manner. I use the general anxiety to help with small details (but be careful not to overwork the art). The big joys for new breakthroughs (be careful to really evaluate the “breakthrough”) and the depression to really dig and tear apart the work that creates the foundation for new explorations (be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water). Sometimes, I just lock the whole stuff away for a while, or, as mentioned, change to a “hobby” medium… lately I’ve been doing bonsai. The art always comes back/out and the completely fresh perspective is good.
Antidote for anxiety
by Teresa Hitch
In defense of emotions, as artists, can we ask ourselves, “Is there beauty in anxiety?” Feelings make us who we are and deepen our human experience which we then can share with our viewers through our creative gifts. Some of my more powerful work has come from expressing emotional states of mind, including the state of anxiety. But when anxiety overwhelms me, I sometimes find myself taking life too seriously. An antidote for this state is play. My favorite “pill” at the moment is your 37-Minute Painting concept. Armed with a pad of watercolour paper, funky paints and Mozart, I do one painting after another. There’s only time for going forward. What happens is magical. Looking at the results the next day puts me back in joy mode. Not only that, some of these quickies are inspirations for future larger paintings.
by Li Hertzi, Carlsbad, CA, USA
I have recently been in the sometimes colorful, sometimes paynes-effin-grey, throws of change and anxiety. On the one hand good things are happening. I am in a book with one of my dolls, I have a show at a little coffee shop with my paintings and I am finally out of the dumpster of despair at my work place as summer approaches and cyclists all over the world are wearing the garments that we design. The change is so good, yet the anxiety has been rendered in stark acuity by visits to the hospital and general “Why” type depression, why me? Why this? Why Now? And most virulently, “Why oh Why not me?” or poor pitiful me syndrome. Art heals, I never thought I would say that, it sounds so corny, but it is true, so very true.
Lost without group interaction
by Carol Lubben, Mount Morris, IL, USA
I’ve been dealing with those feelings for as long as I have been an artist. Sometimes I think it depends on how much coffee I have consumed for the day. I live on a farm in Northern Illinois in the USA, quiet, but very isolated. I find it difficult to be creative unless I have some interaction with others. I belong to a wonderful art group which meets once a week, and we all offer each other support. I would be lost without this group. I also spend time looking at other artists on the internet. There is some incredible work out there. Sometimes I feel like I have nothing to offer, although I would feel like a part of me was missing if I didn’t paint. I found it interesting to know that other artists feel this anxiety too. Sometimes I go for a while without painting, busying myself with projects or yard work until inspiration hits me. I know I have a long way to go to meet my expectations as an artist, and I agree with the person who said that you have to paint a mile of canvas before you are any good. I learn something new each time I paint.
Dealing with General Anxiety
by Rene Seigh, Huntsville, AL, USA
I am on medication for General Anxiety Disorder (GAD), but mine is caused by my day job and relieved by painting. What I’ve learned is that the inner messages we give ourselves are critical. Anxiety is a normal fight or flight reaction, but in today’s society where we aren’t being attacked by dinosaurs, it’s usually brought on by our inner voices and “what ifs.” Becoming aware of the messages we give ourselves and replacing them with positive affirmations is critical. You can’t just tell yourself not to worry or not to think negatively. A counselor in an anxiety class used to say, as an example, “Don’t think about a pink elephant. No matter what you do, don’t think of a pink elephant…” What is the only thing you can think about at that point? A pink elephant! So it’s important to fill the void of negative messages with positive ones instead.
Meditation, progressive relaxation and visualization exercises, as well as physical exercise and yoga or similar practices can also help relieve anxiety and release the creative energy. And don’t forget to eat nutritiously and get enough sleep.
Everyone gets anxious once in awhile, but if the anxiety interferes with eating, sleeping, and general functioning for more than a couple of weeks, it might be time for professional intervention.
by Sara Sparks
I’m glad I’m not alone with “performance anxiety.” It was a relief to read your sage account of what most of us experience… except of course, those who seem to do such mediocre work and do such a lot of it, are inordinately proud of it and show it off and blather on about it and yet… who am I to point a finger when I sit around my studio staring blankly at the cluttered table and seem unable to organize my paint box, let alone focus to do something that must stand up under my own painful critiquing. I resolve to be kinder to myself today.
Body and soul
by Odette Nicholson, Saskatoon, SK, Canada
As it turns out it was my lazy lack of physical exercise combined with perhaps too much solitude this past winter which briefly lead me down that negative, fruitless path described perfectly in your letter as General Anxiety. Lesson: the mind can’t be happy if the body isn’t; never be surprised at how much energy the body can hold. The feeling of being restricted can happen to experienced artists living in the most supportive, wide open spaces. Work anxiety can be rooted in physical imbalance in the support mechanisms of the artistic nerve centre, but no one likes to hear the term Psycho-somatic applied to them, and yet, it’s exactly true. Everything is interrelated; ignore one aspect at the peril of the other.
Anxious about summer on Cape Cod
by Paul Allen Taylor, Rochester, NY, USA
I am preparing for a summer on Cape Cod where I will have a small private gallery and studio for six months. Along with sorting out all the planning for the “move,” I must remain focused on making artwork that will connect to the people that migrate to the cape every year. To compound the issue, the cape is full of artists, but also buyers.
Not having lived on the cape and only collected materials for paintings during summer visits for a week, I am short on what to paint or references to work from. By forcing myself to paint two days a week, each day a completed piece, I create something “cape-ish.” The other three days are business days, framing, phone calls, etc.
I have those fleeting moments of fear and doubt. Visions of myself sitting in the gallery for hours with no business, constantly aware of the bank account. Wondering, what can I paint that will make everyone take it home? It’s like fishing. Each painting is that one “lure” we hope will land the big one. We have hopes that when we cast, the connection is made. Generally, that’s what a lot of life is. For me, I’m trolling around not knowing where “the fish” are. What’s the lure of the day, where’s that hot spot? We have to also be selective in what we hope to catch. I had an uncle that would get in the boat and say, “Take me where they are.” I don’t recall him catching something every time, but he loved the trying.
All we can do is go out each day, cast out our lines and enjoy the moment. Let the anxiety flow out of our bodies, relish the solitude of our creative abilities and believe in ourselves. Only then can we see through murky waters to find that which we are searching for. A school of endless buyers.
Filling the gap while waiting
by Gina Eaker, Oklahoma City, OK, USA
I am an abstract painter but there have been many times over the years when it “just wasn’t there” for me. Since I have this overwhelming desire to create, whether it be a painting, or anything, for that matter, from jewelry to cooking, I decided to learn graphic art. This is interesting because I do not get the same satisfaction out of doing the graphic art as I do painting, but it fills the gap for me when I just cannot paint. Sometimes this may go on for a few months, but at least I’m creating art, and learning more and more about computer art, so in that respect it is a very good thing. And sometimes, something will come about graphically for me and I will say, “I’ve just got to paint this.”
Good to be anxious
by Karen Trythall, Los Alamos, NM, USA
I think stage fright is a good thing. It indicates you have a maximum energy to release. This can make you shake. It’s good to be anxious. The intensity is related to the content. If your work mode is a continuous calm, it is possible the work is like calm coloring book decoration. Much serotonin can be released while coloring. Beta-endorphins seem to be more closely related to creating (as well as caffeine). The latter chemicals are in the spectrum of excitement and anxiousness.
acrylic painting on canvas
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.
That includes Moncy Barbour who wrote, “The skill of the older artist is not equal to the zeal of the youthful one.”
And also Doug Mays who wrote, “Though it may seem so at times, artists do not hold a monopoly on anxiety.”
And also Paul Kane who wrote, “The hard thing for me is accepting that my artwork is not a means to improved self esteem. It is a means to itself. I don’t know why that one is such a struggle for me.”
And also Mirja Vahala who wrote, “Your letter was as if someone gave me permission to live within my imagination, where I most like to be.”
And also Anawanitia who wrote, “For me, changing mediums causes more anxiety because it presents a learning curve. The only way for me to cure anxiety is to paint, paint quickly and begin another piece with the finished piece in sight. I have panic attacks if I’m not painting.”
And also Audna Smith who wrote, “I shall put out my patio chairs and go to the library this morning.”