Five faces of fear


Dear Artist,

An idea has been floating around creative circles recently that belief in the infinite potential of our dreams might reduce our ability to address limitations. When dreams fail to deliver, feelings of guilt, inadequacy, depression and self-doubt surface. Art reaches for truth, and fear is a natural hurdle in the approach. Accomplished art-making is achieved not by magic but by developing the character to understand and challenge fear. Better to roll up our sleeves than to suffer death by a thousand delusions.


“Arch of Hysteria”
1993 polished bronze
by Louise Bourgeois (1911- 2010)

Recently, a photographer and an architect came to dinner, bringing their toddler, and the discussion soon turned to dreams. “People give up on themselves too early,” the photographer said. “They’re not willing to overcome the fear that accompanies creativity.” I sat on the floor with their little one and watched her make tentative marks in my sketchbook. “Easier said than done,” said the architect. “Art is a personal offering to which we attach our self-worth.”

In an attempt to get on a first-name basis with fear, I took an inventory of my bad habits. Were they, I wondered, just sophisticated techniques developed over time to manage the quiet terrors that accompany a life in art? I want to rid the world of them — but understanding them will do. Here are the main offenders:


​Louise Bourgeois, 1990, with 1970 marble sculpture “Eye to Eye”

Procrastination (or fear of not meetings one’s own expectations):
The good news is that a 1992 study showed that while 80% of college students procrastinated, they did so mostly when they perceived the task as a struggle, not when they felt they lacked skill. In other words: less pressure, more fun.

Avoidance (or fear of unpleasantness):
I once had a gallery dump me over the phone, and for a long time afterwards I had trouble taking calls. But growth is costly, conflict is a part of life and rejection is necessary for the advancement of our stories. Avoiding confrontation, negotiations, beginnings and endings postpones the truest path.

Cynicism (or fear of being hurt):
Born from disappointment, distrust in the world is overcome by returning to a private, wonder-fuelled sanctuary for experiment and play, ready for fresh victories.

Pedestalling (or fear of one’s own direction):
Focusing on the success of others in the hope that it will rub off on you credits forces beyond your control and detracts from your personal development and uniqueness. Collaborate and share, knowing the value of your offerings.

Victim Racket (or fear of empowerment and responsibility):
Pick up your crown and put it on your head. Moment by moment, idea by idea, we renew the opportunity to think and do differently — our best art is waiting.


​​”Maman” 1999 (cast 2003)
bronze, stainless steel, and marble
by Louise Bourgeois



PS: “He has not learned the lesson of life who does not every day surmount a fear.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Esoterica: In the midst of facing your own fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland’s 1993 cult favourite, Art and Fear is a handy reader. It explores the emotional and psychological processes by which art gets made — and not made. “What separates artists from ex-artists,” say Bayles and Orland, “is that those who challenge their fears continue; those who don’t, quit.”

Share the Love.
If you find these letters beneficial, please share and encourage your friends to subscribe. The Painter’s Keys is published primarily by a team of volunteers, with a goal to reach as many creative people as possible. Thanks for your friendship.Subscribe here!

“Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better” (Emile Coue)



  1. Good article Sara. As an architect and artist, I appreciate the views of fear you expressed. They track us until we finally think/say, “enough!” And we move to the next step. Thanks,

    • I think the toddler mentioned is the best mentor. Creative play and experimenting led me into art. When I just play, all the other stuff drops away. I am content being me playing with paint. I have to say that it has taken a number of years of ups and downs for me to get to this point again.

    • Christine Walsh on

      Procrastination is my ugly pitchfork. It needs to be buried and burned. I will replace it with wings of opportunity and creative indulgence. Amen

  2. Thank you Sara. I can honestly say that when I procrastinate, the product I end up with is much better than the idea that I had originally conceived. Pam Bruno

  3. Excellent points. These are issues/caveats that go beyond art: they are applicable to society at large. Especially the part about victimhood and not accepting responsibility. I believe somewhere in the artists’ quotes section there is one attributable to Michelangelo, something like: “paint (Antonio?), paint! And do not waste time!”. In Robert’s terms: “squeeze out”. The rest of it has to be shoved off to the peripheral, or ignored completely. Failures are what inform us of how we need to do differently (or better). As you mention above, the only real failure is to give up.
    And then again, sometimes it is just laziness.

  4. Thank you to Sara and volunteers! I appreciate the letters so much and I send them on to friends…
    Even if one is not an “artist” in the literal sense, or not able to paint, write, sculpt for a period to time, the articles are so helpful. Life requires a sort of artistry, no? An injection, so to speak, of the creative spirit into one’s daily circumstances!
    This may be called ” a positive addiction” ? I am hooked!
    Some day I will get to a workshop!

  5. Procastination – all creatives suffer from it, it seems. Novelists are perhaps worse than anyone. Georges Simenon (the creator of the superb Maigret books) thought it was a kind of stage fright. I hadn’t thought of it like that before but it rings true.

    • Therese Xech on

      Great comment! Simenon certainly overcame his “stage fright” very well. Perhaps that’s why he was so prolific, he didn’t pause or dawdle—he wrote.

  6. Sara, Thank you for sharing The Five Faces of Fear as most of us go through this experience, “like it or not” and by concentrating on the “Only One Day at a Time” works for me. I have many friends that I’ll be sharing this with….

  7. I really enjoyed this article. I wanted to ask why you chose Louise Bourgeois for this one. Is perhaps because she struggled so much in her life and art yet still persisted to succeed?

    • Perhaps too, as Louise managed to do it for so long (at 98 years of age with a large portion of those being art making years)? Perhaps because her best art (arguably), was born not from running from her fears and emotional nightmares, but towards them? She dissected her experiences like a fastidious coroner, carefully weighing and investigating each trauma, each painful experience, each moment of difficulty, in order to discover that which became the foundation for each work of art.

      Thanks Sara for reminding me to look inwards & pause to reflect on the whys & whats (the self-limitations) that are causing my current art-impotency. I thought that perhaps I had no desire to make art anymore, that the ‘fire’ merely got rained out. This article reminded me that I can always put my crown back on, throw some kindling on it & reignite.

  8. thanks Sara, fear is a great subject to talk about, i think that the avoidance of feeling afraid is something our culture promotes with “positivity”…fear is a natural state which feels very uncomfortable, however if we realize it is fine to be afraid while doing something we move into a new state unlocking a paralysis caused by fear of fear…take fear by the hand, heck give it a name…(my fear is called Lola) and be there with it while doing whatever…recognzing the pattern of avoidance and having a way to accept it ok to be afraid can be helpful with moving forward through fear states into new territory

  9. Thank you, Sara. This is timely as I have been working with the complexity of fear and creativity. A colleague recommended an old article called “Success, retreat, panic: Overstimulation and depressive defense.” The examples are of artists in several creative fields who give up right when they are achieving some measure of success or recognition. The author outlines the internal complexities of this process where events become overwhelming, scary and threaten to shatter the person’s equilibrium. This occurs more often in life than we acknowledge. We can see the promised land yet scuttle back to the safety of slavery. Perhaps by naming the demons we can divert their power.

  10. Recently getting back into my studio on a regular basis has been a challenge largely due to a year of absence. Life really gets in the way sometimes. Determined to overcome I set about preparing panels, thirty of them. Layer after layer. This week I experimented with development. It became clear I needed to do one thing: go with the flow. Trusting the next step without knowing or understanding, just doing or not doing as the case may be. It feels so good to be back!

  11. Reminds me of a quote from runner John Bingham, “The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.” This quote has helped me a lot, even to start a painting. Thanks Sara.

  12. A very timely topic–just had three what I thought were really strong works rejected for a show–I have been too used to “always” having my work accepted. A good “kick in the pants” not to get complacent, but also could be a fear trap: What happened? Can I get back on track? Have I lost my “touch”? The only way out is through…

  13. Art is neither a mountain to the peak of which we must climb, nor a hole out of which we must get ourselves. It is a barrier to Creativity. Art holds within it novelty, originality and strongly felt emotions. Even though it was Creative, novel, original and filled with emotions, one would never put into art’s catagory the Atom Bomb

    Art has long been thought to be the product of logical thinking and indeed throughout the early times when most artists were concrete-sequential thinkers trying their best to copy reality as they perceived it, they strove to make pictures.
    Only recently, within the last 100 plus years, have artists made use of their emotions to tell art’s stories in ways that encouraged deeper feeling-involvement.
    Wassily Kandinsky is generally regarded as the originator of abstract art. However, a Swedish woman called Hilma af Klint (1862–1944) might claim that title, since it is she and not WK who painted the very first abstract painting. When Wassily Kandinsky wrote to his New York gallery owner Jerome Neumann in December 1935, he was clearly anxious to reassure Neumann once and for all that Kandinsky had painted his first abstract picture in 1911: “Indeed, it’s the world’s first ever abstract picture, because back then not one single painter was painting in an abstract style; it is an ‘historic painting’, in other words.” Sadly, this historic painting was thought lost. The artist thoughtlessly neglected to take it with him when he left Russia in 1921 for Germany, before later moving on to France. He should have known that the art world was engaged in a contest of prima pintura. To be acknowledged as having produced the First Abstract Painting had become a highly coveted prize. Discovering which modern artist could truthfully claim that prize was still being contended. The other leading candidates were František Kupka, Robert Delaunay, Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich. What Kandinsky did not know is that a Swedish woman painter by the name of Hilma Af Klint had produced her first abstract painting in her Stockholm studio in 1906, five years before Kandinsky. What’s more, she had taken almost exactly the same creative route towards abstraction. Without knowing of each other’s existence, the two artists seem to have travelled for a long way like two trains journeying upon parallel creative tracks. Klint arrived five years before Kandinsky.
    Who was this mysterious woman, Hilma Af Klint? And how did she become an artist during those male-dominated times? Two aspects of her biography would give her a distinct advantage. First, she was an admiral’s daughter born in 1862 in Sweden, a country that permitted women to study art well before France, Germany or Italy. As a result, she was able to enroll at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm in 1882. After graduating five years later, she obtained the lease on a studio in the city’s artists’ quarter and gradually gained recognition as a landscape and portrait painter. She also had a passion for the study of plants and animals, and in 1900/1901 worked as a draughtswoman for the Veterinary Institute.
    Secondly, Klint was born into a protestant family and came into early contact with Theosophy. It doesn’t take a spiritualist to see the advantages that Theosophy could offer a young artist. In the nineteenth century no one doubted that great works depended on equally great inspiration. Hardly any man, however, believed that when women painted, the higher powers came into play. Theosophy, founded by a woman (the Russian Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, at one time living in West Philadelphia), viewed things quite differently. Women were welcomed as members and indeed some held senior positions of responsibility. In short, The Theosophical Society was the first religious organization in Europe that did not discriminate against women. Klint was only seventeen when she attended her first spiritualist séance. This experience appears to have opened her mind to the unlimited possibilities resident in the artistic life.
    In 1905 she reported that she had heard a voice that had given her the following message: “You are to proclaim a new philosophy of life and you yourself are to be a part of the new kingdom. Your labors will bear fruit.” Between November 1906 and March 1907 she painted a series of abstracts; they were dreamy, small-format canvases entitled Primordial Chaos. Some of them are reminiscent of landscapes, of a stormy sea above which flicker mysterious lights. Others break entirely free from representation, combining geometric shapes such as spirals with dynamic brushstrokes, letters of the alphabet and symbols. The mood is expressive and resembles that of the drawings she made apparently unconsciously in a trance state during séances in the 1890s. The Surrealists were later to call this method ‘automatic drawing’.
    Klint’s Primordial Chaos series was the seed from which almost 200 abstract paintings were to develop over the following years. Between August and December 1907 Klint created a series of monumental works entitled The Ten Biggest, characterized by ovals, circles and serpentine lines in joyful colors. The organic forms of the early abstractions gave way to rigorous geometrics. In 1914/1915 she painted The Swan, composed of circular forms on a red ground. This painting and its companion pieces were visibly foundational to later lithographs by M. C. Escher. By the time of her death in 1944, the painter had shown none of her abstract works in any exhibition.
    Sadly, she appears to never been accepted into the male dominated abstract art scene.
    During the same years that Klint was discovering abstraction, a movement titled Constructivism came upon the art scene:
    Constructivism was the last and most influential modern art movement to flourish in Russia in the 20th century. It debuted just as the Bolsheviks came to power in the October Revolution of 1917, and initially it acted as a lightning rod for the hopes and ideas of many of the most advanced Russian artists who supported the revolution’s goals. It borrowed ideas from Cubism, Suprematism and Futurism, but at its heart was an entirely new approach to making objects, one which sought logically to abolish the traditional artistic concern with composition, and replace it with ‘construction.’ Constructivism called for a dispassionate, careful technical analysis of modern materials, and it was hoped that this investigation would eventually yield ideas that could be put to use in mass production, serving the ends of a modern, Communist society. Unfortunately, however, the movement foundered in trying to make the transition from the artist’s studio to the factory.
    Some continued to insist on the value of abstract, analytical work and the value of art per se; these artists had a major impact on spreading Constructivism throughout Europe. Others, meanwhile, pushed on to a new but short-lived and disappointing phase known as Productivism, in which artists worked in industry. Russian Constructivism was in decline by the mid 1920s, partly a victim of the Bolshevik regime’s increasing hostility to avant-garde art even though it seemed to be somehow related to the national “religion” of Marxism in Russia at the time; Dialectic Materialism. But it would continue to be an inspiration for artists in the West, sustaining a movement called International Constructivism which flourished in Germany in the 1920s, and whose legacy endured into the 1950s.
    These two powerful and opposed art movements colored the years after the First World War. Other movements also appeared, stemming from these two, but not as powerful in attracting adherents.
    One of these was named Dada: “Dada does not mean anything.. We read in the papers that the Negroes of the Kroo race call the tail of the sacred cow: dada. A cube, and a mother, in certain regions of Italy, are called: Dada. The word for a hobby-horse, a children’s nurse, a double affirmative; Da-Da in Russian and Rumanian, is also: Dada.” Tristan Tzara
    Now you can readily understand that art during the beginning of the twentieth century was bifurcated in that Abstraction was emotional while Constructivism was attenuated emotional. Actually, many Russian artists liked to think as logically as they could and that type of thinking was injected into Constructivism and Futurism. Dada, on the other hand, was dubbed Art-anti-Art.
    In Vienna Austria around 1900, there was also a renaissance of art and enlightenment of the mind. Intellectuals were beginning to look inward, trying to understand human emotional motivation. This began to affect the artists’ attitudes and spurred them to greater depths of self-examination. Gustave Klimt was at the forefront of this “Modernist” movement, founding The Vienna Kunstlerhaus with Joseph Hoffmann, Joseph Maria Olbrich, Max Kurzweil and others. Architect Otto Wagner was the reigning design force within the intellectual movement, having almost single handedly redesigned the city at the behest of the Emperor. Psychiatrist/analyst Sigmund Freud was pioneering the use of hypnosis in treating hysteria. Josef Hoffmann and Joseph Maria Olbrich joined with Otto Wagner to create a new Vienna Style of Architecture.
    Personally, I can see evidence that art is both emotional and logical as well as so much more because of the great complexity of feelings generated by association with production of art. Now, here in the 21st Century we are entering a new paradigm of electronic art, made available over the Internet. We have new heroes driving our culture and it is up to us to recognize who they are and what they think.
    Nic East, Jim Thorpe PA January 2016

    • Thanks for letting us know about Hilga,very interesting as I am a theisophical and automatic art is probably why my paintings seem to reflect different emotions.I really enjoyed reading your response

  15. That was good Sara, thanks. Reading it reminded me of Robert Browning’s poem Andrea del Sarto. –Poor Andrea del Sarto. A successful Italian painter who was overshadowed by his contemporaries, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael. We admire the works of Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael while Andrea del Sarto is almost forgotten. Yet that is what makes him more like most of us.

    The famous line in the poem was: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for” We should keep striving to do better, to reach loftier heights.

    We may not be remembered outside our own circle of family and friends, but that does not take the edge off the desire and zeal with which you pursue your dreams and aspirations. We may not always get what we want, and we may want more if we do, but that is life. A constant yearning.

  16. You sure address all that has been fomenting and swirling around in my head here. Wonderful insights with which I will now step forward and use to grow stronger and more sure.

  17. Thank you, Sara! I feel much more grounded after reading your article! Your final words of putting on your crown …… – our best art is waiting… me a tool to apply positive reinforcements in my work.

    Your article also triggered an idea that I received from reading a book entitled, Art Without Rejection by Sheila Reid where she delves into ways to find success as an artist. One idea that I gleaned was to apply to a juried gallery show before you get the result back from the previous one. Well, who am I really trying to fool? Anyways, it is worth reading her practical ways and means, albeit, a little outdated with today’s access to the information highway.

  18. Beautiful writing, Sara, and what a powerful message. Alan Wylie told me about your and your father, and gave me your address. I had the privilege of assisting Alan on two large murals, and he was so inspiring. He had such high regard for his friend Bob Genn. He thinks Sara is pretty special, too. I am grateful for how positive you are in your letters. A mainstay for me

  19. Thanksomuch for the super article. I liked: “Art is a personal offering to which we attach our self-worth.”

    I remembered the first shown artworks when I was a girl – the sky-high anxiety to do it “just right”. The fear that there was something witchy or evil about ‘being creative” because of the way the adults who visited would occasionally speak of it. “She’s so Cre ATE ive !” I had real fears that my art might bring the world to an end unless I did it right….Thank goodness it passed. I tried to keep such in mind in my work with children later. And I think I did alright – it’s pretty fancy, analyzing the good of a thing.

    Thanks for this and all the other insights your story has shared.



  20. Christina MacLean on

    I so look forward to receiving your wonderful letters Sara. The content is always interesting, creative and thought provoking. I often forward to friends and my children as the letters aren’t just inspirational in our world of art and creativity….. but life in general. Thank you so very much.

  21. All children are artists. That’s even hinted at in your article, Sara, in the doodling of your friends’ toddler. Children don’t have fear of drawing, or creating, because that fear is learned. As we grow, we begin to compare ourselves with others: society even encourages this, through academic testing, participation in sports, and general classifications of children into different “groups”, both within and without the classroom.
    This comparison is a deadly pastime, which can only yield feelings of inferiority or superiority. What is most crucial to the creative act is a healthy sense of personal identity and a curiosity to explore. Most all children have that. Fear of the blank canvas, among artists, must be learned. As Picasso observed, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

  22. Sara and all volunteers, thank you for this inspirational post. Also thank you to all who commented on this post.
    Today, I’ve learned more from all of you. With gratitude I’m passing this on to my friends and fellow artists. Blessing to all!

  23. Perfect timing as I just got a rejection letter to something I was so excited about participating in. This list really helps me move forward. Thanks so much!

  24. Sara, I think you hit the nail on the head. There are many of us out there who are on our own journeys to find our voice in artistic expression. We have experienced the times of frustration, self doubt, and periods when we feel lost. When that happens we feel that it is a personal weakness or inadequacy and many give up. “Guess I’m not really the artist I think I am.” goes through our minds. We feel that we’ve failed. But knowing that its part of the process is freeing for us. It’s part of the journey. Picking up the paint brush and be willing to push through the growth process is vital to goung to the next level. Letting go of ego. That’s the tough part. But if you can and accept the part that’s its part of growth it gives tremendous freedom.

Leave A Reply

Featured Workshop

featured-workshop 16465

Featured Artist


Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

Subscribe and receive the Twice-Weekly letter on art. You’ll be joining a worldwide community of artists.
Subscription is free.