General anxiety


Dear Artist,

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.

Casanova, Haafell, Iceland, 2014 Archival pigment print 39 × 52 inches by R.J. Kern (b. 1978)

Casanova, Haafell, Iceland, 2014
Archival pigment print
39 × 52 inches
by R.J. Kern (b. 1978)

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.

Curly, Otter Tail County, Minnesota, USA, 2015 Archival pigment print 39 × 52 inches by R.J. Kern

Curly, Otter Tail County, Minnesota, USA, 2015
Archival pigment print
39 × 52 inches
by R.J. Kern

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.

Best regards,


Rylee and Nelly, Clay County Fair, Minnesota, 2016, 2016 Archival pigment print 56 × 44 inches by R.J. Kern

Rylee and Nelly, Clay County Fair, Minnesota, 2016, 2016
Archival pigment print
56 × 44 inches
by R.J. Kern

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.

This letter was originally published as “General anxiety” on April 12, 2005.

I wish each and every one of you well during this global health crisis and encourage you to flatten the curve by staying at home with your creative materials. I hope our Painter’s Keys community can be a source of friendship and creative inspiration during this time and always.
In friendship, Sara 

Olaf, Lofoten Islands, Norway, 2013 Archival pigment print 39 × 52 inches by R.J. Kern

Olaf, Lofoten Islands, Norway, 2013
Archival pigment print
39 × 52 inches
by R.J. Kern

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“Anxiety is the hand maiden of creativity.” (T. S. Eliot)





  1. Catherine Mills on

    Thanks for the sustainment…working on commissions that don’t require creativity, and doing experiments, since I now have to time to make lots of ‘mistakes’. Thanks for just sharing these nuggets, they help enormously.

  2. The quiet pleasure of plein air paint or working on a large studio landscape canvas has never really caused me much concern or anxiety. There is just me and the landscape and my paints. Courage is necessary and risk taking a requirement but anxiety never seems to get a hand on my brushes. However, once the work is done and I must turn around and represent the work and find homes for the pieces, this is when self doubt will sometimes have its way with me. Sometimes the only cure is to set the finished work aside until such time as I can comes to term with it, sometimes this can take years even. Thankfully, about 80 % of the paintings have only a moment or two of that sinking feeling when I realize that what I had imagined in my mind’s eye is never going to appear on this specific canvas and I must settle for what has been rendered and move on to the next and try again. These moments are the fuel that drives desire to do better and explore further and push at the edges in new ways, rather than becoming a crippling doubt or frustration. After all, I am not my paintings. They must stand on their own and hold onto the viewer on their own merit, regardless of me or maybe even in spite me. All the best of today everyone!

  3. Thank you for this encouraging message. I am stuck in painter’s block, for fear of failing skills, have not been able to shake loose. I appreciate the suggestions in todays post.

    • A German artist who was studying to be an art therapist, introduced me to”messy painting”. Big brushes, large cheap paper, Water based paint and each effort to last only 3minutes each. Sounds simple but it brought me out my creative block, cured a migraine and helped me with a personal problem. Later my husband used messy painting as background for a number of his oils.

    • Earlier today, I came across this bit of wisdom that you might find speaks to you as well, Sentelle.

      “Remorse, regret, guilt, grief, sadness, or any other form of judgement, are the results of your perception, not of the past, of circumstances, or of your former actions. Change the perception and your judgement will be replaced with acceptance and love.”

      From the heart,


  4. I periodically become bored with what I am working on and in the past few months have begun a number of pieces and then not completed them. I have been changing things up, experimenting and doing work that seems unrelated to previous work and agree that “Doldrums induced anxiety can also be reversed by a wider, pro-active pursuit of variety and creative invention.” However! This causes another type of anxiety when I see other artists who have a very cohesive and consistent body of work and I wonder if I am better off pressing on in the same direction or trusting the need for variety. Healthy self delusion seems in short supply these days! Thanks for your letters.


  5. stephan chmilnitzky on

    Yes we need to listen to what the body and our deep sense of knowing is trying to tell us to not only step away but dump those boxes of paints,brushes and how-to books in the trash bin. You are not the type to waste another forty years hoping that you are at last found as a creative genius by some wandering art know-it-all willing to guide you and your work into a top gallery! Please go find a honest job(ask mom she knows). If your still around after my pleas, then just get to work and don’t act like a victim!

  6. Katrina Danikenko on

    My studio itself, is my art form right now. I photograph it as if something dynamic and amazing is taking place with the palette, brushes, all the art paraphanelia, even the studio dog and the proper light is all set for “action”. I know something will come of this and I have many friends Nd designers waiting….

  7. No one is obligated to be an artist. It can be a hobby only.
    Even if you went to art school, you can still be working at something else by day. And do your painting at night.
    What I like is the work of other artists and striving to be as good as they are.
    It takes a lot of practice, just like playing an instrument.
    Both art and music require us to learn another language. We should get some credit for being “bilingual”.
    Give yourself breaks. Then dive in again.
    If people ask what you have done recently, and the answer is “nothing”, just say your muse is not checking in, lately.

    • In the end, what does it matter? Your art is yours, and no one else’s! So do what you like and mess
      around if you feel like it. Paint seriously if you feel like it. There is something good about a piece of your art that didn’t work……….you can change it as many times as you want. Just paint over the top of old work. Layers are interesting! Since it doesn’t matter, it may just work out. If not, nothing lost. Is this self delusion too?

      Thank you Sara for all the insights that we find on your newsletter. I look forward to them every week.

  8. Thank you to Sara, Robert and everyone!!
    Perfect timing to hear and feel the vibrant energy from your posts. I sure appreciate everyones ideas.

    It is helping to be gaining the awareness that some times of low or no production – things are always percolating in the background.

    Wishing ease and flow

  9. The timing of this article was perfect. I am struggling with relevance and the niggling feeling that I need a different direction and feel a bit like a right handed person, writing with their left hand, as I try to explore something new. I’m having trouble looking inward, for the answer and wish someone could direct me. Oh well, this too will pass. Take good care, everyone and stay safe.

  10. I love this letter! And it was exactly what I needed to hear TODAY! So timeless and relevant is this advice, I am rereading again, and treasuring the carefully chosen quotes. Thanks for sharing these wise words again, from 15 years ago, Sara. I can still hear your dad’s voice, reassuring and true.

  11. Some wise person once said. “Painting is a verb.” I paint for the joy of the act. If the results are good that’s fine but if they aren’t then there is more reason to start the joyful act agIn!

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Sharon Rusch Shaver Gulf Islands Afternoon 48 x 36 inch oil on canvas by Terrill Welch

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I am a landscape painter exposing the mystery in an ordinary day.