This has nothing to do with making it


Dear Artist,

An art photographer friend recently revealed she was emerging from a six-month fog. “Clients put my personal work on hiatus. I was in such a creative block I just dove into helping others and forgot about myself,” she said. “I got stuck in fear.” I asked her if she were to put her fears into words, what would be her Top 3? “Me?” she asked. “Okay, here goes:


“The Problem We All Must Live With”
depiction of Ruby Bridges, the first black child to attend an all white elementary school in the South
by Norman Rockwell (1894-1978)

“Fear of no one caring, or my work being worthless.

“Fear of not achieving what my mind thinks I can create (fear of not being able to execute.)

“Fear of not making a difference in the world, of not making a commentary that people can get, or be moved by (fear of not being understood.)”


“Freedom of Speech” 1943
oil on canvas
by Norman Rockwell

I noticed that her words rang as a kind of amalgamated, universal truth — something that perhaps nags all of us, artists or otherwise, at one time or another. We all want to matter, to be seen, and to know that what we do is not meaningless. The question then becomes, “What is it, exactly, that gives our work meaning? Is it the doing? Is it the completion? Is it the connection? Is it the applause?”

Growing up in an artist’s household, my brothers and I noticed that perhaps the most important quality of an artist is the belief in the value of the attempt. The cold, hard truth is that the world doesn’t miss your as-yet unrealized ideas. The care must come from you and you alone — the momentum and the effort, simply, all your responsibility. So what is it that will propel us to make the attempt again today? Here’s an exercise:

Consider for a moment, that the word “belief” is the opposite of the word “fear.” You can substitute “delusion,” or even “compulsion,” for “belief” if it makes you feel more comfortable. Swirl around in the decadence of your own “belief,” and imagine the life-preserving and vital importance of the small or big idea you are about to attempt to materialize. “Artists don’t get down to work,” wrote David Bayles, “until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working.”


“Breaking Home Ties” 1954
oil on canvas
by Norman Rockwell



PS: “What separates artists from ex-artists is that those who challenge their fears continue; those who don’t, quit.” (David Bayles, Art and Fear)

Esoterica: In Jerry Seinfeld’s 2002 documentary Comedian, Jerry walks off the stage and meets a fan waiting in the wings. After introducing himself as a struggling comic, the fan asks Jerry if there’s a time to give up. “Is time running out?” asks Jerry. “Do you have something else you would rather been doing? Do you have other appointments or other places you have to be?” “Not necessarily,” replies the fan. “But you get to the point of, ‘How much longer can I take it?’ I’m getting older. I’m 29. I feel like I’ve sacrificed so much of my life. The last 3 years have been a blur. I see all my friends are making a lot of money. My friends are… you know, they’re moving up, and I’m worried…” “They’re moving up?” blurts Jerry. “Are you out of your mind? This has nothing to do with your friends. No. This is a special thing. This has nothing to do with making it.”


“War News” ca. 1945
oil on canvas
by Norman Rockwell

The comic replies, “…did you ever stop and compare your life and go, ‘My friends are all married, they’re all having kids, they all have houses, they have some sort of sense of normality.’” “Let me tell you a story,” says Jerry. “My favourite story about show business: Glenn Miller’s orchestra, they were doing some gigs somewhere. They couldn’t land where they were supposed to land, because it was winter — a snowy night. So they had to land in this field and walk to the gig. And they were dressed — in their suits. They were ready to play. They were carrying their instruments. So they were walking through the snow, and it was wet and it was slushy. And in the distance they saw this little house. And there were lights on in the inside and a billow of smoke coming out of the chimney. They went up to the house and they looked in the window and saw this family. There was a guy and his wife and she was beautiful. And there were two kids. And they were all sitting around the table. And they were smiling, they were laughing and they were eating. And there was a fire in the fireplace. And these guys were standing there in their suits, wet and shivering, holding their instruments. They were watching this incredible Norman Rockwell scene. One guy turned to the other guy and said, ‘How do people live like that?’”


The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are now available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“To the artist, all problems of art appear uniquely personal. Well, that’s understandable enough, given that not many other activities routinely call one’s basic self-worth into question.” (David Bayles, Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking)



  1. Thanks I do wonder. But does it really matter?
    Yes it matters to me. I don’t need to have approval from someone else.
    If I can lift my brush and put paint on paper I can do anything. That’s enough for me.

    • Yes, I’m coming to realize that and I’m almost 73! Its me and my art and what I want/need to do when I want to do it. I’m not worrying about other’s opinions because they have their own battles within themselves. We’re all different, with different strengths and fears – don’t have time to worry about others…just give it a go…

  2. Fear has pummeled me into a deep rabbit hole as well as tamp down any chance of excavating myself. I fail at the answer of how to do that. A life event happened and I allow it to strip away my joy. Thanks for sharing this. It helps.

    • Louanne Headrick on

      You, by the spark of life you hold within, are created equally to all others. All living beings contain the spark. Your joy is held within your own psyche and your soul. It is there awaiting a release of it into your every day. It is simple and it is complex but it is your thoughts alone which can change the fear into joy. No life event should be able to garner the power to strip away joy. You said the magic word (allow) for you allowed an event to take hold of your attitude and thus your ability to act. Deny all of it for on the broader plane (for all of us), these distractions are just that. Demand of yourself that you claim your joy and you will. Blessings,

      • Incredibly sage advice here. I have been where you are, Suzanne. And I have done for myself as Louanne has advised and have found my happy place in creating again. When it comes to creativity, no one can take from us that which we are unwilling to give.

      • OMG Louanne, your advice goes straight to the center of my struggle, I’m going to write this down to remember each and every time I allow anything to derail my joy! Your comments and Sara’s post were my destiny to read today!

    • Suzanne – my heart goes out to you. But your joy is still there inside you. Somehow, one day, you will remember something a loved one did or said, or you will hear a song thrush sing in Spring, or you will realise that true loves who have left this world wouldn’t want you to grieve or hurt for too long and would WANT you to be joyful again. And you will be. Keep the faith, and let your painting help you back up the ladder to happiness again. It will. Blessings, Jenny p.s. – also read the next comment by Louanne Headrick – a beautiful poem, and so true, to the joy within us.

  3. Sara – My new favourite letter from you ……. [ after the one about Scotland]…. I especially like the esoterica ….. My artist residency in Mexico is bringing me surprising and wonderful decisions about my next painting explorations and my life – I’m getting a new art critic in my life that I can discuss my work with on a serious level – yes I am getting a boxer puppy in May ……. who knew that my time in Mexico would allow me to fall in love with boxers …….

    • Sara – After struggling long and hard with the question of “being relevant” and “making a difference” I came to the conclusion that making art was just part of my whole story, my whole identity. Sometimes I am called to take care of grandchildren, clean my house, make a meal, go for walk and somehow that is what makes you whole, as I see it. We put too much pressure on making art when sometimes we really have nothing to say or even observe in that moment. Yes, we can show up in the studio but sometimes I just need to meditate instead of getting “busy”. Enjoy and celebrate your “whole” life, because the “art making” part flows from the other parts as we stumble upon inspiration while peeling the carrots sometimes!

      • So well put….exactly right, we never know where inspiration will come from. For the action part: I’ve been given lots of plein air and sourthwest art etc wonderful mags of other people’s art. I’m looking thru them for inspiration even while watching tv at night. I am learning about what I like and what I don’t – then when I find one I like I sketch it out, but not exactly, using shapes and colors and lines I like – I esp like to use color stix as they get ideas out fast…fodder for my own paintings

        • Mary… the age of 70 my father took up oil painting to help pass the days during his retirement. He took a weekly life drawing class to give him inspiration, and within three years he was producing award winning portraits in oils, and he painted daily until he passed away peacefully at the age of 84…..and everybody always thought I was the first artist in our family! As I always told my students, you’re never too old to start painting.

  4. Dearest Suzanne. That low place has a powerful gravity. It is inside you and sucks you inside out. This hole is a hole in you and a hole you are in. No where to go. I have found myself in such a place for a surprisingly long time. Fought tooth and nail and exhausted myself to no avail.
    Once I nearly drowned on mouth full of orange juice in the middle of a desert in Africa. (not making this up). Was guzzling it down when my companion made me laugh and I took a lung full. I could not breathe. My friend tried to save me but just caused more panic. I just could not suck air into myself. It was like a door was shut. After a couple of minutes I actually resigned myself to dying by the side of the road and stopped struggling. I felt peace and said goodbye to the blue sky and the red earth. And after another minute, I heard a gurgling sound and felt the bubbles at my throat. Some how the air was seeping in.
    M. Scott Peck opens his book with this paragraph;
    “Life is difficult.
    This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult- once we truly understand and accept it- then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters”.
    Take heart Suzanne. Life will breathe for you yet. x

    • How very true. Been there and done that. Both choking to near death & its acceptance; and being kept from expressing my inner self. “…once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters”. Dixie

  5. I’m enjoying these letters but I have to say the opposite of fear is not belief. Google is your friend, it led me to antonyms at They are ranked by relevance and then by alphabetical order:
    assurance calmness cheer confidence contentment ease encouragement faith happiness joy trust calm comfort like liking love bravery courage fearlessness heroism unconcern

  6. Sara,

    These are a few thoughts I had as I finished reading another of your wonderful letters.

    Looking at what others are doing, wondering if their life is better than mine, is such a jealousy trap. Fear of lack can always make us stumble, but falling back occasionally to look at our current life situation is not a bad thing. At 29, 69, 89 or 109 years old, creativity, combined with our willingness to use it only for good, is surely our most important gift. Our minds have complete control over it. Our thoughts direct every moment and emotion of our lives. We can choose right now how we react to stimuli of any kind. If I “believe” I am cold, angry, irritated, in a hurry, or frightened or anxious, I AM. If I “believe” I am warm, happy, have plenty of time, successful, loving, deserving, truthful, and blessed, I AM becoming by creating with my thoughts that which I believe. The only way of knowing if our creative mind is working is by becoming aware of what thoughts you are concentrating on the most in life. Am I currently thinking constantly about something in my past that has hurt me in some way? If it did not destroy me, I am now determined in going on ahead without it bothering me anymore. Am I thinking about something someone else has and thinking I want that too? There is plenty for everyone, so why have fear of lack? Letting go of debilitating thoughts, sometimes over and over is so necessary. Replace them with powerful thoughts from your unique creative viewpoint. It will be worth it in the long run. Soon the falling back will be pushing you ahead with possibilities only you could have dreamed up! What we think about comes about. Take your intention, from the moment you wake up in the morning until you go to sleep at the end of the day and give it wings!


  7. This was your best letter yet, Sara. And “Art and Fear” is one of the best books on this subject that I’ve read, maybe THE best. Those two are like Siamese twins, art and fear, permanently linked. We’re either afraid we can’t stop doing it or afraid we can’t keep doing it. “Artists don’t get down to work,” wrote David Bayles, “until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working.” That last pain is the worst, and there’s no pain-killer for it. Sing, O muse!

  8. This is a great, thought provoking article. It makes me reflect on why I became an artist in the first place. I felt a deep desire and need to simply create something that came from inside me. A unique thing that nobody else created, just me. Creating art is a lonely process for me. There’s nobody to accept or reject my work and it has to stand up to my standards and no one else. I’ve created hundreds of pieces of art over my lifetime. Many of them sit in my garage, collecting dust but many of them are now in someone’s home. I have found that I have to maintain my confidence in my work because if I don’t, fear will creep in and steal my confidence. For me, maintaining confidence in my vision keeps fear at bay and my confidence shows in my work. In the end, I desire to make art so I make it and to hell with the critics, the non-committal glances, the shallow pratter and giggles, the dismissive better-thans and the art snobs of small towns and big cities. Be brave, face your fear and create.

  9. The letter is so profound and couldn’t be more timely. It’s as if you have looked in my window and found me in the “black hole” of non creativity, questioning my ability, purpose and value. Its a daily struggle right now …to find something in myself that’s worth expressing in any media, I am pushing…trying to produce in fiber, ink or on canvas. Hoping that a blossom of some sort will form and lead me back to what I was.
    But your letter, and those that followed are bright lights and cause for some serious reflection.
    Thank you.

    • Susan, I think every artist will recognise your ‘black hole’ periods. I’m 68 and have been an artist all my life, and have still not entirely learned to navigate those dry periods of no inspiration and the doubt that brings.

      In fact in relation to painting, I’m in one of those holes myself now. All I can do is relax into it and trust it will pass. Working through it, as you’re doing, can be useful as well. What I’m doing right now is just hobby stuff, it is creative, meditative and relaxing. (see my blog about Johan Scherft’s paper birds.
      Hang in there, it will all come back again, I promise. cheers, Sarah

  10. Wonderful letter, Sara. You must do it for you and no one else. To those who are “stuck”, you must continue to work, inspired or not. No new ideas or learning ever comes from doing nothing.

    • Thank you for the wonderful letter. It’s a great read…full of nuggets to treasure. I have those same universal fears of failure and insignificance. Perhaps in the larger scheme of life, we all get to run the course and look for the answers to our life’s meaning. Obstacles make us stronger or they defeat us into quitting. I had a turning point one time when my husband criticized my painting (that I thought was great) and I silently went back to my art room feeling knocked down. I stood at my table and out loud said, ‘No matter what anyone says, I will paint and I will NEVER give up’. That was a huge dose of inner resolve! Making that statement has carried me through into better and better work. My husband is still s a tough critic but now he often says ‘that’s terrific’ or ‘time to sign it’. Sorrows and disappointment will pass if we choose to think of our goal with single minded resolve. Another strategy I use to handle failure is to honestly cry when a piece is not up to my standards and after the cry, throw it away. It’s sad. Yes. But it moves me forward into acceptance…to accept myself and let go of the clunkers. Keeping them in the closet and hoping they magically ‘fix’ themselves is a lousy thing to do to ourselves. One of the reasons I paint is that it’s the one thing in life that I completely control. Painting is my own world – on my own terms. When I sit down to paint….no one tells me what to paint, how to paint it or what to do with it when it’s finished. I get to make all the rules! I can’t say that about anything else in my life! I love art.

  11. Thanks for a great letter. I want to add a strong recommendation for Bayles and Orland’s book, ‘ Art and Fear’. A classic with helpful insights into many aspects of what it takes to hang in there long enough to become a’veteran’ artist.

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