Unconscious confidence


Dear Artist,

“If you think you’re outclassed, you are,

You’ve got to think high to rise.

You’ve got to be sure of yourself,

Before you can win the prize.” (Author unknown — from the Painter’s Keys Art Quotes — Confidence)

During the recent Olympics the term “unconscious confidence” was bandied about. Interviewers lauded those who had it and lamented those who didn’t. Winners won with it and losers lost for the want of it.

How do people get to this state of inner strength? How does unconscious confidence apply to fields like ours?

Training: Serious folks need to train so hard that the skills get into their bones. In art, there’s no net, bar, distance or time to which all comers must apply. Goals need to be self-set and training must be done on one’s own. This takes character, and like any athlete, it takes some hard work. Coaches may be the guides, but it’s the trainees themselves who need to take measure — small gains are the makings of medal-material.

Focus: Focus is the conscious removal of distractions — from a sore toe to the roar of the crowd. The world is a noisy stadium that contrives for us to go off the track. Cutting out ambient hysteria is a learned skill. It means a total concentration on the job at hand. Focus can be understood as a kind of self anointed me-ism — and it’s okay to feel that way when the action is needed. In the artist’s world, personal mannerisms, processes, techniques and stylistic tendencies are sacrosanct, a mind-state similar to common belief. While artists may be wildly exploratory, the winners need to run like they’ve already won.

Pressure: Pressure means expectations and competition. Without competition, bars are blurred, standards are sullied and mediocrity triumphs. While individualism is key, “I just paint for me,” the artistic catchword of our times, doesn’t cut it if you’re looking for transcendent quality. To get to the gold, artists need to look over their shoulders and see what’s out there. They need to marry desire with effort. Like the pressure to shave a fraction off a second, the artist feels the need for nuance, flair and creative signature. In our game it’s a tough order because the whole team generally resides within one body. Pressure allows self-trained focus to score.

Best regards,


PS: “Nothing builds confidence like accomplishment.” (Thomas Carlyle)

Esoterica: Reinventing daily, artists build muscles yet unknown to themselves. With self-training, focus and pressure we gain unconscious confidence. Gradually and inevitably, we achieve our personal best. We begin to take liberties with stride and stroke. Work becomes play, and the process becomes its own reward. We keep stroking. We look over our shoulders. We smile at the crowd.


Know who you are
by Sandy McMullen, Toronto, ON, Canada


“Beyond the blue”
acrylic painting, 30 x 40 inches
by Sandy McMullen

I always marvelled at painting classes I attended where people bemoaned the fact that they had only gotten to painting once or twice since the last semester or the last year for that matter. When I am painting, a lot of my confidence increases because the muscles are there. I actually think a lot about these issues and focus on combining personal development and art in my work. My mantra is know who you are and your natural strengths, motivations and align with them even in your art. This means that you get to stop trying to be like some other artist that you admire and be yourself. That is a huge confidence boost in itself; for example, my work space is messy because I am working on several things at once. Some would tsk tsk at that but I understand that this drive for expediency shows up everywhere when I am in the flow.


Athletic training helps art
by Andrea Harris, Chicago, IL, USA


oil painting, 36 x 40 inches
by Andrea Harris

I identify with Robert’s comments because I am an artist and a former nationally ranked athlete. From my experience as an athlete, the ability to focus and “know the competition” has truly helped me soar to stages of expression that has resulted in artistic success. As an athlete, there would be experiences during training that, within the running and cycling community, would be called “character building.” Those days the weather would be formidable. The ability to focus through adverse conditions would give me inner strength during the real competition. Today, as an artist, I “draw” upon my experience as an athlete and what has now become part of my soul. My husband refers to me as a “feminine woman made of a titanium spine.” That description is my most favourite compliment.


Weird art competitions
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA


oil painting
by Coulter Watt

I always thought art competitions were downright weird. The slippery slope of standards starts with a committee selecting of a jury, then the entrants are subjected to the judges’ tastes. At the local “prestigious” annual juried show I won first prize for traditional still life painting and the next year was rejected from the show after entering an equally good work. Go figure. You win some, rejected from others, but what competitions do best is expose artists’ work to a broader audience, naturally winning a cash prize comes in handy and allows the artist to pump out a Press Release to the media. That last bit is very important because in these economic times newspapers have eliminated the Art Critics from their payrolls. Whatever you think about the process don’t prejudge the judges and remember that the rewards of juried shows allow artists to be self-promoting, build name recognition, branding, shameless commercialization, call it what you like, it leads to sales of your work. The marketplace declares the ultimate winners.

There are 2 comments for Weird art competitions by Coulter Watt

From: Gavin Calf — Aug 31, 2008

Hi Coulter, I was not accepted for the prestigious Spier Contemporary Art Competition 2008, (first prize R100 000, or $14 000) and I was turned down for a space at our well attended Grahamstown Arts Festival and yet, I was hunted down for an invitation to show at the 7th Florence Biennale without knowing about it.

In 2001 I successfully completed a portrait commission for a client in Amsterdam just around the corner from Rembrandt’s house. The client had previously paid a Dutch artist who took a year to complete the work, and then they destroyed it.

I spent a lot of time making detailed copies of Rembrandt’s etchings when I was 15 or 16 years old.

I like to think I’m setting him as my benchmark along with Andrew Wyeth, Uglow, Augustus John and Bernard Dunstan RA. These are my judges. So I have never won a prize.

Competitions are indeed weird but I get your point about the market. I believe if we strive for excellence the market will find us.

From: Susan Tschantz — Aug 31, 2008

I have never figured out why a juried show is considered better than an open one. I know in many states you cannot get state funded sponsorship for your show unless it is, but I think this automatically eliminates the new, the different the unique, the really creative which is what a show should be about.


Stages of learning
by Luann Udell, Keene, NH, USA


ivory jewelry
by Luann Udell

Unconscious confidence sounds like the final stage of the learning process. Years ago, I received this remarkable little set of learning stages as a handout in a martial arts class: Unconscious incompetence — It’s so easy! The joyous stage of the beginner, when you simply jump in and start a new endeavour. There’s the excitement of the new. You feel full of promise and potential — “Hey! I have a real a knack for this stuff!” Conscious incompetence — It gets hard. When it begins to dawn on you how hard this stuff really is, and how much there is to learn. You become painfully aware of how inadequate your performance really is. (Tip: Most people quit at this stage of learning.) Conscious Competence — You keep working at it. You have acquired some skill, but you have to think about it, and work at it, until you get to that most amazing place… Unconscious Competence–You master your craft. Your techniques have become automatic. Your body simply knows what to do, and works in sync with your mind to achieve even greater heights. You know now that learning this skill is a life-long pursuit, and your studies have really just begun. This handout changed my life. I still pursue my art and the martial arts, knowing that only perseverance, practice and passion will get me to that glorious final stage — and beyond.

There is 1 comment for Stages of learning by Luann Udell

From: Sandra Bos — Aug 29, 2008

This is great advise, and as usual, it tells us that we just need to keep on, keeping on! I am hungry for more! It easy to fall into self pity. But, these are encouraging words, and at least we know that we’re not alone. I tell my students this stuff all the time! I guess I need to “Practise what I preach?!”

Thanks again!!


Attitude of ‘do or die’
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA


“New Oakes Painting”
pastel painting
by Paul deMarrais

Art is the slowest of marathons. It can be gruelling and boring. Rarely do spectators come out and cheer and hand out Gatorade. Like the marathon runner, the artist must exercise daily and often to build up endurance. As their endurance increases so does their confidence that they can run the long distance required. The more experienced runner works on nuances in his technique in order to improve performance. She indentifies weaknesses and sets out to improve in these areas. The races are a barometer of improvement and a test of the runner’s training. For the artist, we have shows and contests that are the showcases of our effort and achievement. These shows are not the transcendent moment that the Olympics provide for athletes. We cannot wisely put all our eggs in one basket like that. However that “do or die” attitude of Olympians would undoubtedly improve our focus and performance. We admire the qualities an Olympic athlete exhibits. We admire the courage, perseverance, tenacity, courage and dedication. These athletes all start with talent and take it to the ultimate level. As artists we can all put forth the same determined effort to be the best that we can be.


Trust your inner confidence
by Jack Dickerson, Brewster, MA, USA


“Reflections on the Pond”
acrylic painting, 33 x 43 inches
by Jack Dickerson

I started painting about 8 years ago. After a career as a designer/business owner, in which I did excellent work full of value for my clients. Then at 53, I started to draw again, and for the first time in my life picked up a paint brush, work with oil washes on paper. As the painting became more frequent, I simultaneously began to burn out from 20 years of 70 hour weeks and more than 2200 hours per year of billable time. I suffered multiple spinal injuries and underwent a painful surgery and long recovery. A signal, I guess. I continue to paint. More and more. Not really knowing what was behind it all. It just WAS. Four years ago, not sure what to do with my life, and disappointed with my sense of failure to carry my business any further, I decided, with the unswerving support of my wife of 23 years, to paint full time. I was frightened to death. Anxious most of the time. Financially anxious is more like it. Scared of failure. Scared of success. Now, four years later, I see that there was indeed something there that I had not known for 50 years. My point is… when I look back over the last four years, I realize that I DID have an inner confidence, without which I could never have come so far. So, my message is: trust your inner confidence, and feed it with hard, dedicated work, determination… and the willingness to fail. That inner confidence is there. It is inside all of us, even when we do NOT realize it — if we let it be there. And do not undermine it. It is one of the most powerful drivers. WE build muscles that are yet unknown to us. We gradually swerve into the land of unselfconscious creativity… the most powerful thing in the world. You CAN do it.


by Susan Burns, Douglasville, GA, USA


“Gods Golden Eye”
acrylic painting, 18 x 30 inches
by Susan Burns

The Archer

When the archer shoots his arrows without intent to win, he is master of his skills.

When he shoots to win a ring of copper, he is nervous.

When he shoots to win gold, he is blind, and sees two targets, and looses his mind.

His talent is always the same, but the thoughts of winning prizes trouble it.

He thinks more about the prize than the shot.

The need to win steals his power.

I enter competitions, but notice that competition is always hurtful to someone. Why can’t we just enjoy our work and each other? Maybe it is the human ego that creates discontent.


Driving forces
by Mark Hope, Wasaga Beach, ON, Canada


“206 Kensington”
acrylic painting
by Mark Hope

I’ve just recently had the most successful show I’ve ever had. The reasons are training, focus and pressure. But I don’t think these are the only reasons. I think there are driving forces behind these ideas that cannot be understated.

Passion. Passion is the deep love for your chosen vocation. Passion drives one to excel. Training is the tool that feeds passion.

Vision. Vision is the goal, that (necessarily) distant mile stone that gives one the focus to keep moving forward.

Obligation. Obligation is a double-edged sword that one holds oneself to. It is the personal integrity and the healthy fear of failure that allows one to work and deliver in the glaring light of the public eye.


Recovering the isolation
by Lorelle Miller, CA, USA


“Pico Canyon Foothills at Dusk”
acrylic painting
by Lorelle Miller

The sweetness of pure focus. How do I push away the world that surrounds me? The one I created, the bed I have made. To go back to the isolation that once brought me to my art. The place that was purely mine. I think about running away, packing my bags, living under a bridge. A fantasy, ridiculous. The great challenge is the discipline to find and/or create that island around me in the midst of my personal world. The world of family, finance, the everyday. To set up a mental fortress where the focus can reside. I long for where the discipline takes me. The sweat, the intensity and the knowing of my game. As if running a marathon, the pure self-indulgence of doing what I do best, uninterrupted. A sweet pleasure, the pure now. I lock up the doors of my sanctuary; enter back to my world as if I have returned from a great adventure. It was a good run and I am ready to face it all again, that cherished world of mine. Where I am surrounded by the wanting, needing arms of those I love.


Winning isn’t everything
by Tom Johnsen, CA, USA

Personally I agree with Franz Kafka who wrote, “From a real antagonist one gains boundless courage.” This real antagonist may very well be yourself and the playing field one’s own self, that larger entity that cannot be confused with your ego without catastrophe and immolation. The stakes in that game are very high and there is no playing to the crowd or looking over your shoulder. One may indeed paint a landscape, write a poem, engage in any creative act through which personal growth and transformation may be the only reward. Winning isn’t everything.


Plowing ahead
by Nancy Raia

You have to listen to that inner voice and follow the direction you feel you are pushed to go. Yet at the same time, be aware of what is going on in the world around you, what people are saying, what children are writing and talking about, how our planet is evolving. It’s a careful balance. To me, this means, as an artist and arts educator, I must always be seeking ways to improve my craft, my process, my skills. As an artist whose goal is to impact with my art, I need to listen to what people want to discover, learn, explore, and respond with a listening heart. When I know that I have “heard” my assignment, and it’s in tune with something the community needs, I run ahead with the project and always trust that wonderful people will jump in and help me make it happen. So, my advice would be train like you’re entering a marathon, and listen to your soul. When it hits you to do something big for the community, through art, don’t stop! Plow ahead and make it happen. Some people may think you’re “crazy,” others will say you’re “gifted” and yet others will join you, and it becomes a good thing for all!


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Unconscious confidence



From: June Gibson — Aug 25, 2008

Thank you for “unconscious confidence”. At 63 years of age I just recently discovered and implemented for myself exactly what you have so eloquently expressed. It is rare to think and feel the writings of someone else so intimately.

I have set a goal of painting (watercolor) as gifts for each of my office co-workers, choosing person-specific subjects for Christmas this year. There are 8 people with varied interests, race and backgrounds. This provides me with a great opportunity to broaden my painting interests as well.

I find it difficult to use my time to do only what I want to do and shut out the noise and confusion around me. But recently I have been able to do it and I can not believe what I accomplished. I have completed half of the paintings (5 x 7″) for my co-workers and I am hungry to paint every moment.

From: Maggie — Aug 26, 2008

When I read your letter this morning, Robert, I wanted to share these words from a great friend of mine. It is important to remember:

No matter how much support or encouragment we get, we are ultimately on our own. No matter how much discouragment or negative energy we pick up, we are ultimately on our own. This realisation helps develop four golden virtues: Initiative:Audacity:Character:Individualism.

From: Consuelo — Aug 26, 2008

Proficiency begets Confidence; Confidence begets Success, which in turn begets Confidence all of which lead to a beautiful upward spiral.

From: Bunny — Aug 26, 2008

In January of this year I started a daily painting blog. I had to shut out a lot of “ambient hysteria” for this new commitment. In the process all the things you have described….focus, training and pressure…. have, in fact, made my work become play!

From: Joe — Aug 26, 2008

What a wonderful expression…..”focus is the conscious removal of distractions”. And of course,”ambient hysteria” isn’t so bad either. I look forward to your letters with anticipation each week. Thanks.

From: Kris — Aug 26, 2008

I was at a loss for words only yesterday when I was approached about my art, I was stumbling around trying to excuse the fact that I prefer to work “in conscious removal of distractions” rather than in a social type setting. You have said it all for me — and it is very liberating to say the least. I needed the words – THANKS!

From: Rick Rotante — Aug 28, 2008

I’ve sometimes been called arrogant, cocky among other things. I’ve thought long and hard and tried to look inward and see if others were right. The conclusion I’ve come to is “yes” sometimes others are right, but the arrogance others see in truth is “Unconscious Confidence.” This was developed in me mostly by my parents who, when I was very young, encouraged me to be independent and didn’t clip my wings when I tired to fly. I’ve made many mistakes in my youth, but have learned from my mistakes though sometime unwilling to do so. Bang your head on a brick wall long enough and you will eventually look for another way over that wall. Throughout my life this Unconscious Confidence has caused me no end of problems, until I gained real knowledge and ability. I still leave room to be wrong, but when I believe I’m right, based on my experience and knowledge, it comes off to some as arrogance, which I now understand and can deal with. All self-assured people can look arrogant to others because the self-assured are dogged and undeterred and speak with the knowledge they have gained and will to get the job done.

From: Gwen Purdy — Aug 29, 2008

One of the aspects of my art that seems to astound people is that I have no particular style, except in one category: Florals in oils, specifically lilacs. That is what has sold, but I would rather not sell, than have to stand forever painting lilacs to make a living. So I explore new mediums, which seemingly evoke a “style” I never had before, so it is never safe to say, oh that is a GWEN painting, it might be or not. I am always exploring, always surprised at what comes about, so is my public. That an 82 year old could branch out into “modern art”….. to me being an artist is to be an explorer. Hope I get to see what the next eighteen years reveals.

From: Susan Tschantz — Aug 31, 2008

I read with interest your essay “the Look”. As an artist, I hear all the time I need to establish a look or style that says me, but also as an artist I am afraid of being branded. I have visions on a hot iron forever limiting how and with what I can work.






Mist in the mountains

watercolour painting, 15 x 22 inches
by Grey Darden, Valley Head, WV, USA


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.

That includes Katherine Spencer Harris who wrote, “If out in the field, I, as a person, seem to disappear into my surroundings. If in my studio, my surroundings just disappear from my consciousness.”

And also Sandra Kessler of Westbank, BC, Canada who wrote, “A psychiatrist once told me, ‘The cure for self-doubt is achievement.’ ”

And also Brad Greek of Mary Esther, FL, USA who wrote, “Plein air painting in public places is the best training an artist can put themselves through. And from that training, the best rewards will be won… Unconscious confidence.”




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