The Laws of Nature

Thursday, May 6, 2010


Art & Fear: Observations on the perils (and rewards) of artmaking
by Bayles & Orland

All that you do will inevitably be flavored with uncertainty - uncertainty about:
what you have to say,
whether the materials are right,
whether the piece should be long or short
whether you'll ever be satisfied with anything you make.

These thoughts, found in the concluding section of chapter 2 remind us that doubt extends to our decision-making process as we create a work of art. I'd say that this is true of life in general. Is there anything that we can be completely certain about? For every answer, there's a contradictory opinion. For every solution there's an alternate approach. For every natural "law" there's a statistical uncertainty. Why should the process of artmaking be any different? In my opinion, it's the uncertainty that keeps it interesting!

The truth is that the piece of art which seems so profoundly right in its finished state may earlier have been only inches or seconds away from total collapse. Yup - been there! So much teeters on the edge and could go either way. Sometimes, when I'm painting I actually find that I've been holding my breath. It's like walking a tight-rope.

In making art you need to give yourself room to respond authentically, both to your subject matter and to your materials. Art happens between you and something - a subject, an idea, a technique - and both you and that something need to be free to move. This is true. Art is like a relationship (hopefully, a good one!) where understanding, commitment and flexibility are essential for it to work. Like marriage, art is hard work and full of rewards.

Control, apparently, is not the answer. People who need certainty in their lives are less likely to make art that is risky, subversive, complicated, iffy, suggestive or spontaneous. I think that predictability is boring. It's good to entertain the "what-ifs" and to explore unknown areas. You never know where something may lead. Take risks.

What's really needed is nothing more than a broad sense of what you are looking for, some strategy for how to find it, and an overriding willingness to embrace mistakes and surprises along the way. Simply put, making art is chancy - it doesn't mix well with predictability.

In other words, if we want to succeed in art we must embrace uncertainty and take risks.

What are your thoughts?


Margaret Ryall said...

I'm glad to be back reading posts. I was excited to see the next book you chose because I bought it at the Clark while I was there. I'm about half way through (reading quickly). I'm really enjoying this little book. It has many gems of wisdom sentence by sentence. Some of them you could think about for years. The chapters are short and the writing style is like a breath of fresh air when compared to some of the books I've read recently.

With my show looming I'm living uncertainty and the resulting stress. I'm glad the work is made because uncertainty keeps your art making efforts "small".

Kathy said...

Welcome back, Margaret! It was great meeting you at the Clark and it's a nice coincidence that you bought this book there. I agree with your assessment. Your show will be great!! Don't worry...

-Don said...

I'm uncertain how I should respond except to say I agree wholeheartedly... especially about the "seconds away from total collapse" line. Been there, doing that...


Joyfulartist said...


hwfarber said...

"Art happens between you and something....." If we can get to that space and stay in that space for a while, we win--approval from others is nice but not necessary.

Kathy said...

Hi Don - yup, I suspect we've all been there repeatedly!

Hi Joyful - we're a large club :-)

Hi Hallie - so TRUE! Thanks.

PAMO said...

For me- art isn't a risk. I am not a professional artist and I do not sell or market my work. I'm still trying to determine my authentic self in the making of art. A large part of me wishes I had never started thinking about art beyond creating home decor. And I still seriously question whether or not one can become an "artist" in mid life without prior knowledge or inclination. I'm NOT whining nor do I need a pep talk, nor am I putting down my own work- it's simply the state of my own doubt. Every "artist" I've ever heard says they have always drawn or done some form of art. Not me. Yes- I did creative things- but I never even considered "ART" until 2 years ago. Some days I figure I MUST be out of my mind.
I think I'm coming at all of this a_ _ backwards and I'm not sure how to turn it around. Uncertainty is the story of my life- LOL!!! I'm in my third career path and I still don't know what I want to be.

Deborah C. Stearns said...

I have a very similar story, Pam. I have always liked making things and have been "creative", but have virtually no formal art training, nor have I been particularly drawn to making "art" in the traditional sense. I don't have the compulsion to draw or paint. When I'm in a museum, I tend to spend more time reading the text next to the artwork than looking at the art itself. I don't know what makes someone an artist, but I don't really feel like the label fits me. But I like being immersed in my creative process, and I enjoy the work I do. So I try not to worry about it too much.

On the other hand, the uncertainty of the work itself does get me. The "inches away from total collapse" strikes fear into my heart -- what if this is the step that ruins the piece? I don't think I'm a control freak -- I like the open vista of possibility that I have when I start a new piece. But I don't like risk. I am quite risk-averse, and the fear of failure, the near inevitability of mistakes . . . that's hard for me to face. And that unwillingness to risk the possibility of a mis-step has the potential to really limit one's growth. We expand our skills by trying new things -- and each new venture involves mistakes and failures along the way. We have to be willing to embrace risk in order to develop. Alas, I fear that my development progresses at a snail's pace, each tiny step accompanied by only minimal risk, but also minimal growth. I tread the narrow path between my desire to do new things to avoid boredom and my need to do what I already know so as to avoid the possibility of failure. I suspect most people have some way of balancing novelty/innovation/risk/growth and safety/familiarity/boredom/stagnation.

Tonya Vollertsen said...

To me every day going into my studio is like jumping off a cliff. I just have to close my eyes and start. Somewhere in the first few moments I open my eyes and remember that "I can do this". For me it is always scary and thrilling at the same time. Some days I don't jump and then I spend the whole day walking around the edges looking into the abyss until it's too late to begin anything. The not doing is much more uncomfortable than the jump so I usually jump.

Dan Kent said...

Sorry it's been so crazy I haven't been able to comment on the last several posts.

Anyway, I did what you describe just tonight - what a disaster! I figured I could just throw it out. I allowed myself to go into automatic - it got worse and worse, from bad to terrible, and then suddenly - very suddenly - it was okay. Even, perhaps, better than okay. Wow! What a trip! I don't know that I'd have it any other way.

Kathy said...

Hi Pam and Deborah - I like your conversation and your openness. How and when we arrive at art is different for all of us, as are our goals. There's really no defined path toward becoming an artist, so doing what's most comfortable seems logical. We must suit ourselves. Thanks for your substantive comments!

Hi Tonya - you reminded me of the adage about marriage: "Marriage is like jumping off a very tall building. As you pass each story on the way down you can say "so far, so good!"

Hi Dan - great!! Just goes to show that taking the leap can pay off. Go for it!

RHCarpenter said...

It's interesting to read the thoughts and concerns of others about their art (or creativity). I wish more people could find the joy in creation...for me, just watching watercolor or fluid acrylics blossom, bloom, blend, merge...this takes my breath away. To see a drawing that is perfectly rendered, to see a painting that I want to step into...that, to me, is what that creative joy is all about. And making art for yourself, your family, or for the world at large, should contain a large amount of joy/personal pleasure, or you'll become too discouraged to continue. I get frustrated and down, at times, but the main thing that keeps me going is the joy!