“Being a professional artist means being continually willing to jump off a cliff” – Kathleen Speranza
Kathleen Speranza is a superb painter of flowers. Look at this:
Kathleen is a professional artist who has spent plenty of time in the trenches. She’s earned those gorgeous flower paintings. She’s also very wise. She wrote the above quote in reply to one of my posts on facebook, and it’s really stayed with me.
It resonates so deeply with me because there’s one thing you have to be able to do to if you’re going to jump off that cliff:
You need to face your fear.
Come up against it in a very real way. Feel it almost overwhelm you.
And then jump anyway.
Living with fear
I’m learning to live with constant fear.
I’d rather not admit this. I’d rather be happily going along, doing wonderfully, dashing off paintings and putting out tutorial videos in a wonderful burst of happy creativity. If I’m really honest with myself, I’d prefer it if everyone else thought that was what I was doing, too.
But I’ve committed to being honest with you here, so I’m not going to pretend.
Turning full time as an artist and teacher has had a surprising consequence: I spend quite a lot of my time in a state of fear.
Sometimes it hits me when I wake up in the morning, or in the middle of the night after a nightmare.
Sometimes it just sits in the back of my mind all day, tugging at my sleeve and trying to distract me.
Fear comes from uncertainty
Why? Well, when I pause to think about it for a moment, I realise that I live with a lot more uncertainty in my life than I used to. And uncertainty means fear.
This fear comes in different forms, it springs from different things. There are two main ones that I feel most keenly.
At the moment, we’re just about covering our bills and food at family Foxton. Things are tight. I don’t know from one month to the next whether I’ll be able to cover the mortgage.
When the bank balance gets down to a couple of hundred quid and I don’t know where the next bit of money is coming from, I start to question everything.
And that’s when the negative emotions start to kick in.
My kids depend on me. What am I doing, subjecting them to this level of risk?
That’s when I remember how my Dad told me only a few weeks ago that I was doing the wrong thing. (And by the way, I don’t care how old you are, your Dad’s opinion still counts on a deep psychological level).
This particular fear follows me around like an unwelcome stray dog. I have a strong suspicion that all but the most financially successful artists deal with this too, especially if their family depends wholly on them and there’s no other income. Although you rarely hear about it. I wonder why?
Putting yourself out there
If you’re an artist, you regularly put out work that comes from the deepest reaches of your self – all the stuff that makes you who you are.
You put out the very core of yourself for people to see. Your self esteem, your confidence, your very being is inextricably tied up with your artistic output. And if you’re a professional, you just can’t keep that to yourself.
I auction small pieces here on the site now, and they provide some much needed income through the month. If you’re thinking about turning professional but aren’t sure where to start, setting up a site and auctioning little paintings on it might be worth a try. (I’m planning a blog post soon about how to do that, so watch this space.)
But it does mean that I’m regularly putting out my work for a lot of people to see – thousands of people, actually. That’s pretty scary.
Here’s another thing you might not know. I think of what I write here on the blog as part of my work as an artist. And even now, after almost ten years of posting here, I still get nervous when I go to hit the “publish” button.
Why? Because I try to be as candid as I can here, often beyond what’s comfortable for me. I try to hold as little back as possible, because I think that’s how I can be most helpful to other people who are struggling with the same things I am.
It’s just like painting in a way, it means putting the deepest parts of myself out in front of a lot of people, and doing it again and again. That “publish” button is a little cliff all of its own.
How do you handle living with uncertainty and fear? I don’t have any definitive answers to this one. I’m working it out as I go. But I do have some ideas and a couple of things that help me keep it manageable.
The most useful thing I do at the moment is that I do my accounts every morning.
It means that I know exactly what the financial situation is, every day. It helps to reduce the uncertainty, and so the fear is that much less.
And I’m becoming obsessive about my accounts. Every month, I know exactly how much we spent on food. I now know exactly how much all the bills are and when they’re taken out every month.
It might seem a small thing, and it only takes a few minutes. But without it, the fear of not having enough money to live on would probably overwhelm me.
Putting yourself out there without falling apart
If you have any good ideas about this one, please let me know. Seriously. Leave a comment.
Because the only strategy I have for dealing with this one is to feel the fear but to do it anyway.
It does get easier with time and repetition. But in my experience, it never completely goes away.
One strategy I’m trying is to let go of my work. I have to do that when I send it to the wonderful people that buy it, of course, But I’m trying to mentally let go of the paintings when they’re finished, at least a little.
It’s not easy. It means persuading myself not to care whether anyone thinks they’re good or not. In fact, I find that’s impossible to achieve. But I think at least a dash of that helps, if you can manage it.
Jessie Burton, the author of the The Miniaturist and The Muse, wrote a deeply felt blog post about dealing with anxiety and letting go of your work in February last year. It’s long, but really worth a read. It helped me just to know that a hugely successful author deals with these same issues.
Also, I find that being with the process of painting as much as possible, trying to concentrate just on the doing, starting another painting almost as soon as the last one is done, is helping me somewhat.
Daniel Graves of the Florence Academy of Art had some very helpful and insightful things to say about that in his interview on the Suggested Donation Podcast.
Face the fear
Having the bad thing happen helps to break the fear a little.
One of the paintings I put up for auction didn’t sell – it got no bids. Since that’s happened once, and it wasn’t as bad as I thought, I’m a little less afraid of it happening again. I’m still here and still painting, and still putting my work up for sale, despite it. That one didn’t go so well, but the next one did.
One thing I have learned is that your worst fears rarely come true. The result, when it happens, is never quite as bad as you imagine. When you put out you work for everyone to see, people are usually kind.
When it really comes down to it, I think the only thing to do is to face that fear.
Here’s the funny thing, though: Despite it all, I sleep better now than I have in years. I used to suffer from terrible insomnia when I was in my horrible day job. Now I usually sleep through the night.
Perhaps it’s because I’m finally committing to what I’ve always known in my heart that I wanted to be.
If you’ve chosen this year to commit to your dream, I wish you the very best. Be strong. Be brave. Feel the fear.
Then jump anyway.
Best wishes and thanks for reading,
If you want to hear more of Kathleen’s wisdom, listen to her interview on the Savvy Painter Podcast. Here’s one of her gems about dealing with the bad days:
“These bad days are important. The difference between an amateur and a professional is the number of bad days you can endure”
Also, this might help you. It certainly did me (and still does). I often find inspiration and practical approaches to life’s difficulties in Leo Babauta’s writing at Zen Habits:
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