BREAKING THROUGH THE FEAR OF PAINTING

I’ve been teaching painting here in Puerto Vallarta for about 2 years now. I’ve learned a lot. One of the things I’ve learned is that the fear of painting (and drawing, too) is pretty much universal. I already knew this but it’s become even clearer. For most of my students, it’s the single biggest barrier to their becoming better painters.

The fear of painting isn’t a fear of painting per se. It’s actually the fear of failure. It’s the fear of the inner critic telling you your worst fears are true: you can’t paint and your painting sucks.

The fear of failing at drawing is pretty strong, too, but at least the stakes are lower—at least you’ve only wasted some paper. With a painting, there’s more involved—paint, palette, brush, and a canvas. Plus, the idea of a painting is way more intimidating than drawing, because we’ve all put pencil to paper in our lives, many times—but most of us haven’t spent time brushing paint onto a canvas.

As I said above, none of this would matter if it weren’t for our inner critic: that voice that tells us all the ways we’re not good enough.

One of the things I’ve done in my classes is have my students talk out loud about the inner critic. After a drawing exercise, we each share aloud what terrible things our inner voice told us before, during and after we did the drawing. Some examples:

“You’ll never be able to draw.”

“This drawing really sucks.”

“You should just give up now.”

“You’re not an artist. You don’t belong here.”

“People will laugh at this drawing.”

“You should be ashamed, this is so awful.”

“You’re not good enough to be in this class.”

After we share with the rest of the class and hear what others’ inner critics are telling them, people start to relax and take the whole thing less seriously. Speaking one’s fears out loud tends to make them seem a lot smaller and less powerful. And hearing that everyone else has the same fears makes you realize that everyone’s in the same boat, and in fact you do belong.

This is one step toward breaking through the fear. Another big step happens with an exercise I call “The 10-Minute Painting.”

This exercise involves my creating a very quick, rough painting in front of the class, with everyone following along on their own canvas. There’s no fussing or perfectionism allowed, because you have to keep up with the instructor! One of the great things about this exercise is there’s simply no time for the inner critic to grab hold of you.

When we’ve finished our 10-minute paintings, we stop for a moment to congratulate ourselves on completing a painting. Then I’ll take a quick photo of everyone holding up their completed paintings. We do this quickly because we don’t want the paintings to dry too much before the the next step, which is to take a rag and some water and wipe the canvas clean. That’s right, we destroy the paintings we just did.

When that’s done, we repeat the process and create another painting.

In this way my class will do 4 or 5 paintings in under 2 hours.

This probably sounds intense to you. And yes, it is. But the effect is maybe not what you’d expect. Instead of the often-tormented, exhausted faces one often sees after hours of working hard to make a painting perfect, my students tend to wear expressions of delight. And rather than feeling tired, they’re full of energy,  bouncing around, saying things like I feel so free!

But, you might ask, what are they learning?

Well, they’re learning a lot of things. They’re getting better at seeing big, basic shapes, which is one of the keys to making good paintings. They’re getting better at using a brush and moving paint around. And they’re learning to take their paintings less seriously. Knowing your 10-minute painting will be wiped away when you’re done takes away a lot of the pressure we usually put on ourselves.

But the number one thing they’re learning?

Confidence.

After painting for over 50 years, I can tell you, as with almost anything, confidence is the key to making good art. Approaching a painting with boldness, unafraid of the outcome, is the single greatest skill a painter can have. It doesn’t matter how technically skilled you are, if you’re afraid of the painting, you’re not going to create something that moves people.

If you’re going to be visiting Puerto Vallarta in the future, consider attending my painting class at ArtVallarta. You can get more information at artvallarta.com.

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