Building Artists Courage with Art History

Updated: Feb 19

Vincent Van Gogh
My portrait of Vincent Van Gogh from My Little Book of Artists

When you are just starting your artistic journey, as I am, you do feel frightened of failure. My oldest daughter, who is also pursuing a career as an artist, confessed to feelings of overwhelm since recently intending to launch her own art business. Perhaps you could relate to this type of fear. This fear is, of course, is an illusion. Indeed it is F.E.A.R or False Evidence Appearing Real. Thoughts run rampant in your head, such as people won't like my work; COVID will kill my business before it kills me, people will laugh at my "frivolous, little make-believe art business", etc. Before you know it, the artist is paralyzed with fear; she relents, cop-out, makes impishly shallow art to satisfy the masses, or, worse still, sells her soul to the devil and gets a "real" job that she hates.

Jackson Pollock
My portrait of Jackson Pollock

Interestingly, I refuse to cover in fear while encouraging my daughter to do the same. How could I be so confident of success when most artists, even brilliant ones, such as the well known Van Gogh, Constable and Frida, so famously did not sell much of their art bar one or two pieces while they were alive? I am not confident, but I love art history; the artist's past has taught me many valuable lessons in studying their lives. For instance, let us take Van Gogh, Constable and Frida as examples. Indeed, they suffered much pain and trauma due to their career choice; people laughed at their work, called it names, believed it to be stupid and frivolous work lacking any real value. Yet, they did exist well supported. Van Gogh was supported by a devoted & loving brother; Frida was supported by her husband. Constable was supported in the way of an allowance by his father. Constable could not sell a single painting in the first 14 years that he painted; Van Gogh reportedly had sold just one painting in his lifetime. Frida did a few portrait commissions but did not sell many of her paintings in her lifetime. Indeed, a true artist committed to bringing forth something truly unique and valued as a "time capsule" of its time could never be concerned with sales. For the true artist, being able to master their craft to express their unique truth through their art is the ultimate success, not money or the material security that money can bring. If material comfort and security are the primary goals, perhaps it is best to pursue another career and keep art as a hobby. When an artist answers the "why" behind their art-making truthfully, then the "how" and the "when" falls into place. Finally, sharing your truth and accepting your demons releases courage to arise naturally.

Artists' courage to make art does not have to rely on other people's praise or even shaming or rejection. I once gifted two relatively large canvas paintings to one of my closest relations. I was so proud of the paintings that I asked her that she would please leave them for my children in her will if either of her own did not want them in the future. Alas, the paintings were not well appreciated by her as I had hoped. She had donated the paintings to the local school during a home renovation spring clean. True artists never lose courage and give up their craft because their work ends up in the donation bin because someone fell out of love or thought it ugly. Art history gives me courage once more despite my relative's heedless action that could have potentially chastised me with major self-doubt. Dali, Picasso, Pollock are but a few artists among many whose work has ended up in thrift store bargain bins or even trash bins. I am certainly in good company when having had their art "rejected". Not everyone will love or even appreciate your art, but you must, as a genuine artist, paint and paint and never stop. It is immaterial to the true artist where their art may end up, whether in a grand palace or charity store. What matters to the true artist is that they have expressed themselves fully and authentically.

Another artists courage killer is the dreaded comparison. I have found that some artists are constantly comparing their work with others, either over-inflating their skills and abilities or under-rating their progress along the journey. I never believe in comparison. It is utterly futile unless the comparison is made in so far as to improve a specific skill set or style that you want to copy or emulate in some way or fashion. Comparison for comparison sake as an ego trip is a one-way ticket to suffering; it frustrates creativity and pre-empts innovation. As a counterbalance to insecurity, some artists may even attempt to grow a giant superiority complex but suffer a poverty consciousness regarding giving courage and moral support to their fellow artists. Had the dreaded "comparison" made them heartless and closed-minded to fellow artists' journey, sadly so. I have found the best way to avoid this pitfall is to study, you guessed it, art history. The most famous art rivals that we know of in art history could be the one between Picasso and Matisse. The rivalry between the two may have been propelled by jealousy by comparing skills, abilities and fearless innovation. Fortunately, neither did fall on their own swords. The reason was that the comparison or rivalry stood on a foundation of respect, not insecurity. True artists courage comes from a secure self-belief and a commitment to the practice, not on shallow comparisons and competition.

There are three rivals to building your own artists courage that I feel is most important. First is fear of failure, especially of being unsupported, second is being unloved or rejected, third is the comparison with others. Since it is already a long blog post, I shall end it here. I hope that you take this as food for thought. You may disagree with some things I have said, but I am simply stating my truth; this is my blog after all.

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