Art & Fear Review


The elegant little book Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, by David Bayles and Ted Orland was first published in 1993 and it’s been in print ever since.  I first read it when I didn’t really consider myself an “artist,” but I did consider myself a writer.  I was in my late 30s, I’d had a few short stories published in respectable magazines and garnered a few awards.  But FEAR was my constant companion — it still is.  What I was searching for when I read this book was a way to continue to be creative even though I was pretty sure I’d never overcome fear or insecurity or blocks. 

I’d been working in non-artistic fields since I was 16 and dealing with health problems, too, so I had learned that often just showing up makes things happen, even if you’re plagued with headaches, pain and confusion.  A paycheck is a huge motivator.  The paycheck for doing creative work is much more elusive and ethereal.  How do you keep at it when it feels like you have no new ideas and no one cares anyway.  All you get in response is rejection slips if you muster the energy to send things out. 

Art and Fear is like a tonic when I’m feeling depleted.   It explores the way art gets made, the reasons it doesn’t get made, and the many, many reason why people give up.  It gives many compelling reasons why you shouldn’t give up.  Art is part of what makes us human.  Whether it’s writing, photography, drawing, painting, making collages, telling stories, carving, sculpting, sewing — we are hard wired to interact with the materials around us, to redesign and have impact, to work with our hands. 

The authors understand this. They dedicate thoughtful chapters on Fears about Yourself, Fears about Others, Finding your work, The Outside World, The Human Voice.  There are many passages I could quote from this book, but I’ll restrict myself to a few so you can get a feel for how the authors handle things:

 “Admittedly, artmaking probably does require something special, but just what that something might be has remained remarkable elusive — elusive enough to suggest that it may be something particular to each artist, rather than universal to them all….Whatever they have is something needed to do their work — it wouldn’t help you in your work even if you had it.  Their magic is theirs.  You don’t lack it.  You don’t need it.  It has nothing to do with you.  Period.”

“Ask your work what it needs, not what you need.  Then set aside your fears and listen, the way a good parent listens to a child.”

“If, indeed, for any given time only a certain sort of work resonates with life, then that is the work you need to be doing in that moment.  If you try to do some other work, you will miss your moment.  Indeed, our own work is so inextricably tied to time and place that we cannot recapture even our own aesthetic ground of past times.”

This last quote is particularly helpful to me.  It’s part of what I use when I’m incapable of creating anything

Some days a doodle is all there is

that pleases me or makes me want to share it.  I’m sure I’ll never create anything as successful as when I was younger. Or that  my one success was a fluke. I call it “writing around the block,” although I now draw around the block, too.  It’s simply continuing to practice when you don’t have any inspiration at all, when you are blocked.  It’s showing up and doing a little bit, even if it seems like your ruining perfectly good paper.  I need to show up in bad times because, who knows, the moment might come, and I’ll have my paper ready to capture it. 

Three months ago, when my mother died, I hit a creative wall.  Of course, when a loved one dies, it causes major shifts and sometimes painful growth spurts.  I am vulnerable to blurring reality till it seems totally pointless.  Art & Fear is one of the books I reread when I am in that state of mind.  I also read The Re-Enchantment of Every Day Life by Thomas Moore, and A Natural History of the Senses, by Diane Ackerman. These all help to re-focus me on the many precise and beautiful points of life.  And they help me show up for my writing and drawing practice, my writing sessions with fellow writers, my blog — they help me show up for life.  None of them promise money or reward or even understanding by others.  They help me live my life as it is — wonderous, confusing and bubbling with things to make and stories to tell.

The calm, thoughtful and re-assuring essays of Art & Fear help me carry my fear with me to my creative sessions, acknowledge it, and go ahead and make something.  “Artists become veteran artists only by making peace not just with themselves but a huge range of issues.  You have to find your work all over again all the time.”  If you ever feel you’ve lost your sense of meaning and are blocked, read this book.  It will help you move into what ever new phase is waiting as soon as you go forward.


The books discussed in this post are all available at most libraries.  I have included links to, where I am an associate, and get a small, small fee if you purchase through the link.   Just click the book and it will take you to  Thanks!

8 thoughts on “Art & Fear Review

  1. I have that book!! I just turned around and peeked at my bookcase…there it is. Never got around to reading it. You've inspired me to get it out and “JUST DO IT” thanks for sharing your journey! xoxo

  2. Thank you for such a lovely and thoughtful post. I definitely go through times when fear stops me from trying. I definitely think I could benefit from reading what you've suggested. Thank you!

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