Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland

Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking (A&F) is a book about the difficulties faced when making art.  I have read this book several times because it offered so much insight and hope.  I recommend it to anyone who lives with an unquenched craving to make something beautiful, significant, or valued but struggles with fears of failure or rejection.

I used to believe that either you are artistic or not. But A&F exposed this to be untrue – along with several other presumptions I had about artists and the art world.  What surprised me most was that apparently artists believe these same lies. Making art isn’t making magic; it is constant hard work. Therefore, mistakes and failures are inherent to the process.  And, Bayles and Orland contend that there is much to be gained by studying the work that you make because “the seed for your next art work lies embedded in the imperfections of your current piece.  Such imperfections are your guides – valuable, reliable, objective, non-judgmental guides – to matters you need to reconsider or develop further”(pg 31).

I count a book successful if one concept changes how I think about a subject.  Perhaps the most significant change in perspective that I experienced reading A&F was regarding talent.  Bayles and Orland define talent as “what comes easily” – which is exactly what it is! Although they pragmatically acknowledge that people differ in ability, in the end, “talent is rarely distinguishable from perseverance and lots of hard work” (pg 3).  So, they consider it a waste of energy to worry about how much talent you have.

Even though the book deals with conceptual issues, there are many tangible suggestions inserted in the philosophical discussions.  Their understanding of the universal fears common to all artists and their sensible approach to dispelling those fears will encourage artists to keep making art.

Quote-worthy:

“Making art provides uncomfortable accurate feedback about the gap that exists between what you intended to do, and what you did.” Pg 5

“The only work really worth doing – the only work you can do convincingly – is the work that focuses on the things you care about.” Pg 116

“Making art depends upon noticing things – things about yourself, your methods, your subject matter.” Pg 109

“Subjects that draw us in will continue to draw us in.  Patterns we respond to we will continue to respond to… we tell stories we have to tell, stories of the things that draw us in – and why should any of us have more than a handful of those?” Pg 116

“People with the interesting answers are those who ask the interesting questions.” Pg 113

“It’s a simple premise: follow the leads that arise from contact with the work itself, and your technical, emotional, and intellectual pathway becomes clear.” Pg 113

“In making art, you declare what is important [to you].” Pg 108

“Style is the natural consequence of habit.” Pg 103

“A useful working approach to making art: notice the objects that you notice.” Pg 101

“Old work tells you what you were paying attention to then; new work comments on the old by pointing out what you were not previously paying attention to.” Pg 100

“Older work is oftentimes an embarrassment to the artist because it feels like it was made by a younger, more naïve person… Earlier work often feels, curiously, both too labored and too simple.  This is normal.  New work is supposed to replace old work.” Pg 99

“Art made primarily to display technical virtuosity is often beautiful, striking, elegant…and vacant.” Pg 96

“For the artisan, craft is an end in itself.  For you, the artist, craft is the vehicle for expressing your vision.  Craft is the visible edge of art.” Pg 99

“Becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive.” Pg 3

“Making art precipitates self-doubt, stirring deep waters that lay between what you should be, and what you fear you might be.” Pg 13