Wednesday, October 2, 2013

140: No one dies

During a studio open house I conversed with a surgeon and mentioned that a medical illustrator–a former surgeon–told me that creating medical illustrations took more dexterity and concentration than surgery. Having launched into the story with little hope of backpedaling I wondered how the surgeon would react to an artist comparing painting to surgery. I began to regret my bravado. I paused for a moment and added, "of course, with painting no one dies if you make a mistake." The surgeon paused reflectively and then laughed. My potential faux pas was minimized by admitting the obvious. No one dies when a painting fails.

In the book, The Society of Timid Souls author Polly Morland explores the act of courage. She begins her book by describing a society started in the 1940s dedicated to the eradication of stage fright. Later she describes orchestral musicians and their struggle with performance anxiety. Up to 30% of musicians are afflicted with uncontrollable stage fright. Compared to other practitioners of activities like bullfighting or surfing monster waves their reaction seems excessive and out of place.

But the phenomenon of fear in the face of performance, even if not a matter of life or death, should be taken seriously. That which resides only in our minds still affects us profoundly. In his pursuit of excellence sports psychologist Christian Lattanzio evolved the following formula: performance = preparation + the state you access during the game. Likewise for artists preparation is not the only factor when we paint. Our state of mind is the other half of the equation. If we approach the easel with trepidation overwhelmed with memories of past challenges we diminish our chance of performing optimally. In this sense every painting is a record of our mental state.

Regarding lack of courage the author of The Society of Timid Souls offers many possible solutions. She recounts the examples of soldiers, relief workers, musicians, and extreme athletes who prevailed in their endeavors. Individual solutions will most likely spring from similar positive memories from our own past.

In my early years, I was a drummer in a rock band. During one of our first auditions, I began missing beats and botching critical fills. The more I panicked the worse I performed. Afterward, my band mates were deeply disappointed if not angry. Sometime after the audition, I reflected on my failure. I realized that what derailed my performance was not my preparation nor my native ability but fear. But my fear was a force that resided entirely within myself. It was under my control. This mental jujitsu of boldly labeling an interior state as pointless did its magic. I never failed an audition or performance again. I still felt anticipation as I set up my kit but my performances were free from debilitating anxiety.

I write this entry as a lecture to myself. My plein air experiences have devolved to the point where I no longer enjoy them and the results of my efforts parallel my mental state. Above is a plein air sketch (9" x 12") I did five years ago. My ability to perform is still there no doubt. I simply need to perform yet another act of mental jujitsu, realize painting is not a matter of life or death, and return to my former level of performance.

Brad Teare October 2013


  1. Brad this reminds me of Byron Katie (author of Loving What Is) talking about all fears in this way. If I may paraphrase her… Imagine you have a fear of snakes… and while out walking you se something that looks like a snake on the ground. You suddenly are seized with panic, your hear races, you freeze with a kind of emotional paralysis…. but somehow you move closer and closer and as your eyes focus more clearly you realize the thing is a rope not a snake. Everything changes. You relax, even laugh. It's a rope!
    And, her books workshops and camps are all about releasing the negatives of our thoughts.
    Also recently I read something like this, "Danger is (or may be) real. Fear is an option". Isn't that interesting.
    I have personally experienced a lot of 'easel anxiety' and from day to day am bewildered by frequent emotional the ups and downs with painting. I look forward to reading Polly's book. Thank you for another valuable post!

  2. Great insights, VanGoghGirl! I will check out Loving What Is.

    I'm preparing an essay about my full fledged anxiety disorder and how I beat it. It's a tough one to write but I hope it might be of interest to some. No doubt the reason creative people have so much problem in this area is the sensitivity that led us to become artists. I suppose it is a built-in occupational hazzard.


Thanks for your comments!


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