Book Quotes: Art & Fear

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


One of the basic and difficult lessons every artist must learn is that even the failed pieces are essential. X-rays of famous paintings reveal that even master artists sometimes made basic mid-core corrections or deleted really dumb mistakes by overpainting the still wet canvas. The point is that you learn how to make your work by making your work. And the great many of the pieces you make along the way will never stand out as finished art. The best you can do is make art that you care about and lots of it. The rest is largely a matter of perseverance.

You make good work by, among other things, making lots of work that isn’t very good. And gradually weeding out the parts that aren’t good — the parts that aren’t yours. After all, someone has to do your work and you’re the closest one around.

Talent, in common parlance, is “what comes easily”. So sooner or later, inevitably, you reach a point where the work doesn’t come easily, and — Aha!, it’s just as you feared! Wrong. By definition, whatever you have is exactly what you need to produce your best work. There is probably no clearer waste of psychic energy than worrying about how much talent you have — and probably no worry more common. This is even true among artists of considerable accomplishment.

Error is human. Inevitably your work will be flawed. Why? Because you are a human being. And only human beings make art. Nonetheless, the belief persists among some artists and lots of ex-artists that doing art means doing things flawlessly. Ignoring the fact that this prerequisite would disqualify most existing works of art. Indeed it seems vastly more plausible to advance the counter-principle namely that imperfection is not only a common ingredient in art but very likely an essential ingredient.

Ansel Adams, never one to mistake precision for perfection, often recalled the old adage that “The perfect is the enemy of the good”, his point being that if he waited for everything in the scene to be exactly right, he’d probably never make a photograph.

Adams was right: to require perfection is to invite paralysis. The pattern is predictable: as you see error in what you have done, you steer your work toward what you imagine you can do perfectly. You cling ever more tightly to what you already know you can do–away from risk and exploration, and possibly further from the work of your heart. You find reasons to procrastinate since to not work is to not make mistakes. Believing that artwork should be perfect, you gradually become convinced that you cannot make such work. (You are correct.) Sooner or later, since you cannot do what you are trying to do, you quit. And in one of those perverse little ironies of life, only the pattern itself achieves perfection–a perfect death spiral: you misdirect your work; you stall; you quit.

To demand perfection is to deny your ordinary (and universal) humanity, as though you would be better off without it. Yet this humanity is the ultimate source of your work; your perfectionism denies you the very thing you need to get your work done. Getting on with your work requires a recognition that perfection itself is (paradoxically) a flawed concept.

The important point here is not that you have or don’t have what other artists have, but rather that it doesn’t matter. 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.