“Courage is not the absence of fear. It’s acting in spite of that fear.” -Mark Twain

‘Tis the season for ditching bad habits and making new starts. Or at least talking a good game.

Right about now, I imagine plenty of fledgling artists are turning over the thought, “I’m going to commit to making x number of paintings this year.” Or, “This is the year I get into a gallery.” Easy to say, and easy to try once or twice and then stop.

However, unlike gym memberships, the resistance to making art or to approaching galleries isn’t because of an aversion to hard work. It comes down to something very different, and that’s fear.

What holds you back is psychological: mostly it’s fear that 1. you aren’t good enough, 2. that you’ll be rejected and that will prove you don’t have what it takes and never will. That’s nonsense – it really is nothing but FEAR talking. What you need to beat it is resolve and a schedule of manageable steps to to stick to.

Face that FEARSOME giant! Sometimes it’s forgotten, but Michelangelo’s David is a picture of courage; this is young David (that’s his rock sling he’s holding over his shoulder). Michelangelo sculpted David facing down his fears before he fights – and defeats – Goliath.

Courage is feeling fear – and acting anyway. There’s a little window whenever we start to fear something where we can push through and take the action that will diffuse the fear. But it’s hard to muster. “Courage is difficult, because you have to address the full emotion at the initial incident,” is how artist Jack White says he thinks about it. “You can’t delay courage. You have to exhibit courage before you progress into the pit of fear.”

Resolve is one step better than courage. Resolve has a built-in fail-safe mechanism: it’s conscious, sustainable, and puts you in the drivers’ seat. It isn’t just telling yourself that, dang it, you’re going to do something, and then make a list and weigh options and then not do it. That’s fear. Resolve is precisely the opposite: it’s a decision in the face of fear followed by action. It means doing something, putting blinders on, and knowing you’re going to keep doing the thing. Resolve is courage with a business plan.

Take getting into a gallery. An artist I know told me that he built his multi-gallery “empire” by simply treating the daunting prospect of approaching galleries like a straightforward math problem. Every other month, he approached 10 galleries; maybe he got two, and maybe one proved mutually beneficial to artist and gallery in the longterm. He did this at regular intervals, and eventually he built an “empire” of as many lucrative galleries as he was able to supply. The key was stepping right out of the way of fear and into resolve.

Not every painting you start will succeed (if this the case for you, congratulations, you’re either a very seasoned painter or a TOTAL FREAK). Not every gallery will like your work, and not every art buyer will connect with what you make. You have to play the odds.

There’s little point in playing mental games about this. The thing to do is 1. resolve to do a thing, 2. write down the individual steps you’re willing to take to get it done, 3. assign yourself a schedule for doing the steps and stick to it. It’s a numbers game.

Focus on your strengths, not your inadequacies. Don’t look at other peoples’ work or careers and throw up your hands. In fact, look away: Focus on a thing that you imagine that you can do, anything you think would be awesome. Get excited about that. Try doing it, and keep doing it until you’re good at it. One day you’ll turn around and see a body of work you know is ready for the right gallery.

Whatever you do, don’t play it safe. Nobody’s ever gotten far doing that.


Roelof Koets, Boy Bringing his Father Coffee, 1645

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