Ask the Art Prof: Do Professional Artists Doubt Their Abilities?

RISD in Rome exhibition

“Do the professional artists still have the “oh-gosh-I-really-can’t-draw” feeling at the beginning of their work? Most amateur artists and hobbyist seem to suffer from it time to time.”

To work as an artist, you have to be mentally very strong.  Making art is like plunging yourself into the great unknown, where nothing is guaranteed, there are no correct answers, and nothing is predictable. It’s like being dropped in the middle of a foreign country with no resources.  Essentially, that’s what happens every time you sit down to make art.  It’s a pretty frightening process if you think about it in those terms.

Because art is a hands-on experience, there is a common myth that making art is all about what your hands can physically do.  I’ve seen students make incredible progress with their work in a span of 15 minutes.  It wasn’t because somehow their hands magically gained an ability to physically handle their material within those 15 minutes, rather it was because they changed their mental approach to their work.  It doesn’t matter how skillful your hands are if you don’t have a strong mindset.

How you think about your process and work affects everything.  What all of the great artists have in common is they all firmly believed in their vision, and their work exuded a sense of confidence. They could stand behind every action in their artwork with certainty. One of my all-time favorite drawings is this ink drawing below by Rembrandt. Ink can be a scary medium to use: you can’t erase it, so every stroke you put down is permanent. In this Rembrandt drawing below, there is an undeniable assertiveness in every mark. His intense sense of confidence shows throughout the drawing through the boldness of his strokes.

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Ink Drawing by Rembrandt

To work professionally as an artist means having to confront these issues on a daily basis.  For this reason, professionals have to figure out ways to cope with this challenge.  If they didn’t, there’s no way they would survive long term. The fear and doubt in the creative process never goes away professionals, rather they come up with concrete strategies to deal with it.

I’m a professional artist, and I worry all the time about final results and I doubt whether I can rise to my own expectations. I want so much to do well with my work that I end up exerting a lot of pressure on myself to succeed. Oddly enough, one of the best strategies that I’ve found to deal with that fear and doubt is to just not think about it.  If I over scrutinize the situation I end up actually heightening my worries, so I turn my brain off and “jump off the cliff”.

Studio View

I focus intensely on the task at hand, thinking about formal elements that I want to stress in the work.  It sounds silly, but I tell myself that I kick ass and that I totally know what I’m doing. (even if that’s the complete opposite of what I am actually feeling) I also never critique myself when I’m in the trenches of working, rather I work continuously until I’ve reached a good stopping point. Then I put the work away where I can’t see it, so that I’m not tempted to judge it prematurely and worry myself more.

It can be mentally straining to handle these concerns on a daily basis, and I know that I still struggle every time I sit down to work. However, with time and experience, these strategies eventually become routines that kick in naturally.


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“Am I actually an artist?”
“How can one regain lost satisfaction with their work?”
“How do you gain confidence in your artwork?”

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8 thoughts on “Ask the Art Prof: Do Professional Artists Doubt Their Abilities?

  1. I agree that it’s most intimidating when you start creating a new work. My strategy for dealing with doubt is to constantly look back at my best old works and remind myself that I am capable of doing so much. IT WORKS.

  2. I don’t know any professional artists who don’t suffer from pangs of doubt (myself included). The most intimidating part of the creative process is never the beginning for me – the beginning always seems so alive with possibilities. My self-doubt creeps in partway through the project, usually when I get it to a point where I’m happy with what I’ve done thus far, because I’m afraid my next step will ruin it.

    It’s my experience too that the more I think about it, the more anxiety and worry I experience, until I’m practically paralyzed. The only way to get through that doubt is to buck-up mentally and power through it, to “jump off the cliff”.

    It’s an important reminder that all artists go through this!

  3. I used to worry too much over whether I was making art or craft. At one point or another this question inevitably would creep up, causing much self-doubt and anxiety. I was able to overcome this, well, at least for the duration of the creative process, by visualizing myself as a curious child, exploring and discovering without value judgements, just owning the moment with all of my being. This way I am free to make whatever my creative self of the moment wants to create, without the critical self’s interference. It seems to be working…However it took a very difficult and painful process to find this curious child hidden inside my adult body. I think all of us can do this successfully if we are determined enough, and we should, because it is the surviving child-self holding the real creative power, uniquely assigned to every single of us.

  4. The start IS difficult, but I find the most difficult part is halfway thru. I start “organizing” a blended area if it somehow doesn’t look “correct”. And edges (too soft, hard, not straight enough) and endlessly spend hours over and over on these things. I know I’ve done it every painting, and IF i can satisfy myself on these thing thru constant dabbling, it does look better, but is it worth it?

  5. Of course professional artists suffer from doubt, myself included, but I think that articles like this tend to overemphasize that point. Yes, I do have doubt from time to time, but I have enough experience making the work and achievements that I’ve met during my career, that this doubt is MUCH more manageable than it once was. And I think this is likely true for many other artists as well. I mean, if you’re a mid-career artist and you’re still experiencing the same anxiety starting a project as you did when you were first learning to draw, then you may have some serious problems to overcome I think.

  6. Of course professional artists suffer from doubt, myself included, but I think that articles like this tend to overemphasize that point. Yes, I do have doubt from time to time, but I have enough experience making the work and achievements that I’ve met during my career, that this doubt is MUCH more manageable than it once was. And I think this is likely true for many other artists as well. I mean, if you’re a mid-career artist and you’re still experiencing the same anxiety starting a project as you did when you were first learning to draw, then you may have some serious problems to overcome I think.

  7. I came across this as I’m about to have an exhibition in a reputable institution. The series is loose and bold yet wasn’t labour intensive as my other pieces. They were each done in a day. My husband who saw my work online said he finally got them in terms of perspective and that it was a different experience than seeing them up close. He couldn’t get the same sense when physically near them. The works are off next week and because of this comment I am suddenly full of self-doubt. Is the work worthy of the institution. Will people react similarly to my husband when confronted with the originals. It’s funny as the self-doubt has gone from creating the pieces on the whole, but now this is a new level of self-doubt (am I a fraud?) that is creeping up. Perhaps as artists, our hyper sensitivity makes us prone to these feelings.

    • I think self-doubt is inevitable for all artists, regardless of experience or ability. Any professional artist who claims that they don’t experience any shred of self-doubt is either deluded or lying. You don’t progress as an artist without some degree of risk taking and experimentation, and self-doubt is certainly a big part of that process. In your situation, the works are already on their way to the gallery, so I would try to concentrate the fact that you’re having an exhibition at a strong venue! Everyone has different reactions to artwork, there’s absolutely no way to predict how the artwork will be received, so don’t get caught up in your husband’s experience with your work-he’s one person, and a very biased one because he’s your husband. Don’t worry, the doubt will subside as the exhibition draws closer!

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