Fear of the Blank Page

October 7, 2015


Above: Phyllis, at 94, one year into taking up watercolor painting. I made this sketch while sitting next to her as she painted. I chatted with her teacher and sketched. Phyl has a look of complete concentration on her face. She is looking deliberately. She is marking deliberately. When she finishes she doesn’t fuss. She is done. And she is joyous every time she finishes a painting. There is no internal critic here, no fear of the blank page. She just takes action and paints. If it’s time for art class, she just goes, and paints. Everyone needs to learn from this. (7-inch square journal made by me with Nideggen paper. Prismacolor dark grape pencil.)    

Sooner or later, on every art message board, in every art group, in every drawing class, someone uses the F-word—Fear.

For visual journal artists and sketchbook artists fear can take many forms. The most obvious—fear of the blank page. But for some artists fear of having time, or making time, fear of overcoming perfectionism (which I believe is a form of fear of loosing control of the creative process), fear of embarrassing themselves with their lack of skill—lead the list of fears that need facing down.

All these fears result in the same thing: fewer pages created, fewer sketches made, fewer attempts to communicate one’s creativity.

I’ve seen students so paralyzed by the fear of opening their journal and making a less than perfect (whatever that is) mark on the first page, that they literally avoid the whole thing and go out and buy more art supplies. As if having a perfect brush, or pen, or paint would solve this problem.

Art supplies won’t solve this problem, and over-purchasing can lead to its own problems that will also stunt creativity.

What’s Behind All This Fear?

For many it might be as simple as the inertia that comes with starting a new venture. If you haven’t drawn before, or used a sketchbook, that first blank page might look pretty daunting. If it’s just newbie-jitters you can get the students over it by sitting them all down and setting them a simple drawing task—something you know they can all succeed at. Then they shake off their fear after that and keep filling pages.

But for other folks I think something more complicated is churning in their minds. It’s a mix of expectations, goals, their level of perfectionism, and a little (or sometimes loud) voice telling them they can’t draw. That’s their internal critic. 

People have written entire books on the internal critic and how it hobbles the creative efforts of many artists. The voice might sound like a judgmental parent, a critical teacher, a sour spouse. It’s a voice that knows your complete psychology so well it can jab you repeatedly in your soft-underbelly with creatively lethal results.

I’ll recommend some books, and a class, I think are great for helping artists deal with their internal critics at the end of this post. Right now I want to make a suggestion about a way to immediately start to deal with the fear of opening up your journal or sketchbook and being OK with making marks that may bear no resemblance to the masterpiece you have in your head.

1. Have an honest chat with yourself about what SPECIFICALLY is going on. What are you afraid of? 

For instance, are you not drawing because you think your drawings aren't good enough? Are you not drawing because you feel you never have time? Each of those has a different necessary response. What are you afraid of? 

Are you afraid your drawings won't turn out the way you want? They won't if you don't work at sketching. Afraid that other people will judge them? Why do you care what others think? Are you having fun? Are you working towards a goal? Are they really in a position to judge? 

Maybe you’re afraid of all of the above. Well it’s best to know that at the outset.

And only when you name what you're afraid of can you deal with it head on. Basically, to overcome any of these fears, making more drawings is the best approach—funny how that works.

2. Now ask yourself an important question: Why draw?

Open your journal (or sketchbook, I don’t care what you call it and I use these words interchangeably when talking about what I consider an artist’s workbook).

Without editing yourself, write down all the reasons you can think of for why you want to draw. Write them on a page, use two pages or more if necessary. Write large or small. Write across the page or in a series of columns. It doesn’t matter. Just write.

Do not worry about grammar, punctuation, or complete sentences, or even complete thoughts. You can flesh out the last when you reread you list after you've written down every reason you can think of.

Right now all that matters is that you write down every reason you have for wanting to draw.

These reasons might include some of the following: 

  • Everyone else is so why shouldn’t I?
  • I drew as a kid and I really miss it?
  • Roz won’t stop writing about it?
  • It will make me more sexually desirable. (Believe me some people actually believe that; I’ve found no evidence for it in my life and can definitely attribute the lost of one partner to my journaling habit.)
  • It will be my path to wealth.
  • It will be my path to fame.
  • It will be my path to understanding what I’m interested in.
  • I want to use drawing to discover the world around me and really slow down and remember to breathe.
  • It will help me lose weight.
  • It will make me a better person and help me be less critical of others.
  • I’ve tried every other art and craft I can, something has got to work, so I’ll try this.
  • I would like to make a record of my life, to remind me what I thought about the events around me, and how I saw them.
  • I would like to learn to draw better because it would make me a better communicator and enable me to do my existing job better. (That job can be anything, because sketching small pictures in meetings to communicate with others is always useful, but I’ve heard this comment most frequently from students who are designers and illustrators who believe they are “faking it.”)
  • I am fascinated by light and I want to get my observations down on paper.
  • I want to be like “so and so.”
  • I’m a parent and I want to create a healthy role model of a creative person for my children.

Obviously there are as many reasons for wanting to draw as there are people drawing. But some reasons overlap, some are slightly skewed. Only you know what your real reasons for wanting to draw are.

Here are a couple tips—not all reasons are sound. If drawing helps you lose weight it will only be because you are otherwise occupied all day with something other than eating. I’ve noticed visual journaling has not made me a better person at all. (Friends will line up to testify I’m just a cynical and sarcastic as I was as a 3-year-old.) But it has made me more myself. And that is always a great thing. 

I’ll let you spot the other “dubious” reasons to start a drawing practice, on the list.

My point is, you need to have a discussion with yourself and be brutally honest about your answers and your reasons.

Only then can you address the specifics of your desires with actions that are targeted to result in those goals being met. 

If you want to “use drawing to discover the world around [you] and really slow down and remember to breathe.” I can guarantee that will a little bit of work and diligent application that can happen.

That’s where the realistic evaluation is going to come into play. 

You are about to put a LOT OF TIME, perhaps all of your FREE TIME, into an activity that may never result in any monetary gain or increase in celebrity.

Still have a solid reason for going forward?

Why Do You Journal Roz?

Oddly no one ever asks that of me. I guess they all assume I keep a visual journal because I’m a graphic designer and illustrator. Others have known me so long, and have never seen me without a journal in my hand, so it would never occur to them to ask me why I keep a journal.

If you had asked me as a child of 3 1/2 why I kept a journal (because that’s when it started) I would have told you, “Because I want a true record of what has happened to me.”

You see, even at 3 1/2 I didn’t like people telling me that “such and such” happened on Thursday, when I knew, because my memory was better, that no such thing happened ever, or happened on Monday. And, like ALL CHILDREN EVERYWHERE, I hated being told what I felt. If I kept a journal about what happened to me, what I saw, what I heard, and what I thought about it all, then those pages contained what I felt as well. 

And if an adult told me that the last time it was halloween I didn’t enjoy going as a witch, “so why don’t you go as a princess?” I could look in my journal and see that I loved going as a witch, but what I didn’t enjoy was having my broom taken away from me. There’s a huge difference.

I have never wanted to be a princess. My expansive experience at 3 1/2 included watching all of the Disney animated features up to that point (while on a trans-Pacific cruise with my mother and brother). And there were enough princesses in that lot, for me to get a very clear idea of what it meant to be one. Later in life I was to meet a couple princesses. My assumptions about what a crummy gig that was were validated.

Better to be a gadfly.

That’s a motto to live by.

Now if you had asked me why I keep a journal in adulthood I would have told you, “Because I can’t not keep one.” 

Believe me I’ve tried—really. I really loved that man I lost over my journal. So I’ve tried. Or I just didn’t love him enough. Or I just loved myself more. 

The longer answer is “Because I can’t not keep one—it’s just the way I think and process. My life is all about process and how my brain works.”

Additionally, there are just too many beautiful and wondrous things around. I want to have a record of all that. And I still want to remember how I think and feel about things that I encounter in my life.

Bottom line, it’s just too fun not to. It’s experimentation and play to me.

Moving Past The First Blank Page

Until you honestly chat with yourself (and I recommend you do it in writing so you can let it sit a couple days and come back to it and think about it and add to it) and find out what specifically is going on inside you, you will not be able to come up with the unique answer which will help you resolve this issue. All the well-meaning advice, from everyone else, that you might try, will only increase your sense of futility and fear that things aren't going to work out for you. It will continue to be hit or miss instead of a regular and satisfying habit.

If you do have the chat with yourself, or if you have done that already, then you can start addressing the specific answers to those questions with specific actions. You can even ask people for suggestions to help those specific actions.

Maybe your fear is related to your internal critic?

You can use this blog’s search engine to find posts on the internal critic and self-evaluations. Perhaps there will be something there that will relate to something you're experiencing. 

Other folks who teach journaling and sketching and also blog, are sure to have posts on this. Once you have identified the exact nature of your issue/issues you can start applying some of our suggestions in a more specific way. 

Chatting with yourself about why you want to draw may well be very difficult and uncomfortable. 

Any of us who have goals and want to change, or do different things, and are honest with ourselves, have to go through a hard look at ourselves to work out a path forward. While this will seem uncomfortable to you at first it will get easier. Start to look at your life and goals as a dialog you have and a plan of action you create.

Don’t forget to ask, “Is drawing really the ‘thing’ for me?” 

Finding a way over the blank page impasse could be that basic. 

There are millions of creative, happy, engaged people who don't draw. 

Some write, knit, quilt, sculpt, work with wood or metal, play music, film videos, weave baskets, bead, fabricate jewelry, garden, cook, decorate their homes. There are millions of ways to create that don't involve journaling and drawing. Just because you know a lot of people who sketch, doesn't mean it's the only path to creativity for you. What makes your heart sing when you do it?

As someone who has taught journaling, bookbinding, and art for over 30 years I will leave you with these thoughts:

1. Remain hopeful. If you have the honest chats with yourself and look for specifics to apply to the problem of facing the blank page, you will find the right mix of stuff to work for your situation.

2. Something I always say to my students—If your internal critic or some other aspect of yourself, tells you you don't have time to draw, remember that in the time you spend arguing and wrestling with that voice or impulse you could have finished a drawing. Instead, next time just draw and sort out the argument later (which will be never, because once the drawing is done there won't be anything to discuss).

3. Keep having those honest discussions with yourself and be realistic about your goals and expectations.

4. The more you work at drawing, even in 5 minute increments (drawing your salt shaker before clearing the dirty dishes from the table, making a gesture drawing of a cut flower you picked, etc.) the more you will improve—in your own way and own time.

5. Something one of my mentors said to me a long time ago, and something I say to all my students: "What could I accomplish today if I let go of perfect?"

Good luck. Keep asking yourself questions.

Resources For Dealing With Fear, The Blank Page, and The Internal Critic

Steven Pressfield's "The War of Art,” is an excellent book on the topic of getting creative things done.  

David Bayles and Ted Orland's "Art & Fear” will provide you with excellent insights in overcoming the fears that are stopping your creative efforts.

Ray Bradbury’s “Zen in the Art of Writing,” is a wonderful peek into the mind of the prodigiously talented and productive writer. It will inspire you in the true sense of the word, by breathing the joy and wonder of creativity into you!

Natalie Goldberg’s, “Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life,” calls on her experience as a practicing Buddhist, and contains the single most succinct and to the point description of how the “monkey mind” stops the creative flow, that I've read. If all you read in this book is the two pages making up chapter 8, you’ll be better prepared. But read the whole book—it’s about living in the world as a creative person.

Need Additional Help Learning to Deal With Your Internal Critic Or Learning To Develop A Durable Drawing Practice?

My online class Drawing Practice: Drawing Live Subjects in Public deals with ways to build a strong drawing habit based on thought out goals and strong skills sets. It offers lots of help for dealing with your internal critic, no matter how long he has been in residence. This class will be repeated in Spring 2016. Sign up on the class sign up list if you want to learn additional details as soon as dates are set. (Top left column, just below the Gull illustration: Classes with Roz.)

    • Miss T
    • October 7, 2015

    Roz, that sketch of Phyllis is marvelous. I love the gesture and expression you captured.

    • Miss T
    • October 8, 2015

    I can see that in the sketch. It’s terrific, and I bet she is, too!

  1. Reply

    Thanks, She is terrific. She has always been very supportive of me and very encouraging in everything I do. She’s the type of person who adopts everyone and never lets them go. When I was a “starving” artist just out of graduate school, she used to pay me to paint for her, in fact I couldn’t get her to paint, she would just ask me to do it. And she was the same way with the friends of all her children. Phyllis has been a real mother to me.

    • SusanLily
    • October 8, 2015

    Thank you, Roz, for the style of tough love you show those of us who, like me, struggle to overcome our fears. In a productive (rather than a dismissive “just get over it”) kind of way, you provide tools I can use to determine the nature of my particular issues and to learn how to take action to resolve them. I’ve had more than one a-ah moment reading your blog posts and class material. If your nature is cynical and sarcastic, then you temper it with optimism, practicality, patience, and compassion. So, again, I thank you! And may we all strive to be more like your wonderful friend, Phyllis. 🙂

    • LindaW
    • October 8, 2015

    Roz, thank you for this. I have been struggling with fear and procrastination (and collecting too many art supplies) for the last couple of years. You are an inspiration to me, and I completely agree with SusanLily’s well written comment above. Thanks again!

  2. Reply

    Thanks SusanLily, sorry I missed your comment from so many weeks ago. I’m glad you find these posts helpful, and I appreciate you writing in.

  3. Reply

    Linda, ah, yes, the “collecting art supplies” gambit of procrastination and resistance! It’s well known in artistic circles. And the first step to overcoming it is to recognize it and get sketching with what you have and working on the goals you want to realize. I hope that’s what you’ve been doing since I missed this comment back in October! I hope that you are setting goals for yourself and sticking with a small selection of art supplies to really get to know them before you move on to the next.

    Have you read this post on testing art supplies?

    It contains tips on keeping up with testing and experimenting while at the same time getting caught up in collecting supplies.

    If you’re still working on that particular issue you might find it interesting.

    I wish you good luck in focusing on your goals and diving in!

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