Conquering “The Fear” when creating

A reflection on how you beat the constantly lingering Fear of failure when you’re doing creative stuff.

If you’re anything like me, you will know The Fear that somehow seems to linger whenever you start to create something new. In my case, it is not so bad when I’m designing. It’s bad when I start a new drawing. I have trouble getting started in the first place, and I hate the blank sheet of paper so much… but I have made a Decision (with a capital D) that I want to improve my portrait drawing skills, so I have to conquer my fear.

I am trying to nail realistic portraits, and I’m terrified before each one. After I’m done, at least I don’t have to worry about screwing it up (I mostly already did, I mean.. is that supposed to be Hugh Jackman?)

The main conceptual tools I use to get over my fear are:

  1. Remember what the goal is. The goal here is to improve drawing ability. It will take time, and I try to remember this whenever I make something that looks nothing like the person I drew. It’s okay. It was a step in the right direction, and I learnt something.
  2. Follow a method that has worked for you in the past. For drawing portraits, there is a method which will consistently give you good results. Every time I deviate from this, I screw up in a big way — which is good, because it reminds me where I have to improve. It’s also bad, because I knew what to do … I just didn’t do it.
  3. Just begin and fix problems as you go. Meaning, suspend your feelings, take a deep breath, and throw the first pencil strokes loosely down on the paper. Then iterate. Feel your way, until you get the shapes just right, and then commit with a bold stroke. Know and accept this is the way to do it!
  4. Each failure is a learning opportunity. This relates to #1 — the goal is neither to draw something I can sell or hang on the wall. The goal is to improve — so every failure is an opportunity to learn. I regularly make people’s heads too tall, for example, and after about 40-odd sketches I know that I have this bias. I still make the mistake sometimes, but at least now I recognise it.

The concepts in relation to design

WHAT on earth is this article doing in the publication? Well, I think about design all the time — I’m sure you do as well — and for stuff like the conceptual tools listed above, I can’t help but draw the obvious parallels to how we work in design: keeping the goal (vision) in mind, following a proven way of working (e.g. design thinking), “feeling your way through the drawing”, trying stuff out and iterating (awareness of wicked problems, empathy building, prototyping), and learning from your mistakes (prototyping, recognising bias, failing and learning quickly).

The major difference is, when drawing portraits you actually have an objective reality in front of you, and your aim is to depict this as accurately as possible. You know what the portrait should be. In design, you do not. This is one of the things that makes design so uniquely interesting and appealing: we are co-formulating what problem we are solving, and how we are solving it, in an emergent process.

I’m not afraid to start new designs, and perhaps emergence is a part of the reason — when designing, there is no objective reality to depict. Instead, the idea of the reality that should be manifested appears gradually, piece by piece. Perhaps this takes some of the pressure off, in which case it is probably something we should be grateful for.

This was somewhat fluffy / philosophical — I apologise, and thanks to those few people who managed to make it through. I hope you found it somehow relevant and worth your time :)

If portrait drawing is something for you, check out Gary Faigin’s free (and great) teaching videos here, which explains the method I refer to in bullet #2

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