Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

January 3, 2014

The Fear of Failure

We all I suspect familiar with that moment when we put off doing an unpleasant but unavoidable task until a later date. I used to do it on a regular basis when doing uninspiring illustration jobs, to such a degree that I frequently had to work through the night to hit deadlines. I can still remember the feeling, once I had actually got down to starting a job, of the awful realisation that I had under estimated the work involved and was at serious risk of not delivering on time. Over the years I got better at both starting early enough and also to more accurately predict the scale of the task. Oddly if the job was at the limits of what I felt myself capable of I would start almost immediately incase the unknown territory proved intractably boggy.

This brings me to my topic for this post. Now I am painting in a way that allows me to follow my own muse rather than fulfil the requirements of others, there are no deadlines. No one is telling me that I have to get a painting done but myself. This in turn brings a curse that most artists will recognise… procrastination. If I had actually painted in all the moments that were potentially available for the activity then a great deal more work would have been done! I actually don’t think this matters too much, I feel that all these little and often unimportant activities we fill our days with are valuable to our sense of self and our journey through the years.

There is however another sort of procrastination that is fuelled by the fear of failing and the avoidance of disappointment. Also in many of us is the fear of others seeing that failure. We like to avoid others seeing the moments when we stepped up to the plate, made a wild swing and missed the ball entirely. I do post here the paintings that I feel miss the mark, but I do not for the most part post the the ones that in my eyes at least are complete train wrecks. A part of me feels that I ought to, as people might find it encouraging that experienced painters do not always pull something if not necessarily a rabbit out of the hat. The other part feels that they should be swept well an truly under the carpet. There is a real danger as well in that people will always judge you on the worst work displayed rather than the best. This does not matter too much on a blog such as this, but if you are showing a portfolio to a client they will inevitably look at less good work and think that is what you might deliver if given a commission.

There is no getting away from the fact that it is an unpleasant feeling when you work away at a painting and at a certain point you realise that damn thing is not only bad, but also that there is nothing much you can think of that would put it right. Not only a car crash but a right off as well! When you sit down to watch the telly in the evening when earlier you scraped off a whole day’s or more work, you do not do so feeling fulfilled! I can talk until the cows come home about success being built on failure, this my be true, but none of us relish those moments when our noses are rubbed in the fact that our feet are truly made of clay.

It is this fear that often stops me and I am sure many others from starting a painting in the first place. I am especially prone to putting off beginning a painting that I have visualised in my minds eye but think carries a high probability of failure. Sometimes I find myself starting a different but easier subject in order to put off the evil day. I have over the years developed methods of grasping my own boot straps and giving a good old tug!
One is the ski jump method, just pushing yourself over the brink before you have had time to think it through. This has the disadvantage in that not taking the time to think a painting through increases the possibility of failure. My alternate method is to think about beginning and all the subsequent steps so much that I build up such a head of steam that I just have to start. Generally it would be a mixture of the two though.
I have been trying to find sage advice to write here that might help others faced with moments of prevarication and foot dragging but am struggling a bit do do so. I think the best thing I can offer is that you do recognise the problem and develop your own individual strategies for launching yourself into action. I sometimes wonder in myself if occasionally I do paintings in order to avoid doing other things in life that are necessary  but less fun!

I have as I usually do gone to visit friends in Ireland for the Christmas period. This explains the rather large gap in posting. I go to see and catch up with friends not to paint so there are only sketches rather than anything large. I always come back with a heap of half done rained off paintings too, which I will hopefully finish off once home. My new years resolution is to make a determined assault on the open exhibitions. Last year I didn’t plan well enough and had limited success, this year I will consider what to put in more carefully in the light of having seen most of the shows.


Blackheath, London, plein air, oils

This is The Hare and Billet on Blackheath. Steve Alexander joined me for a few days to paint around London. I must do more up on the heath

as there are some great views especially at this time of year when the light is so low. 10in by 16in. Oils.


Putney, plein air, Brass Monkeys, oil painting, London

The last day out with The Brass Monkeys before Christmas. This is the river front in Putney. The light was very hard and I struggled with this.

10in by 12in.


Putney, Thames, River, London, Plein air, oil painting

We were about to give up due to the rain but the light picked up a bit. This is by the Rowing Club. 10in by 14in oils.


polesden lacey, watercolour

Steve and I dropped in to Polesden Lacey on the way to Surrey. It was wet but we painted anyhow!

I always rather like the mood of wet days, but the paint was very slow to dry. 5in by 7in.


River Nore, Ireland, watercolour

This is a bridge over the River Nore in Ireland. I had just slept in the car so this is the half light just after dawn with the first of the traffic.

5in by 7in


Templemore, Ireland, watercolour

Partway across Ireland, this is Templemor, a few bits of sun around but almost the last!

5in by 7in. Watercolour.


Ballyportry, clare, ireland, castle, watercolour

This is Ballyportry in Co Clare, a subject I have done a fair few times. I had to move the puddle so that it reflected the bit I wanted! 7in by 5in.


Burren, Co clare, ireland, watercolour

Another subject I am very familiar with. The Burren in Co Clare has a strange often mournful air. I painted this in the very last of the light.


Burren, co clare, ireland, watercolor

Returning back from a walk. I only got to sketch this and put in a few key tones before the heavens opened. If I only have a very short moment

then I try to get the most distinctive thing down. Here it was the tone of the sky and the distant lit trees. The rest had to be put in later but for me

that contrast was the key element. 10in by 4in. Watercolour


Burren, co clare, watercolour, ireland, cooloorty

A very rapid sketch where I was just experimenting with ways to do the wild hedgerows of the Burren. 5in by 7in.


Flaggy Shore, Burren, co clare, ireland, watercolour

This is the evening light on the “Flaggy Shore” near Lough Murree. The stormy weather gave some amazing sights in the evenings when it often

seemed to clear for a short while.4in by 10in watercolour.


Burren, co clare, ireland, watercolour

Mostly imagination, from the memory of a moment on a walk at the end of the day. 5in by 7in. Watercolour

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