Getting Over Fear: the Art Edition
October 16, 2017 4:48 AM   Subscribe

How do you create when you don't like being watched while you do it?

I have a crippling fear of being watched when trying to create something. Usually it's just writing, but I've been trying to teach myself how to draw, and I can't do it when anyone is around me. I literally completely freeze up, then just put it quickly away. Once it's done I can show people, but when I'm in the process, I can't do it.

This means that, say, at work on a break, I can't practice; I am in a one-bedroom apartment with my partner, so there's not a place I can just go to be by myself.

This drives me crazy, because I can't really find a way to practice, and I want to learn to draw, but if I can't practice...

I need some tips to get past this that don't include "well, move to a larger apartment" or "break up" or "lock yourself in the bathroom"
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I suffered from this in my art program in college. I just got over it? You have to believe your stuff is worth it. And, there’s nothing like a deadline. I also used headphones to block out my surroundings. Additionally, I tell myself that strangers don’t count, so I can go to a coffeeshop or a library and ignore them.

You may be able to get a private studio a couple days a week and treat drawing practice like the gym. But my advice is to take a community college drawing class until you desensitize to drawing in public.
posted by blnkfrnk at 4:58 AM on October 16, 2017

While you work on getting over it, I wonder if your relationship is such that you can just ask for some time alone to work on drawing or other projects you'd like to focus on uninterrupted?

I'm a little bit like this in that when I'm first doing something new I really want/need to be alone to at least get it started. And honestly, I tend to just say "hey, honey, I want to teach myself a new knitting thing but I'd really like some quiet alone time to do it, do you think some night next week you could take yourself out to a coffeeshop or something for a few hours?" And he goes, and I knit/write/sketch, and it's great. Or sometimes that's not going to work out but I can just say, "I'm putting in earplugs now, I want to focus on writing for an hour or so, please only interrupt me if the house is on fire" and then we do that, and it's not as good as real alone time but it's an intermediate thing that can work if I'm in the right frame of mind.

If that weren't an option, I feel like I would maybe try for "learning to do the creative thing in a public place where I am unlikely to be talked to." Like, I would never write/knit/draw at work because people would feel entitled to ask me questions and it and I would hate it. But a coffeeshop or library or quiet corner of a park might be okay. So I'd recommend trying something like that.
posted by Stacey at 5:26 AM on October 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

I cannot confidently write or record music with anyone else in the room. I decided a while back that getting over this particular limitation was less interesting than learning how to play cool new music so I chose the latter.

For me, it depends on having a housemate/partner who is out enough - that's pretty much it. When I had a housemate, she was out at her boyfriend's place, out studying, and out drinking enough that I knew I'd have at least one evening, maybe more, where I could work alone. With partners, I have only ever lived with people who had plenty of interests that took them out of the house - clubs, rehearsals, social time. I've made a point to stay in and work when they're doing those things.

If you never get any time in your house alone, would your partner be open to discussing the potential for you each having a "your night" in your home? Or is it perhaps that better planning would help - could you and your partner plan your weeks out on a Sunday evening, so that you know when it's worth coming home on time to do some of your work at home?
posted by greenish at 5:46 AM on October 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

Two things: a suggestion and a story.

First the suggestion: Julia Cameron's book The Artist's Way might be really good for you.

Next the story: I confronted and overcame this fear--maybe my story will resonate with you.

I took a drawing class at the local art museum a few years ago. The class would start in a classroom and focus on one specific topic, then move out to the galleries and draw stuff that was especially suited to, say, perspective or shading.

I had always had very low confidence in my drawing ability. The class itself was a big stretch for me... and sitting in the middle of a major museum, poorly drawing something amazing while museum-goers walked around me was at first excruciating.

The way I got around it was:

First, just staying and doing it. It helped that I had paid for the class.

Next, giving myself permission to be bad at it. I am a student and it's permissible for students to be bad at what they're learning. That's how everyone starts. It maybe helped that I was a teacher for several years so have a lot of compassion for the struggle of learning.

Then I started to realize how unique, amazing, and therapeutic it is to spend an hour in intimate meditation with something beautiful. It was a totally different way to engage with artworks and to be in the museum. That was so wonderful and all-encompassing that it crowded out my fear.

Now, I draw in galleries on a somewhat regular basis. No one who has ever been in the same gallery as me has ever commented on my drawings. Maybe they thing they're great, maybe they think they're awful. I don't care either way. I am still not great or even good, but I'm better than I was before. I still see my limits and all the ways I can improve when I look at a drawing, but I cut myself slack about it. The process (of enjoying the drawing, of becoming better through practice) is more important than the product.

Hope this helps in some way. It's it to work through that fear.
posted by Sublimity at 6:11 AM on October 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

On a practical level you could find a nook in a library, ask a friend if you can use their place while they're out or at work, or get up in the middle of the night and work in your kitchen/living room.

On an emotional level I would say really do some thinking about where this came from and what your fear is. I used to have a similar fear and in my case it was pretty easy to figure out the source; it was a childhood incident where a significant adult injured me in a fit about what I was drawing. But it was also a feeling that somehow I would be judged for a) even thinking I could writer/draw/whatever and b) maybe? be told? I sucked?

But not only were those things not true, they were really just my ego trying to prevent me from the pain of having to suck first and do the thing to be better at it, and in that sense it's like any other artistic resistance...focus on the process, just keep going.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:29 AM on October 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

My go-to for getting over art fears is to just be like "I'm going to make something bad, SO WHAT? It's my fucking paper! It's my fucking art supplies! I'm going to make a huge mess!" and get on with it.
posted by bile and syntax at 6:55 AM on October 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

I really relate to this. My best suggestion is to pretend like you're in a voting booth or a dressing room, and set up some kind of partition around your work area. I have a bamboo screen from Pier One, and it's been really handy for small-space privacy in general. This one is hilariously expensive, but it's pretty. Something like that could work well at home.
posted by witchen at 7:03 AM on October 16, 2017 [3 favorites]

I can't stand to be watched while I paint or draw but I can stand having someone in the room if I am facing them. I faced my monitor so that the back was showing to the room and my back was to the wall, for instance. I also have a tilting art table that faced out into the room so that all you'd see was the mechanism while I was drawing or painting. I like witchen's idea of a partition a LOT. You could talk to your partner and request that when the earbuds are in and the partition is out that you not be disturbed.
posted by xyzzy at 7:07 AM on October 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

Also, it helps to remember that nobody is going to be as critical of you work as you are.

Your partner is there because they love you and accept you, and they're not going to be poking around looking for evidence that you're not great.

Everyone else, i.e. passing coworkers or people in public? We don't care. We're too wrapped up in our own stuff to judge the quality of what you're doing. And even if someone does judge you, what difference will it make? You won't get hired or fired based on how your drawings look to a passerby during your lunch break. I'd think, if anything, that it could boost your workplace reputation because you will appear a creative, open-minded, innovative risk-taker (etc).
posted by witchen at 7:12 AM on October 16, 2017

I can't do it when anyone is around me. I literally completely freeze up, then just put it quickly away. Once it's done I can show people, but when I'm in the process, I can't do it.

OK. So the thing to do here is to stop treating the fear as an irritating impediment to your creative practice, and start treating it as an issue in its own right worth devoting its own practice time to getting rid of.

You currently have a fear that freezes your creative process when you notice somebody watching you, or when you're some place where somebody might watch you. But the thing about the freeze reaction is that only about 10% of it is in your head; 90% of it is elsewhere in your body. So if you can train your glands and your guts and your musculature to remain calm while your hands are going through the motions of making marks on paper, even when somebody is watching you do that, then you're 90% of the way toward solving this problem.

Key thing here is to shield the fragile and delicate creative process from the glare of public scrutiny until your bodily screen of calm is robust enough to cradle it on its own. So take a pad and a pencil, sit down somewhere public, and spend half an hour just filling in a page with thousands of copies of the letter X. No creativity required, because you're not practising creation, you're practising public process.

If anybody looks at your paper and asks you what on earth you're doing, tell them straight out that you're working through an annoying fear of being seen drawing in public that's been crimping the process of learning to draw. People respect the process of confronting a fear.

I would bet a reasonable sum of money that by about the twentieth time you've done this, you'll be so bored by the time you're half way down the page that you'll just doodle something without even thinking about it.
posted by flabdablet at 7:38 AM on October 16, 2017 [4 favorites]

Well when I have been afraid to practise creative or personal growth projects in front of a partner, it has always been because on some level I knew that they would say mocking, dismissive, critical or otherwise unhelpful things either about the project, my process, or the methods I was using to learn. These comments would not be intended maliciously but would be a real impediment to continuing. So my fear was self protective.

A possibility is booking space in a quiet room at your local library, if you have that kind of facility. I think renting workspace for short blocks of time is also a thing that exists in the world? Or ask your partnes to go away for X amount of time on X days. It's ok to want privacy for this.
posted by windykites at 8:17 AM on October 16, 2017

I've been trying to learn to draw and face some of the same self-consciousness. I agree with Sublimity's answer: the idea of drawing around other people was super intimidating, but I was surprised at how natural it felt in a beginner's instructed drawing class, where the whole point was to learn & everyone else is paying all their attention to their own work anyway. (Another option might be non-instructed drop in sessions - lots of cities have figure drawing meetup groups.) Drawing in galleries is a bit harder but has such a big payoff in terms of engaging with the art that it's worth the discomfort. Trying to draw around someone who a) I know and b) is not also trying to create something seems like the hardest scenario, though. Is there something creative your partner could do while you draw? Would that help?

Oh - I have also learned that I very much enjoy drawing with kids. Like we will all just draw trains or pictures of Elsa from Frozen or whatever the kids are into. If you know any kids who like to draw that might be worth trying.
posted by yarrow at 8:25 AM on October 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

There are libraries, community centers, coworking spaces, studios, etc that could let you book a private room for an hour or so if you want your own space. If you make a regular habit of it the space could also help you get into the creative mindset quicker.
posted by divabat at 8:13 PM on October 18, 2017

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