And Overcoming Masterpiece Anxiety
The first painting I remember having an immense amount of pressure to get right was in my GCSE art exam.
For the final piece, I moved into new territory and arranged my own setup of objects in front of my easel.
I thought a still life would be the easiest choice for a timed study.
It felt doable, and I was too nervous about tackling a portrait. I also knew there were a few rules I should stick to.
A harmonious colour palette, good placement of objects and strong directional light.
After moving a vase, a bottle of wine and a bunch of grapes around for a little longer than anticipated, I reckoned I should just get on with it.
And some aspects of the finished painting worked ok. They really did.
My drawing wasn’t bad and the composition was balanced, but the hardest job was judging the colours from life. The light kept changing, I remember desperately trying to block off bits of the window and the immense pressure to create a ‘finished piece’ really lost all the logic and joy of observation.
I know we don’t often find ourselves in art exams, but the same pressure of having to make a great painting every time we pick up the brush often results in unfinished work or worse, unstarted work!
I’ve found the best way to get around this and bring spontaneity back into my studio is to try and paint daily.
Do a quick small study of something I already have lying around the house, try a new technique, colour palette and subject with no expectation.
Just thoroughly engage in the process.
15-min sketch of garlic onto Raw Umber & Titanium White Ground.
45-minute total painting time.
I make it as enjoyable as possible. Comfy seat, a strong cup of coffee or pot of tea, often Vanessa joins me, the neighbour’s cat if we’re lucky and we set the clock.
What can we achieve in an hour?
If it’s just one line, it’s better than a blank page.
One delicate flower head from a vase of flowers or an impressionistic sketch of an entire bowl of eggs, all beautiful in their own right.
Using Ultramarine Blue & Burnt Umber looking at warms and cools.
It’s not a masterpiece, it’s not a finished painting but it is something.
And that’s how you create.
That’s how all creativity starts, from the process, not from waiting for an idea to get inspired.
50-min total painting time
I like to call these meditative studies my Morning Paintings, inspired by Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages. (Morning Pages is a writing ritual Julia Cameron suggests in her fab book ‘The Artist’s Way‘)
They are regular practice but they feel hopeful and fun.
What I also think is interesting, the set up is usually at our kitchen table in sometimes not the greatest light, which can become quite challenging, and without a fully established composition, it’s just an object that you’re observing.
These Garlic’s were popular! now experimenting with a Raw Umber wash and Titanium White
Because it’s not a perfect situation I’ve found it sends you down a path that you didn’t expect.
There’s no right or wrong outcome but you do learn very sharply about what is important in making a painting ‘work’.
Using a Yellow Oxide paint marker for the drawing out.
I’ve learnt to say ‘how fascinating‘ (inspired by Benjamin Zander) when it doesn’t go to plan.
It’s just one day, one study and we’ll try again tomorrow. The best bit is you start with a blank page, one hour later you’ve created something new and it’s still the beginning of your day!
Grab a brew!
So when you’re faced with a creative block, try a one-hour slot of uninterrupted freedom to create, don’t try to ‘finish’ the painting or worry about the end result, you’ll be surprised to find it’s where all your new ideas are hidden.
This Post Has 148 Comments
Thanks Will. This is my first time receiving your newsletter/ideas.
Very refreshing and inspiring in a relaxed way – just what I need to help me experiment without expectations!
So pleased you enjoyed it Pauline, nice to have you along.
Thanks Will, this is a great point of view and I shall apply starting next week!
Good one Beatrice, pleased it helped.
Hi Will, just wanted to let you know that your newsletters have never failed to inspire and cheer. And this particular one comes just as the perfect time for me – I’ve been feeling stuck lately but you’ve showed me how I can get back on track and learn to enjoy the painting process again. Thank you!
Thanks for your kind words Jo, so pleased it was timely for you.
Good Day Will,
I love Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way, and your great idea for morning paintings. Think I’ll give this a go. Are you making this a regular daily practice?
Cheers Rhonda, yes it’s a great book. Yes, it’s usually either a morning painting or morning pages, both can be very handy in getting that underlying creative energy out onto a page.
Thanks so much Will for this idea and sharing your process. I really appreciate your warm encouraging style of communicating, and reminder that it doesn’t have to be elaborate. Thankyou.
My pleasure Caroline, glad you found it helpful.
So true Will – you understand the reluctance, the trepidation us “newbies” feel every time we begin an art project! A daily ritual without the dread of finishing or making a masterpiece would hopefully free us up! Thank you again for your wise words!! Christine from Sydney
Cheers Christine, yes the trepidation to create happens to us all, another good book on the subject is ‘The War of Wrt’ where Steven Pressfield talks about ‘Resistance’. It’s mostly related to writing but equally applies to all creative endeavours.
Hi Will, Just wanted to let you know that your newsletter is always appreciated and this one was as if you knew what I was going through. I am not a professional artist but I do love to paint and play with colours and you are so generous in sharing your self and your techniques with us…very reassuring and inspiring…thank you so much..
Thanks so much Humaira, very kind of you to say so.
My first post, but all I wanted to say is you’ve done it again!
Provided inspiration, and (in my case), a wake up call to stop thinking, and get doing!
Cheers Peter, thanks very much. Yes, you can easily find yourself getting stuck searching for the perfect painting, I find getting started changes my mindset.
Thank you, Will. I always look forward to your emails and the lessons! Blessings!
Thanks Will, this is really helpful and reinforces how I’ve felt recently. I’ve noticed that I put far less pressure on myself these days because I’m drawing and painting more often. I actually laughed recently at how terribly a sketch went, which is a long way from the pressure I felt when doing art A Level years ago.
Ha, ha yes, laughing at how wrong a drawing goes can be such a healthy attitude to take Liz, so pleased you enjoyed it.
Thank you for your newsletter it came at such a good time. I was a little stuck and this has given me a way to move forward.
So pleased to hear it Katherine.
THANK YOU SO Much!! HAha- I was doing exactly what you described- In this lock down I needed some tidbit to help me move forward. Doing it. You’re the best!
So pleased it helped Tina.
Thanks so much for your encouraging idea! It is exactly what I need right now and I love the playful way of getting into painting and drawing again. Thanks so much, I really want to make time and try your idea out!
Really hope you enjoy it Sabine, yes playful is a good way to approach it.
Love the article and love your sketches and color palettes
I love that your work looks fresh and never overworked
Thank you!! Gail
That’s very kind of you Gail.
As ever your comments provide a lift to the spirit! I have been practicing (very badly) some watercolour work. With so many mediums I never know whether to practice them all or stick with acrylics! I get very confused and then your lovely newsletter drops into my mailbox full of inspiring ideas and reminding us that it’s all about the process.
So true Margaret, pleased it was of help.
Good morning, Will, from Canada. Your words are such a gift! As an amateur I find myself becoming overwhelmed that each piece has to end with perfection. Your newsletter is a reminder that each strike provides an opportunity to learn.
Thanks for sharing your talent.
My pleasure Karen, yes the thought process and overthinking can really create a block, really hope you find it helpful.
Thank you for encouraging us to just get to it and enjoy ourselves no matter how the painting comes out. I enjoy your helpful tips sent in your emails as well. Look forward to each one!
Thanks Janie, glad you found the lesson helpful.
Greetings, Will, from the State of Maine in the US. I, too, look forward to your upbeat and thought-filled newsletters. I’ve been spending time on youtube in the early mornings with some painting related programs, but it’s beginning to become a way to put off the actual painting and drawing practice. Your message has given me a push. Gotta go now. Want to try out that new sketchbook.
Great to hear you’re feeling inspired to create Colleen!
Hi will thanks for another excellent painting lesson kind regards Steve
Thank you, Will, you always encourage and inspire!
Thanks Susanna, much appreciated.
Good Morning, Will – Once again your newsletter gave me the “kickstart” I needed – thanks so much for your continuing tutelage and enthusiasm. I am a complete amateur and just started painting during Covid after I found your website – it has been an absolute gift to me! You are most appreciated!
So pleased the website has been of help Karen.
Consistently great content, thank-you Will.
Thanks very much Gordon.
Oh my, right on the spot! I thought it was the spring. Indeed getting rid of expectations mode is the hardest. And to think that they are my own since I am my harshest critic. I’ve been stuck with the tulip canvas for quite a while now. Thank you, Will!
Good one Cecilia, yes, we do tend to be our own harshest critics, hope the article helps.
Will, you’ve done it again!! Thank you so much for inspiring us!! I’m going to try this beginning today!
Carpe diem Jeanne!
I love the loose flower! I’ve been doing this, a half hour to an hour on many days (can’t say all as I love seeing my little grandson)!
Thanks for the invaluable info. as always!
Thanks Jacque, pleased it has been working well for you.
Thank you Will. Absolutely what I needed to hear today, Eithne
Good one Eithne, pleased it was helpful.
Just what I needed Will. I was just telling a friend yesterday how the fear of making a mistake gives me so much anxiety I will actually go months without picking up the brush/pen. And it’s such a silly way to look at something I’m supposed to be doing for ‘fun’. Thank you Will!
So pleased it was a timely article for you Justin.
Love this idea! Question: what material do you recommend painting on daily that won’t break the bank, but also doesn’t hinder the process by being difficult to work on?
Hi Lisa, you can either use a thick paper/card, canvas paper or canvas board, or homemade wooden panels.
Brilliant! Just what’s needed for a kick start and a stop to all the excuses. Thank you Will.
My pleasure Jane, glad it helped.
Are these paintings done in oil?
Hi Rose, these are all acrylics.
Thanks, Will!! Your timing is perfect, you’ve inspired me.
Great to hear it Deb.
Thanks Will, your newsletters are always informative and inspiring :-) I’ve just started the videos for your acrylic portrait course. Happy Friday :-)
Good one Cyndy, really hope you’ve been enjoying the acrylic portrait course.
Thank you so much for this reminder to just create and enjoy the process. And it seems that my best work happens on the second piece after I’m so focused on making the first one perfect.
So true Angela, often our painting goals are best achieved indirectly.
Hi Will, it is not often enough that I reply to you. But I always look forward to hearing your news and especially receiving all the inspiration you find. How do you do it? Spot on again this time. You really are a talented, kind hearted and inspiring artist. I have always held you with the greatest esteem. Still miss the drawing classes! Keep up the good work, happy painting, You really are one of a kind x. Jean
Hey Jean, so pleased you’re keeping well, thanks for your kind words on the teaching, yes the drawing classes were great fun!
Thanks Will – been feeling uninspired recently but this has given me the impetus to paint daily
Great work Carole, so pleased you’re feeling inspired.
Thanks Will, I haven’t painted for well over a year. I’ll start again and hopefully not get stuck again. Thanks for all your hints, they are great.
My pleasure Frances, we all get stuck from time to time, glad it helped.
Thank you Will. I’m sorry I don’t often read your emails. Today I decided it was time I took time to look at your email. You are inspiring to me and so consistently there for artists. I’m one of many who struggle with not getting started with a painting because of the perfectionist stigma. I have great ideas but getting started is not easy for me, however I promise to get the lead out so to speak and get going.
Cheers Elizabeth, so pleased you enjoyed it.
Will, your timing is incredible! I needed this inspiration and as always, you’ve come through for me. Thank you!
Fab to hear Joni, great that you’re feeling inspired.
Thanks Will for those articles. Seems that you know exactly what we need ! For me it was informative and very supportive !
That’s lovely to hear Margarita,
Hello Will. You seemed to really hit a sweet spot for many of us out here struggling with even getting started, much less finishing. I like the way you suggest a stress-free, even fun approach to this kind of exercise. I have a hard time getting that kind of thinking and feeling going, and so I avoid even starting. Also, I notice in your sketch drawings that you’ve got some grid-type lines showing … does this help you get an effective drawing easier and faster?
Thank you again for your continuing inspirations.
Hi Ken, so pleased it helped, I often draw out with straight lines to indicated the far edges of the subject, and can then tweak these to try and get the whole subject balanced within the piece. You can see the technique at the start of the apple drawing tutorial,
Thank you! I needed this advice. I’m one of your online students – a retired IB Theatre Teacher – daughter of an art teacher who spent my life watching Mom. Now Mom is gone; I’m getting old, and desire to be an artist too. Ha
I was in an upscale shop in Mobile, AL, USA yesterday looking for art for my daughter’s new house. I showed the owner one of my paintings from your beginner class. Her reply thrilled me and gave me hope. She said, “You could sell those!” I took that as: Get busy painting! Another ha for now.
The reason I liked this article is because I want to paint my own. I don’t know what to paint. This helped.
So pleased it was timely Deb, and glad you’ve been finding the lessons helpful.
Love this! Thank you for writing and sharing this article. Great inspiration and a great reminder to just paint and let it flow :)
So true Ana.
The timing of this article is perfect, Will! I’ve been stuck for awhile waiting for inspiration that just isn’t coming. This takes me off the hook–I see now that I can paint anything just for the sheer pleasure and practice! And best of all, it’s okay if it’s not finished.
Yes Terri, taking that pressure away to finish the piece can really help to just engage with the process so much more.
I’m running off to grab a paintbrush…MANY thanks:)
Great stuff Barbara!
Having fallen off the daily habit, this is a timely and lovely reminder to actually create daily and have fun as a way back to a creative life. Your newsletter and photos are just wonderful and make it all seem so obviously doable! Alas, it’s been paralysis by analysis for me this last year and you’ve inspired me to just give it a go, on a daily basis. Thanks so much!
That’s brilliant to hear Vicky, really hope you enjoy it.
Thank you so much for this, I find this pandemic interfering with my creativity, this advice will keep me going!
Great stuff Camillle!
thank you soooooo much!
My pleasure Susan.
How fun is that coffee maker. I had just made a cup in my pot.
Thank you Will, you always inspire.
Cheers Barbra, glad you’re feeling inspired.
Thanks so much Will for your inspiration. I always think it is so interesting to find that tips like this seem to arrive just when you need them.
That’s brilliant to hear Shelley.
Thank you, Will. I so needed to hear this. I have been feeling very pressured; all self induced!.
I feel so much better after reading your article.
Glad that it’s taken the pressure off Pam, really hope you enjoy your paintings.
Very generous of you, Will. It jump-started me after a few days of excuses for not painting. You’re a gifted teacher.
So pleased it helped Mike.
Hi Will, Love your newsletters, Love your painting ideas, and Love the way you truly care about people!!
God bless, C-Marie
Thanks for your kind words C-Marie, very much appreciated.
Thanks Will, just the reminder I needed. I’ve been away from daily practice for over a month due to moving house, moving studio and travelling. Just got back to it yesterday.
Great that it helped kickstart your practice Mary-Anne, hope the house move went well!
I was really excited to read you last newsletter and ideas. It came just in the right ime when I needed your inspiring advice: how to create without too much expectations !
My pleasure Nurit.
A couple of years ago, I joined an art group for some lessons. The teacher was horrified when I told her it did stress me up: the fear of being compared to the others, not performing as well, being criticized… I ended up finding it less than enjoyable. I would however love to get back on track. So, thank you for giving me a new perspective (pun unintended). Your tips and enthusiasm are inspiring. So let’s go….
That’s great to hear Ben.
Just like to express my appreciation of your work and this article. A little reminder every now and again does wonders.
All the best
Thanks so much Silvano.
I,ve been following you for a couple of years now. You were my first true teacher. Love your online instructional videos. They are of much more help than many l,ve seen. Love your upbeat, relaxed manner. Thanks for all you do to inspire us beginners.
Hey Peter, nice to hear from you and so pleased you found the teachings helpful.
Thank you so much, Will! This is exactly where I am right now. Terrified to do a commission! I have started and made changes a few times. I thought it’s my lack of self-discipline. But you have really encouraged me. Thank you so much.
So pleased to hear it Martha, yes those commissions can crank up the anxiety!
This was a good help and nice tip, because it can be so frustrating wanting to paint and start a new one. It becomes so hard because of the pressure to create a masterpiece, every time.
I just want to thank you for your always inspiring newsletters! I like also your positive energy in all the things you write or say in your videos. Your tips and techniques are really appreciated too. I paint with oils, but I still watch your techniques for acryl or any other medium.
Thank you so much! Have a good day!
So pleased you found it helpful Petra.
Thank you so much will! This was exactly what i needed! Very helpful
My pleasure Paris.
You are so right Will, fantastic tip, I’ll try the morning pages.
Hope it goes well Hugette.
Wow, 94 comments, Will! I almost didn’t bother commenting but I felt compelled too after reading (much like everyone else that commented, I’m guessing!). Your newsletter / blog posts are one of the few I really look forward too. Your humility and openness is SO incredibly refreshing in a sea of artists who guard themselves and put only some polished version of themselves and their work forward. Secondly, this is truly inspiring as others have said, and motivating! “Masterpiece syndrome” is such a problem and prevents us from making a single mark sometimes. I am crippled often by never settling on “something” to paint. It’s terrible. Your line “a single mark is better than a blank page” is just brilliant.
Anyways I just wanted to take this time to say how much you are appreciated. ALSO! I recently bought your water-based oil painting course and am just LOVING it!
Hey Christopher, thanks so much for taking the time to write. Fantastic to hear that it struck a chord and really hope it helps with getting into that creative flow. And so pleased you’ve been enjoying the water-mixable oil course. Have a great week.
Great insight and wisdom Will. It’s so easy to get caught up in the demands of life. But this IS (Painting) life, now.
My pleasure Joan.
Will, I have been holding myself hostage to Masterpiece Anxiety for a month. Thanks to you for helping me realize it! Tomorrow is a painting day; no masterpiece required.
So pleased to hear it Gretchen, enjoy your morning painting!
Will, Thanks for this tidbit. It rang true to me. I have not painted in over a month as both moving and my business have kept me very busy. I am about 3/4 of the way through a commission dog painting and feel I am procrastinating because of the “masterpiece” phenomenon. Perhaps I will set it aside in the morning and do a quick “garlic” study.
Really hope it helps Bob, yes having a break from larger more complicated pieces can really help to come back to them refreshed.
Love the quick small paintings. Do you have a place that lists the paint colors you used for each painting?
Pleased you enjoyed them Randi, unfortunately, I don’t have a list of all the paint colours for all the demos.
Many thanks Will, I always enjoy your newsletters and your enthusiasm for painting. Look forward to starting a morning painting sessions.
So pleased you enjoyed it Carol.
Thank you so much! This arrived a while ago and I forgot to read it. Just got my art studio (!) back after our son returned to uni (it’s supposed to be his bedroom, haha) and was in there for a while yesterday and the day before with all my stuff, and I felt so excited getting paint out again, but then I’ve just done some disappointing painting that doesn’t say what I wanted it to say at all! How fascinating!! I paint some abstract as well, and the same principle applies I’m sure. So then I thought, I know I’ll read what Will Kemp has to say: and you’ve nailed it once again! I love all nature and I even live in the countryside. What am I doing?! Off to find something small to paint. Where’s the garlic? :)
So pleased you enjoyed it Catherine, hope the new reclaimed studio is working well!
Morning Will! Such a timely subject! This was definitely written for me! Every painting has to be a framable piece. I have printed this out and put it over my art table so I can read it every day. Such wise words. So invaluable to me! Thank you.
My pleasure Nancy, so pleased you found it helpful.
Awesome article Will. So inspiring — I’m definitely going to try it. I appreciate all your encouragement and experience.
Thank you Will. I’ve just started doing this and it’s been so lovely. Your blog is great and always so positive and inspiring! Thank you!
My pleasure Esther, so pleased you’ve been enjoying it.
Could you tell me what you used for background wash and for the ‘black’ in the cafetiere painting. I’m sure you’ve explained this many times – it must be basic, but I’ve just joined.
Hi Judy, it’s a mix of Ivory Black & Titanium White for the grey background, then using the Ivory Black for and Titanium White for the greys of the silver and then using Burnt Umber for the coffee.
Hello Will, thank you so much for this. I’ve had the block for a very long while now. I’m just getting back on my feet with it. I am also trying out acrylics for the first time. I’ve noticed that it is more fun, when I’m more engaged in the process than stressed out with the pressure to get it accurately at the end. I’m also just now learning to take it easy on my self these days.
So pleased you found it helpful Jerry.
Thank you, Will. I’ve enjoyed all your videos and work, and it was very helpful to read and view your background experience with pressure to paint perfectly. I have been stymied by masterpiece anxiety since childhood, and your advice is exactly what I need to follow to return to painting. I stopped when I moved last September, but now that I’ve been settled in my new home for awhile, it’s time! You’re newsletters and painting instructions are very much appreciated.
That’s fab to hear Linda, so pleased you enjoyed the article.