Art and Risk

In Creativity and Inspiration, Pep Talks, Rants and Sermons, Thoughts & Theory by David62 Comments

Continuing my tradition of posting totally unrelated images to illustrate a point, this is the abbey at San Frutuosso, in Italy.

I had a video chat with Dane Sanders and a virtual room full of folks on this week and one of the questions touched on an itch I’ve been meaning to scratch for a while. And now I’m beginning to read Art and Fear, Observations on the Perils (And Rewards) of Artmaking, by David Bayles and Ted Orland. So the time is right to scratch that itch publicly, if you’ll excuse the somewhat indiscreet metaphor.

The question that was asked was along the lines of the kind of advice I’d give to people starting out, specifically those wanting to make a living with their photography. My reply is the same whether or not you ever intend to make a dime at your art: Take more risks.

Art, like love, like business, is about risk. We risk that our work will fail. We risk that no one but us will like it, and then even we ourselves are bound to be overly critical. We risk that we’ll never be the genius we wish we were in a culture that seems only to honour the very few extraordinarily talented ones (whatever that means), or the ones who market themselves best as such. When we could have taken a so-called real job instead, we risk not making enough to make ends meet each month. We risk rejection from the critics and our peers, or even worse – indifference. We risk disappointing those closest to us.

Or we don’t. We have a choice; the alternative is to risk nothing, remain safe, and create art – or run a business – that comes not from a place of vulnerability and transparency, or a place that’s truly, uniquely ourselves, but from the surface. We might even do well commercially, creating from this space (afterall, there’s plenty of money in creating crap) – but even if it rises above the mediocre it will never, ever – and this is the point – say the thing our soul has been wanting to say. We will always be dissatisifed.

Art is about risk. Anyone that tells you otherwise is a fraud. It’s not easy; it’s hard, and it’s risky.

But so is everything else. Because really, this is about your perception. It’s about feeling that something is risky, and that feeling keeps you from doing it. We feel secure in our 9-5 cubicle job, while the idea of forging out on our own scares us because it feels insecure. But why? Are you sure the monkey at the top of Cubicles Inc. knows how to run a better company than you? He might, he might not. But are you sure? Are you sure the markets are stable? Are you sure that job, that pension plan, that <insert name of your favourite safety blanket here>  is as secure as you think it is? And what of the risk of failure? Again, it’s about perception. We all fear failing publicly, creating something that’s not critically acclaimed, even if the critics are morons. But what about the fear of a life fully lived? What about the fear of never seeing your work realized, your ideas fleshed out, your words unsaid and images unmade? Isn’t playing it safe even riskier?

A few weeks I wrote a couple articles about beginning the work. This taps that theme. What’s holding you back from creating the work you truly want to create? Your market? Your peers? Your blog readers, your fans or Twitter followers? Your spouse? I know it’ll feel like a risk to step out into a space where you can create boldly, and fail more boldly still on your way to making your art. The question isn’t, Should I risk? Of course you should! But we’re already risking. The question is, Which risk should you take? Which risk scares you more – the risk of failing, of thrashing about creating a bunch of crappy images on your way to creating something great? Or the risk of doing nothing, watching your ideas gather dust while the images in your mind go unexpressed, unmade, as your life passes.

Life is short. You can take this little sermon or you can leave it, but the longer I live and look around at the people who’ve carved out for themselves a unique life in business or art, or any field of endeavor for that matter, they’ve all of them done so while risking. They’ve failed, they’ve learned, and they’ve tried again. Some of us have failed personally in embarrassing ways, and we’ve gone bankrupt, and I’m not suggesting you take that route, but where it counts – where it really counts – to get where you most want to go involves risk. If it didn’t you’d already be there. Some of us will take that risk, some will shy away from it. The people on the shore always outnumber the ones willing to brave the water. And they almost always desperately wish they had the courage to take that first step. There’s no guarantee of success, even if we risk it all, but there’s no surer way to failure than not trying.

Please note, I’m not talking about stupid risk. I’m not telling you to put a new Hasselblad on the credit card. In fact, that will only make risking where it really counts that much harder. Clear your debt, live within your means, and you’ll have one less reason not to risk, to do that personal project, to fund that gallery show, to set time aside to finally put that photo book together. I’m talking about the risks that are much harder to commit to, the ones that keep us from getting down to creating something potentially great, true, and unique.

We’ve so much to gain; the creative life is so rewarding if you’ll take the risks. Who’s in?


  1. This is really beautiful and exactly what I needed to hear right now. It spoke to my soul. Thank you!

    1. Author

      Thank you, Laurel – both for the kind words and for bringing my attention back to this post. I can’t believe I wrote it 12 years ago! Feels like it’s as true now as it is then.

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  3. I was at a bookstore looking for a certain book on photo editing, and “Art & Fear”, a book I had never heard of, called out to me. I just finished reading it and may read it again. Very intelligent, very well-written, it really spoke to me and made me think. So, I searched this blog to see whether David had ever commented on that book and came across this excellent post.

  4. There is a prerequisite for an artist to take risks though. An artist must be able to engage in constructive self-deceit to be able to take those risks and succeed.

    If art is risky, then by definition it means that a large majority of artists fail. If you’re starting out in a ‘creative’ career, there’s every likelihood that you’ll fail. A very good chance that you will one day tell your kids “I wanted to be a professional photographer once, but it didn’t work out…” That’s just reality.

    To take that risk anyway, you have to be the sort of person who can compartmentalize that, or deny it outright. Fortunately, there are studies showing that people who are able to fool themselves about risk, statistics and their own abilities are more successful (whether it’s athletes, artists or whatever). Probably because they take risks when a more ‘grounded’ person wouldn’t even dare. Oh and they’re also happier.

    Here’s a link to a study on swimmers and self-deception, which I heard about on the WNYC Radiolab podcast recently.

  5. Awesome post, David! Really inspiring! and the colors of your photograph and the place remind me of a picture I’ve taken here in Italy as well – in Rocca Calascio. :c) Made me happy. I already liked that picture. Now I like it more! :c)

  6. I am a lifetime learner and will take risks every day to improve my capabilities.

  7. Wow, when I read this post and a lot of these comments, it almost brought tears to my eyes. It seems as if I’ve made a career out of taking risks, on so many different levels. So this post really got my eye. I really am proud of myself through it all, through all the things that I’ve tried, all the things that I’ve learned. But this post really brings it all back around for me. I’ve been reading your stuff a lot lately, and listening to you on various podcasts, and really enjoying you and your work, David, and have a growing respect for you. So to read this post, it really made me feel good.
    Thank you, thank you, keep up the great work.

  8. David, I couldn’t agree with you more. I WALKED AWAY from a high paying corporate job 2 years ago. While the money I make today is less then it was working for Big Blue, the past 2 years have been some of the happiest of my life.

    See you in Kathmandu… I LOVE saying that!

  9. Risk is definitely part of life, so is change. And every passing minute is an opportunity to share your passion for art, the world through your eyes or soul, hoping to invoke a response, a rise within in the art aficionados or casual observer, in their own worlds. It is something inside that brings you pleasure and has to have “an out” it simply cannot be contained. I’m in!

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  11. I have to say David, this is an extremely inspiring blog, as are a lot of the comments that have been left on here. I have found in the past nine months that what I am most afraid of is the risk. I love photography, I love everything about it, the art, the beauty, the ability to capture that one moment in time that shows your soul to the world, and most of all, it’s ability to inspire greatness in others. I want so much to take that one step to becoming a world class photographer. The equipment I have already started on, it’s the knowledge and ability to drop everything else and pursue just this. I hope that I will be able to soon. Please, continue to inspire others, your work isn’t overlooked. The books, the blogs, the Tweets, and especially the photography inspire me every day. For that, I say thanks.

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  13. In France, there is a good idiom about taking photo : “walking a tightrope”.

    In France, about the photo, the law is very strict. It’s not allowed to shot people. You must always complete an authorization form every you shot someone… It’s really impossible. If you respect the law, it’s impossible to shot a nice scene with people.
    Blurry people, people seen from behind, people seen from afar summarize the French photo because Of The severe rule.

    In France, the photo is always associated with risk.

  14. David,

    I learned of you and your blog via our mutual friend, Garth.

    How ironic that the first time I logged on to your blog, your current post spoke so directly to where I am presently residing – existentially that is.

    Your notion of risk, and the need to take it if one is to advance and/or realize more of one’s full potential, two things come to my mind.

    One came from Garth himself – “Behold the Turtle – he has to stick his neck out to get anywhere”.

    And the other is an excellent quote from Teddy Roosevelt and also speaks directly to the notion of taking risks:

    “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and , at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those timid souls who know neither victory or defeat”

    Thanks for the encouragement.

  15. I’ve struggled a lot lately with what I want to “do” with my life and in my career. I’m afraid to admit that I want to do more with my photography and creativity because I’ve become comfortable with my 9-5 job. It affords my wife, 2 beautiful little girls, and I health insurance and food on the table. I just wish I could find more of a balance in life and this post has inspired me to try to become less scared and take the risks that terrify me.

  16. Hi David,
    Thanks for this post, and for “Within the Frame”. Recently I’ve started to hit my stride, and your common sense postings have been very helpful to me as I start to realise my goals and ambitions.

    Thanks again!

  17. I started to read your books just a few days ago. I was immediatly captured by your images and your words. It was exactly what i was looking for and what i wanted to ear. Going deep in our vision. The work of a lifetime…
    Now that I see that you’ve just come back from where i live (Camogli) i feel sad to have missed the opportunity to meet you.

  18. This past year I turned 40, and I spent a year thinking about what I really wanted to do “next” — what would I regret not doing someday down the line? I live in the inner city community of Compton, CA USA — a place infamous for birthing rap music, for gang activity, for poverty and crime. But in the last few years, a movement has started here, and there are seeds of change in this city. For a while God had been stirring in my heart to create a blog to document and tell the story of Compton’s transformation. As I began to think about combining that with my passion for photography and using that to tell the story — I felt like I would almost DIE if I didn’t do this.

    Please understand — I am NOT technical. At the time, I didn’t even really know how to use Photoshop. I certainly had no idea how to build a blog or a website. All I had was a love for my city, photography, and my God. So I jumped in with both feet. I studied everything about digital photography I could get my hands on so that I could improve my skills. I took a college PS course that just about killed me (but I learned PS!). I raised donations of older equipment so I could sell it and buy newer equipment… it took an entire year and, I’m sure, more time and energy than it would have taken ANY other person on the planet had God called them instead of me. But a couple of months ago I launched that website, and it is now up and running.

    I’m proud of what I’ve done so far. Truth be told, most of the time ALL I wanna do is spend my time working on this. People have been very encouraging, and the site is starting to have the effect I had hoped for, both on people inside and outside my city.

    The thing is, most of the time I find myself feeling like Noah and the ark (on a much smaller scale!) — working and working away and thinking, “OK God — why am I doing this again? Is this really gonna be any good for anyone besides me? I’m spending a lot of time, God — a lot of money. Are you sure this is what I’m supposed to be doing? Is anyone else even gonna care? What if only 30 ppl ever really look at this thing? And what if those ppl only look at it once, just cuz they love me?!…”

    But the truth is — I just can’t NOT do it. No matter what. Even if no else ever notices. Somehow I just know that this is part of what I was born to do.

    So thank you David — for your inspiring and challenging words. For putting on “paper” thoughts that pinpoint some of the emotion and doubt and HOPE that’ve been swirling around in my heart. And for reminding me what I should really be afraid of!

    So to you, and Noah, and all the other crazy visionaries who have built a boat without ever seeing a lake — THANK YOU! And many many blessings as you pave the way for the rest of us!

  19. I just started making phone calls. I don’t know precisely what I’m setting up yet. But putting myself out there is the biggest personal hurdle I face. When I do that the art happens.

  20. Thank you for this David. You need to package this sermon and ship it to others outside photography:) My story is not related to photography, but is certainly about risk. A few years ago I decided to adopt after years of telling myself I would do it but only when I was able to comply with my own stipulations. I wanted to be married, have a better paying job and have a house. Well guess what, I’m still single, I lost my job in the process, but I do have a house. If I had delayed my decision even one more day I would not have my son. Not a day goes by when I realize how close I came to never meeting him and let me tell you, he was worth the risk.

    But in becoming a mother I have pushed away following my dreams so, yeah, I’m in. There is nothing like that first step…

  21. David,

    Thank you for this post. And what great timing as my girlfriend and I were having a similar discussion about the risk and thinking outside the box in creating images not to long ago. This served as a nice reminder that I’ve played it safe to long and not ventured out enough with my work. From this point on, I will strive to be more creative and adventureous in persuit of the art and my vision. Thanks for you do and your great thought provoking posts.

  22. One of my favorite posts yet. As someone who has not taken enough risks in life, I can say you are totally right. I am now fully encouraged to achieve my photographic goals. One thing of importance to me is take as many risks as possible, but if you have kids make time to enjoy them, as they are only young for such a short time.

  23. Phooey! I had B&H on the phone ready to ship that Hasselblad. But seriously, well put. Stepping out of the norm doesn’t come easily to everyone. But I’ve learned that if I keep a list of provocations handy I’m always rewarded with interesting results.

  24. For better or worse I’m in!

    If you think this is hard, for more years than I care to admit I was a professional clay artist, with my own gallery, making “one of a kind” pieces. No matter what you charge, it never seems to be enough, and I really dislike mold-made ceramics, it totally loses all the qualities I love about “hand made.”

    At least we can get more than one print out of a great image!


  25. Hi David,
    great post again! It particularly resonates with me as I just took my biggest risk so far with my (soon to be) wife: we both decided life was too short and too boring in an office and both resigned from our jobs. It sounds crazy to most people we know but we have been thinking about it and saving for long. So we are planning a 12 months trip to experience some of the most amazing places and to meet a variety of cultures around the globe (starting this September). I hope to make it my starting experience at living from my photography in the process.
    David, you had a real input on this decision through your blog, your books and your pictures. I can’t thank you enough for giving me insight and courage to help make this dream happen!

  26. I’m in, also. Some years ago, my wife and I began a 9-month long training period to run the LA Marathon. As we read about mistakes beginners make, etc., one phrase I read came back to mind as I read your blog today:
    “The hardest step is the first step out of your door.”
    Fellow Visionologists, I’ll see you down the road on our new adventures!


  27. I’ve come across your blog by chance through this particular post. How about this? Upon invitation late Sunday afternoon to visit St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve to witness and document in photo, watercolor and pencil the last days before the oil hits. I did not hesitate but finished urgent tasks and arrangements on Monday and drove over 500 miles on Tuesday. The extermination of an entire ecosystem and countless species put artistic risk into a new perspective.

  28. you have an uncanny knack with your timing. you always seem to write about just the things I am mulling over in my head at a given moment.

    fear is part of what makes one alive. Making mistakes is a sign of growth. If you’re not making them, you are not pushing your boundaries and you are stagnant. That fear of being stagnant terrifies me far more than failing and pushed me forward.

  29. Another winner! Thank you, thank you, thank you! I’m definitely holding back, for what I feel are valid reasons (family time, bills) but there are certainly some areas I could stretch out and take more risks with. Thank you for your inspiration!

  30. Great post David!
    Ted Orland’s latest book “The View from the Studio Door” is a must read also. I have the pleasure a being in small photo group that that meets monthly of which Ted is a member. It is a pleasure to listen to his insights each meeting.

  31. Where’s the plug for an ebook? ;0)

    Thank you, David, for risking your time to share (for free) some wisdom with people that could most certainly use it, but may not ever appreciate you for it.

    It’s sounding more and more like you’re speaking to me with this series of posts. Please continue the encouragement. I greatly need it and appreciate it.


  32. Every time you click the shutter you are taking a risk. But it is not like the loto . We can learn from our mistakes. Then as we keep on clicking the odds for success improve dramatically.

  33. Lesley Treloar’s quote above from Sidney J. Harris hits the point square on. It describes one of the driving forces that led my wife and I to retire at the end of 2009. For my photography, I’ve finally started putting my work out where it can be seen; in a website, on flickr, in a gallery show, and soon my first contest. Big, risky steps – but I’m finding my voice, and having the time of my life!

    Thanks, David!

  34. In my engineering “real” job, risk management is something implemented right from the beginning of each project. This is not only to management the things that can go wrong, but to open up opportunities. In fact you will see risk and opportunity management are now commonly used exercises in project management. I like how you have applied that here David.

  35. loved the post David. fear of failure definitely holds a lot of us back, but like you said there’s no surer way to fail than to not try at all.

  36. Thanks David, a very inspiring post, I want to share the following saying, which drives home to me how life is short and that we should grab as many opportunites we can, when presented to us…

    “Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable. Sydney J. Harris”

    My biggest risk taken in my life was leaving the cocooned corporate world at the age of 46 to travel the world for many years, no regrets has made me the person I now am and I like me 🙂

    My next challenge/risk (are they the same?) is to make some success in this wonderful world of photography!

    Let’s Do It!

  37. Interesting, I just this morning read a chapter in John Maxwell’s Leadership Gold where he quotes Max DePree’s leading without power:

    “By avoiding risk, we really risk what is most important in life – reaching toward growth, our potential and a true contribution to a common goal.” I was inspired by that and now you have underlined it. We are always at risk. What often passes for assumed security is actually a myth. But it takes something of a paradigm shift to realise this. Anything creative is going to involve breaking new ground and going boldly where no man has gone before (sorry, couldn’t resist) and though you can equip yourself for the journey and gain insight from others adventures only you can take the first step and each step after that.

    I seem to have caught the semon mode from you so I’ll stop now before I ask everyone to get out of their seats and come down to the front 🙂

  38. Makes me think of the famous quote attributed to Goethe (But actually apparently written by William Hutchinson Murray):
    “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”
    Thanks for writing this. We all need all the reminders we can get. I have one friend who says, “when you trip and fall on your face, kiss grandmother earth, thank her for catching you, get back up, brush yourself off and continue on your way.”
    It all boils down to taking the risks, knowing that it will sometimes entail failing, and doing it anyway.

    I’m in!

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  40. Is there a certain amount of faith involved? It seems like there must be for you to sit down and write every day, …to “embrace the failures” …to believe or somehow know that it will all ultimately amount to something.

    mantra for risk-takers: “in hindsight the fears will seem small, …”

  41. You are on a roll of inspiring and making a lot of people take action! Superbe post!
    You know that first step and the comfort zone are very powerful. Life is to short but also goes by to fast to make or more to take the calculated risk. By the time you sit down and start calculating, tomorrow, next week and next month goes by and start all over again! Next thing you know, years have gone by, OUCHT! The stopping motion or non-action for me, I believe that I don’t see myself as successful or not worth it, to make a living from my photography. It is a confidence issue that you translate it as fear of action!
    But, by reading all your latest post maybe one morning I will have a cup of coffee with you and have a few laughs about this! Wishful dreaming! But keep the post going because no matter what I still like to read them and scribble a few notes.

    Cheers, GT

  42. Author

    @John Batdorff – If you’re like me the moments of failures, when embraced, seem suspiciously close, and always seem to precede, the moments of success. Embrace the failures, leave room for them, expect them as the the path to successes. “What’s in the way IS the way.” 🙂

  43. Great post….I’m all for calculated risk…the problem is my calculation are often way off. 😉 It’s a good thing I’ve learned to embrace my failures, so when moments of success take place I truly do appreciate them.

  44. I am definitely in. I love this article. Thank you once again for such great insight and sharing your experiences.

  45. Brilliant. I have been guilty of playing it safe far too often…or worse still, completely blowing off opportunity after opportunity. The last several months have been a major wake up call. Now is all you have…and about 6 cubic feet is all that you can expect to reasonably control. My good friend Mike H. has told me for years: “just do the work”. Amen.

  46. wow..this is such a motivational post. Really enjoyed reading and completly agree with everthing u’v said. Nice work….Cheers

  47. Author

    Wow! huge congrats to you Stuart. That’s amazing. Incredible how, in hindsight, these fears seem so small, so unjustified, isn’t it? The rewards are so much greater than the potential costs.

  48. So last weekend, I took a risk. I exhibited my photos to the public during an art/jazz fest at a local winery. The first time I’ve ever done it.

    I sold nine prints. NINE. And I got invited to show in a local gallery.

    Wow. Who knew? I certainly didn’t. But I took the chance to find out and it paid off in spades. All it took was to make that first move.

    Terrific post, David. I hope everybody who reads it is inspired to leave a little bit of the safety net behind and step out into their dreams.

  49. Author

    @Craig Ferguson – So true. Perserverance is risk taken over the long term isn’t it? Even simply taking the risk of playing a long game can be a tough mental hurdle for some. We want such instant success and it rarely comes that way. So instead we move on when we don’t succeed immediately, over and over again moving on and never seeing the success – however you measure that – because it comes from persevering.

  50. I think taking risks in this sense is definitely a place where the 80-20 rule comes into play. One reason why the few at the top succeed, or at least appear to, is often because everyone else gives up. In many cases, the risk taken is as much to do with persistence as it is with anything else. I read somewhere (maybe a Seth Godin book) that the average successful entrepreneur only achieves his/her success around the age of 40 and only the 6th or 7th try. Lots of people are willing to try once but very few are willing to continue to take those risks, learning and adapting each time, in order to realize their dreams.

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