Blog / 2024 / Mistake #19: Being Afraid to Start

April 22, 2024

In May 2023, I celebrated my twentieth artiversary, and, for the last year, I’ve been marking the moment by blogging about everyday mistakes, things like being a people pleaser and thinking a positive attitude would make my art better.

Today I’m talking about the fear of beginning every single project I’ve ever created—the idea that you need to know the precise shape of things before you get to work.

When an artistic undertaking gets to be bigger than, say, a handful of related paintings, the logistics often become overwhelming. I’ve found I can get going once I get these three preliminary elements in order: research, format, and accountability.


These days, my project Everything’s Fine is a series of paintings as well as a free high school art lesson plan and it’ll soon be a coloring book. But it started out as me reading as many books as I could find about Borderline Personality Disorder. I hadn’t been diagnosed with BPD—I hadn’t even seen a therapist—but I recognized myself in some of the symptoms of the disorder, and I was desperate to find stability in my emotional world.

artist livestreaming their art
screenshot of one of my livestreams in September 2021

After reading a few books, I designed some images and began painting them live on Twitch twice a week. This was in late 2021, when many of us were still avoiding people because of COVID, and I sensed that I needed to reconnect with others after weathering the first year and a half of the pandemic, much of it in near-total lockdown. Plus the livestreaming of my painting was also important research. I wondered:

Am I the only one struggling with my mental health with Year 3 of the pandemic just around the corner?

Public health officials weren’t talking about a mental health crisis like they are now. Most people were focused on yelling “yay for vaccines!” loud enough to drown out any worries that the CDC might have about super-contagiousness of the delta variant. Everyone wanted to get back to normal and make believe that the last eighteen months hadn’t happened.

If you were aware of your mental health issues, you were mostly considered a mopey grumble-bum who should lighten up. Thus the need for the live-painting before I allowed myself to fully commit to Everything’s Fine.


For me, this is usually the hardest of the early decisions I need to make. It includes questions like:

  • How big is the project going to be? How many artworks will be part of the series?
  • How large will these pieces be? Should they be uniform or can they be different sizes?
  • What materials should I use? Acrylic paints may be a given for me, but I need to decide if I’m painting on paper, wood, canvas, or some other fabric.
Everything’s Fine, mental health series by painter Gwenn Seemel
Everything’s Fine
(Full series adjusted to hint at the different sizes of the original artworks.)

When it came to Everything’s Fine, at first I chose paper. It made the project feel less serious since art on paper takes up less physical space in storage and therefore also less emotional space in the long term, because the art can be hidden away easily.

But as I was looking at what size to make each piece, I realized that I sort of hated myself for trying to minimize this project. So, in a move that mirrored my emotional state with painful accuracy, I swerved hard and picked panel. Unlike works on paper or even on fabric—which can be unstretched and rolled up for storage—paintings on wood require a lot of storage space. They usually end up living on my walls until they’re sold. Working on wood meant I was fully committed to this project, and that felt right.


Here I’m referring to two things:

  1. defining your audience
  2. figuring out funding

Usually, determining who’s a part of your audience involves deconstructing who you are a bit and mixing it with some marketing knowledge as I explain in this post.

In the case of Everything’s Fine, accountability was, at least at first, embodied by those same livestream painting sessions that served as research, and it was a direct kind of accountability. By that I mean that I’d made a promise to paint publicly for at least two hours a week for the last three months of 2021, so I did just that—even when this project was the last thing I wanted to think about—because I refused to break my word.

With that helpful kind of pressure, I finished four paintings for the series in the first ninety days, but in 2022, I only added another four. I was going through a lot: I moved both home and studio twice and navigated my father’s decline and death. I had all the excuses. Plus, I hadn’t scheduled livestreams to keep me on task.

artist Gwenn Seemel, Princeton Public Library
photo by Gwenn

By 2023, it was clear that, like with all of these so-called preliminary elements I’m describing in this post, I needed to cycle back through the accountability question. From the beginning, I’d known I wanted to do a Kickstarter for the project, but last year I finally gave myself a deadline for it. I scheduled livestreams throughout January and February, and I locked in dates for two exhibitions of Everything’s Fine. For the fundraiser and events to happen, I needed to finish more paintings and also make decisions about the final form of this project. In other words, I turned my accountability back up to eleven and it really helped me push through my blocks.

Cycling through

Because sometimes you get hung up in the process of starting a project, but, if a project is complex enough, you also get hung up in the process of getting started again and again as the work evolves.

At the very beginning, Everything’s Fine was about reclaiming my mind from a bad place. But it soon became a rallying cry for those who didn’t want to live in a pretend-o-world where gun violence and the fascistic bent of the GOP weren’t looming over every single moment of American life.

Specifically, Everything’s Fine became a shoutout to the teens whose youth had been eaten by the pandemic. So I researched the possibilities of getting the project into public high schools across the US. My main obstacle: the right wing’s obsession with censoring media, especially the stuff that kids have access to—a problem that PEN America’s recent report about how more books were removed from American public schools in the first half of this school year than in the entire previous one exposes in an alarming way. With this in mind, I knew I needed to find an indirect way of delivering Everything’s Fine to teens.

I spent hours talking with teachers I know and researching the mindfulness programs that they’re allowed to use in their schools. I learned about writing open-ended questions that allowed viewers to respond directly to the image, without inserting my ideas into the conversation right away—with help from the amazing Dr. Nisha Gupta.

I even toyed with the idea of making trading cards from the images and prompt questions, with the idea that this would allow Everything’s Fine to make its way into schools without the teachers having to bring it to the kids. But I couldn’t find a way of printing the cards, since the images I’d made were of all different proportions. I kicked myself for not designing the project differently from the beginning, but there was nothing for it. Everything’s Fine couldn’t be the perfect trading card project, because I wouldn’t ever have started it if I’d waited until I figured out I’d eventually want to design it that way.

After all this research, I settled on the idea of a lesson plan and a coloring book, and then there was still more research needed to figure out how to format both of these.

coloring book page showing a woolly mammoth in a circus
coloring book version of The Woolly Mammoth in the Room

The coloring book will be available soon and I have the Kickstarter to thank for that, because, as it turns out, I am easily distracted. I had plans for 2024, and they didn’t involve street art and an awareness campaign to go with it. But I made a promise to Kickstarter supporters that they’d get the coloring books in June, and I’ll keep that promise happily.

Maybe this post made you think of something you want to share with me? Or perhaps you have a question about my art? I’d love to hear from you!


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