Maybe I’ve already written a lot about art block. But just because I’ve defeated it once doesn’t mean it I won’t struggle with it again. And again. And again. In general though, there are some tricks that have and still do help me get through a slump.
When I’m feeling unmotivated and talentless – because confidence and skill self-esteem are definitely tied to my artistic dry spells – the first thing I try to do is…
1. Draw what’s in front of you.
Yes, this might sound boring. I’ve done more sketches of coffee mugs and pencils than I’d like to admit. But when I’m not feeling creative, I remind myself that drawing from real life is still art. It’s something I can start almost mindlessly, even if internally I’m grumbling about how the subject matter is boring, that there’s nothing interesting in my room or my house or my city. Sometimes though, I’m lucky enough to get caught up in process of creating something. That look of annoyance on my dog’s face. The little Pokemon figurine that brings me nostalgia. The way light and shadow fall on a blanket – how do I best capture that, without worrying that I can’t?
Drawing what’s around me also has the benefit of forcing me to focus on skill. Since there’s nothing compelling about a coffee mug in front of me, I focus on just making it look good. Maybe I try to make it as realistic as possible. Maybe I’m just noticing where the shadows fall today, in this lighting. Maybe I like to imagine that in doing this repetitive exercise, I’m not in a creative block, but just conducting an exploration of light and colors, like Monet and his haystacks.
But if drawing what’s in front of you still seems boring you could…
2. Use new media.
When I’m testing out a new medium, it doesn’t really matter what the subject matter is, I’m just trying to get the feel of for the medium. It can be a good way for me to get lost in art instead of worrying about the quality of what I’m producing. Here’s a quick list of ideas; I’ll go into some of them in more detail.
- Real pen and ink
- Paint (watercolor, oil, acrylic, tempura, coffee)
- Colored pencil
For me, the apex of trying something new would be going digital. I’m way out of my element with digital painting, but it’s fun and easy to do at any time. No special supplies needed. So one day while fiddling around on my phone, I started to paint – you guessed it – a coffee mug. It held my interest because there were so many brushes and a cool color-mixing tool to try out.
Never mind that the sample paintings in the app were like the one on the left, while mine was the one on the right:
Dip (or Nib) Pen and Ink
Nowadays people use cartridge-filled pens; they’re easier, offer more control, and don’t require constantly having to dip a pen into an ink pot. Dip pens can be fickle, sometimes leave blotches, and don’t always create the line you want. But here’s a secret: in the world of fine art, dip pens are seen as more legitimate. I’m not going to argue for or against that point, but there’s something fun about using an old-fashioned dip pen. So why not try it and feel more legit too?
Well, you may or may not feel more legit on your first attempt, but you still might feel instant gratification from trying something cool and new.
Most people aren’t familiar with scratchboard, or they think of that cutesy craft they did as a kid where you scratch away the surface of coated paper to reveal a rainbow or some silliness underneath. Yeah yeah. I guess that’s scratchboard. But there are some seriously amazing professional artists using scratchboard too. Heather Lara, for example, whose detailed work contains an incredible level of realism.Or Keely Dolan, who creates riveting fantasy and mythology-inspired illustrations.
Scratchboard does take a long time, and it’s tricky since you have to think about lighting in reverse, but it’s so much fun. At the very least, it’s a great way to focus on detail and value.
It might be a little harder to find scratchboard or scratchboard paper, but you can also make your own by coating some stiff paper with ink. There are scratch tools intended for scratchboard – they look like dip pens and have a variety of different nibs – but you can also use an exacto knife or experiment with other objects, like paper clips or spare change.
There are so many kinds of paint: watercolor, oil, acrylic, tempera. Even if you’re an artist by trade, I’m willing to bet there’s some type of paint out there that you haven’t mastered. Why not try a new one?
Watercolor is the most accessible, with cheap sets available almost everywhere. The materials are as basic as you can get – just add water. However it’s often been called the most difficult type of paint to master, leaving you plenty of room for improvement.
And what about non-traditional paints?
3. Be messy.
This is where my own biases come into play. My art tends to be very detailed and tightly-controlled. Loose, abstract art is the bane of my existence. Okay not really. I just really struggle creating it. So for me, it helps to try letting loose because it’s so opposite to what I’m usually doing.
Maybe you’re already a loose kind of artist, and in that case, I don’t know if being strict and detailed would be helpful or frustrating…but when you’re stuck, anything’s worth a try.
Another component to being messy though, is to not worry about how your art turns out. Create simply for the purpose of creating (or if you must, practicing). Give yourself space to do art that is private, free from the expectations and judgments of others.
4. Try different times of day.
By accident, I discovered that I really like doing art in the morning. It’s a nice way to start the day before I become sucked into the world of screens and blue light and headaches. But other days, I’ve really gotten sucked into an art piece at night, working for hours without realizing how much time has gone by.
What about you? Maybe you’ve been trying to work in the afternoon, but you find that actually your art brain is really awake in the morning. Or maybe it depends on the day. I’m still experimenting to find that sweet spot.
5. Find other artists.
Human beings are social creatures, and artists, despite popular belief, are the same. Finding other artists around you has a whole host of benefits, from forcing you to feel accountable to providing mutual encouragement and inspiration.
If I were given this tip though, I can easily imagine myself groaning and grumbling. You mean I have to go out and find people? How am I supposed to just find an art community? But the great thing about living in 2016 is that finding a community as simple as logging onto Tumblr. If you engage and put yourself out there, others will respond.
I still think real life interaction is important, but being in touch with other artists from the comfort of your couch is pretty swell too. And at the very least, well, you can browse through plenty of pretty art and get inspired.
Bonus: Don’t be too hard on yourself.
Some of these tips might not work as well for you. I get the feeling that over time what works for me will change and evolve as well. But dry spells will inevitably be part of any creative’s life.
Creating art is an amazing work, but it also involves an amazing amount of hard work. It’s not only about skill. I only heard this idea put into words recently, in a quote from Joan Erikson, quoted in Composing a Life by Mary Catherine Bateson:
“You have to have a certain basic trust that you can do this – you are going to do this. You have to have will, you have to have imagination enough and fancy enough to do it your way, to make it unique. You have to have confidence, identity, and so on.”
Artist, your work takes more than anyone other than you can know. But what I do know is that the world needs your creativity.