Wanna hear something deliciously ironic?
I got creative block while working on this blog post.
Weeks ago, we decided to publish a piece on “how to fix creative block” and asked the Etchr Facebook community for your best causes, cures, and anecdotes. You all shared some truly insightful advice - and reading it, I felt like I’d gotten the better of creative block for good.
But when I finally sat down to spill ink over it...
Boom. I was blocked.
My first outline didn’t land. I deleted it and wrote a new one - still nothing. I decided to give the project some time and space, so I took plenty of dog walks and tea breaks. Tried writing in the morning. Tried writing late at night. Wrote on plenty of sleep, on little sleep, in coffee shops and on my couch - still, nothing workable. The deadline crept ever closer. I started to sweat. (I’m sure dear, sweet Ânia started to worry, too - although she didn’t show it.)
What was WRONG with me? Hadn’t I done this before?
Or… did I ever really know how to do this at all?
Am I actually a creative, or have I been pretending this whole time?
Spoilers: I finished this blog post. (And if you’re reading it, that must mean Ânia liked it enough to publish it!)
...But the creative block is still very much here. I haven’t beaten it, yet - just kept it at bay long enough to get this finished.
But that small foothold is all I need, for now. I know it’s not unbeatable. Now all I need to do is work through my symptoms, diagnose the underlying condition, and work my way to a cure.
Luckily, the Etchr community has a few tips for that.
[@kelleymogilka takes advantage of the fresh air and gorgeous landscapesto get inspiration for her oil paintings:]
[@jillgustavisart goes outside every chance she gets for her watercolor practice. Unsure if you hsould paint big or small? Why not both:]
What is Art Block?
“Art Block” or “Creative Block” or just “Block” has been, and forever will be, an enigma.
It’s wildly difficult to describe, but if you’ve ever been the victim of a creative block, you’ll know exactly what it’s like.
No creator is immune. Sometimes you want to create but have no idea what or how; sometimes nothing you create is ever good enough; sometimes you’re so paralyzed with anxiety that you can’t bring yourself to create anything at all. A block can last for a few hours or a few years. Fixes that work can be temporary or permanent; fixes that have worked before may hold no effect ever again.
With such a broad range of symptoms and inconsistencies, it’s no wonder some people don’t even believe it exists.
But, How Do We Fix A Block?
We got so much great advice from the community, and while reading it, I started to notice a pattern: block isn’t some mysterious paranormal phenomenon - and it’s almost never about the work itself. It’s a byproduct of being human, and diagnosis is integral to finding a cure.
There are as many causes for creative block as there are individual creators. There is no one-size-fits-all solution - but there are solutions.
Most symptoms and causes fall into a few categories: Physical, Emotional and Mental.
[@jacquimtan took her Art Satchel with her during vacation time. No matter where she was, art kept happening:]
[@carol.buswell switches between painting at home and outside. Cold outside? You have no power here:]
Physical “Burnout” happens when we overstress our bodies, or ignore our basic needs. And burnout holds a special place in creative circles.
Common to the professional sphere, but not exclusive, freelancers and artists of any stripe hold up “suffering for our work” as a point of pride. Eighteen hour workdays, caffeine fueled all-nighters, even going so far as to hold up depression and mental illness as a boon to creativity. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Our consciousness and creative energy live in our brains, which are physical, tangible things that are physically affected by lack of sleep, a sedentary lifestyle, hydration, exercise, illness, etc. (And to be abundantly clear: depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues count as physical conditions, too.)
Listen to your body. Make sure to get enough sleep, stay hydrated, make time for exercise, and explore new places - even just getting up to walk can have a huge boost on your mental health.
Creativity is a draw on your energy, and if your body is spending energy to compensate for a lack of other basic needs, it won’t have any left over when it’s time to sit down and create.
- Nikola Middlemast: "I go for a walk with a small pad and pencil. Being by the sea also means when I’m stressed, I go and kick 7 types of sand out of any sand castles I find. :) "
- Change of scenery:
- Bridget Lyons: "I go to the zoo with my Etchr Slate and sketch animals. And if the mood to draw doesn’t strike, I take photography for later references!"
[@chalk_dirty (Bridget Lyons) is the perfect example of trying different mediums. Chalk, inking pens, colored pens... Bring it:]
Emotional Problems, Emotional Fixes
Negative emotions are the most obvious culprit for an art block. Sadness, anxiety, guilt, fear, even plain boredom can lead to feeling blocked - but interestingly, positive emotions can just as easily contribute to stagnation.
“Eustress” refers to the kind of stress we feel from exciting, positive draws on our energy - like a promotion, a new relationship, or finishing an AWESOME new piece. Eustress doesn’t have the negative effects of distress, but it still counts as a draw on our energy that our creative stores may not be able to weather.
Since everyone’s emotional coping mechanisms are different, your creative block cure will be, too.
This has nothing to do with the work. Your creative spark is likely still there, buried under layers of emotional clutter. Find the seed of your emotion, and start there.
Do what it takes to de-stress, resolve your anxiety, forgive your guilt, or wind-down from the eustress - whatever that looks like for you.
"I would categorize an art block as an internal thing. A disruptive state of mind.
My biggest block lasted for a few years. I only managed to get back to art when I stopped stressing about how much I "should be" drawing instead of doing other things. Making me feel guilty and awful about taking care of other parts of life. Once I stopped feeling shame and guilt for not "working hard enough" everything came back to me. Ideas, desire, motivation, inspiration, the will. So now I make sure to take guilt free breaks. Walk in nature, talk with my friends more closely, read books for enjoyment and do coursework which I want to, not feel I should."
[@cindybarillet recently started taking her soft pastels for a plein air spin with her Art Satchel. When at home, she works on pet portraits - different projects for different times:]
Mental Block: When It’s All In Your Head
Mental block is probably the hardest of the three to fix. (And the most frustrating.)
If you’re tired, you can sleep. If emotions run high, you can wait for them to pass. But what happens when you feel fine, inside and out… and hate everything you make? And can’t figure out why?
Mental Block could be:
You’re on creative autopilot. Just as imbalanced emotions may overshadow your work, a lack of emotions will suck all life from it. You may have lost touch with why you love to create.
You don’t know what you’re making. (Or why.) Creativity is often an ambiguous, surprising exploration - you may set out and forge ahead with no map at all, then get frustrated when you haven’t reached a satisfactory destination.
“Success” is all in how you measure it. Try setting up easy, attainable goals for your work, then drive towards achieving them.
An overzealous inner critic. There’s an old adage in writing: “Write drunk, edit sober.”
In writing, “writing” and “editing” are identified as two separate steps - but often, in art, “creating” and “critiquing” tend to overlap each other. When we’re not careful, the part of our brains that critiques a work can get kicked into overdrive before the work has even had a chance to see the light of day.
It’s important to correct mistakes you find, sure, but it’s often just as important to let your work get a word in edgewise before you start criticising everything about it.
- Inspiration from strange new places:
- Baron Sisalski: "Throw coloured ink onto saturated paper let colours blend and run, this process always seems to get me in the creative zone. I sometimes go on to use the ink pours as a ground for future works."
- Borrowed Creativity:
- Alex Johnson: "I watch a 2D animated movie from before 2000. Or I play an indie video game on Steam. The art bombardment snaps me out of it in about 30 minutes."
- Remove friction:
- Martin Wigginton: "I've created a list of things that I want to paint, sketch, study so that if I find myself staring at a blank page I go to that and see what strikes me. Then I do something quick and loose to get things going."
[@j_pastores creates stunning watercolor paintings, but he doesn't let that stop him from exploring gouache, oil pastels, and different subjects:]
So, my creative block is still here. (My causes are likely a mix of emotional, mental, AND physical factors.) But I’m hopeful.
Creative block is exquisitely fixable, when you look close enough.
In our last post, we touched on how failure is a powerful diagnostic tool for growth. And in a way, art block is too. Being blocked offers the opportunity to check in with yourself as a human and a creative - to step back from the work and make sure you’re listening to what your body, mind, and heart have to say about your creativity.
[@nitinkurvey's mastery of light is visible in both his watercolor and ink work. Going outside really helps with his creative process:]
My biggest fear while writing this post was that I would over-explain, or grossly oversimplify what can be an immensely frustrating issue.
Do you have a perspective I missed? Any favorite tips or art block tricks to share? Please keep the conversation going in the comments!
- Sarah Mills