How to Deal with Artistic Block
Artistic block. It happens when the flow of creativity stops because something has gotten in the way of art-making.
We’ve all experienced it, but even when you know it’s a natural part of the creative cycle, it’s always alarming.
As artists, we often place so much importance on our ability to make art, that not making it feels kind of like … suffocating.
Over the years, I like to think I’ve gotten better at managing these lulls in creative output and have learned a few tricks for getting unstuck.
But first, you have to know why your creativity has stalled in the first place.
1. Fear or lack of confidence.
⁃ You fear the blank page or don’t want to waste nice paper or precious art supplies on bad drawings.
⁃ You don’t think you have the skills/knowledge you need, you’re not good enough or you have impostor syndrome.
⁃ You’ve recently experienced rejection or you’re afraid of what others will think of you.
How to fix it: Like many fears, the more you face them, the less scary they become. If fear is blocking you, the best thing you can do is to tackle that blank page as often as possible. It’s only through making a volume of work that you’ll build the skills and confidence you need.
Remember there’s no shame in whatever stage you’re in. The road to success is paved with failures and “bad” drawings.
- Afraid of messing up? Try drawing VERY lightly at first to establish shapes, form, spacing.
- Afraid of wasting art supplies or ruining your sketchbook? Use cheap/disposable materials like printer paper to build confidence.
- Before you begin, do a 10-15 minute warmup. Studies are a low-pressure way to grow your visual vocabulary and skills.
Assignment: Set a weekly goal to fill a certain number of sketchbook pages (15-30). Focus on mileage, not perfection. Reward yourself when the book is full.
2. Feeling uninspired.
⁃ You don’t know what to draw, so you don’t draw anything.
⁃ You’re out of ideas or bored with the ideas you have — they’ve all been done.
⁃ You don’t feel motivated or excited to create.
How to fix it: More than likely you’ve gotten into a rut with your process or your creative influences and closed yourself off to everything else. It’s time to leave the bubble and remember what inspires you!
- Change things up — your surroundings, tools or medium. Work outside, at the park, or even in your car.
- Allow your mind to wander. Take a walk. Fold laundry. Daydream.
Assignment: What lights you up? Make a visual collage of your influences: art, movies, music, hobbies, places, time periods, childhood memories, colour palettes, etc.
Extra Credit: Identify five artistic heroes and do a master copy from each. Try to put into words what you love about each and look for the common threads. What can you add into to your work?
3. Too many ideas + analysis paralysis.
⁃ You can’t decide what to work on. You are overwhelmed by choices.
⁃ Saying “yes” to one idea feels like saying “no” to other favourite ideas.
⁃ This next project could be your big break, but only if you choose wisely!
How to fix it: Having too many ideas is a problem if you can’t choose one. This is actually perfectionism in disguise—you believe your decision must be the perfect one. Should you make the best painting the world has ever seen? Or work on the seven-book epic graphic novel series you’ve been imagining. Oh, look! A squirrel!
Being an artist is a lifelong journey and the next thing you make probably won’t be the last. It doesn’t have to be your magnum opus.
- Enter a contest or set creative limits so that some decisions are made for you.
- It’s easy to get distracted by the next shiny idea, but it's unsatisfying to have lots of unfinished projects. Finish what you start.
- Use project management. Map out projects on a yearlong calendar so you know when you’ll get to work on all of your favourite ideas.
Assignment: Write down your long term goals. Create short term goals to help you get there. Choose the project that will move you along to the first short term goal.
4. You’ve drained your creative bank account.
⁃ You’ve finished a big project that required enormous mental/creative energy and now you’re feeling lost and drained.
⁃ Continuous creative output without taking time to input.
⁃ You’ve been tied up with soul-sucking commissions or client work.
How to fix it: You can’t create in a vacuum. Take a break from creating and fill your well.
- Watch movies, read books, take a class.
- Engage in some other hobbies you enjoy that are unrelated to art.
- Visit museums (virtually or in-person).
Assignment: Plan for an artistic block! Is there a creative outlet you love but never make time for? Maybe pottery or sculpture? The next time you begin a big project, plan an “in-between project” to help you relax and decompress. Gather any materials you need ahead of time.
5. Factors outside of your control are blocking you or taking up time/resources.
⁃ Sickness, physical injury, addiction, mental illness.
⁃ A traumatic event that affects you or someone close to you.
⁃ Demands for your attention have increased (i.e. family, job).
⁃ You’re distracted/overwhelmed by world events, politics, etc.
How to fix it:
Not everything is in your control or has a simple fix. You’re not a machine. There are legitimate circumstances that can interfere with your ability to create and in these situations, give yourself some grace.
You’re not going to make the best painting of your life right after taking your kid to the ER, and that’s ok. There will be weeks or even months when your attention will be occupied by other priorities such as physical/mental health, well-being and family.
Focus on what you can do to improve your situation. I firmly believe those of us who want to make art will always find a way back to it.
- Eat healthy food, exercise, sleep enough.
- Spend quality time with loved ones.
- Set limits on devices/social media.
- Get therapy. Meditate. Journal.
- Take the time that you need to get your house in order. Trust that you will make art again when the time is right.