The essential guide to overcoming artist block and unlocking your artistic creativity
Stuck in a creative rut and wondering how to break out of it?
Creative block is a common challenge to visual artists. If you’re one of them, then you’ve likely been in a creative rut before. Feeling stuck with your art can be depressing when you lack the right mindset and the appropriate strategies to deal with it. Therefore, understanding what artist block actually is and why you’ve hit it in the first place is fundamental to getting unstuck.
This post reveals everything you need to know about artist block, including:
The truth about artist block,
An overview of the 6 major causes of art block, and
A bundle of 15 time-tested strategies to get out of a creative drought.
I wish you an inspiring reading, and I look forward to hearing from you!
My experience with artist block
Are you currently feeling stuck with your art? Maybe you’ve been stuck in a very long creative rut, and you haven’t found the way out yet? Or maybe you’ve hit artist block before, and you’re afraid of a comeback? I’m with you. I’ve been there myself before.
Seven years ago, in my mid-thirties, I found myself in a deep creative slump. I ran out of ideas, and I felt paralysed and really hopeless. My creative self-confidence had hit rock bottom. The birth of my daughter drove me even further away from my studio. I gave up as an artist for a while. I stopped making art, but the longing to go back to painting and drawing was still there.
It took me years to find my way back into my art studio. I used a lot of time and energy to reconnect with my creative Self, while I was constantly fearing that artist block would strike again.
I know the struggle and frustration that you experience when your creativity and inspiration seem to be lost, and you stare helplessly at a blank page, a canvas, a piece of stone or wood, or a camera ... I know that feeling of disempowerment and sadness, just like you do. I’ve also experienced frustration and sometimes despair. Yes, I know it all, and I’m here to help you find the truth about artist block.
What is an artist block?
Artist block is a crisis.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, crisis means “a time of great disagreement, confusion, or suffering”. Without a doubt, there’s so much distress in a crisis. But a crisis isn’t only about a loss of direction, values, or landmarks; it’s not only a “dark night of the soul”.
Let’s have a look at the Greek root of the English word “crisis”. The noun κρίσις (decision) is derived from the verb κρίνω, which means “to distinguish, choose, or decide”. Consequently, a crisis is a deciding moment, a turning point when there’s a possibility of crashing and getting lost in the abyss, but also a possibility of getting out of the rut, and of unlocking your creative potential.
There’s an obvious sense of adventure and imminent danger, but there’s also hope and a wealth of possibilities involved in a crisis. I love the word “possibilities” because possibilities mean “chances” to me.
As far as visual artists are concerned, a crisis is not primarily a creative slump (although it feels pretty much like that). It is a bundle of possibilities and chances to break through old patterns and routines, unlearn the habitual ways of making art, and explore new realms of artistic creativity. To put it in the words of the Danish philosopher S. Kierkegaard:
“If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility doesn't. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating, as a possibility!”
A crisis also favours introspection, an inward turning that harbours the potential for inner transformation and for a mindset shift. A crisis can be a time of personal renewal and reinvention as an artist. You can seize this chance. You’ve got the choice. It’s up to you!
Befriend your artist block. Embrace that sense of possibility and the transformative power that it carries with it. Accept the discomfort and distress that it may cause you, and let go of them. The French novelist G. Flaubert believed that,
“If one always looked at the skies, one would end up with wings.”
Look above you, and you’ll see the light. Look within yourself, and you’ll find the source of light. You can be reassured: there’s no profound transformation and no significant change without distress.
Reconnect with your creative Self and use the transformative power of your creativity to overcome artist block. Remember that creativity is a seed you’re born with, which is always there. It never dies, it never fades away. It can lie dormant for a long time to come out later under more favourable circumstances, but it can also flourish under duress. This is a proven fact: creativity is amazingly resilient!
What do you love? What do you resonate most deeply with? That’s your call. Let yourself be led by it. Follow the thread, observe closely, and develop a steady artistic practice.
Creativity is on the vertical axis of your life, “stuckness” on the horizontal one. Lift your gaze and feel gratitude.
The 6 major causes of artist block + 15 tried and tested strategies to overcome artist block
Artist block is also resistance – an illusion of our anxious mind. It’s the instinctive reaction of the reptilian part of our brain to unfavourable life circumstances. Reasons for artist block can range from a separation, illness, loss, or trauma, to the following patterns:
1. You’re outcome-oriented. You create art with the end in mind.
Do you work towards a concrete vision of how your artworks should look like? Do you start your art-making process with the completion phase in mind? If you do, then I must warn you: sooner or later, you’ll hit creative block (again).
One thing certain about art is that it’s unpredictable. Art is, in its essence, a spontaneous act of creation, therefore understanding the true nature of art is key to overcoming artist block.
If you’re an outcome-oriented artist, then here are 5 highly effective strategies on how to become a process-oriented artist instead:
Be aware of your automatic routines, and let go of them.
Walk off the beaten track and unlearn your usual ways of making art. Explore new, alternative ways and think process, not outcome. As E. Degas once said:
“Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things”.
Be mindful about each of the 3 main stages of your art-making process –
find, transform, gift.
Skip neither the inception nor the development phase, in which you expand your concept and your creative vision. Ask yourself: How can I complete something I haven’t even started, or I’ve just begun? How can I move from inception to finishing when I haven’t grown enough my ideas and artworks?
Take one step at a time, from inception to completion, and from there onwards. Find, transform, gift, then repeat. The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu was right in saying that,
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
Switch off rational thinking and be in the flow.
Switch off your thoughts. Feel the sensation of being in the now, beyond your limits, suspended in time. Dive in, be completely engaged in what you’re doing, be one with it. Understand and respect the characteristics of your tools and materials. Connect with them.
Mindfully follow the strokes of your brush on the canvas or panel, and give your colours freedom and space to unfold. Observe the interaction between surface and colours. Let yourself be carried away, and dive deeper and deeper into your creative work until you know that there’s nothing more to add and nothing left to take away. This is what it means to be in a “creative flow”.
“The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience.” (Emily Dickinson)
Feel and work with your tools, colours, and surfaces.
Don’t force your means of expression into a pre-established grid, don’t manipulate them into a specific direction or towards a clearly defined result. Let go of the urge to control them and the outcome of your work.
Art has no pre-planned route. The aim of art is to create and to create means to transform, play, and enjoy. Art is in the process; the outcome is a by-product.
I urge you to engage in a conversation (or a dance, if I may call it so) with your tools, colours, materials, surfaces. Enjoy and play with them as they unfold right in front of your eyes. Go with the flow and preserve this creative state of mind as long as possible.
Read about the Eastern art and philosophy of flow, and apply the lessons learned.
Look, for example into Taoism and Zen Buddhism. They brought me so much benefit; therefore, I’m sure they could help you, too. Try Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching (Penguin Classics 2003), and Wayne Dyer’s take on it entitled Change your thoughts, change your life: living the wisdom of the Tao (Hay House 2010).
2. You’re focused on drawing or painting exactly what you see, but you lack the appropriate technical skills.
If so, then let me first ask you a few questions.
What do you see, and what do your artworks represent: empirical reality, illusion, your creative vision?
Why do you create? Do you make art to transmit a personal message to the world? Is your intention to help others see differently?
Do you draw toimitate the visible world, to copy what you see as directly as possible, or do you draw to understand the world more profoundly?
Here are some useful tips for you that will help you express yourself more freely:
If you’re focused on reproducing the form or on copying the physical appearance of things, then try the opposite:
Think abstraction first.
In fact, every figurative artwork is abstract at the very start. Behind the most hyperrealist forms hide a few abstract dots, lines, and surfaces. Notice the marks and strokes that emerge on your paper. Observe them closely, and you’ll see that they begin to move. They sometimes tell a story, other times not. Either way, there’s life and action in them.
One thing is certain: there are manifold possibilities within a few marks. Follow your marks and let yourself be surprised!
Focus on your visual language, vocabulary, and repertory.
Do you think you can’t draw well with pencils, oil pastels, or charcoal? Or maybe you’re not good at oil or acrylic painting? Then learn patiently new drawing and painting techniques. Remember that learning means experimenting. Drawing and painting well is a matter of daily practice.
Use tools you’ve never tried before, such as wooden sticks, wine corks, cotton pads. Experiment with new materials and surfaces, like plastic, handmade paper, or old newsprint. Unleash your imagination – it’s limitless!
3. You’re comparing yourself with others, or you’re too concerned about the quality of your artworks.
In other words, you think you’re not good enough. You think your skills are too poor to count for anything, your ideas mediocre, and your artworks average or plain bad. You’re feeling insignificant. Ok, then let me ask you: what’s your measure? You want to be better than whom? Or as good as who?
Comparison to others and competition are deceptive, self-defeating, and absurd. How do you want to compare your uniqueness to somebody else’s unique nature?
You A – R – E, and the sheer fact of being equals to being enough. You’re enough, and you’ve been splendidly made as a unique whole from the start. Just as you are. Be who you truly are: a piece of infinite creativity, beauty, and uniqueness in a physical case 😊
You can only be yourself. This is where you belong. This is your call. Remember that life itself is ever-expanding and doesn’t create half-measures. Life is infinite-generating infinite. You are life, you are an integral part of it; therefore, you are infinite, and so is your artistic creativity.
Embrace your uniqueness!
Be personal, be human, be what you truly love, be what you deeply resonate with, and express it in your art without constraints. Anything else can be learned and practiced.
Do you know the centuries-old Greek aphorism γνῶθι σεαυτόν (“know thyself”)? It’s said it was inscribed in the forecourt of the famous temple of Apollo at Delphi in Greece, and it has been interpreted in many ways so far. To me, it reads: “look deep inside yourself and find out who you truly are”, that is, know yourself inside out and know the essence of yourself. Once you know it, express it in your art.
So, what needs to be done in the first place? You must be open to what you truly love, and deeply connect with it.
Find the true answer to the question “who am I?” (it goes without saying that you can use creative processes as means of self-investigation), and stay true to your Self. As a result, your art will be an authentic and unique expression of your heart, which you’ve been (blindly) searching for, for so long.
4. You lack inspiration.
If you feel uninspired, then find out or remind yourself of what you truly love, and what you deeply resonate with. Reconnect with it. And read my blog post entitled “Art inspiration: what it is and what it is not + the difference between creativity and inspiration”.
Let me tell you in a few rods what I do when I lack inspiration for my art: I lift up my gaze, and I go back to the ocean. Literally (whenever I can) or figuratively (most of the time).
This is a fact: I love the sky and the oceans — I wonder at their depths, vastness, and amazing force. Therefore, I love to paint clouds and water surfaces, waves, fishes, seashells, and stones on the bottom of the sea. Because I need to express my genuine fascination with that depth, infinite beauty, sense of freedom, and those limitless opportunities for exploration and discovery.
For instance, when I dive with my imagination into deep waters, I actually dive into my deepest Self, and I become one with the water. I’m the ocean, and the ocean is a mirror of myself. The ocean is nothing else but my own perception of it. The action of my hand on paper describes a never-ending flow, like a wave following another wave, and yet another wave, and so forth.
So, that’s what I normally do when I feel uninspired. And when I feel inspired, I dive deeper and deeper into the ocean’s waters. And when I’ve had enough of that depth, I fly into the sky for a change of atmosphere.
5. You feel unmotivated.
Then put yourself to work — sketch, doodle, draw, paint, photograph anything. “Things occur to you when you work” (Chuck Close was soooo right!), and motivation sooner or later follows suit. Yes, it’s hard. It may even feel impossible at times. A big hurdle, indeed. Be, however, reassured: motivation follows suit when you work, for when you’re in action, as Chuck Close said,
“(…) something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction.”
And that energy has the power to awaken motivation in you. Give it a try!