The essential guide to overcoming artist block and unlocking your artistic creativity
Stuck in a creative rut and wondering how to break free?
Visual artists face creative blocks from time to time. If you're one of them, you've probably been stuck in a creative rut before. Getting stuck with your art can be depressing if you don't have the necessary mindset and the appropriate strategies to deal with it. Understanding what artist block actually is and why you've hit it in the first place is, therefore, critical to breaking free and unlocking your creativity in art.
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 trapped in a creative rut for a long time and haven’t found a way out? Or perhaps you’ve previously hit artist block and are terrified of a comeback? I’m with you. I’ve been there before.
In my mid-thirties I found myself in a deep creative slump. I ran out of ideas and felt paralysed and hopeless. My self-confidence had plummeted to rock bottom. The birth of my daughter drove me even further away from my studio. For a while, I gave up on being an artist. I stopped making art, but the desire to return to painting and drawing was still there.
It took years for me to find my way back to my art studio. I spent a lot of time and energy reconnecting with my creative Self, all while afraid that artist block will strike again. Finally, I made it! I overcame artist block and haven't hit it again ever since. Read my story here.
I understand the struggle and frustration you feel when your creativity and inspiration seem to have vanished and you find yourself staring helplessly at a blank paper, an empty canvas, a piece of stone or wood, a photo camera ... I know that feeling of disempowerment and sadness. I’ve also felt irritation and, at times, 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 a great deal of discomfort in it. A crisis, however, is more than just a loss of direction, values, or landmarks; it is more than just a "dark night of the soul."
Let’s examine the Greek source of the English term “crisis”. The noun κρίσις (decision) comes from the verb κρίνω, which means “to distinguish, choose, or decide”. As a result, a crisis is a choosing moment, a turning point when there’s a possibility of falling and getting lost in the abyss, but also of deciding to get out of the rut and unlock your creative potential.
In a crisis, there's an obvious sense of adventure and imminent danger, but there's also hope and a wealth of opportunities. I love the word "possibilities" because it connotes "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 trove of possibilities and chances to break free from old patterns and routines, unlearn the habitual ways of making art, and explore new areas of artistic creativity. To put it in the words of the Danish philosopher Søren 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 encourages introspection, an inward turn that harbours the potential for inner transformation and a mindset shift. A crisis can be a time of personal renewal and reinvention as an artist. You can take advantage of this opportunity. You’ve got the choice. It’s up to you!
Make friends with your creative block. Accept that sense of possibility and the transforming power it carries. Acknowledge and let go of the discomfort and distress that it may cause you. The French novelist Gustave Flaubert believed that,
“If one always looked at the skies, one would end up with wings.”
Look up and you’ll see the light. Look within yourself and you’ll find the source of light. You can rest convinced that there’s no profound shift or major change without distress.
Reconnect with your creative Self and harness your creativity's transforming power to overcome artist block. Remember that creativity is a seed you’re born with, which is always there. It never dies, and it never fades. It can lay dormant for a long time before resurfacing under more favourable conditions, but it can also thrive under duress. It is a well-known fact that creativity is amazingly resilient and robust!
What do you love? What resonates with you the most? That’s your call and is all up to you. Allow it to guide you. Follow the thread, observe closely, and cultivate a steady artistic practice.
Creativity is on the vertical axis of your life, “stuckness” on the horizontal one. Raise your gaze and feel gratitude.
The 6 major causes of artist block (in blue) + 13 tried and tested strategies to overcome artist block (in red)
Artist block is also resistance – an illusion created by our anxious mind. It is the instinctive reaction of the reptilian part of our brain to unfavourable life circumstances. Artist block can be caused by a variety of factors, including a separation, illness, loss, or trauma, as well as the following patterns:
1. You’re outcome-oriented: you create art with the end in mind.
Do you have a certain concept for how your artworks should look? Do you begin your art-making process with the end goal in mind? If you do, I must warn you that, sooner or later, you'll eventually hit artist block (again).
One thing certain about art is that it is unpredictable. Because art is, in its essence, a spontaneous act of creation, therefore understanding the true nature of art is key to overcoming artist block. Read more about the essence of art here.
If you’re an outcome-oriented artist, find below 5 highly successful strategies for becoming a process-oriented artist and find out here how to be a process-oriented artist.
1. Recognise and let go of your automatic routines.
Off the beaten track, unlearn your usual ways of making art. Explore new, alternative paths, and focus on the process rather than the outcome. As Edgar Degas once said:
“Only when he no longer knows what he is doing does the painter do good things”.
2. Keep in mind the 3 main stages of your art-making process – find, transform, and gift.
Skip neither the inception nor the development phase, where you develop your concept and your creative vision. Ask yourself: How can I finish something that I haven’t even begun? How can I progress from inception to completion if my ideas and artworks have not matured sufficiently?
Take one step at a time, from start to finish, and from there onwards. Find, transform, gift, then repeat. The ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu was right when he said,
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
3. Switch off rational thinking, and be in the flow.
Turn off your mind. Experience the sensation of being in the present moment, beyond your limits, suspended in time. Plunge in, immerse yourself in what you're doing, and become one with it. Recognise and appreciate the properties of your tools and materials. Connect with them.
Follow your brush strokes on the canvas or panel mindfully, and allow your colors to unfold. Observe the interaction of the surface and the colours. Let yourself to be taken away, and delve deeper and deeper into your creative work until there's nothing more to add and nothing left to take away. This is what it means to be in a creative flow or in the flow of creativity.
“The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience.” (Emily Dickinson)
4. Feel and work with your tools, colours, and materials.
Don't force your means of expression to fit into a pre-defined grid, and don't manipulate them in a precise direction or towards a clearly defined result. Let go of the urge to exert control over them and the outcome of your work.
Art has no predetermined path. The goal of art is to create, and creating entails transformation, play, enjoyment. Art is in the process; the outcome is a by-product.
I encourage you to engage in a conversation (or a dance, if you will) with your tools, colours, materials, and surfaces. Enjoy and play with them as they unfold right before your eyes. Go with the flow and maintain this creative state of mind as long as possible.
5. Learn about the Eastern art and philosophy of flow, and put what you've learned to use.
Look into Taoism and Zen Buddhism, for example. They brought me so much benefit, therefore, I’m sure they can 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:
6. 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!
7. 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?
8. 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 😊
9. 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
10. Be human, be personal, be what you truly love and 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 article titled The truth about art inspiration + how to find inspiration and stay inspired.
11. Lift your gaze and go back to what you love most.
Let me tell you 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.
12. Practice. Relentlessly.
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!
6. You’ve got too many ideas, and you cannot decide which one to choose.
13. Boil them down to a few key words.
All right, then write them down. Start with a few keywords. Build semantic fields. Interconnect the words you’ve grouped semantically, and find meaningful links between them.
Notice the words that stand out among the rest and the feelings that they call forth. They’ll be your choice. Think about those words for a while, and let them sink in. Then you’ll know which threads to follow. New ideas will arise.
Don’t push, don’t hurry, but notice, feel, and let yourself be led.
Other causes of artist block may include:
Perfectionism, procrastination, a lack of trust and self-confidence, feeling alone, losing faith in your creativity, creative chaos, constant negative self-talk, the so-called “inner critic” or “the critical inner voice”, as well as the fear of the blank page, the fear of showing or talking about your work, the fear of criticism, a lack of consistency and perseverance, a lack of personal style, and much more.
I’ll address these issues one by one on my blog. Stay tuned!
Actual versus self-deceptive goals
Artist block is, more often than you think, a consequence of a range of self-deceptive goals, such as wanting to be a better artist, to be more creative and more productive, or wishing to get read of fear or to have better ideas and a personal style.
Cast aside self-deceptive goals and replace them with actual goals, like being more confident and creative, growing a different mindset, being in tune with yourself, being connected to your creative source, or being more intentional and purposeful with your art. Once you reach your actual goals, you’ll automatically be a better artist, more creative, and more productive, you’ll get read of fear, and your personal style will find you!
Self-deceptive goals lead you off the path of self-knowledge and trust. They make you believe you’re not good enough. Actual goals help you and your art grow and expand infinitely.
Focus on shifting your vision. Put all your energy into developing a growth mindset because it’s the mindset that matters most for overcoming artist block. Finally, find your message and creative vision through close, patient observation, and steady artistic practice.
There’s no artist block, but only artist-blocking thoughts.
A short recap
Artist block doesn’t exist, but it can feel real, for it’s a powerful delusion of the anxious mind. The unnatural separation from your creative Self and the unbearable longing for unity feel so palpable and concrete.
Artist block is like a barrier between your mind and your creative Self. Why does it cause distress and sadness in your heart? Because it’s like cutting a limb off. You’re naturally creative, and you’re ideally one with your creative Self. Separation hurts because it disrupts the natural bond between you and your innermost essence.
But an artist block is also a chance – an enormous opportunity for profound change. It opens up infinite possibilities to reinvent yourself.
Once you understand artist block differently, you’ll develop a positive, growth mindset. Because it’s the mindset that makes the difference.
If you change the false beliefs that hold you back from being the artist you want to be, and you realise that what you think about yourself and how you understand creativity, inspiration, and artist block exercise an enormous influence on your creative acts, you’ll break through artist block, and you’ll find inspiration for your art.
Do you want to always have access to your creativity? There's a key to it, which works (you've got my word) if:
You meet challenges with openness (resistance is poisonous),
You take the inward turn and let yourself be led,
You play with the things you love,
You refresh your creative vision at regular times (a change of perspective is indeed worth millions),
You transform accidental creative acts into intentional, conscious ones; in other words, you learn how to channel spontaneous creativity, such as ideas and visions, into playful action and steady artistic practice,
You follow The Pointless Artist’s pieces of advice 😊
So, how can you stay artistically creative in the long run?
Create consistently, practise daily, don’t break the creative flow unnecessarily.
Show up regularly, set a schedule for your artistic work, and follow it. It takes self-discipline, I know, as I’ve been there before, and I’ve struggled to get myself started all over again. But when it begins to sprinkle and roar, you’ll feel increasingly empowered. From then on, you’ll see your creative confidence grow steadily.
May your mind feel lofty as a cloud floating above the dizzying cliffs of the mountains!
May your heart stand firmly against the glittering tops of the glaciers!
May your courage and resilience be boundless!
Thank you for reading till the end!
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Recognise your pointlessness, and keep creating!