How to Overcome Artist's Block
If you are an artist, you’ve likely had days where you hit a wall with your creativity. You don’t know what to paint, you’re not sure where to start, and you don’t really have the motivation to create anything. You have zero inspiration. Sound familiar?
You’re not alone. Whether you’re a painter, sculptor, singer, finger painter, photographer, or another type of artist - there are going to be days where you find it excruciatingly difficult to create something.
It’s called “Artist’s Block”. And it sucks.
What is Artist’s Block?
Just as writers have Writer’s Block, artists have Artist’s Block.
Artist’s Block is an abstract term for when your motivation-well has run dry. You can’t come up with any ideas.
Maybe you are in the middle of a painting, and all of a sudden you feel stuck. You’re not sure where to go with it or how to proceed. Or maybe you’re feeling motivated to create something, but you haven’t drawn in years and as soon as you sit down in front of that blank page, you feel overwhelmed.
It can take shape in the form of fear, anxiety, hesitation, and even loathing, for the creative process. These feelings can last hours, days, weeks, months, or years.
Ultimately, an Artist’s Block is when you utterly lack the motivation or inspiration to engage in a creative activity.
However, this doesn’t mean that you’ve completely lost your ability or drive to create, or that you’re not good enough to paint.
Trust me - this happens to the best of us, and I want to assure you that there are ways to get out of this creative rut!
What causes Artist’s Block?
While there is no one single thing that causes Artist’s Block, there are several that can at least be identified. And from my own experience of struggling to create, I know that it comes from a few sources.
Determining which source(s) your creative block is coming from will help immensely in figuring out what steps you need to take to get out!
For me, this is always enemy number one. Self-doubt is always happy to come trickling in, sneaking up out of nowhere to strangle my inspiration or motivation. I’ve found and seen that there are days where I have internal or external self-doubt moments.
Internal self-doubt may include thoughts such as:
- “I’m a terrible artist”
- “I’m not good enough”
- “I’m too old/unskilled/busy to learn how to paint”
- “I’ll never get better”
Days like this can be really rough. But all artists have self-doubt; it comes with the gig. It does get easier as you practice more and more. When it does happen, remember that there is nothing wrong with you or your creations. With each painting or drawing you make, comes a unique perspective and take on how you see the world. There is no rule book!
2. Fear of Judgement or Criticism
The fear of being judged or criticized for your work is more of an external projection of self-doubt and comes directly from comparing yourself to other artists and their skill level. It includes thoughts like:
- “I’ll never be able to draw or paint like so-and-so artist”
- “I don’t want to show them because they’ll think my art sucks”
- “No one wants to see/buy this”
Unfortunately, it’s really easy to get into this mindset. I will often go to Pinterest or Instagram to find inspiration for what to paint. Don’t get me wrong, either of these can be amazing to generate ideas. However, more often than not, I spend too much time on them and end up feeling overwhelmed. My motivation goes out the window because I’ve looked at other artists’ work and fear of their judgement gets the better of me.
That said, if you get inspired, excited, or motivated by looking at other artist’s work, by all means, do it up! Do what works for you.
But if you easily fall into the trap of comparing your work to others (guilty), then maybe think about alternative ways to find inspiration. Limiting the time spent looking at other’s art will mean limiting the time you spend thinking about how good your art isn’t.
Remember: all artists need to start somewhere. That amazing artist you’re comparing yourself to was once in your seat. There are and will be artists who look at your stuff and can’t wait to get to your skill level!
3. Lack of Skill
“All artists start out as amateurs” - Ralph Waldo
It all comes down to practice, practice, practice.
Getting great at anything is a long game. It doesn’t matter how confident, eager, or inspired you are - if you don’t consistently practice the skill you want to hone, you won’t get better.
It’s not always easy to recognize and accept that you suck at something. I once spent 2 months avoiding a painting because I simply lacked the skill to draw faces correctly. Once I recognized that the reason why I was blocked with the painting was that I didn’t know how to draw noses, I put on my big girl pants on and just practiced drawing them. Over and over and over again. Eventually, I felt confident enough to do it for realsies on the painting, removing that block.
Confidence comes with practice and repetition. Mastering a skill is exactly this. If you find yourself feeling creatively blocked because you aren’t sure how to draw something, that’s okay! Dedicate 5 or 10 minutes a day to practice that thing. Don’t beat yourself when the picture looks like a 4-year-old did it (cause it might). Trust the process. You WILL get better!
If you've been painting for a while now, have a look back at some of the things you created a few months or even a year ago. You'll be able to see how much your skills have improved as your style has come together.
4. Mental or Physical Exhaustion
This one may seem simple, but can be overlooked easily.
When you are feeling a creative block, take a step back and check how you are feeling outside of your usual art time. Are you sleeping well? Eating healthy? Exercising? Do you feel really stressed at work or school? Are you having issues with your friends or family?
If your mind is worried or stressed about other things, then it’s not surprising that you are struggling to create!
Taking care of your body is and mind isn't just important for the creative process, but for a happy and healthy life.
Artist Block Exercises
Although it can seemingly strike out of nowhere, there are ways to lessen the effects of Artist’s Block.
Below are some of my top suggestions to help you get out of your slump!
1. Breathe, and know it will pass
It’s okay to not be 100% on all the time. When you are frustrated, blocked, or struggling to paint something, step back. Take some deep breaths. Go and meditate. And try to figure out where the block is coming from. It’s all good.
The biggest thing is to not feel guilty that you have these feelings. See them, accept them, and know that they’ll go away. Cause they will.
After a few deep breaths, and determining what may be causing your Artist's Block from the sources above, have a try at some of the other suggestions below.
2. Take a break
Sometimes you just need a good old break to recharge your creativity. Artist’s Block can stem from just one or even a combination of the things above, so check to see which one you’re feeling and take steps to recharge your battery.
It’s okay to take a break. If you're a professional artist who relies on what you paint to make you money, taking a break doesn't seem like an option. I am guilty of overworking because I know that my time/energy input = money.
But if your phone was close to zero percent battery, would you not charge it for 10 minutes if given the chance?
I have to repeat this: it's okay to take a break!
Here are some ideas to recharge your battery that take less then 30 min:
- 10-15 min of meditation
- Lying on the floor and stretching
- Dancing ridiculously to your favourite song
- Watching silly YouTube videos
- Grabbing a healthy snack
- 20-30 min power nap
- Walk around the block
Don’t give yourself a hard time for not feeling motivated to paint. You probably need it, and will be more energized and productive because of them!
3. Change up your creative space
This has worked wonders for me in the past and is usually my go-to fix when I’m feeling stuck. It’s also pretty easy, and quick to do.
Whenever I get blocked or static in my work, I will change up my creative space. I will go to a cafe I’ve never been to before, change up my desk, get brighter light bulbs for my workspace, or actually move the furniture around in my apartment.
Changes in your environment influence your brain to think differently because of the new stimuli. Even small actions like sitting on a different side of the table can give your brain new space and perspective to connect ideas, as well as come up with new ones.
This article by Fast Company goes into a bit more depth about how switching up your environment can boost your creativity!
4. Socialize with the people you love
Humans by their very nature are social creatures, and social interaction and physical touch is a necessity of our species for proper growth and development. When you are surrounded by people you trust or who care about you, it can lower cortisol levels (a hormone linked to chronic stress).
Bouncing ideas off of your friends or family can also help get you out of your rut, as people who work together to brainstorm issues will generally have a broader range of solutions.
If you can't meet with someone face to face, give them a call. If you can't meet up with anyone, then cuddle with your pet. Hugs with pets or humans have been shown to have numerous health benefits. Hugs release two feel-good hormones, serotonin (which is the body's natural anti-depressant and anti-pain neurotransmitter) and oxytocin (the love hormone).
Curb Artist’s Block with affection:
- Telling someone that you love them
- Do a favour for someone
- Write a letter to a friend
- Have a Skype date with a family member
- Cuddle with your pet
- Write down 5 things about a loved one that you are grateful for
5. Don’t think, just do!
“Inspiration is for amateurs - the rest of us just show up and get to work” - Chuck Close
Similar to those writing exercises where you’re told not to stop writing for 10 minutes, you can get over your artist’s block by just forcing yourself to draw. This is a good exercise if you’re in the mood to draw, but have no idea what to draw.
The good news with this exercise: it doesn’t matter what you draw. Set a timer for 5-10 minutes. You can doodle. Draw shapes. Practice your handwriting. Or draw as many long straight lines as you can. Draw an entire picture without lifting your pen up off the paper. Just don’t stop until that timer is done!
9 times out of 10, this will kick start your creative engine.
One great way to find ideas on what to draw is to use a generator. My favourite is Drawfee Roulette which gives silly suggestions like ‘a lazy hot dog dressed as a knight’ or ‘a sleepy doggo dropping the sickest of beats’.
Don’t tell me that it doesn’t paint a picture in your head!
6. Go outside for a walk
This one seriously works! Load up your favourite music or podcasts, go outside, and just walk.
Go somewhere you haven’t been before. Take a different way to the store. Take the dog with you. Just get outside and breathe some fresh air. Walking (and exercise in general) is known to boost mood and creativity.
Similar to the point above about changing your environment, doing things you usually do in a different way also helps to stimulate the brain.
Myself, since I am mainly an urban and landscape painter I get recharged when I go to a new part of the city I haven’t seen before and study the buildings, or when I go into a forest or hang out by some water.
7. Do something else creative
A lot of times as artists, we feel the need to constantly be creative, and feel guilty when we aren’t creating. Rather than powering through one creative project, go and work on something else creative.
You know when you look at word over and over again, and after a while you question if it’s even a real word? Something similar happens to your noodle while you’re pushing through with an art project.
Creative Something talks about how jumping between projects can actually provoke creativity. Stepping away to focus on something else creative can help you see your project more clearly when you come back to it.
By switching up your task, you’re still exercising your brain to think differently while simultaneously giving it a break. I’ve experienced myself that when I stop thinking about one creative task and focus on one of the many other projects I’ve got going on, I find my break-through!
Keep a sketchbook with you
Just as Artist’s Block can hit at any time, so can inspiration. Keeping a small sketchbook or journal in your bag means that you can write or sketch out ideas whenever inspiration appears. On those days that you don’t know what to create, or need ideas, your sketchbook can be the first place you look.
Recognize when you're procrastinating
I still have to do this a lot - especially on the weekends.
I’ll wake up, excited to paint. I’ll make the perfect cup of coffee, and finally sit down to start sketching. But then I realize: you know what? I reckon I should probably memorize the countries in Africa before I start. You know, just to warm up my brain. 2 hours later, I’ve learned that Timbuktu is an actual place, and am looking at old Bugs Bunny cartoons in an attempt to stir up some childish creativity.
It never works.
Not being inspired because you’re mentally or physically tired is one thing, but procrastinating is another. Procrastination for me is usually rooted in the lack of skill issues mentioned above.
Check yourself, and be honest. If you self-reflect consistently, it will get easier to determine if you really just need a break or if you’re just getting in your own way of creating.
YOU DO NOT NEED TO SHARE WHAT YOU CREATE
This needed to be capitalized! Far too often, I’ll hear friends mention that they want to paint or draw or create but they don’t want people judging them for what it ends up looking like. Sure, that’s fair, but guess what? You don’t need to show anyone!
Social media is cool and all, but I think it has also made us think we need to constantly update or show others what we are up to. That is not the case. If you want to paint, do it. Don’t feel that you need to share if you do not want to. You should be painting to bring yourself happiness, not to make others happy.
Sitting down to create a masterpiece can be intimidating. Hell, even just trying to draw a circle takes effort.
Artist’s Block can be really frustrating. Creating and having the desire to create shouldn’t be something that stresses you out. In fact, quite the opposite. I hope after reading this you’ve got some ideas for how you can mitigate and manage Artist’s Block when it comes your way.
From one artist to another - you’ve got this!
What do you do to get past Artist’s Block? Share in the comments!
Andie Lafrentz has been working as an artist full-time since August 2019, after she quit her job at a tech company. Through watercolour and ink, she combines bright, lively colours and her love of travel to create pieces that express the way she sees the world.