Artists’ Block

I deliberately placed the apostrophe at the end of the noun to make it collective, which might seem to be a little assumptive of me, but I do feel it is possible that at some point most artists might experience artists’ block. It may not be that there is a lack of stimulus but rather a block in the creative channels – somehow the ideas cannot seem to get from the brain to the canvas, paper, pad etc.

If it is indeed lack of stimulus, then the answer to that is probably easier to remedy. Go somewhere new or different OR go somewhere comfortable or familiar but that you haven’t been for a while. If it isn’t a landscape, an interiorscape, a cityscape or a seascape that is going to fire your creative juices then think micro – hone in on the very specific detail of something that you’ve never looked at before with an artistic eye. You are surrounded by people, places, objects, animals, rooms etc. that can all provide fascinating subject matter if you visualise a different way to represent them.

The inability to create even when you have the ideas, the time and all the materials in front of you ready to go might initially be more worrying. It could be a variety of external or internal factors that causes it but it doesn’t last. Some of us might see this phase as a signal that we are meant to be doing something else – albeit temporarily – and take advantage of the moment or the time to attend to whatever is nagging away at us – whilst others may see no reason for it whatsoever. For those, and I am one of them, the answer is to have a coping strategy that can yield some exciting results if applied.

The ideas I am presenting here are not mine and they are not new. If you search for ‘artists’ block’ online, regardless of where you put the apostrophe, you will find many helpful and inspirational suggestions and the purpose of this blog, today, is simply to share some of them with you. Most of them take the form of exercises. So it’s a bit like going back to the basics and practicing again everything you learned when you first started developing your identity as an artist. If you work through a series of exercises about line, shape, composition, form, texture, tone, space, monochrome, colour etc with no intent to produce a finished piece of work you can grow the neuroplasticity of your brain and stimulate other parts of your brain in the process. Once you’ve ignited your creative spark again you may find that you’ve broken through an artistic wall or barrier and you produce new and really exciting work. Even if that doesn’t happen every time, you should find that the progression back to working in the way you always did has been achieved almost seamlessly. It’s always worth remembering though that many accomplished musicians still practice their scales even though they can play profoundly complex pieces of music because the maxim is that you should always maintain the health of your base knowledge and skills.

The Artists Network, with no apostrophe whatsoever, features many excellent suggestions for overcoming artists’ block so click this link to read more. Lee Hammond calls her approach to the problem of artists’ block, therapy, and the technique she recommends involve the use of a viewfinder.

On Jennifer Allen’s page Frieze she writes in depth about the problem and draws on the comparative experience of writers. I like one of her examples of the parallels between these two forms of creative expression so much that I have quoted it here in full:

“It’s reckless, but I’m going to ‘translate’ for artists the best advice I’ve read on writer’s block. Dorothea Brande’s classic Becoming a Writer (1934) begins with the psychoanalytic distinction between the unconscious and the conscious. She suggests making daily appointments – and respecting them to the minute – to allow the unconscious to produce ideas freely without being censored by the conscious ego. However resistant to training, the unconscious brings a wealth of ideas to such appointments with freedom – like a little kid runs wild in the playground at recess but gets bored in class. Brande is against stalling – staring at the paper, screen, canvas – and advises moving around until inspiration returns, or making the next appointment before leaving the work in a rut. When I’m stuck, I’ll do a dull task, like washing dishes; by the first pot, I’ve found my answer.”

I hate washing up but cleaning my art studio is something that I would find pleasurable, especially if it did the trick. Ingrid Christensen certainly recommends it in an article that can be found on the www.artsy.net web site. Her other suggestion, to copy existing art, is one that I recommend, especially if you do not copy slavishly. I was once taught a really useful and simple trick: take a really famous painting – I chose a painting of ballerinas by Degas – and turn it upside down. Reproduce this image but abstract it a little too. Then turn the result the right way up and abstract it a little more. You can find the result of my version of this technique if you look in my Back Catalogue. I wonder if you will spot it!!

If any or all of these techniques fail to work for you then be inspired and reassured by these quotes from the ‘greats’ who suffered the same demise at various times in their artistic lives:

“Creativity takes courage.” — Henri Matisse

“If you hear a voice within you saying, ‘You are not a painter,’ then by all means paint, [boy], and that voice will be silenced.” — Vincent van Gogh

“I think some of the biggest bursts of creativity and artistic growth I’ve had are usually preceded by a big creative block.” — Ashley Goldberg

These and many other wonderful quotes were taken from Jessica Stewart’s compilation on the https://mymodernmet.com web site.

Please feel free to add your own comments about what works for you.

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