When three people in one day ask the same question, it’s time to pay attention, don’t you think? “What can I do about painter’s block?” they asked.
First, you have to try to figure out which species of block is getting to you. As well as many subspecies, the main ones are fear of failure after previous success, fear of success due to a sense of unworthiness, lack of potential venue, jaded attitude, crisis of confidence, evidence of persistent poor quality, lackadaisical motivation and common everyday shortage of ideas.
When you identify your main area of block, you need to dig around and try and find the potential origin. The unworthiness one, for example, can often be traced to poor self-esteem or overhanging guilt. By selectively reading art history, you can find lots of others who were, at some time, out on the same branch. It’s amazing how you can take courage from the Brotherhood and Sisterhood. Gaining insight from admired sources, you can take better aim at a bad bird.
This is where the magic of persistence kicks in. Persistence is a branch of character, and once you make up your mind you are a person of character, the hunt becomes easier. People of character do something about what ails them. Great artists persist in overcoming everything from poor drawing, poor colour, poor composition, poor work habits and painter’s block. We all have our shortcomings. Getting over them fluffs up the fine feathers of professionalism.
Now we come to the greatest anti-blocker of all. It’s all about finding the illusive love-birds of passion and excitement. This is not done by reading, thinking, exercising, talking to somebody or staring at a blank canvas. Excitement occurs automatically when you start billing and cooing. Passion comes from doing.
If I could patent only this one idea I could pay off the Greek debt: Squeeze out before properly awakening, before first coffee, before the roosters, before you have any idea what the dickens you are going to do. Believe me, you’ll find the bluebird of happiness.
PS: “The birds they sing at break of day, ‘Start again…’ I hear them say.” (Leonard Cohen)
Esoterica: “There is no such thing as a long piece of work, except one that you dare not start,” said Charles Baudelaire. At the same time, some artists get blocked when they find themselves making one mess after another. Trying to do too much can generate sloppy work and provoke a crisis of confidence. Taking a break — an hour or a week — can reboot creativity and give a fresh start. Self-understanding will determine how long a break you need. Beware — take too long and you may never fly again. Character prevails: Slow down, get centered. We all need to take our time to inhale this beautiful world.
by Steve Blumenthal, Newburgh, NY, USA
For me, to overcome block, and it may sound counterintuitive, is to not care so much. If you care too much, I think that you become overly invested in a painting that you haven’t even yet begun. I suggest to my watercolor class to think of every start as a study and if it works out well, then you have a painting. I’ve even suggested that after the sketch, to wet the paper and hit it with some splatter just to break the ice (and the white). It takes some courage and meets with resistance, but it can work.
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Just around the bend
by Kathryn Townsend, Olympia, WA, USA
I love it when the painting paints itself and wins an award. I think for half an hour that I can die happy. Then I become anxious — because past performance may not be indicative of future results. I don’t want to have to live up to that painting. I’d rather have the good painting just around the next bend. So then I have to reorient myself to my work ethic. Go back and start practicing scales again. Think about what I need to learn — remember what Rilke said: “If the Angel deigns to come it will be because you have convinced her, not by tears but by your humble resolve to be always beginning; to be a beginner.”
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Steps to re-inspire
by Priya Drews, Flagstaff, AZ, USA
Here are some ideas I use to get past painter’s block:
1. I go through my file of paintings that I love and I am re-inspired.
2. I go through my painting instruction books and great master works.
3. I set up my still life ahead of time instead of right before I paint or I decide which location I will paint at, days ahead of time.
4. I pick a subject like sunflowers, set up a simple vase with 3-4 blooms, tape off a canvas pad into smaller quadrants and do 3-4 quick oil sketches until I feel I have really learned to see and paint them in a different way.
5. I use new brushes, or another piece of equipment or paint.
6. The more often I paint, the easier it is to get back into it and feel more successful in my efforts.
7. I remind myself that every touch of the brush is just PRACTICE. It does not have to turn out well, salable or even good. Non-attachment, it’s not just a spiritual practice!
8. I go for a drive to seek out new locations to paint, and take reference photos when I find them.
by Ralph James, Mocksville, NC, USA
It has to be just the right image with the right pose and the right lighting and that photo or setting does not always present itself when I am ready to paint. Because of that, I can enter the dark world of “painters block” fairly easily. When that happens I have one cure — just paint. In other words, just paint ANYTHING. It does not matter if you like the subject matter or not, or if the lighting or pose is appealing. Just paint — paint anything. What always happens to me is the process of making art takes over and fuels my creativity, which in turn seems to kill the block I am experiencing. After that exercise, I find I am ready to go again. Images and ideas come to mind easily.
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Just do it
by Mary Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA
I think you nailed it with persistence, or as Nike says, “Just do it.” I suggest buying a long roll of canvas, painting something every day, and then talk to me again after you’ve used up all the canvas. I think painters spend way too much time looking for inspiration from outside instead of discovering it on the canvas. My advice is to prime up a bunch of squares of canvas or even paper, not too big, say around 14″, tack or tape one to a board, and paint something, anything. Get excited again about the simple act of looking and manipulating paint. Discover the way the color shifts as it moves across an object. One of my favorite quotes is by Eric Maisel in his book Fearless Creating, “You will remain a beginner and find the work hard until you die. You need no longer feel sad about that.” So, stop whining about it, and just do it!
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Exploring other avenues
by Terry Rempel-Mroz, Ottawa, ON, Canada
I find myself traversing my longest painter’s block yet — as an abstract expressionist I haven’t painted an abstract in months (close to a year, actually). At first I thought it was a blip on the radar and I needed time ‘away.’ Then I got worried that I would never go back. Now I realize that the ideas rumbling around in my head just haven’t coalesced enough to make the journey to canvas yet. In the meantime, I am coping by working in realism — portraits mainly, in charcoal and graphite — and experimenting with oil pastels. One way to treat a specific ‘block’ is to explore other avenues of expression while you wait for the block to lift. My ‘abstract block’ is still there, but I no longer worry about IF it will fade — I’m surrounding it with a wall of art that will slowly unlock it one day, and I’ll be ready to start painting abstracts again.
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Troubles with multiple blocks
by Cathy Harville, Gambrills, MD, USA
I simply cannot work on more than one piece at a time — no multi-tasking for this artist! When I get several canvases going, I lose focus, and nothing gets done. Blocks occur for many reasons. Sometimes, I can’t see the forest for the trees! My blocks include fatigue, foreground troubles, sky problems, hunger, outside stress, and being ill. Weird combination, but blocks can crop up at almost any time. I often turn my painting upside down for a few days, and things often become clearer. I also need to practice more in my sketchbook. Sometimes, I get too focused on the finished product, and forget that a painting is made of many little paintings.
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Clean it up!
by Abbie Williams, Nobleboro, ME, USA
A suggestion to get past painting block is I thoroughly clean my studio and painting station. Wash brushes, scrub down the palette and put the mess away that has accumulated around my easel. Then I meditate and ask for images. If that doesn’t work, I ask for a dialogue with my heart and ask who I am as a painter and what to paint to express that. Usually by that time I realize there is a very challenging painting I have wanted to do but have put on the back burner because it felt too hard. In Anne Morrow Lindberg’s book, Gifts from the Sea, she talks about laying empty as a beach waiting for gifts from the sea. If our lives are filled to the brim with stuff, either physical or mental there is no room for new thoughts and ideas to enter. So a good cleaning always helps stimulate the creative soul.
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A weird situation
by Paul Allen Taylor, Rochester, NY, USA
I have been experiencing a block of sorts. Being a watercolorist for 20 plus years, I took up acrylics last year. I really enjoy them. I have the feel for the watery consistency that can be had while working stiffer to lay down more color. Sort of the exact recipe for my watercolors, but on a board mounted canvas instead of paper. However, I stopped using the acrylics after the summer. I’m not sure the reason. I just recently decided to put the paint into the stay-wet palette, get out the brushes, gesso up some panels and dive in. In about 30 minutes, I remembered what I loved about this medium as well as what I didn’t know, and that was the block. I understand watercolor fully. I have little knowledge of acrylics.
I wonder if I took a sabbatical from watercolor for a period, would I fair better? Some people say “Oh, no, don’t do that, why spoil a good thing?” I have varying reasons, (material cost for one vs. mats, glass, labor etc.) But, after 20 years, I like the change. Honestly, I have developed a block for watercolor when working with acrylics. Weird.
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The long wait
by Russ Hogger, Edmonton, AB, Canada
After an exhibition I had in March of 2009, I thought that a nice break from painting would be in order. Say a couple of weeks? Those two weeks turned into more than a year of doing nothing. At least nothing in the way of painting. What I did to keep my mind busy was to revert back to my old cartooning days. Instead of painting art I decided to think of the lighter side of art with all its complexities and such. Yesterday I made a big step forward and went to the art supply store and picked up the latest Winsor & Newton (no color shift) acrylics etc. and now I am ready to make up for some lost painting time.
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It’s called trust
by Haim Mizrahi, East Hampton, NY, USA
Using cheap philosophy, as you suggest, to fight painter’s block will get you nowhere. The important thing, completely ignored by you, is to withdraw when one feels a sense of emptiness, or however one wants to describe the feeling of uselessness that takes over now and then in the creative process.
Having a painter’s block is actually a blessing, a chance to look deeper into what it really means for a person to be committed to the creative process. Fighting it, or trying to correct it is a big mistake. One needs to take this new fresh time that one has in one’s hands on the account of the block, and wander around the circles of magic that are usually not on our list. Give it time. You are bound to come out a winner no matter what. It is called trust.
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