A lot of stuff has been written about writer’s block, mainly because writers write. At the same time, there’s been a surprising lack of guidance in the parallel condition of painter’s block, mainly because painters paint. While many fight it daily and some never experience it at all, I always thought I might try to do something about the shortfall. Here are a few thoughts:
The sheer size and daunting length of a novel do not equate to a small easel painting that may take only a short time. Painters, identifying bite-sized projects suited to their current spans of concentration, can go from one work to another, randomly or in rapid sequence. Short-duration projects are block beaters. Painters can take wisdom from prolific haiku masters. Reducing individual project size compounds satisfaction and helps stickhandle the way. Rather than three medium-sized paintings a month, think of 30 small ones. Smaller works are more readily chuckable.
Another block beater is the “Working Without Plan” system. Blocks often occur in the planning stage and ideas get aborted before the brush hits the canvas. Just as writers learn to start writing before they know what they’re writing, painters need to squeeze out and simply begin.
Further, blocks occur through the commonplace error of letting the cat out of the bag. Verbalization eviscerates desire. Talking blocks action. It’s been my persistent observation that mute artists are more consistently productive than verbal ones.
Then there’s the tyranny of the jaded brain. “Been there, done that, got the t-shirt” haunts both the mature and the overeducated. This form of ennui requires a reinvestment in innocence, a return to the childlike view and a simple commitment to play. Not easy for some, but doable. Just as the block itself can be a self-delusory avoidance activity, the release to play is just another self-delusion needed for creative growth.
Painter’s block is a kind of creative blindness. Fortunately a temporary disability, it obscures the limitless depth of human invention. The reasons for the blindness vary from artist to artist, but all forms can be neutralized, if not beaten, by rest, change, action, going smaller, going kiddie, and being quiet.
PS: “The block is an entirely imaginary, self-inflating disease afflicting both nothing-to-say professionals and not-knowing-how-to-say-it amateurs.” (Ray Robertson, novelist)
Esoterica: Page Fright — Tools, Tricks and Fetishes of Famous Writers by Harry Bruce, is the latest book to probe these mysteries. He thinks creative folks need to make a leap of faith and begin to feel that nothing but the successful execution of their chosen art can deliver true happiness. Seeing our art as “important” can both stymie and empower us. If day-to-day happiness is important to you, the theory goes, not conquering these stupid blocks invites a perennial state of misery.
Titling and verbalizing
by Ruth Rodgers, Lakeside, ON, Canada
For me, verbalizing is actually a strategy to get going on a painting. While other artists I know have trouble coming up with painting titles, for me the titles often precede the actual painting process. In verbalizing (if only to myself) the distilled essence of what the image is saying to me, via the title, I create a touchstone for all decisions about the process. For example, if the title is “Morning Gold” (see attached) then it’s the temperature and colour of the light on the golden late-summer field that has caught my eye, and I’ll design and execute the painting to emphasize this aspect. Titles flash into my mind constantly as I’m driving, walking, looking at photos, and when they do, it gives me a little jolt that says: paint this! That’s often enough to get me up and started.
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Blocked by life’s blows
by Debbie Baer, Hunlock Creek, PA, USA
Blocks can be created by extenuating life circumstances as well. My husband’s illness earlier this year and then in June the sudden, unexpected passing of my father kept me out of the studio for several months. It was as though someone had built a stone wall around my creative tendencies. Finally, recently, I pushed my way into the studio once again and spent some time tidying it up. I then spent some long minutes studying the half completed canvas that sat on the easel, screwed up my courage and squeezed out some color. Five and a half hours later I stepped back ..and realized that I had just taken the first step forward.
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Switching to ideas
by Sandy McMullen, Toronto, ON, Canada
Finding out what I wanted to say literally changed my painting life. I started painting watercolour — florals and landscape and every time I painted I had a mini-block trying to find something to paint. The impulse to create was there but the inspiration was lacking.
I have a passion for personal development and realized through Gallup’s Strengths Finder that “Ideation” is a core strength. Once I understood that I could paint my “ideas,” subject matter is never an issue. Generally one idea leads to another or suggests a series. With that potential block out of the way I developed a routine of “block busters” by paying attention to what keeps my momentum going and my energy up. Everyone will have their own formula for this. I have several approaches that get me rolling. I include “percolating” time to read and reflect. I also “fill the tank” by going to art shows or taking a class so that I don’t get stale and I see these activities as part of the painting process. Sometimes I start on old canvases if I am dithering, but I always trust the process. One of the biggest motivators for me is to commit to a show. It might be too much pressure for others but a deadline works wonders for me.
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Go deeper to overcome boredom
by Sandra Muscat, Toronto, ON, Canada
“Been there, done that” is far too familiar to me as a block. On one hand, I want to be fabulously original. I want every painting to be fresh and new and different. On the other hand, I would like my work to be recognizable to the buyer and contribute to my perceived body of work considered essential for some measure of commercial success. The devil is the boredom with repetition. With some focus, I have come to realize that surrender is necessary as is the desire to go deeper. For one thing, you are who you are and you can no more willfully change what is intrinsic to your expression via painting as you can via speaking. In other words, we all have our innate brush stroke style, our way of organizing spatial components and so on. Surrender to that. It really is your ally. And as with a meditation practice, stay with it. Just when it feels you simply cannot paint another landscape, I promise you something else will capture your attention. Suddenly, you are focused on the texture and colour rather than the composition. It does happen. Especially if you can remember there’s so much more there to see and feel. Just think of the way we typically perceive a plant for example. We see its shape, colour, maybe the way it moves or grows, but we do not see its cells, its DNA, its micronutrients or the energy it uses to hold its cells together. Go deeper into your work and you will overcome the boredom.
Just for the fun of it
by Greta Stromberg, Middletown CT, USA
I’m in one of those ‘blocks'(very much like a solid form within which I sit, trapped and miserable). I have a small sketch on my desk easel and now am ready to begin. I even bought some new brushes and paints — and yes, the smaller canvas is great as a “little” thought to start. I’m doing this for a while now after a few big ones that took time and effort. Love to work BIG, and will again. I did the “let it flow” thing and from it emerged one of my favorite, albeit, not the best of my works, but one that takes me beyond the mundane to a different realm of reality. It is fun stuff. Faces and figures emerged from the watercolors I’d splashed on. They are haunting, funny, regal, unplanned and create a montage of life within the framework of outerspace — a Universe unto themselves. Ah — the title was just born here…. So — who knows what satisfaction of the muse can come from playing and funnin’ around.
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Pressure makes it happen
by Clare Cross, Ann Arbor, MI, USA
In an attempt to deal with my own blocks, I have just signed up for National Novel Writing Month. Every November, thousands of writers from all over the world attempt to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. Because of the time limitations, writers are forced to focus on quantity, not quality. Of course, this results in at least some quality work as well. In 2008, 120,000 writers signed up. More than 20,000 of those completed the project. National Novel Writing Month began in 1999, and a number of novels written as part of the project have been revised and published. The website has various forums for writers to seek support. There are also regional forums, and some areas have events where writers gather together and write. Participants “win” if they complete 50,000 words by the deadline. Everyone who wins gets a PDF winner’s certificate, but as the site says, “Win or lose, you rock for even trying.” Perhaps a similar event would help painters. Thirty canvases in thirty days?
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Knowledge makes it more difficult
by Lina Jones, Melbourne, Australia
When I have endeavoured to embark on a painting I do it ‘dry,’ with no real inspiration or passion. This never used to be a problem and it seems the more I know about what a good painting should be, the less confident I am in undertaking one. However, I don’t think this is unusual for many artists — the more we know, the harder it gets. But what I want to say is that at times we go through hard times in our lives and these wear us down leaving very little energy for creativity. At these times we create in whatever way we are able, be it gardening, working in the community, etc. and just hang in and hope the desire to paint returns, somehow. Reading about art, visiting galleries, keeping in touch with other artists, (I coordinate an art group, probably partly the reason I’ve gone dry as I’m so caught up in the administrative side of the club), this all helps to leave the door open to the creative muse within us all.
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‘Woe is me’ after workshop
by Kathleen Cundith, Pleasant Hill, CA, USA
Woe is me. That is the self-indulgent thought process since attending a two week intensive workshop this past spring. Since then, six months ago, I have not picked up a brush. This is the worst block I have ever had the misfortune of allowing myself. Your recommendations sound like they may be the ticket out of this funk. I will give them a go.
(RG note) Thanks, Kathleen. People often write and tell me about their post-workshop trauma (PWT) as well as the opposite. It has partly to do with the degree of automatic intimidation that goes on at learning or competing events. Think of measureable events such as the high jump or the hundred metre dash. Think of Darwin. Then think of desire.
Seven moves you might try
by Julia Bry Schwab, Boulder, CO, USA
1. Paint or draw or build your own creative block — its form, depth, size, placement, embellishment, color, and raw essence may reflect back to you what is happening NOW and is TRUE.
2. Locate the block in an environment or background that has information and unfettered possibility — what supports you and what surrounds the essential figure (you and your block) that has relevance in your process?
3. Write down a discussion between you and your block. Paint the cover image for this piece.
4. Create a block a day for one week, then do something with them. Hang them from a tree, photograph them in varying contexts, integrate them partially or wholly in a painting/drawing, title them and make a poem with all their lines, etc.
5. Scribble like hell all over the paper.
6. Make a creative block rattle that is filled with seeds or beads or marbles that can be shaken from time to time with delight in its useful and helpful reminder.
7. Visit an art therapist who can redirect your angst into fertile discovery.
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Do it; edit later
by Debra James Percival
YES OH YES from me. In times of Hmmmmmmm, what now I have found it is very important to just keep at it and edit later. A lot of talented people/ artists stop and never start again. Everything does not have to be a master piece! I am so in love with creating and the process of working, that it no longer matters what others are griping about when they look at my art. I am filling my dream and if I stopped I would just be another living dead person. Wow, that is deep for me.
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Positive side of blocks
by Susan Canavarro, Florence, OR, USA
I’m one rare bird who perceives painter’s “blocks” as positive. For me it is a period of gestation. I’m always thinking about painting — visualizing my next, thinking about ideas, and working out concepts for a project. My mind is always “painting,” while physically, I’m not putting brush to paper. I’ve experienced many painter’s blocks over my long years. I stopped beating myself up about it. Wasted energy. Instead, I learned to go with the flow, realizing that it is a time of creative rebirth — a rebirth of ideas, skills, energy and excitement.
Recently, I’ve been bored with painting watercolor landscapes. I felt a need for something more than just a landscape. I couldn’t even drag out a piece of paper. During this current painter’s gestation period I decided to change what I paint for a while. I’m determined to learn how to draw and paint cats, dogs and birds. This is not only for painting, but also for a concurrent writing project. The learning is a fun challenge. There’s no pressure. I’m painting. I’m excited again.
Now that I am well into this series, I feel stirrings of desire to get back into watercolor landscapes. Ideas feed on each other. It’s what happens when I work on three or four ideas/paintings at the same time. It’s what happens when I let the gestation period flow. It can be a continual rebirth of ideas and energy leading to creative productivity. And surprises!
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by Jamie Lavin, Gardner, KS, USA
I’ve been on the road for six straight weeks selling my work at art fairs. Good Night, I’m tired and my work stinks. I thought I was onto something that was equitable to what real artists should do — landscapes and dreamy sunsets, all to have that part of my business blow up in my face. I want so very badly to be a quality artist, here in the Midwest, doing great works that the Smithsonian wants to buy, but . I really stink at painting — I should be arrested for impersonating an artist. I should be flogged mightily, and sent into a small room to cook in the heat. My work stinks! If my studio wasn’t in my basement, I’d burn it to the ground! OK, maybe not the studio, but didn’t Remington burn a bunch of paintings he thought were “unworthy”?
Did I mention that my work stinks lately? OMG (as my daughters like to say ) I took some pieces that needed finishing to a show recently — set them out undone, to show their progress — and everyone bought them! I stink at getting these things done correctly — I stink, I tell you! Even my unfinished work sells better than the ones totally finished! This is a mark of a true art whore! I did wheel and deal a little, but it was truly disgusting how they all flocked to these pieces. My work stinks so bad, that Henny Youngman is practicing jokes about me in heaven. My work stinks, and everyone in heaven is talking about it! All the good artists who’ve passed are really hurt that a “live one” is getting more press on heaven’s news. I can see it now: “Jamie Lavin, the artist whose work stinks, is the talk of heaven today ” and Fredrick Remington has just tossed his big screen out the window in fury! Wilson Hurley probably lives next door, and is considering getting something to come down and spook me! All this just because my work stinks. Tom Lovell is laughing out loud.
I keep thinking about how unmotivated I’ve been (and I rarely can consume more than six or seven cups of coffee a day) but NEED to do my work faster and better and get ready for the next show, not to mention my artspace that is expecting me to hang 134 major works for this Friday — did I mention my own work stinks? This is the best part — I’m going to have to go up the extension ladder and cover my fear of heights! Even my fears stink!
Truthfully, my works stinks so bad, I should not be allowed to read your fine newsletter; if I wasn’t so scared of hurting myself, I’d commit suicide. Then, my wife would kill me for doing it after I was dead! I can see it now on CSI — Kansas City — “Well, the goof finally offed himself, they’d say, and just before the M.E. was about to shred open my head, ( looking for a brain ) my wife would come in, grab the saw out of his hands, and retain her vengeance!
Did you hear (I know you know) all about this crazy economy? I dropped all of my prices in half, after the Good Lord swooped in and shut all the disreputable ones down, except one, and the good ones all decided to retire — they’d had enough. Our recession has been going at least 7 years now, I can’t sleep tonight and I’m late paying almost all of my bills. It is utterly amazing how well-timed and steady the bills come in!
I went to the dentist today for the usual cleaning and three-year, God-Fearing check-up! The dentist comes in, jovial and free of problems, laughs and tells me he’s going fishing somewhere far away this weekend, and Turkey season opens in Missouri this weekend. “Are you going?” he asks? No I tell him. My work stinks and I need to finish a bunch more of it — like piling up horse manure! — Ha! Only framed horse manure! I bet that would sell in my booth, if you painted over it in Taupe and brown, and sealed it with acrylic medium and varnish???
Sorry about the rant, but OMG, do I need some muse.
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oil painting 16 x 20 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes George Alles who wrote, “There is another Painter’s Block: I would paint more if I sold more.”
And also Rodney Mackay of Mahone Bay, NS, Canada, who wrote, “I have never had painter’s block, which may explain why I have painted a bit over 13,000 canvases in the last 50 years!”
And also Bill Skuce who wrote, “The two words a friend said to me some years ago became a key to unlocking painter’s block that has worked for me many times since. During a spell in which I hadn’t painted for weeks, we met at a gathering and I moaned about not being able to get started. He fixed me in a knowing gaze and said emphatically, ‘Just paint!'”
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