This time of year I get a truck-load of letters from artists who tell me they’re “stuck.” I used to wonder if it had something to do with the summer solstice — too much light around outside the studio. Letters include, “My painting has been on my easel for a month,” “I can’t finish what I started,” “I can’t get started,” and “Nothing heats me up anymore.”
There are many reasons for these unpleasant situations. As I’ve been there myself and made the feature film, here are a few thoughts:
Inert stuff on the easel can sometimes be traced to a personal crisis of self-worth. For periods of time the artist loses a sense of élan and lacks positive energy. Unsure of the value of the objects being created and in a frustrated desire for perfection, the artist opts to be stymied. In severe situations the artist may go on for years in a state of avoidance, fully occupied with all manner of non-creative distractions.
Recent studies at Manchester University in the UK have found a link between issues of self-worth and depression. Looking at some of the current literature, it might seem that depression is the new normal — the malaise of choice for young and old. In the UK research, fMRI scans were given to individuals with and without a history of depression. They found that parts of the brain in the non-depressed are “functionally coupled,” and with some forms of depression those parts are separated from one another. This decoupling, they figure, makes depressed folks more prone to blame themselves inappropriately and to have damaged feelings of self-worth.
In my meanderings among studios and in the fields of plein air, I’ve often noted that a healthy ego and a realistic sense of self-worth motivate artists to keep picking up the brush. With confidence brimming, it’s rather a joy to pick along at painterly problems.
How to knock down mild depression? I believe in do-it-yourself psychiatry. While chronic depression may need professional help, and at the risk of putting the pros out of work, you need to count your blessings, build your spirit, prime your pump, rekindle your love of process, and know that a little bit of character beats all kinds of sitting around wondering. “Begin,” said Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “and the mind grows heated.”
PS: “May I not forget that poverty and riches are of the spirit. Though the world knows me not, may my thoughts and actions be such as will keep me friendly with myself.” (Max Ehrmann)
Esoterica: Depressed or not, every artist is, within himself, mysteriously blessed with both an empowering instructor and a struggling creator. The question, “How do you get out of your stuckness?” often brings out a clear plan. We artists need to develop personalized techniques to instruct ourselves. Think about it. Are you ever stuck? And if you ever are, how do you get out of it? We’d all love to hear your techniques.
Advice of an anxiety sufferer
by Dan McGrath, Lexington, KY, USA
To maximize results you need to choose a subject that is doable by you and also stretches you a little. If you’re a landscape painter, get away from the studio with its accusatory blank canvas, break the cycle, get outdoors with camera and small sketchpad and find something doable…
Copy the work of a painter you admire, again, small in scale.
Go back to drawing the subject, using cross-hatching to get good values, get back to your roots/fundamentals as an artist.
Browse the galleries on the web to find artists whose work vaguely resembles yours, this, more often than not, inspires me, e.g. gives me permission to do a certain subject, paint looser, tighter, etc. Visit local art galleries for the same reason.
I don’t suffer from depression, but from anxiety, so I’ve been there.
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Concerns of a ‘pro’
by Jeanette Zaimes, Milford, DE, USA
This week’s thoughts have a great deal of merit. However, with suicide rates on an alarming rise and as a “pro” as you called it, I must correct one thing. True clinical depression must be treated. Clinical depression can be a single, not always chronic event. Clinical depression has many of the following features: can’t sleep well or sleeping too much, change of appetite with weight loss or gain, poor concentration on any task, poor energy and increased anxiety with or without panic. Your suggestions are right on the money for the condition known as dysphoria (in a funk). It’s just that the clinical depression needs more help.
(RG note) Jeanette M S Zaimes, MD is a Board Certified Psychiatrist, and painter.
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Creating from passion
by Alan Soffer, Wallingford, PA, USA
This is a problem I hear about and yet no one has addressed in a proactive way until now. Team teachers Qatana Samanen, Alan Soffer and Libbie Soffer have developed a program which could be helpful. We call it “Creating From Passion” First, Qatana Samanen leads us in “guided imagery.” Sounded strange to me at first, but turned out to direct my work in a positive way, and I was doing it as one of the teachers. Second, I lead us all in cognitive values study–our version of “goal setting.” Especially powerful for those who aren’t happy with the touchy-feely stuff. Third, and possibly the most important, Libbie and myself lead students in experimental, primal art making. All of this is synthesized through discussion and by doing. So far, people have been extremely positive about the results.
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Three strategies to get unstuck
by Lynn Sanguedolce, San Francisco, CA, USA
For me, the following strategies are helpful in becoming “unstuck”: 1. Shake up my typical routine. Wake up extra early and take a drive. Turn the music off. Just look at my surroundings. I sometimes will take a walk on a path I haven’t been down before. Go back to the studio and record some snippet of something that I discovered along the way that charmed me. It changes my attitude.
2. Give in to my “art obsession.” I go bananas for color relationships. I keep a huge bag of color swatches from local paint stores and love to see how they relate to one another. It is a silly habit, I admit, but just by quietly comparing the colors, and enjoying their subtle differences, it puts me immediately into an artist frame of mind and gets me excited to paint. (I find I have to put a cap on how much time I allow myself this little luxury…)
3. I remember I am always a student of art! Do a small painting as a study or “experiment.” Work on values, color, or some other concept. When I take baby steps in the direction of painting, and enjoy the simple process of just painting, it builds on itself and generates more work.
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Fixing the ‘problem painting’
by John Dinan, Cong, County Mayo, Ireland
When I’m stuck with a painting my mantra is…
Too often, despite the structured, Six Step approach to painting that I teach in my workshops — my enthusiasm gets the better of me and I start into a painting without adequate consideration of design, composition or colour ‘mood’ — the result, inevitably, is a Problem Painting — unsatisfactory in ways that are not always immediately apparent.
When this happens (and as I said, that’s often) I go through my mantra checklist in the following order:
1. Are the SHAPES interesting and inter-related?
2. Do the TONES make a strong, simple design?
3. Are the COLOURS pleasing and do they reflect the MOOD wished for?
This review/analysis usually solves most problems — and usually I have to make brave, sweeping changes — typically: simplifying the shapes, reducing the number of separate tonal masses and the number of colours, and having less detail.
And finally — I check out…
4. Does my painting reflect the original INSPIRATION that made me want to paint that particular subject?
If not — I continue to change the SHAPES, TONES AND COLOURS until I can say YES to all 4 Mantras.
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The golden act of ‘doing’
by Norman Ridenour, Prague, Czech Republic
I look out my studio at the huge green chestnut tree and know that just half a mile away is the Elbe with bike paths on both sides and down these paths, about 15 km either way lies a good beer garden with grilled goodies and cool foaming beer. Toss in robust ladies wearing very little. Now you want me to stay and work!!!!! Come on man live it up. In Northern Europe, summer is a distraction.
Now the long term slump is different. For much of my life, my ability to buy food and pay the rent has been directly related to how much and the quality of what goes out the studio door. I quite like eating, drinking wine and sleeping in a bed. SO I WORK! Only amateurs have the luxury of moods.
Now, I have had what Winston Churchill called the black dog. I have considered suicide. I have seen life and especially my creative life as worthless. What do I do? I do long runs (these days walks) carry my sketch pad and jot down ideas and sketches. On a windy beach or in a forest one can scream and rant until exhaustion and I do. I write through the feelings and I go to the studio. Maybe I sit and look, maybe I clean it up, maybe I make something I promised my wife three years ago, or an old sketch ‘I never had time to do’ turns up but I get the hands to ‘doing it.’ Maybe the results are only for the fireplace but I am DOING. The hands start to itch for action before the brain. The art is in the doing not the result.
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The value of collaboration
by Niharika Garg, India
I’m sure it’s the “Sun.” Had it been raining here… I would be flowing with the beautiful weather and been all rosy and happy. But you got me. It’s happening time and again, and like some of the artists who wrote to you about not able to finish a painting or not being able to start or not understanding what to paint, I’m also one of them.
Keeping faith is an easy-to-say, difficult-to-do thing. And yes I guess we all try to get ourselves out of it. Can’t stay in there much or we’ll lose who we are.
One of the ways out: meet different artists and work with them. Collaborate and go on sketching/ painting excursions. That way one has the drive to produce and show one’s worth. Human is a social animal and that’s what motivates me in those gloomy times.
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The alchemy of creativity
by Don Kibble, Australia
How to get unstuck? “Stick to it,” I say. The way I ‘stick to it’ is with self-critiquing skills. I’m not highly regimented but I am persistent. I never forget a problem nor does a problem ever seem to forget me. Part of this situation may be the expectation that what is started must be finished: yes, but not necessarily in a continuous flow of work.
I have read that many artists have many works underway at once. This is a good thing and takes the pressure off the need to ‘finish’. What is learned on one project can be used to solve a problem on another or at least give confidence to take up an unfinished work with new enthusiasm.
The other technique that I use is to ‘hang loose.’ If a project is not working out I let it go, for now. I have works hanging about the studio, sometimes for months or years, which are not quite right somehow. A later casual glance at one of these can set off an idea to try something; a space of colour, new balance, a few more marks or a bit less texture, etc.
Creativity in art is, after all, a bit of alchemy.
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Emotional Freedom Technique
by Angela Treat Lyon, Kailua, Hawaii, USA
I’m sure many people have heard of EFT, the Emotional Freedom Techniques. If it weren’t for this amazing self-help tool, I am absolutely certain that I wouldn’t be around today, because I had had a non-stop, 35-year back-of-the-mind whispering litany about how lousy a person I was, how horrible an artist I was, and how no one wanted my work.
Someone turned me on to this simple, powerful technique when I was down in New Zealand as Artist-in-Residence (feeling guilty because of course I didn’t deserve it!), and in 6 weeks I no longer had any thoughts like that. Zero. It was like a miracle for me. I’m not saying it was easy! But after 6 weeks of really working it every day, I was free at last from such crippling thoughts, and am still.
Now I can laugh because, looking back, it seems absurd that I went through enormous self-doubt about even using the tool at first, because I remembered my family saying I was self-indulgent, selfish, foolish, etc. and why didn’t I just “go out and get a regular job”?
I feel like every drawing, painting and sculpture I’ve done since then is Miracle Gravy – something I probably wouldn’t have been alive to have on my plate if not for that enormous shift in my life.
(RG note) Thanks, Angela. Angela was so stoked she has written a book on EFT.
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Just show up and paint
by Christine Gedye, Seattle, WA, USA
Getting stuck is not an option if you have deadlines, so make sure you always have deadlines. Enter juried shows, commit several new works to your gallery for a specific date (I always set the date for my next show right as the current show is closing), or dig up commissions.
Prep a bunch of panels (or get yourself busy doing anything art-related in the studio). Then you are ready to go, no excuses.
Give yourself permission to paint something outside your box (NOT necessarily to show or sell). Experiment for a day (or even just an hour).
Sign up for a class or workshop in a new medium.
Pull out your favorite art books and tag the pages that make you swoon. Paint to swoon.
Spend a morning walking through local art galleries, then go directly to the studio.
Put on different music.
Walk through a park (or around the block) just before you go into your studio.
In the end, just show up and paint. You’re never going to get to 10,000 hours if you only paint when you feel inspired. Sometimes you just have to work.
Enjoy the past comments below for Stuck!…
Featured Workshop by Alan Wylie
oil painting, 20 x 16 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 Allan O’Marra of Ajax, ON, Canada who wrote, “Stuck? Who’s got time for stuck?!”
And also Linda Franklin of Tappen, BC, Canada who wrote, “For me, play is the source of renewal. It freshens me up. And it’s fun!”
And also Robin Timms of North Vancouver, BC, Canada who wrote, “I highly recommend a book entitled, Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer. As he explains, “Every creative journey begins with a problem… Once we know how creativity works, we can make it work for us”… For me, I now have a kind of roadmap of how to reinvigorate my process and my creativity when I get stuck. A fantastic read.”
And also Chris Schmidt of Hawaii, USA who wrote, “An ounce of pluck equals a pound of luck.”And also Susan Kellogg of Austin, Texas who wrote, “Here’s an inspirational photograph of an abandoned house on FM 1626 on the way to Buda, Texas.