Working Through Creative Blocks and Growth as an Artist

Spring Beauty

“Spring Beauty”
by Doreen St. John

At various times in my life, I’ve struggled with artist’s block…those times when your spirit wants to paint, but obstacles are getting in the way. For me, it’s usually accompanied by frustration. At one point, when my personal and professional life was incredibly stressful, I went for 3-4 years without being able to paint. I doubted whether I could even call myself an artist. I had gone through a divorce, had a full time job, and was raising two young children. I would go down to my studio (it’s in the basement) and the sight of the chaos was enough to make me turn right around and go back out…! I wanted to paint, but when I finally made the time to paint it was frustrating because I couldn’t express what I felt. I hadn’t had enough ‘easel time’ to build those skills…and that led to more stress. It was a vicious cycle. I found my way out of my block through a lot of work, prayer, counseling, and serendipitous events…and things got better. I went to an art therapist, who helped me to focus on my strengths. That was many years ago; now, I paint every day and am finally starting to see real progress and growth in my work.

I am sure many of you have struggled with this, to varying degrees…when the demands of time, family, obligations, health, or other issues interfere with the creative process. Sometimes it’s just a short hiatus, and at other times it seems to go on endlessly. There are many great articles on the web for dealing with this, but I decided to share some of my personal strategies that have worked for me. I hope they may help you as well.

Figure out the source of your block

Try to figure out the source of your block – health, financial and/or personal problems, loss, stress, fear of failure/fear of success, anger, time management, procrastination – and do your best to eliminate those problems. If you are like many of us, you may have several obstacles, so pick the biggest one and start working on that. If you are feeling overwhelmed, don’t hesitate to get professional help from an art therapist or licensed counselor. These professionals are trained to help us get past those difficult times when nothing else works.

Decide what is most important

I had to decide what was most important in my life, and all my energy had to go toward those areas. I had to learn how to say ‘no’ to the things that were unimportant and focus on the important stuff. For me, it’s God, Family/Friends, Art, and Service; sometimes other things creep onto the list, and that is fine. When I was working at a day job, career had to go in that equation. The order sometimes changes, but for me it’s still the same core list. One of my best experiences in learning about this was from an old boss who made all her staff write a personal vision and mission statement. I couldn’t believe how difficult…yet valuable…that was.

One thing I learned is that art and life are inseparable. Robert Henri said, “Life is Art; Art is Life”, and I have seen this over and over again. My mark making is the sum of who I am as a person. Even when I’m not in the studio, I’m seeing things that are painting subjects and mentally putting them into a painting. As an artist, we are always composing, so the next time you are in the studio those mental notes are probably entering into your decisions…even if you feel ‘blocked’, you are still an artist.

Make a commitment and don’t give up

Symphony of the Wetlands sm opa

“Symphony of the Wetlands” by Doreen St. John

Once you know what the problem is, make a commitment to yourself. Make a commitment to change. Even though we all agree we need to change, change is difficult. To illustrate this, try crossing your arms in whatever way is comfortable for you…and then re-cross them in the opposite way. If you try it, you realize that a very simple change, even when you want to change, can be very difficult. Don’t give up!

We are all imperfect humans, and life has a way of getting in the way and giving us unexpected challenges. I have several slogans that help me with this…like ‘pobody’s nerfect’ and ‘slow and steady wins the race’. I used to read positive affirmations every day to focus on the positive rather than the negative. After a while, it became easier, but it’s easy to slip into negative thought patterns and give up if you aren’t aware of this. Newton’s ‘law of inertia’ is a good one to keep in mind: ‘An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an unbalanced force. An object in motion continues in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.’ Once you get the positive energy going it’s easier to keep it going!

Time Management/Planning

One of the most difficult things is finding time to paint if you are not a full time artist. Even for a full time artist, carving out studio time can be difficult. Being more efficient with time is so important! When I look back on all I accomplished as a single parent, I can’t believe it, but I know part of the reason was that I was more efficient with my time. Make a plan and stick to it. Hire a babysitter for x amount of time each week so you can get into the studio. Get a small planner/use your cell phone and write down your studio time, or schedule plein air days with friends. There are more suggestions in the list below. The book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Steven Covey, has a great model for learning how to do more planning and to decide what is most important, but there are many blogs on the internet that also deal with this. I follow Robert and Sara Genn’s online newsletter, “The Painter’s Keys”, and, coincidentally, today’s post was taken from Steven Covey’s book! Here is a link to the article: painterskeys.com

Working on the work

When I was in education, we talked about ‘working on the work’. It was one of those slogans that gets thrown around and becomes a catch phrase, but for me it has a deeper meaning. Life is about working on the work; creating is most definitely ‘working on the work’. For me, it means get into the studio, show up, and get to work. If you can’t work, then show up and clean, or organize…do something to work on the work. On a deeper level, ‘working on the work’ is going deeper into your art/work, and that leads to new discoveries, new connections, and new understandings. You may have that painting where you got lost for hours but it seemed like only minutes had passed…you were working on a deeper level. So…work on the work, and your ‘block’ may lift.

Strategies to help get out of a creative block/slump:

Finally, I have a list of strategies that I sometimes use if the creative muse isn’t showing up. You may have your own list; feel free to share!

  1. Exercise or take a walk in nature. Movement helps to reduce stress and stress can interfere with creativity.
  2. Practice positivity; read positive affirmations.
  3. Join an art group that meets regularly. I joined a plein air group that met once a month because my time to paint was so limited. That experience is what got me back into painting. Painting from life in the outdoors and the camaraderie of being around other artists was just what I needed, and it reaffirmed to me that I was still an artist.
  4. Focus more on the process of creating, rather than the product. It helps me to say, “It’s just canvas and paint”.
  5. Attend an art show/opening. Being among other creative people can energize you and get your own creative juices flowing!
  6. Keep a sketchbook and pencil close by and sketch anything…even your house plant, or your sleeping cat! Drawing skills need to be constantly exercised, too.
  7. Take a workshop from someone you admire, or watch an instructional art video.
  8. Read a great book by your favorite artist, a biography of someone who has achieved great success while overcoming obstacles, or read a personal growth book. You may be surprised to learn that creative blocks are often not about art, but about other areas in your life. One of my favorite books, “The War of Art” by Stephen Pressfield, is a wonderful book and a quick read.
  9. Experiment with a new product, medium, or method. You can get some amazing ‘aha’ moments when you try something new. Trying pastels has led to new growth in painting in oils. Buy some new art supplies…I call it ‘art store retail therapy’!
  10. Find a way to make yourself accountable. Some ideas: schedule an event or volunteer to give a demo; have a weekly goal and keep track of how you are doing; schedule art time in a planner – even 30 minutes can help get me over a ‘hump’. Having an obligation helps to motivate. Be honest with yourself.
  11. Decide to enter a show and create a plan on how you will have work ready.
  12. Print out your favorite photos and put them in a file for the next time you need inspiration.
  13. Talk to an artist friend for motivation; go out painting together.
  14. Volunteer your time. Being around others and giving back is a great way to boost your mood, especially if your block is related to a loss.
  15. Show up in the studio, even if it’s only to clean or organize.
  16. Quit making excuses. Just paint.
Be Sociable, Share!

Upcoming OPA Events

OPA 2018 National Exhibition OPA 2018 National Exhibition
Oil Painters of America’s Twenty-seventh Annual National Exhibition will be held at the Steamboat Art Museum (SAM), Steamboat Springs, Colorado, from June 1 through September 3, 2018. Learn More!
OPA 2016 Summer Online Showcase OPA 2017 Fall Online Showcase
The Fall 2017 Online Showcase is from October 1 - December 15, 2017 and will be open to Associate and Signature members. Learn More!
  • Great article, Doreen! I am in Ireland and down with a bad sinus infection, but just want to say what great work you have been doing and that certainly is the “proof in the pudding “‘ I am struggling with similar things right now and your article is very helpful!

    • Doreen StJohn

      Thanks so much, Ned! I appreciate the kind words. 🙂 I’m glad my comments helped…we all struggle and we are here to support one another. I’m sorry to hear you aren’t feeling well…hoping your sinuses clear so you can enjoy the wonderful summer weather.

  • Nancie King Mertz

    Doreen, SUCH a great article! As we struggle with our own work and see the wonderful progress other artists make, we forget life gets in their way too. Thanks for this insightful, positive nudge to keep pushing!

    • Doreen StJohn

      Thank you, Nancie…so glad you liked the article! 🙂