Tuesday, 25 June 2013

The curse of the Artist's block

Apparently, even artists who appear to sail effortlessly through life, enjoying success after success, suffer with Artist's Block.  This is a well-worn subject, I know, but nevertheless it still came as a huge shock to me to read that a particular artist, whose work appears in my email inbox EVERY DAY, is going through a period of Artist's block.   I was stunned to read this.  How can she continue to produce work every day, when afflicted by a block?   How on earth is SHE blocked - she is so prolific, she has all the answers - so I thought.   I was quite amazed, still am in fact, so much so that I felt prompted to spend some time reading about other people's experiences, some of which I thought I would share with you.


Some artists believe that artist's block is a very real aspect of the choice to paint regularly.  They believe that painting is a roller coaster, with inspired highs, and horrid lows, which include avoidance, procrastination and angst.   One artist's words moved me greatly.  She believes blocks come in two forms - Short Term, and Major.

SHORT TERM BLOCK is when we are out of ideas, frustrated by our results, distracted by outside influences, or perhaps just temporarily burned out after a big push.  This kind of block can sometimes be simply sorted by a change.....

  •  tackling new subject matter, never tried before
  • going back to a favourite subject - this time tackling it slightly differently -  change of scale, change of medium - whatever floats your boat
  • looking through old reference photos
  • visiting a gallery with a friend, discussing paintings, having fun 
  • going out and about with your camera, exploring the world NOT to find painting reference, just exploring the world through a lens for its own sake -  or even
  •  taking a workshop for a change of pace and for fresh input

....sometimes, just changing one's focus slightly is all that is required....it's not always easy, but can be done, after a few deep breaths, a bit of thinking, a bit of action!

MAJOR BLOCK is another matter.  Losing all interest in painting, failing to feel the  passion....feeling that painting is just not for you any more.

This is when you need to ask yourself some serious questions, allowing these questions to sit and simmer for some time....in the case of the artist whose words I read, it took her two years  !!  She asked herself:  "Why do I paint?"  "What would my life be like without painting?"  "I want to feel peaceful, happy and fulfilled - is painting giving me this?"  Eventually, she decided that she did want to return to painting...but with more positivity than negativity.  Gradually she brought painting back into her life........instead of allowing herself to think negatively (you know what I mean ..."I'll never be any good, I don't know why I bother, I hate what I am doing"), she changed her focus dramatically;   she is aware of these voices, but instead of allowing them to dominate her mind, she chooses instead to be present and unattached, to stop judging herself,  and just ask herself "What's here, right now?" as she concentrates on the process of solving painting problems, rather than listen to the voices.  She accepts that not every painting will be a winner, but when one pops out, she celebrates royally!

On the subject of "voices in our heads", I'd like to add something I've learned,  which I would like to share with you.  Here is a little background:

My daughter is a corporate trainer, dealing with the subject of Resilience in the workplace.  She has created a set of learning tools for business people, which enable them to recognise and deal with their "stress critters", those voices in our heads which dominate our thoughts - "I'm just not good enough"  "This is just AWFUL"   - she uses cartoon "stress critters" to help people to recognise negative thoughts, and then teaches them how to reframe their thinking....instead of "This just AWFUL", perhaps the thought should be "This is probably not as good as it could be...so I will try xxxxxxxxxx and see what happens"

Here is a typical "critter" - he's called the "I can't stand it" critter!

I reckon we painters all have our own "painter's critters".  They don't just sit on our shoulders, whispering into our ears...we even turn into them!  Put a pastel stick or paintbrush into the above guy's fist, and you will have a pretty good representation of me on a bad day!!!!!!  But actually, this IS serious stuff.  A major block can be brought to fruition with thoughts like "I'll never be any good, I don't know why I bother, I can't stand this, everything I produce is lousy,  I hate what I am doing" etc etc.

This kind of negative thinking can be altered, by using POSITIVE THINKING SKILLS, to support our thinking.  For example, instead of thinking "I'm just hopeless at this", we need to try to think along these lines......."my friend has just approached me and said how hopeless she is at this...........so I advised her to try xxxxxxx".  Placing oneself in the position of someone who provides a new thought, a new way forward, to someone else, can be extraordinarily helpful in supporting our own learning and development.

IN FACT.............
 Just reminding oneself that the reason to paint is to explore, to create beauty, to be fascinated by the process, may be enough to get you back into painting after a slump, be it a short term slump, or a long one!

Here is a quote from Robert Genn's recent The Painter's Keys newsletter:(if you don't get his newsletter, I do recommend it.  Just go to The Painters Keys website and subscribe.)
every artist is, within himself, mysteriously blessed with both an empowering instructor and a struggling creator. The self-asked question, "How do I get out of my stuckness?" often brings out a clear plan. We artists need to develop personalized techniques to instruct ourselves. 

There are many bits of advice out there on the internet if you want to find them.  Some will resonate for you, some will leave you irritated.  What matters is what works for you.  Seek and ye shall find!

THIS WEEK'S STUDIO OFFERING:  if you would like to own this woodland corner, send an email to jackiesdesk at gmail.com

Bluebell Corner  6"x6"  pastel on board   $95 + p&p


  1. Jackie, this was so helpful, thank you for publishing it! Oddly, I hear from so many artists now that they have variations of this. I've been going through one that has lasted more than two tears, after about two decades of a comfortable living as a sculptor! I've gone back to painting and illustrating, but flounder around as to where that's going. I so envy you your consistency and direction. You are a beacon of creativity in the storm!

  2. Ah no Elspeth. Jackie has undergone her own huge creativity storm in the past. She speaks from experience here. She did overcome it as you might gather from this blog.

    I haven't painted for the past eight months. Major block, but I do think about possible subjects all the time. Hoping it will pass as life is lacking something without creativity.

    Thanks for the article Jackie. Must try to gobble some of my own "critters".

  3. Thank you for your eloquent post on artist's block. As I ask around it seems to be not that uncommon. Also thanks to Gary Larson for creating that marvelous cartoon.

  4. What a wonderful and helpful post, Jackie. As a complete newbie with only six months of painting under my belt, I'm still in the, as Robert Sloan calls it, "fuzzy kitten" stage where painting is still new and exciting. However, in spite of that I am suffering from some negative voices in my head telling me I'm not any good at painting and never will be, etc., etc., etc., so this article is very timely even for those us not quite in the major block/slump zone yet. Thank you for posting it, and I hope to use it to help control my own "negativity critters"!


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