Artist’s “Block “
An artist friend of mine recently told me that he’s ‘unable to paint’ at the moment, due to personal problems. Anyone who doesn’t paint, or who sees art as a way of expressing emotions (it can be of course, but I want to talk about something else here) can find this unbelievable. People laugh, and say ‘don’t be ridiculous, look at all the work you have produced, of course you can still do it’. But when the spark goes out, there’s no light to see with.
This is so common among artists that it has a name – Artist’s Block. It seems to happen to us all, and it’s almost physically painful, like having your arm cut off. No matter how much you want to, you just can’t paint, your seeing is all off, your lines, colours, and materials just won’t do anything you want them to. Inspiration dries up and the more you try to create something, the worse things get. Just when you really NEED your art to help get some crisis out of your system, it packs its bags and goes on holiday. You wallow like a beached whale and it feels as though you’ll NEVER paint again.
I have experienced these blocks many times, which is probably why I have read so many books on creativity and inspiration. It used to really worry me and I would sink into pits of ‘If I can’t paint or draw, and don’t even FEEL like trying any more, WHO AM I?’ It’s very unsettling, and can be horribly depressing if it lasts for any length of time.
I have a personal theory that when outside events affect you too strongly (sometimes even positive things can take your Breath away), something happens to your brain chemistry and your long-practiced co-ordination goes awry. I know that when it happens to me I just can’t seem to see straight; I just can’t draw. For somebody like me, who treasures the ability to draw accurately, this can feel like a tragedy.
A massive life lessons hit me when my marriage broke down many years ago; my art, instead of being a vehicle to help me process my emotions, dried up and left me completely. I knew that art therapy could be helpful for making problems visual and therefore shifting our viewpoint, but drawing was the very last thing I felt like doing. Another of my personal theories is that art therapy can be less helpful for those who have been trained to draw academically. It didn’t help me, anyway.
I began to collect driftwood and found objects during my walks on the beach. As they piled up I saw how some pieces could be put together to create interesting shapes and textures. I had inherited my ex’s toolbox, complete with drill and electric saw, and soon I was hammering, chopping and gluing the heartbreak and fury out of my system. I called my creations great names like “I Will Never Forgive You” and “How Could You?”
I think this is the key – whether the block is big or small, long or short, try using materials you have not used before. Instead of watercolours, try pastels, if you use oils, try inks. Instead of pencils and brushes, see what happens with lollipop sticks, twigs, sponges, feathers. Use powdered graphite and your hands. Experiment with oil pastels and turps (or Zest-It, it smells better) to thin them. Switching to a completely different medium, one that you don’t feel comfortable with, can help to release your creative paralysis. Another way is to really let go and try blasting paper/canvas/board with paint, throw inks, drop oil into watercolour…….. Remember that this is a creative process, not a left brained logical one and it’s up to you to take an idea and run with it. Take it somewhere new.
Treat all this as a huge experiment – you can’t get an experiment wrong, can you? Make messes, see what happens. Mix different things together. Forget about making pictures that other people might like. Try not to judge yourself or what you are doing – enjoy the fact that it doesn’t matter what you produce, because you’re not even trying to make Art anyway. You’ll probably be very surprised at what happens.
Different people have different ways of working and that’s just the way it should be. Working sensitively means that sometimes creativity flows and sometimes it dries up. An artist’s block is a very disconcerting experience though – it’s as if the source of all your inspiration has switched itself off. Many things can trigger a block, from worries to trauma to lack of time or energy.
I have also found that a really helpful way to look at an artist’s block is that art and creativity are like breathing – you take in experiences and information from the world around you, hold them a little, and then pour them out through your personal filters of ability, feelings and emotions. When you feel blocked and nothing much is coming out, try thinking of it as a good time to take more IN. Nurture all your senses, read, sing, dance, go to talks and exhibitions….. do your best to overload yourself with anything that might inspire you. Stop trying to make art and feed your soul instead.
Some people pour raw emotion into their art every time they create anything. Others make perfectly acceptable pictures that express very little. If we were all the same then there would be no point in art and nothing new for anyone to express.
Finding a new way of working, or expanding your creative boundaries can be a beautiful gift that arrives out of an Artist’s Block if you are ready to receive it.