At some point in many creative people’s lives, forward momentum sputters to a halt. Maybe your well of ideas seems to have dried up, or artmaking tools feel clumsy and uncooperative in your hands. Creative block can leave you feeling helpless, whether you’re an amateur or an experienced artist, and its demoralizing presence can linger for weeks, or even years.
The cause of a block may be difficult to discern. It could be a symptom of stress that you must process in order to get back to work, or it may signal a moment of change in your art practice—a plateau to endure before making a forward leap. Often, though, creative block arrives for no apparent reason, bringing turmoil and anxiety with it.
Whatever its root, and whatever your medium, if you’re experiencing creative block, the key to overcoming it lies in your attitude and actions. Here, we share five exercises to help regain productivity.
Clean your studio
When you feel trapped in a cycle of trying and failing to produce artwork, put down your tools and tackle your workspace instead. Embrace this fallow period as an opportunity to bring new order to your studio. Clean the floor, paint the walls, sharpen pencils, stretch canvases, and organize materials. Completing the menial tasks that you ignore when your work is going well is a low-stress way for you to still be productive in the studio during a block.
This is also a time to evaluate and discard old artwork, but with restraint. From the depressing depths of artist’s block, you may be tempted to throw everything away; if you do, you may regret that extreme action later. Instead, look for the positives in your archive. Does a piece have a strong color palette or composition? Is there an area of exciting texture and mark-making? Does the subject interest you? Ignore the inevitable shortcomings that many artists see in their work, and focus on these bright spots.
Make notes about what you’ve discovered, and keep the artworks on display so that you can see them as you continue your studio clean-up. These pieces will remind you that you can, in fact, make interesting art, and they’ll act as catalysts for future creations.
You may find that ideas for new work arrive unexpectedly—such as while you’re occupied with chores—so keep a notebook nearby and write them down. Don’t pass judgement on the quality or practicality of these ideas, just list them as they arise and be grateful for their arrival. They may signal a shift in your artistic impasse.
Copy and create
If creating original work feels impossible, copying existing artworks can help ease you in the right direction. Look to the artists who you admire, whether contemporary or historical, and try to recreate their works. Copying can require the same technical skills as making new work, but it carries less of the anxiety. While another artist did all of the heavy lifting, you’re tasked with figuring out how they achieved their results.
If your interest in making copies wanes, try to repurpose these pieces. Use them as source material and look for ways to transform them. Add, remove, or distort elements of the copies, and use these changes to create a unique work. It will be informed by the copy, but it will also transcend it to become a unique piece.
Try a different medium
Exploring a new medium is another low-stress way to overcome a block. By knowing that your skill set lies in another artmaking process, you’ll be more likely to feel free to create without the expectation of greatness. A painter might try modelling with clay or assembling collages; a sculptor may want to try photography. Like copying, changing your medium is a way to approach a block obliquely instead of head-on, and to defuse the performance anxiety that makes creative work impossible.
Start a new series
Series are made up of many works that revolve around a single idea or theme. Arriving at that theme may seem insurmountable when your ideas have dried up, but you can simplify the process by putting a time limit on your choice. Give yourself 15 minutes to come up with an idea and then commit to it. Think of this decision as a minor part of the exercise.
Your subject doesn’t need to be original or impressive; an ordinary object like an apple or a nearby landscape can fuel a series. The key is to vary your method and intent for each piece in the series. For example, one artwork could be done with the least number of brushstrokes possible, and another with a limited palette; one in high realism, another abstracted. Changing the lighting or perspective will also present you with new possibilities. There are endless variations on even the simplest theme.
To begin, start several pieces on the same day. Work briskly, without fussing over any individual works, and don’t try to finish them. On subsequent days, you’ll have the luxury of walking into a studio full of unfinished art, and can choose to tackle whichever one catches your attention. The moment you lose interest in that piece, put it aside and see if another one intrigues you. Every mark that you make is a step toward ending your block, and you’ll be surprised at how absorbing the series can become.
Focus on the process
The act of creating can be far more rewarding than the thing that you create. Making art is a fascinating pursuit, and reminding yourself of this fact can be the first step toward ending your artistic block.
Try shifting your focus away from the outcome of your labors and notice how delightful it is to simply work with your materials. Observe the colors, smells, textures, and sounds of your artistic activity, and when critical thoughts intrude, let them go. If you can reconnect with the sensory pleasures of creating, you may calm your anxious mind and regain perspective. The end of your creative block won’t be far behind.