We’ve all been there – weeks of waiting for an opportune moment to put paint to canvas and enjoy an afternoon of creativity, yet when the time finally arrives the ideas elude us. We don’t know what to do so we start to procrastinate; scrolling through our phones and tidying our work spaces needlessly. In this article artist Alex Steggles examines the reasons why we might procrastinate and offers practical solutions for getting over a bout of creative block.
Words by Alex Steggles, images by Lisa Takahashi
If you’re an artist, no matter if you paint, draw, sculpt or perform, no matter how many years of experience you may or may not have under your belt, chances are you’ve come into contact with one of the most common artist’s ailments – creative block.
The essence of being an artist can be found in creativity and inspiration – ultimately two rather fickle concepts. Accessing your own creativity can be as simple as allowing a stream of ideas to flow and acknowledging which you think have potential to be taken further. If this doesn’t resonate with your own experiences, don’t panic – it’s rarely the case that all of your creative cylinders will be firing at once, generating countless ideas to sort through at leisure. In reality, often it can be a real battle.
Undergoing a spell of creative block usually brings with it the unfortunate knock-on effect of procrastination. When you feel uninspired, it’s common to want to do anything to avoid engaging with your practice (personally, I have a habit of tidying and organising things that don’t really need tidying or organising), and in fact, sometimes this can be for the best. Trying to force yourself to feel creative can lead to frustration, disappointment, and can leave you feeling disheartened.
However, this doesn’t mean that creative block should be treated as irremediable – far from it. Changing the way you think about your practice can be enormously beneficial. Here are some common causes of creative block and procrastination, and a number of methods you can employ to overcome your next artistic impasse.
Don’t overthink it
When it comes to making new work, the first step is always the hardest. Confronting the blank canvas, an empty expanse of unspoiled surface upon which endless possibilities could manifest themselves, can be daunting. You can toy with the idea of the first brushstroke for far too long, agonising over the decision, visualising possibilities and potential outcomes. When you eventually make a start, you end up with a series of spluttering false starts, due to the seeds of doubt that you’ve sown for yourself.
Confidence is key!
One of the fundamental ideas I remember being taught in art lessons at school was to paint with purpose and intention – a hesitant mindset will always reveal itself in the work you’re producing. Your sense of creative block can dissipate surprisingly quickly once you’ve got the ball rolling. The key is not to get inside your own head, regardless of whether the way you make art is calculated and precise, or loose and spontaneous.
Fear of failure
When we think of the great artists throughout history, we often make the mistake of elevating their abilities to impossible heights, whereby we believe that every painting, drawing, print or sculpture they produced during their time is a work of untouchable genius. Their published oeuvre reads like a greatest hits compilation. What we aren’t usually made privy to, however, are the works that are less successful, the pieces abandoned midway through, the failures. The Irish-born British painter Francis Bacon was notoriously self-critical, and would have his paintings destroyed if he deemed them unworthy of public exhibition – after his death in 1992, nearly one hundred slashed or disfigured canvases were discovered in his London studio. This example is testament to
the fact that no artist is immune from self-doubt or making work that doesn’t quite go to plan. Nobody strives for failure, but it is an inevitable part of any learning process, so don’t let the idea haunt you.
When you burden yourself with an excessive amount of pressure, you can create a distinctly undesirable creative environment for yourself. Making art doesn’t have to be an arduous uphill struggle as you battle the nagging internal voice of self-doubt. Accepting failure as part of the process can be greatly freeing, and you may discover a new tenacity with which you can approach your next project.
Don’t be too precious
Art supplies can be expensive – that’s something that can very easily be found out by walking into any art shop. Good quality, reliable materials that will stand the test of time will naturally cost more than other, perhaps less dependable, options. So when you set up your new equipment, especially as a beginner, you may feel a slight hint of trepidation. You don’t want to waste the money you’ve just spent by ruining your brand new canvas, you might think. This attitude will only increase any existing feelings of creative block or tendency to procrastinate.
Don’t be overly precious with what you’ve got – art supplies are made to be used, not admired from afar! A useful exercise to try is warming up at the start of your session by working on paper or in a sketchbook. The sketches and studies you produce can loosen you up before you tackle your main canvas, or whatever type of surface you intend to work on, and hopefully you’ll feel more confident in your approach to it. The more you work with higher quality, pricier materials, the more comfortable you’ll feel, and soon you’ll be able to enjoy the benefits of them without harbouring any unnecessary worries about spoiling your equipment.
Set a schedule
Unfortunately, being a full-time artist is not something many of us are able to sustain financially. Whether you’re content as a hobbyist, or hoping to one day be able to pay the bills with your art, you will most likely need an alternative source of income in order to be able to continue making work. Of course, more time spent at a job means less time spent in the studio, and after a long day at work, sometimes the last thing you want to be doing is setting up an easel and canvas, which is perfectly understandable. Plus, it’s not only holding down a job that can get in the way – life is full of both tempting distractions, like that new series you really want to watch, and mundane tasks that are nevertheless essential – paying bills, cleaning, doing laundry.
Trying to make time for your practice can be a struggle. Even on days off, you might find it difficult to get back into your creative rhythm. With all of the responsibilities we have in life, both trivial and compulsory, art can often take a back seat when it comes to prioritising what needs to be done. Somehow, though, it’s never hard to find time to procrastinate! If you find it difficult to juggle your tasks effectively, setting time aside specifically to dedicate to your creative practice can help. It doesn’t have to be a large chunk of the day – perhaps just an hour or two when you can focus solely on your current project. Additionally, during the rest of the day you may feel more driven to complete other chores so that your time in the studio can be blissfully guilt-free!
Document your progress
Keeping track of the work you’ve made in the past can be a great source of motivation when it comes to tackling creative block. Whether you maintain an online blog, post on social media or keep a physical journal, having a visual record of your creative journey can serve as a fine incentive to produce new work. As well as using images as documentation, writing down your thoughts and feelings about the pieces you’re making can help you to work through a patch of creative block. By expressing your internal musings in written form, you might find yourself able to identify the most important aspects of your practice, which can help when it comes to moving forward.
If you do choose to go down the online route, take full advantage of the vibrant artistic communities you can find on social media platforms and blogs. The more you interact with others, the more that behaviour will hopefully be reciprocated, and the more you’ll benefit from being a part of an online coterie of artists. Keeping your documentation up to date can also be a good way of staying connected with your practice when you’re not feeling at your most creative. Don’t forget to keep a record of your research as well – inspiration can come from a whole host of unexpected sources, and being to able to refer to a personal archive of images, texts, videos, or whatever else you find creatively stimulating can be an incredibly useful resource.
New medium, new approach
Most artists have their preferred medium, as well as those they usually avoid, either because they don’t own the material, have had a bad experience using them in the past, or because they’ve simply never tried them before. While it can be comforting to work in your favoured medium, it could also be stifling your creativity. Freeing yourself from inhibition can be a great help in breaking through your artistic barriers, and experimenting with a different medium can allow you to view your subject matter from a new perspective. For example, if you’re a painter specialising in still life, trying out sculpture could prompt you to take a closer look at the texture, depth and materiality of the objects you’re observing, and these transferable skills could drastically alter your approach to painting.
Once you’ve developed a close rapport with a particular medium, it can be frustrating to work with something you’re perhaps less skilled at, but don’t take these experiments too seriously. Hopefully it will prove to be a rewarding exercise that can help you overcome creative block – and who knows, you might even discover a new favourite medium in the process!
When you run into creative block, it can be helpful to get out of your own head and seek the advice or opinion of someone you know and trust. Whether they’re an artist or not isn’t important – being able to talk through your thoughts and ideas about your practice with other people can be an incredibly constructive and valuable exercise. Never underestimate the fact that no two people see the world in exactly the same way. Everyone has their own unique set of values and perceptions that affect the way they think and behave. If you’re midway through a painting and can’t figure out why the composition isn’t quite working, get a second opinion. Bouncing ideas around with someone can open your eyes to an incredible assortment of possibilities that you never would have considered on your own.
If you have the facilities to do so, try hosting an open studio, where you invite friends, fellow artists, even the general public into your studio space to contemplate your works in progress. It could be as simple as someone saying that they like what you’re doing – that moment of validation can be surprisingly uplifting, especially if you’ve spent a significant period of time working in isolation. Keep an eye out for other artists organising their own open studios too, as these can be just as productive for your practice as your own.
Remove your distractions
Now, this one might sound obvious, but it’s something I know I’m guilty of, and I’m sure many others are too. If you’re trying to work while surrounded by distractions, chances are, you won’t be staying focused for too long! Try to avoid getting into the habit of habitually checking your phone, or taking breaks every half an hour to watch an episode of something on Netflix. Flitting between different activities will only exacerbate any procrastination problems, as your attention is being divided between so many things that you’ll find it extremely difficult to concentrate.
In order to avoid giving into temptation, remove it altogether! Put your phone in a different room, clear your workspace, and clear your mind. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you find it tricky to resist at first, as old habits are hard to break. Eventually, though, you should find yourself having fewer problems with procrastination, and hopefully that instinct to reach for your phone every five minutes will ultimately disappear.
Running low on inspiration and experiencing creative block are almost synonymous. You need that spark to motivate you to get going, to push you to investigate, explore, experiment. So, however you choose to do it, immerse yourself in as many sources of inspiration as you can. It could be visiting a gallery, reading a book, listening to music, watching a film, spending a day with nature – there’s countless ways to find that catalyst for producing new work. Don’t forget, though, that your eureka moment could present itself at any moment, so keep your eyes and ears open at all times!
Once you’ve filled up on inspiration, find an outlet for it! It truly doesn’t matter what you do – whether it be painting, drawing, printmaking, sculpting, video-making – you never know where one creative avenue might lead you. Experiment with whatever medium your heart desires, explore every possibility, even if you feel as though you don’t know what you’re doing. Try to keep a few separate threads of work ticking along simultaneously, so that you feel less pressure to come up with a whole new direction once you’ve completed one project.
8- Point Plan for Procrastination busting
The following is a list of some practical methods you can use in order to not only tackle creative block, but also to reduce your chances of encountering it in the future:
• Don’t overthink it – try challenging yourself to paint a picture in 40 brushstrokes, or use a restricted palette of two or three colours, or give yourself 30 minutes to complete a piece from start to finish
• Fear of failure – paint over ‘failed’ paintings, or cut them up and use them for a collage – the only way your less successful pieces are truly ‘failures’ is if you don’t learn anything from them!
• Don’t be too precious – buy materials at a range of prices – build up your confidence on paper or in a sketchbook before moving to the canvas
• Set a schedule – as well as setting time aside for your practice, plan what you’ll be doing when you get to the studio – if you are limited on time, then this is a good way to maximise efficiency
• Document your progress – get into the habit of taking 5 or 10 minutes at the end of a creative session to record your thoughts • New medium, new approach – challenge yourself to capture the same object in as many different mediums as you can
• People power – set a date for hosting an open studio of your own, and make a point of visiting as many exhibition openings and artists’ studios as you can
• Remove your distractions – leave your phone far out of reach, or disconnect your
internet – by making the distractions less accessible, you’ll be more likely to work without interruptions
• Be inspired – research upcoming exhibitions at galleries in your area and record opening and closing dates on a calendar – you’ll be less likely to miss out on seeing them, and you’ll be able to refer to the calendar to see what’s on at any given time
Not all of these strategies will work for everyone, so test out as many as you can to find what works for you – then the next time you feel as though you’ve run out of ideas, or you can’t get started, hopefully these tips will prove to be a useful ally in defeating creative block.
Alex Steggles is an artist who specialises in painting, but his creative practice encompasses drawing, printmaking and video art. His work is influenced by the world of music and his own environment. Alex graduated from Norwich University of the Arts in 2018 with a degree in Fine Art.