Art Block: Getting Through the Hard Stuff

Getting stuck in a rut is the easy part.

As any creative person knows, some days can be daunting. While you try to show the world that you are an unstoppable force of passionate creativity exploding from every pore 24/7, unfortunately this is definitely not always the case. You wake up, drink that morning cup of coffee, sit down at your desk, and… you’ve got nothing today. And then the next day’s the same. And the day after that too. And eventually it seems even more overwhelming to even try to work on something than it does to sit and strew about how creatively unproductive you’re being (we make so much sense sometimes). We end up getting ourselves so worked up over not being able to create anything, and feeling unproductive that we generally just start to question our ability and role as a creator of things. But as deeply philosophically dismal we can seem sometimes, there really are some simple things we can do to break out of whatever art funk we happen to be in.

Abandon your expectations.

As a very successful and talented artist once told me, “just start making marks.” Sounds simple? Yeah, it definitely is. In theory. But I get it – when you’ve been staring at a blank page for days starting and deleting/crumpling up and restarting and repeating the whole process, “just making marks” can seem harder than climbing Mount Everest to a non-climber – impossible. But, if I have learned anything while making art, it is that this is the biggest untruth you are letting yourself believe. In actuality, by conning yourself into thinking that this task is is impossible, you are admitting your fear to yourself. It’s not that you can’t start making marks, it’s just that you’re afraid to, because what will come out of your pencil or paintbrush or utensil of choice will not live up to your now heightened standard for what you deem “good enough.”

So perhaps, before you even “just start making marks,” look at yourself and admit some real, hard facts. As a creative person in a rut, we build up these grand chasms between our expectations and reality in what we want to produce and are able to produce. You need to be able to admit to yourself before you put any medium to paper or canvas that you are afraid of not living up to your own expectations. Then you need to figure out how to obliterate your expectations. If you “just start making marks” with the expectation that you are just going to magically “pick up where you left off” creatively, then you are going to do nothing but spin your wheels and get stuck in an endless loop of draw and destroy, draw and destroy, all the while getting progressively more frustrated with yourself.

Start the process of thinking creatively again, not destructively.

Once you’ve destroyed your expectations – awesome. I still don’t necessarily want to tell you to start making marks yet. You’re not quite there yet. You’ve realistically lowered the bar for your expectations of what you might creatively produce, now you need to figure out what you want to make. I don’t mean have a grand scheme of an intricate project mapped out from start to finish. But writing can often help you figure this part out. Personally, I like to keep a journal on my laptop for when I’m feeling creatively frustrated. I like writing on the computer because it allows me to jot down thoughts in quick succession and get rid of the gunk in between quickly as well. But there’s no right or wrong way to start writing, there’s really not. If you prefer to write in a notebook or in your sketchbook – that is, the old fashioned way – then go right ahead! Whatever gets your inspiration moving again.

The point of writing is definitely not to write a novel (even if you do consider yourself a writer) – we’re not working on a complete piece of non-fiction right now. In fact, what helps me is usually to make a list. Something casual. Start to make yourself think of what it is you like. Then make a list of what you like to draw. If those things overlap, great! If not, then make a mental note to try drawing some of the things that you put on your “like” list but not on your “like to draw list.” Start to make the two similar. Generally, you want to make the process of dipping your toes back into the water, so to speak, as fun as possible. Hence, starting to draw things you like. Things that make you happy. From whimsical to cute to playful to even seemingly meaningless. The idea here is not to have a heavy concept.


Figure out what you care about.

Once you’ve made your lists, make another – this time, what moves you. What you feel passionate about. What you care about. Hopefully these things are already informing your work, but if not, now is a great time to start. You may care deeply about national and international news events. Social justice. Mental illness. Exploring your soul. Whatever it is, make a list. Then write (or make a list, whatever format works best for you), about how you think what you care about can show through in your work.

Great. So now you have some lists. Right – I know, you still haven’t created anything yet. We’ll get there. Jumping back in to thinking creatively and acting upon your passions again is not, well, as easy as just “jumping back in,” But now, you are armed with some information. You took the time to get some simple truths about yourself on paper. It may not seem like much, but now you have a starting point, as well as a fallback point. You can refer to your lists when you feel frustrated with what you’re creating or don’t feel like you know just what to draw. Hopefully the exercise alone of writing down what you care about and what you like will have already started your mental gears turning.

Ideas? Check. Now just start making marks.

So, now I will repeat those words of wisdom, and repeat them emphatically: just. start. making. marks. You have the ideas in front of you, so start doodling that drawing of the fat pug farting or a lone tree in a landscape or a one-panel comic about your frustration about media representation. Ideally, you’ll start with the “like” list, and then work the “passions” list into it, but seriously, just start wherever you feel is right. And once you’ve gone down your lists, go over them again. And again.

Some resources that help me when I’m feeling creatively frustrated or am on the path to getting motivated again: 

  • Penzu: a free online journal where you can quickly jot down your thoughts. Also available as an Android/iOS app.
  • Forest: a unique Android and iOS productivity app. The goal is to grow a “forest” of focus. You set the timer for a minimum of 30 minutes – and it limits your phone usage while “growing” a “tree.” When 30+ minutes are up, your tree is fully grown. If you stray, and answer that text message from your friend or start to check Facebook, your tree dies. It’s great for keeping you on track, and track how much focused activity you’ve spent on any given day.
  • Pomodoro: Similar to Forest, the Pomodoro Technique (can be used as a physical timer or as an Android/iOS app) is a focus/productivity technique, minus the trees. The goal with Pomodoro is slightly different than Forest. The idea is that you set up a certain number of working periods (usually 25 minutes long) punctuated by a break after each one (usually 5 minutes long).
  • Shorpy: A historical photo resource website. If I’m feeling particularly lacking in ideas of my own, or just want the practice from reference, I love this site. It is page after page of old photos. People, houses, cars, etc. Drawing material for days. Something that is especially fun and gets the inspiration flowing is to experiment with different media while using Shorpy. Trying different mediums, mixing them together, trying them out in different layers and orders than what you are used to.
  • MapCrunch: Kind of like a Google Street View randomizer, Mapcrunch randomly allows you to pick a scene from Google Street View from anywhere in the world (anywhere that Google Street View has documented, that is) and displays it (with 360º rotation, of course). Another resource like Shorpy that is great when you seem to be low on ideas and just need to put pen to paper.
  • JetPens/Dick Blick: Two art supply sites – the former with more focus on writing and drawing utensils, the latter, well, with pretty much every art supply you can think of. I find looking through and making wishlists of (or even ordering, if funds permit!) some cool new art supplies and drawing materials make getting started again more exciting.
  • SwipesAn Android/iOS app as well as online site to do list. I go extensively into my love of to-do lists in my post Freelance Illustration with a Day Job: Time Organization.

Happy creating!