Overcoming creative blocks

During the past couple of weeks, I have had some very clear signals on what is and isn’t working in my creative process.  Although not new to me, I somehow have to keep relearning this.

After completing five new abstract landscapes for a feature show with a local gallery, I set myself the goal of producing more. But having a plan with the outcome of finished masterpieces is never good for my way of working. I know this.  

I know it stifles my process, but with a major feature gallery show coming up in May, I thought I need to pull some more new paintings out of the bag.

Bad move! After much sanding back, building layers, changing design and changing palette, nothing was working and panic was setting in.  I knew I wasn’t having fun, that it felt like a drudge, but I kept chasing that rabbit down the hole thinking, terrier like, if I just keep going, the paintings will come to life.  

So why when I know this isn’t a good way of working did I spend a couple of weeks just not letting go?

Psychologists have many theories on why we habituate behaviour and ways of changing our habits. But ingrained habits are notoriously hard to break. My Pringles habit has been long standing and so far I’ve had limited success in breaking it, as my waistline testifies!

When I considered why I continued when I knew I should stop, it occurred to me that I am quite used to doing what isn’t bringing me satisfaction and that deep down I feel I should be struggling in order for the work to be meaningful and have integrity.  

In my previous career, I was unhappy for a very long time before jumping ship, so I was kind of used to swallowing boredom, fatigue, frustration. Sound familiar? If it’s fun and comes easily, it can’t have worth or integrity, right?

Yet I know intellectually that isn’t right.  Sure, every painting is a struggle at some point, some flow really easily and come to quick resolution, but many require reworking and rethinking, but that process shouldn’t feel like drudgery.

In behavioural science the modern approach is to adopt new habits, rather than think of just stopping the old habits. 

For me, that new habit is predominantly to keep working on lots of paintings at once so I can escape that feeling of relentlessly pursuing a painting when it’s not working for me. 

And that was my rescue this week. Becoming increasingly tired as frustration levels rose, I took a very ugly painting – yep, so ugly it was turned to the wall so I didn’t have to look at it – and let rip on it!  

This is the result, different for me but I love the energy and colour in it.  

What I find fascinating is how that shift inspires new work. I had a large seascape in oil that I had put aside to dry with the intention of returning to it. I hauled this out and in one day finished it. 

I hope you will see the connection I was feeling between these two pieces, even though they are completely different painting styles and subjects. The energy and freedom realised by the red abstract brought that spark of creativity to go with the flow on the big seascape. The seascape moved on from what was quite a staid painting to something more lively and expressive that I am really happy with.

I hope that is helpful if you are feeling stuck with your art. Let go, do something else, don’t get stuck chasing something that doesn’t feel fun to you and be kind to yourself!.

I’d love to hear your approaches to overcoming creative blocks. Please comment below.

2 replies
  1. Caroline
    Caroline says:

    I hear you loud and clear, if it’s easy it must not be worthy!!! yet somehow that is where my best work comes from😉🤣. Which I then go on to explain away as not that great because it had not been laboured over😂 I’m thinking of the series idea as a way to get out of my head, and not ‘produce’. I am also an idiot for trying mediums and or colours that I do not know just to see what I can do with them!

    Reply
  2. Fiona
    Fiona says:

    As someone who’s brand new to painting, (still struggling with the term artist) I find that my style is constantly changing as I find my way. One day I’m inking alongside watercolour, the next I’m doing something botanical or loose with millions of splashes and than all of a sudden theres just nothing. Nothing at all. I think ok, this is the end of my short journey. A few days later, I’m back with a landscape which I dont really do (but apparently should) that everyone loves.
    I think you’ve just got to roll with it.
    I need to stop comparing myself to everyone else. As soon as I see some outstanding piece of work, I ask myself, “What are you doing? Go home and bin those brushes!” But that passes too.
    Its tricky, isnt it?!

    Reply

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