Art Block: What is it? It’s Causes and How to Overcome it

Art block, creative block, or artist’s block, call it what you will, they all add up to the same thing. It’s a crippling lack of inspiration and most artists experience this problem from time to time. 

Art block is a term used to describe a period of time when an artist has no ideas for new work. The artist loses their ability to produce stimulating original work, and their output grinds to a halt. The condition is associated with anxiety and a complete lack of motivation.

Art block is bad enough for anyone, but for professional artists, it’s a serious mental barrier that can completely destroy your business. As a regular sufferer myself, I thought it would be a good idea to explore what art block is and what can be done about it. Let’s crack on.

Understanding Artist’s Block

The first step in dealing with any kind of artistic block is understanding exactly what it is we’re talking about. In my case, I’m referring to ‘artistic’ as being synonymous with ‘creative’. This means that if I have trouble coming up with something new, then I’m having problems producing anything at all.

It’s not the same as not being in the mood. Creative block is one step beyond the everyday ups and downs of life. It’s a brick wall that halts your progress entirely and prevents you from doing anything productive whatsoever.

Creative block is different because it doesn’t just stop you from creating; it stops you from even thinking about making things happen. You may feel like there are loads of ideas swimming around inside your head, but none of them seem worth pursuing. If you’ve ever felt like this before, you know how frustrating it feels.

I can look at all my references, previous work, and sketches and they mean nothing to me. I can’t see anything exciting. My mind is blank, there’s no train of thought or possibilities. 

The same happened when I painted landscapes. When I was ‘up’ I’d get excited and see endless compositions everywhere. At other times when I was ‘down,’ I could see nothing but trees, grass, and sky. 

Is Art Block Real?

Art block is real enough. It happens to me and I suspect that every artist gets a complete mental block at some point in life. However, some people are far more susceptible than others. Perfectionists and I count myself as one of them, are very prone to getting into trouble because we have such high expectations of ourselves.

We expect our artwork to look perfect before we even start working on it. This expectation causes us to get frustrated if something doesn’t turn outright. That in turn, leads to frustration and then quickly leads to depression.

If we don’t feel like doing anything, we end up sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves until we eventually give up altogether. I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me, and it is all self-inflicted.

What Causes Art Block?

The causes of art block are many and varied and I’ve listed a few to look out for. Some of these may resonate with you.

Imposter Syndrome and Artist’s Block

The symptoms of an artist’s block may vary, but in my case, it often stems from imposter syndrome. There are times when I cannot understand why anyone would want my art in the first place and I fall into a pit of self-doubt.

You question your authority, you don’t feel special and because you are always learning you don’t see yourself as an expert. You have that creeping feeling that at any point the world will see through you. A big pointy finger will appear from the clouds with ‘fraud’ written on it. 

Further Reading: Do You Suffer From Imposter Syndrome?

I’m reluctant to call myself an artist for that very reason. It’s like putting yourself on a pedestal. I call myself an illustrator. It’s more descriptive and not loaded with double meanings. 

Making The Wrong Kind of Art

I also get anxious about my chosen genre. Wildlife art is a small niche, graphite art is even smaller,  add to that a world that is going to hell in a hand cart.

Is it any wonder that when things go wrong I end up thinking ‘What’s the bloody point?’ 

Further Reading: Hyperrealism: What’s the Point?

And then there is the pressure to please the public. You haven’t got free range to express yourself if you are trying to sell your work. Anyone who says otherwise doesn’t need the money. That pressure to make what the market demands can kill your love of art.

Loneliness and Creative Block

Speaking for myself, solitude is a prime cause of art block. I need other people around me to fuel my enthusiasm. Sometimes you need feedback and conversation to bounce around new ideas.

One of the major problems artists face is being alone too much. It’s all very well being self-contained and happy in your own company, solitude is not very stimulating. It can stop you in your tracks. 

Who wants to make a living making art and seeing no one. What a waste of life.

Further Reading: Is Being an Artist Lonely?

My first attempt at painting for a living ended because I couldn’t cope with the lifestyle. It wasn’t because I couldn’t make money.

I dreaded being alone all day and having nothing to talk about when I did meet up with friends. 

It’s hard to dream up new ideas with that burden hanging over you.

Insecurity: Wheres the Money Coming From?

There are also times when the work dries up. I’m self-employed and insecurity is part of the deal. Many artists don’t make a fortune, even in the good times, so any downturn can make you question what you’re doing and tip you over the edge.

It takes a special mindset to get up in the morning not knowing if your hard work will ever be rewarded. Make no mistake, hard work is never a guarantee of success. 

There is nothing worse than working away at something and being proud of what you accomplished, only to find out that nobody cares.

When this happens, you start questioning everything. Why bother? Is this crap worth it? How long does it take to build a reputation? Am I wasting time? Do I really deserve to live off my art? Maybe I’m better off getting a proper job?

All these things can go through your mind and snuff out any artistic inspiration.

Exhaustion: Mental and Physical

When I work, I go full steam ahead and work like crazy. I work long hours and it’s not healthy. In a way, I have no choice. I sell prints to tourists and I can only work in the summer season. If I don’t do the hours the money doesn’t see me through the winter.

Inevitably I get to the end of my season and collapse in a heap. I’m stressed and exhausted and need months to recover. 

It’s a mental health issue, The brain gets overloaded and starts shutting down parts of itself. This leads to depression and anxiety.

The problem is that most people don’t realize they are suffering from mental and physical exhaustion until it’s far too late. They just feel tired or unwell.

Artist burnout is real. I had a time when I would work every hour under the sun all summer and head off to India all winter. Anyone who knows India will tell you, it is a madhouse. A few years of that took its toll.

Further Reading: Creative Burnout: How to Deal With It?

One day my body shut down. I had chronic fatigue for years afterward. 

You cannot do anything when your mind and body get totally exhausted, least of all art.

getting Art Block When Your Art Goes Wrong

People ask me if I ever go wrong, and the answer is yes, it does happen from time to time. If I haven’t put too much time into the drawing I can give up without getting too upset, but occasionally I have gone too far, and admitting defeat is traumatic.

I can spend days trying to rescue a lost cause and feel sick when I finally give up. It can affect me for days. Just as I can bounce into the next project after success, the opposite is true. A defeat can drain my spirit and make me want to give up.

There is nothing you can do about it other than soldier on as best you can. Thankfully, complete disasters are rare. I might not draw a bestseller, but at least the drawing gets finished.

Do I ever end up just throwing the work away? Yep. Sometimes it’s better to get rid of a failed picture and let it slip from your memory. 

Making False Comparisons With other Artist’s

Social media has a lot to answer for, doesn’t it? It’s a double-edged sword. Ideally, it’s a source of endless inspiration, at worse, it confirms how inadequate we feel.

Who hasn’t seen the work of other artists and not felt like giving up? Some guys are so insanely talented that you question the value of what you do. You know that you’ll never be as good.

It doesn’t take much to kill your confidence. 

Yet it is a false comparison when we think clearly. There was never an age, before this one. when we had access to the world’s best in the way we do now. Social media showcases the best of the best and that creates the false impression that talent is commonplace. It isn’t really.

How To Overcome Art Block

There are many ways to deal with art block, some more effective than others. Here are some methods which should give you plenty of options.

Finding Inspiration From other Artist’s

The problem here isn’t necessarily finding inspiration, it’s knowing where to find it. Inspiration comes from many places: nature, music, books, travel, or documentaries. Sometimes you need to take time out to reflect. It could be all you need.

If you’re struggling to think of ways to get back to your work try looking at the work of your favorite artists, the ones who inspired you to become an artist at the outset.

I like to flick through books by Robert Bateman and Raymond Harris-Ching and fire up my creative engine.

Practice and More Practice to Beat Art Block

There is definitely a case for working regardless of how you feel emotionally. Yes, it may go nowhere, but making the effort makes you feel better. The hardest part for any artist is making a start.

It’s amazing how your perspective changes after achieving one small success. 

I like to have a few drawing ideas stacked up and ready to draw when I need them. I choose them when I’m inspired so I know they have a chance to succeed. All I have to do is force myself to begin. I may not have a new idea, but I can get on with an old one.

It may be a chore at the beginning but there comes a point in the process where I’m so engrossed, there is no going back. I’m in my own world and nothing else seems to matter. Before you know it, you have success on your hands and the positive cycle begins again.

Stop Procrastinating and Overcome Your Art Block

We all do it. We make excuses to avoid the job at hand. I did it before I sat down to write this article. First I had a coffee, then I had to make an important phone call, then answer a voicemail, well you get the picture.

There is never a perfect time to start. It is always later on, or tomorrow, or when you are in the mood.

That time never seems to be right now. Why is that? Perhaps it’s fear of failure that holds you back. Procrastinating is a way to defer an imagined pain. It’s an art block in another guise.

There is only one way to defeat procrastination and that is having a routine. You do the same tasks, at the same time, every working day.

It’s not very romantic, is it? No, but it is effective.

Further Reading: How to Motivate Yourself to Draw

You see the freedom to work for yourself is not freedom at all. It is a straight jacket, just like any job is in life. You have to turn up on time and do a set amount of work. self-employment is like that, and you know what? When you’re your own boss, you work harder.

The hardest boss you’ll ever have is yourself. There will be a nagging voice always asking why you haven’t done this, or done that. Freetime? what free time? You’re always at work.

And that’s the way it has to be. You will never sit down to work if you think you can work anytime you like. As a hobby, you can do as you please, but as a job, you haven’t got that luxury.

Get into a routine and stick to it. Make it so habit-forming that you feel guilty if you let something slip. Guilt will make you get things done. You need to fear that sinking feeling you have when you let yourself down, and that’s what spurs you on.

Take it One Step at a Time

When you are faced with a task that seems too daunting, there is only one way to overcome the obstacle, and that’s one step at a time.

“A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step”

Lao-Tzu

Set yourself very modest goals and do them one at a time. It’s better to start slowly and have small wins along the way. I build upon one small success and go on to another.

My drawings are super-realistic and if I thought too much about the task ahead I would never be able to draw them. I’m happy to draw one small area at a time. I might spend all day drawing an eye and do nothing else.

As the days go by, the drawing gradually takes shape. Yes, it takes many hours if you add them all up, but it doesn’t feel like that. It always amazes me how quickly time passes. Before you know it, the drawing is almost done.

When I removed the time pressure to get work done, all things became possible. That’s the advantage of making and selling prints for a living. You can take as long as you like because you have no urgency to sell it. Once it’s done, you will have an image you can sell for years.

So when you freeze in front of that cold white sheet of paper, or canvas, put your markdown and make a start. I draw in short bursts, little and often, and concentrate for 10-20 mins before I break away. I relax, have a cuppa, see what I need to do next, and do the same again.

Change Your Medium to Change Your Outlook

I’m a fine one to say that, I haven’t changed mine for years, but I know it’s true. Sometimes your work goes stale. There are times when you stop learning new things and it all becomes repetitive. You can easily slip into a rut if you are not careful.

Artists block solution, changing medium. Box of pastels example
Change your medium

Many artists hit upon a style or theme that resonates with the public and they end up painting or drawing variations of the same thing, over and over again. The temptation is almost impossible to resist, yet it has a downside. 

You can easily start churning out generic lookalikes to please the crowd. There comes a time when nothing is fun anymore and that’s when changing your medium or style will keep you fresh. 

Get Out of the Studio and Refresh Your Mind

Sometimes you just need a change of space to get the creative juices working again. I like to get away entirely and go abroad, well I did before the pandemic, but I realize that not everyone can go that far. 

A good alternative is a weekend break or a day trip somewhere beautiful. Why not visit a museum or gallery? Or maybe head off to a local park or beach. If you live near the water there are lots of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors.

Take time off and recharge the batteries before things go wrong. This isn’t just exercise, it’s your mental health. When you’ve been working hard for months or years without taking a break, it can catch up with you. Know your limits, work is not everything so let yourself rest.

Revisit Old Work to Rekindle Your Interest

There is a good case for revisiting old drawings that should’ve worked, but for some reason went nowhere at the time. 

I have creative projects that are waiting to be finished. Some of them have been sitting there for years. Every now and then, I will look at one of them and it suddenly occurs to me what has to be done.

There are others that for some reason or another didn’t strike a chord with the public. It can be fruitful to revisit them and see if there is anything that can be done to improve them.

Example of an unfinished drawing. Revisiting older work to overcome art block
Unfinished Hippo Drawing

Maybe something about the composition was flawed, perhaps the subject wasn’t right. Perhaps it could use more detail. Whatever the problem might be, it’s easier to fix than starting from scratch.

I’ve brought a few older drawings back to life by adding new backgrounds. 

Another idea is to try redrawing one of your past failures. Given time, the pain of failure has gone and you can approach the project with new eyes. You know where you went wrong the first time around so it’s unlikely to happen again. 

How Long Does Art Block Last?

I can only speak for myself. art block usually lasts for a few days. I have my ups and downs like everyone else and my drive to make art fluctuates in the same way.

The problem comes when it drags out longer. I’m in a purple patch now.

Since I have been writing blogs, my brain has switched from drawing to writing. It’s almost impossible for me, at this moment, to do both. They are time-intensive tasks and there is only so much time in a day.

I can’t multi-task at all. For me, it’s all or nothing. I can draw, and only draw, or as now, I can write, that’s it. Likewise, I can work or play. I can’t do both. I certainly can’t get a part-time job and think I will ever do any artwork. I’ve tried. I can do it as a hobby, but not seriously. 

All you can do is limit the time it takes to get back into the swing. It will depend on how much you desire to get back to work. Maybe, deep down you are ambivalent and have other things in life that are just as important. If that’s the case, maybe your art block will last a long time.

Art block is usually temporary. It is an occupational hazard. It’s usually the result of other factors in your life getting in the way. If you are not happy, it’s hard to make art, indeed it’s hard to do anything, beyond going through the motions.

In general, I would say the artist’s block will last a week or two before I get back into full gear. After that, I’ll start feeling better and my creative projects will flow once again.

Conclusion

There is no easy answer to artist’s block. It can happen to anyone and will always depend on your own circumstances. You might be lucky and live in a very stimulating, secure, and worry-free environment, but most of us have to deal with stressors outside our control.

The best thing we can do is learn to manage those stresses and keep ourselves motivated.

I’ve been drawing for a living for over 20 years and art block is still an issue and it will be as long as I want to make money with it and please people. 

I’ve learned that an artist’s block is always temporary so try not to worry too much.


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