Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Artist Block

Sue Bleiweiss

Has this ever happened to you:  you walk into your studio, turn on the light, look around and are struck with an overwhelming feeling of never going to have another creative idea again.  Well you’re not the only one!  It happens to every artist at some point for one reason or another.  There are a lot of reasons this happens from lack of inspiration, fear, burnout and yes even having too many ideas which can be just as stifling as not having any.   The trick in this situation is to identify what is holding you back so you can deal with it and move past it.

Lack of inspiration

I have found that when I am just flat out stuck for an idea of what my next quilt should be it can be very helpful to find a theme to work with.  Once I focus in on a theme then rest of the creative process begins to flow and I am off and running.  But how do you find a theme to work with especially when you are not feeling particularly inspired?

Ideas for a theme can come from anywhere.  Look out the window: do you see trees, birds, bugs, flowers, a vegetable garden, leaves, animals or a snowy landscape?  What colors and textures do you see?  Do you see surfaces changed by their exposure to the elements leaving rust, decay and layers of exposed paint?  Do you collect of teapots, figurines, stamps, vintage textiles or something else?  Is there a shape that you’re drawn too - a circle, square, triangle?  Use the exploration of a shape as a theme.  Maybe you are attracted to a more abstract theme - childhood memories, motherhood, sisterhood or a social injustice or triumph.  Is there something happening in current events that you feel you want to make a statement about with your art? 

What about a technique?  My series of house and building quilts began with my desire to be able to dye fabric with consistent results and to be able to reproduce them without relying on serendipity.  You could explore texture, real or implied, created with fabric or stitch, found objects, mixed media etc…

If none of those spark an idea cut out some phrases from old magazines or newspapers.  Toss them in a bag and pull one out randomly.  Paste it in your sketchbook and make a list of ideas from that phrase.
There’s no right or wrong way to pick a theme but the most important thing when picking one is to choose one that speaks to you.  If it’s not a theme that you feel passionate or excited by then it will be a struggle to work with and life is too short to work with a theme that doesn’t resonate with you.

If your theme is too broad it can be overwhelming so explore it on paper first with a mind map or a list.  Write your theme on a piece of paper and then make a list of all the different ways to explore that theme under it.  You might find it helpful to give yourself a few parameters to work within so that you don’t end up feeling overwhelmed by too many possibilities.   Size limits can be helpful if you want to be able to produce several pieces work in a shorter period of time.  It will take you less time to create 12” x 12” pieces of work than it will if you are working with really large pieces.

You could also set some parameters for your color palette - will you work with brights, pastels, muted tones, gray tones, batiks, prints.  Will you work with many colors or will you restrict yourself to just a few?

Will you use several techniques or just one or two?  Will you dye your own fabric and use fusing as your construction method?  will you paint your fabric, screen print and stamp it, will you create a whole cloth quilt or will you piece it?

If you decide not to set any parameters that’s just fine - remember there are no rules other than the ones you set for yourself BUT I absolutely recommend you explore the theme in your sketchbook first.  You might make a series of sketches or you may simply make pages of notes.  Work however is comfortable for you but don’t avoid this step.  It will save you a lot of wasted time and effort later and it gives you the opportunity to make sure that you’re connected with the theme you’ve chosen before committing to it.

Too much inspiration

How can too many ideas be a problem?  Doesn’t that just make it easier to know what to work on next?  In theory too many ideas sounds like a gift but the flip side of that is that having too many ideas can becoming overwhelming and suddenly you find yourself frozen and unsure of what you
should work on next.  This is one of those moments that your sketchbook can help you  manage.   Make a list of the ideas you have, group them into categories, and if they need further exploration then mind map them.  Spend some time prioritizing them in the order that you find them most exciting to work with and then begin to work your way through them. 

Failure & rejection

Failure is part of the process and you can’t avoid it.  You submit a piece of your work to an exhibit and it doesn’t get in.  You spend weeks working on a piece of art and you don’t like it. You submit an idea for an article to a magazine and they reject it, your book proposal gets returned and so on and so on…

Fear of rejection and failure is one of the toughest challenges for an artist to overcome and the bad news is that rejection and failure are part of the artistic process that every artist will have to deal with at some point.  The good news is that you can learn a lot from both of them and turn them into positives that will help you grow as an artist but only if you don’t allow them to stop you from moving forward. Rejection and failure is not an endpoint – it’s a midpoint along the journey.  Think of them as a bridge you have to cross to get to where you want to go and each bridge you cross makes you smarter and gives you an opportunity to learn and grow.  Don’t let fear of rejection or failure define you and keep you from being in the studio.  Accept the fact that both are an inevitable part of the process and use them as a stepping stone instead of a roadblock on your journey.

Not enough no’s
You have to be careful not to overcommit yourself.  You can’t get into a creative flow if you’re only allowing yourself quick short bursts of time in the studio.  I know that not everyone has the luxury of being able to be in the studio all day every day but if all your getting for studio time is 15 minutes here and there then it may be time to take a look at and prioritize what other projects your involved with.  Be picky about the projects you say yes to.  Don’t get caught into the trap of thinking that if you don’t say yes to whatever the current opportunity is that there will never be another one if you decline.

Too many no’s
Isolating yourself in the studio without a break can be just as much of a problem as not getting enough studio time.  Suddenly you find yourself at a loss for what to work on or what direction to go in because you’re feeling isolated and uninspired.  When this happens you need to get outside of the studio and refill the creative well.  Meet up with friends, go to a museum or art exhibit, browse the library or bookstore, grab your camera and go on a walk around the neighborhood or for a hike.  Take a class in another medium - this is one of my favorite things to do when I’m feeling like I need a break from the studio.  I’ve taken workshops in glass blowing, pottery, jewelry making and bead making.  I wasn’t very good at any of them but the point of taking the classes was not to find a new artistic direction, it was just to stimulate my creative muse and have some fun.

At some point you may find yourself in a situation when you are just feeling a lack of motivation to work on anything.  You’ve had your nose to the grindstone for so long, been churning out one piece of art after another and suddenly you just don’t feel like making anything.  You go into the studio but all you can muster the energy to do is sit and stare at the pile of materials.  The desire to actually do anything with them just isn’t there. Or maybe you’ve just finished a piece of work that is so fantastic that you think you’ll never make another piece of work that’s anywhere near as good.  It happens and you need to give yourself a break.  Take some time off, catch up on your reading, visit the library and take out some books on an artist that you want to learn more about, clean up the studio, spend some time outside gardening or pursuing some other hobby.  Break out the crayons, watercolors or markers and play in your sketchbook. 

The important thing is not to panic! Trust me when I say that it will pass and your motivation will return. Don’t try to force it, let it run it’s course. It may take a few days or it may take a few weeks but it will pass.

Need help with your studio practice?  Book a coaching session with me or take one of my online classes!

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