I haven’t posted here, or on my DeviantArt site, in a couple of weeks, partly because I’ve had a huge case of artist block.
So Many Regrets, acrylic, pen and soft pastel on paper, 12×12.
We all get it: artists, musicians, writers, dancers, athletes. Each might call it something different: writer’s block, batting slump, the blahs, depression… but it adds up to the same thing: I can’t come up with (fill in the blank: something to paint, write a song, write a poem, write a book…etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum). There might be a ton of reasons. In my case I suspect depression. In yours it could be a hectic schedule, change in diet, focus on other stuff, life getting in the way, lack of confidence, even the weather or the season (many of us suffer from SAD).
I’ve been reading Hold Still, Sally Mann’s excellent auto-biography (who knew she was as great a writer as she is a photographer?), and in preparing to write this post, looking over her account of her depression after the attention generated by her publication of the book Immediate Family in 1992. She recounts a letter she sent to a friend in 1993:
I’m stronger now, though I haven’t taken any new pictures, which is where my strength has usually come from.
In Mann’s case, artist block came from a sudden deluge of both great and awful response to her work, and a good deal of depression that followed. But elsewhere in the book Mann says that the secret to making art is “just showing up.” I think that’s sound advice.
So how does one deal with artist block? I suppose if I had the perfect solution I’d be rich now. Which I am certainly not. But I’ll lay out some ways I deal with it.
Just Draw Anything: Sometimes I get really inspired to draw or paint a particular subject. I get a rush of images in my head that I want to get on canvas. Anyone who has seen my galleries knows I work with mythical themes quite a bit: when I research a deity or a pantheon, my head fills with images to interpret that information. A few months ago I researched the pantheon of Sami deities, and did a group of what I consider some of my best paintings from that research:
Juksakka, my interpretation of a Sami deity, acrylic on canvas 12×36
But there are times when I am just not getting images, or I feel like I just don’t know what I want to paint. So when I “run dry” as Paul Simon called it in So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright, I try to just pick up a sketch book and draw anything. I draw from pictures in books or on the Internet, from life objects, or I just draw stupid, crazy stuff that pops into my head. I sometimes turn off my brain and ‘just draw,’ however imbecilic the result. And once in a while, I get inspired by a sketch, and visualize it as a painting.
A page of random sketches from a pose book that I keep in my studio: the top sketch later became a painting of a Selkie.
Try Other Styles: I have a very specific painting style, evident in my mythic figures. But I love the work of many painters who have a very different style than I do. So when I can’t bear to paint one of my usual paintings, I try to paint something in a completely different style. Anyone who has read this blog in the past might know that I recently tried this with some “big eyes” characters, which is so not my usual subject. It was a nice variance, though, and the more I painted Big Eyes characters, the more I….realized I’m just not very good at it. Still I persevered. Here’s one of my (better) recent Big Eyes paintings:
The Girl Who Talks To Ravens, acrylic on paper 12×12
I also began to use visual media to explore my memories of and nostalgia for New York’s East Village in the early 80s, which is when and where I failed to grow up:
Three Girls, East Village acrylic on paper 12×12
Not my usual stuff… but it got me painting something, and sometimes that’s enough to break the block.
Do Something Else For A While: Since I’m also a musician, I’ve switched my focus for a bit to music. And to something specific that has been missing for a time: I have, for the last year or so, neglected my beautiful customized Fender Nashville Telecaster guitar, focusing instead on acoustic instruments. So in the last few weeks I dusted off my Fender amp, plugged in the Tele, and just let myself play, with no real goal of learning particular songs or working on a particular style. I just played and let me fingers go where they wanted to go. The results were interesting: I found myself playing songs I hadn’t thought of in years. Oddly, in reviewing chord charts and lyrics long forgotten, I translated some of the titles into images. Joni Mitchell’s Chelsea Morning brought thoughts of the Manhattan neighborhood, and the girls I’d once known there, producing a series of watercolors:
Chelsea Morning, watercolor on paper, 18×24
Don’t Think About It: Artist Block caused by depression or self-loathing is a vicious cycle. You can’t create because you feel depressed, stressed, overwrought or worthless. The more you don’t create, the more you feel worthless, stressed or disappointed in yourself. This leads to more days of not being able to create. You see where this is going.
Most artists are just frikkin sensitive. That’s why we become artists. We don’t see the world the way other people do: for us, everything can be inspiration, and also, everything can be an enormous disappointment. A stray comment or what is meant to be constructive criticism can derail us; bad weather or a fight with a family member puts us over the edge. Most of us have self-destructive habits. We all know the stories: Van Gogh was a self-harming psycho, Gauguin abandoned his family, Egon Schiele was so in love with his sister that he found a mistress who looked exactly like his sister, then dumped her and married a society girl who looked exactly like his sister. So long story short, when we fail to create, the self-loathing and self harm becomes worse.
So don’t allow yourself to think about it. Read a book, play a video game, take a walk, admire the sunset or the moonrise, practice witchcraft, play field hockey, watch a movie, binge watch zombies, pet your cat, sign political petitions, do sit-ups. Reaffirm your love of cold cuts, picnic on cheese and baguettes, go canoeing, yodel very loudly. Binge watch The Voice auditions on Youtube (that works for me by the way). Something in that mix is going to inspire you to sit down and paint/draw/collage/write/perform.
Here is what I painted after binge watching The Voice auditions for several days:
Calliope, acrylic on canvas, 12×36
Above I mentioned the book Hold Still by Sally Man; I recommend it to every artist and photographer.