How Do You Make Art When You Are Feeling Blocked?

Fight Feeling Blah with This Painting Tool

Cardrew I by Beverly McIver.
Cardrew I by Beverly McIver. When I think of gesture and letting go I think of McIver’s work. Closing my eyes and reaching for colors instinctively can result in something beautiful and full of pathos.

I hit a wall trying to write today. I wanted to write about the importance of expressing strong feelings in your work, but I couldn’t figure out how to tie it all together. It was frustrating. But I knew I could get through it because I’d experienced it before, as a writer and as an artist.

“Artist’s block” is just like writer’s block: ideas are half-formed but none of them can be fully realized. When I get ready to paint or draw I want so much to take advantage of the time I have to work on art that my urgency can feel like pressure, causing me to freeze up.

Luckily, the solution for writer’s and artist’s block is the same (and it is the painting tool that is always with us and never fails): get out of my own head and look around! Use my eyes to absorb what is around me and soak in some new juju.

Look hard — and see clearly — the colors on my wall, the way textures overlap, and how angles and shapes are interacting in my world. So that’s the first painting tool to fight the blahs. But there are tons of others. (Read on for some more great artist’s block preventers!)

From 0 to 100 in Under 10 Minutes

J.M.W. Turner's works are awe-inspiring because the artist started with movement and power, light and volume, before ever even settling on his subject.
J.M.W. Turner’s works are awe-inspiring because the artist started with movement and power, light and volume, before ever even settling on his subject.

Here is a list of seven ways you can stop feeling uninspired and start feeling like your best artistic self, and in 10 minutes or less.

1. Pick up a magazine you don’t mind sacrificing to the muse.

Rip out anything that catches your eye — words, advertisements, patterns. Make a collage. Either use the paper in a mixed media art project or start painting what you pulled together, even if it is just abstract impressions of those source materials.

2. Search for an artist online and just look at images.

Make note of color combos you love, words that come to mind, and subject matter. When I did this with the watercolors of J.M.W Turner, I remembered how he would start with a sense of light and space before settling on a subject.

3. Go for a walk.

Don’t talk on the phone and don’t text. Look up and out and absorb what you see. Take it in like a deep breath.

Getting Rid of Artist's Block | Painting Tool | watercolor painting | J.M.W. Turner | Artist Daily
A View of the Archbishop’s Palace, Lambeth, by J. M. W. Turner

4. Be in the moment.

This could be messy but so worth it: Close your eyes or put on a blindfold and just draw–or paint, if you aren’t afraid of a little mess. See what you want to create within your mind and then just let the gestures out!

5. Work on a few things at once.

Don’t get bogged down and then resentful toward the work that might just need breathing room. Step away and work on something else, even if just for a few minutes.

6. Experiment with another medium.

Looking at Turner’s work, I get the feeling he never worked in one spot on a watercolor painting for long. Instead, he seems to work across the surface like a weather system sweeping over the country.

What a great way to think about watercolor painting, right? I immediately want to pick up a brush and storm across the page.

7. Listen to a random playlist.

Sometimes old habits in the studio are deadening, so just change it up a little with new music. It’ll awaken something in you.

The time you make for art is precious, so don’t waste it feeling blocked. It is a state of mind, and having resources — such as Sandrine Pelissier’s Mixed Media on Altered Paper and Zen Doodle Postcards DVDs — can recharge your interests and pique your curiosity.

These fun video workshops help reveal ways to work differently to allow you to shake free your creativity. This exposure makes all the difference. Enjoy!

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

16 thoughts on “How Do You Make Art When You Are Feeling Blocked?

  1. When I’m blocked I flip through my sketch book. Sometimes I get old/unfinished pieces out and alter them, other times I watch art documentaries or other videos or movies that I find inspiring. And sometimes I just go for a walk. You never know what can inspire you.

  2. I agree, just about anything can provide inspiration. Sometimes, I’ll read old issues of AA or I’ll flip through a classic like Carlson, or I’ll force myself to sketch the first object I come across in a magazine- person, place, thing. Most of the time, I’ll search online for new artists who inspire me with their work and take my mind in a new direction.

  3. Three things:
    (1) I sit on the floor in front of my collection of art and pattern books, and pull them out randomly. Flip. Flip. Flip. Page after page,
    (2) I pick up a pencil and move it across the page. Some of my favorite abstracts have come from these doodles, or
    (3) Go out and take a walk. Sometimes I am inspired by something that I see, and other times I am energized by the physical activity.

  4. Sometimes thinking of creating a new piece seems like a huge feat to overcome. Instead start small with a painted “sketch.” I have a bunch of 6″x6″ panels and set a time limit at 3-4 hours.

  5. Not too long ago I picked up a couple books on Turner and found it interesting to read that Turner’s more atmospheric and abstract canvases are now believed by some scholars to be preliminary or unfinished preparations for more developed concepts that he never quite got around to finishing.

    Off topic: check out the exhibit by artist James Hart Dyke at Britain’s Mount Galleries dealing with MI6, the British intelligence agency.

  6. I have “American Artists” magazines from the 1990s that I use for inspiration. I also sit at my drawing board like a kid in grade school that can’t get up from her desk until she creates something, and take photos of the things around me. For strong artist’s block, I cut out pictures from magazines to make reference collages that can be used later on as inspiration for abstracts.

  7. This is very helpful as starting a new piece can be daunting!

    I find that beginning with a simple idea and playing out different scenarios based on that idea works. It, then becomes all about keeping subject and composition interesting. And when nothing’s working, I try to simplify all over again.

    I also agree that physical activity stimulates my creative mind as well as conversing with other artists.

  8. Your phrase ” he seems to work across the surface like a weather system sweeping over the country” is a jewel.

    re: getting through artist’s block – I am surprised no one mentioned Pinterest. I love hunting for images to add to my boards which are almost all dedicated to art (take a look pinterest.com/annebevan). Talk about igniting inspiration! – within moments my mind is flooded with ideas which contribute to the flow of my own work and I can’t wait to get back into the studio.
    It is also a great way to discover yourl artistic truth since the choices you make, (what boards you create, what you choose to save and who you choose to follow) will reveal your personal aesthetic.

  9. I am an artist and teaching artist, I am primarily a watercolorist although not exclusively. When I am blocked, my “tricks” are as follows: Temporarily change media, ie: switch from watercolor to acrylic or oil, or switch subjects, ie: from architectural to landscape or to portraits in pastels or charcoal. As soon as I am unblocked I switch back to blds. and landscape, which are my defaults, in watercolor, of course. R.J. Heinrichs

  10. After my mom died with all the family fiasco that went with it, I really didn’t care about painting anything. The sad thing for me was that what had once been a release, was no longer working. Then my friend became terminally ill, and I wanted to do something nice for him. I painted a picture of him as a mountain man. He loved it. It broke my block. I realized I needed to find something I really cared about, and then paint it. For so long I painted things so I could learn to paint a something specific. Now I paint because I really like the subject matter. I’ve also become more willing to try things that don’t work to achieve my goals for a painting. ‘Tis Good.

  11. I go on treks taking pictures of things that are pleasing to me.i’m always planning my next painting.I only paint for a hobby,tho’.If I painted for a living, I might get “blocks”.

  12. I just finished reading this article and find that at times I am so overwhelmed, my mind goes blank. what to do? how to get inspired? the old masters drawings and paintings never fail to inspire and motivate. subject matter can be a little more difficult at times, however. but, as I have discovered through artist’s network, one simple object as subject matter in various exercises as well as media and methods has kept me interested and motivated. I’ve even started noting in my sketchbook, the pages that have this image.
    if all else fails, I go back to the basics from art school, drawing exercises.

  13. When I have an art block I go through all the suggestions listed in the emails that accompany this article, look at photo’s I have taken, magazines, pictures I have cut out for ideas, walks to gain fresh ideas, looking at other art ,talking to other artists for ideas. I also love painting for my grandchildren so ask them what they would like , looking at their colouring in books to get current trends and ideas. If all these triggers fail I sometimes enjoy setting up a blank canvas, setting out my acrylic paints and simply letting my mind and imagination determine what is to follow.
    Bruce Parris. Auckland .New Zealand

  14. I am writing as an observer, tho I’ve been told I have some artist talent. I don’t do much art, other than quilting right now, but have a question I hope some of you can help me with. I have an 8 yr old grandson, whom, like his grandfather, my sister, and sons, seems to be talented, loving to draw. Since he is so young we are hoping to encourage him, but don’t want to overwhelm him. Can you suggest a good drawing book or two to purchase for him? When he wants to draw (often) he picks up his sketchbook and draws for hours at a time. He has been dx with ADHD, so this skill of his gives some calm to his life as well as his parents.

    thank you for your help…..and I will continue to read and enjoy this blog. In the not too distant future I hope to take some painting lessons, but at this time we are in the process of moving out of state which is a huge job in itself.
    nonnameme

  15. Hi Courtney;

    In reference to your comment on Turner ” Looking at Turner’s work, I get the feeling that he never worked in one spot on a watercolor painting for long. Instead, he seems to work across the surface like a weather system sweeping over the country. ” you are quite correct in his not stopping in one spot. However it goes much further than one water color. Turner used to have a very large work table where he would spread out several water color paintings and move from one painting to another. If you can find an old BBC series on artists they have one excellent program on Turner you would find very interesting.

    Anne Armitage

  16. I am there now, have been for a few weeks. For the last five years or so, I have either been working on a painting or drawing something, anything even if it was just a practice project. I am working on a project now, “Ice Fishing” using pastel pencils depicting a rainbow trout under the ice, every process step has been like pulling teeth. I know what I can do, but the drawing to me doesn’t look like it. “What do I do about artist-block?” I press in towards the mark, however difficult it may be.

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