Surviving the Trauma of an Art Breakdown

I remind myself that even artistic legends like Michelangelo struggled. When he did the Sistine ceiling in fresco, a medium he wasn't familiar with, the first few sessions were stressful and trying for the artist. But he persevered and created one of the wonders of the art world.
I remind myself that even artistic legends like Michelangelo struggled. When he did the
Sistine ceiling in fresco, a medium he wasn’t familiar with, the first few sessions were stressful and
trying for the artist. But he persevered and created one of the wonders of the art world.

It’s okay. Breathe. Stay calm. Do. Not. Panic. It happens to all of us—a creative breaking point in our art that threatens to push us into a tailspin. When I was in school, this was my routine: I would try so hard to push it, to make something happen. Then I’d get derailed, and then came the frustration and even anger. I would get down on myself and just mope around for a while. Not fun!

But those kinds of episodes happen to me less and less now because I do a few things differently that I want to share with you:

Edvard Munch channeled his psychological anxiety and pessimism into powerful, moving artworks like Ashes (1894, oil on canvas).
Edvard Munch channeled his psychological anxiety and pessimism into
powerful, moving artworks (Ashes, 1894, oil on canvas).

I acknowledge that not every studio session is going to be a brilliant, amazing success that will leave me with a cheery smile on my face. The reality is that it can be really tough in there, right? If I feel like my expectations aren’t matching what I am accomplishing with my work, I make an effort to set reachable goals so I’m not disheartened. For example, I’ll focus on working without stopping for an hour. No looking back on what I’ve done or reworking, just working. At the end of that time, I’ll usually have one or two ideas that I can build on, and that is really satisfying.

I take off the blinders and try to honestly assess what is going on. If I keep stumbling over something, I ask myself—what’s in my way? If something isn’t working, I don’t want to ignore it. There’s no shame in retracing our steps to see what has tripped us up. Art is not a one-way street. You can go back and forth dozens of times until you are happy with your progress. I know I have!

I give myself permission to start over or work in a different way. I used to be the type that had to see things through to the end, and to a point I still am. But I also see the value in letting go in order to refocus myself. If something isn’t working, I’m not going to let one painting or drawing sour my whole creative pursuit. If I want to put oils aside to do exercises with pastel painting or loosen up with watercolor, I do it. You should too!

And most importantly, I know how to get back into the right mindset—inspiration and artistic guidance. That means looking at art that excites me and studying the techniques of the master artists I so admire. I also “reach” for one-of-a-kind resources from like Bold Underpaintings for Lively Pastel Landscapes, which explores color, composition, and more in pastel. This video workshop had me itching to start working when I was done viewing it. Such an art guide spurs me on and enlightens me when I reach a crisis point. I hope it does the same for you. Enjoy!

P.S. Have you had an art breakdown? What did you do to get back into the right artistic mindset? Leave a comment and let me know.

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Artist Daily Blog
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.   

26 thoughts on “Surviving the Trauma of an Art Breakdown

  1. I don’t think you could really be considered an artist if you hadn’t experience the crushing pitfall that you describe. Everyone knows about the dreaded blankness of feeling like your muse has abandoned you. The crippling artists block.

    I was once stuck there for a few years, trying desperately to paint my way through it. One thing I’ve learned is on the other side of the block lies improvement. You are absolutely correct in stating that, “something is standing in your way.” Even when you don’t understand that that is indeed the problem, after emerging from the lull, you find your work improved. Passion and inspiration usually rush through you afterwards, as though making up for loss time.

    I have to admit this block hasn’t plagued me in quite sometime now. I feel armed with more knowledge and understanding about my craft than ever. I’m controlling the paint rather than the paint controlling me. Yet finding that perfect harmony of creativity versus fundamentals is the ongoing challenge. The complete joy and frustration that is known as the artist’s journey.

    Thank you. I enjoyed reading your entry.
    Susan Roux

  2. Thanks so much for addressing the struggle that sometimes can send you into a downward spiral for an extended period. Just being reminded that creativity does not always just flow the way we would like has given me inspiration today.

  3. I try to remember that I usually learn a lot from my mistakes! And if I feel really stuck or uninspired, I just work on some simpler tasks such as prepping new canvas or “play” in my sketchbook, not minding what is created (these sketches usually turn out quite funny and whimsical). Lastly, I go for a walk!

  4. I’m a professional artist with a lot of contact with artists who paint for the best reason: to paint, and we ALL struggle! Your insight was much appreciated. If I get stuck on something – I mean REALLY stuck, I put it aside and work on something else. If the stuck work sits there and mocks me for too long, I’ll give it one more tackle, and if it wins, it gets ripped up. It’s a very freeing feeling to finally be done with it! The energy it sucks out of me is better spent on moving forward much more easily without that creative anchor taking up room, time, and energy. I take what I learned from it and go – even if what I learned is that the subject matter or image is NOT something I want to try again! – robin lee makowski –

  5. I learned in college what an artist block was. The “Thrill was gone”. It walked out like a lover after a fight. It was the most painful thing. Three weeks of hell. A fellow student though told me something that I will never forget. She said, “Go scrape all the paint off your palette, turn on some music and just smear it all over the canvas and see what happens.” In my case, I turned on my cd player which had the city of angels soundtrack on it and let the music talk and I just started painting. After three weeks of no painting, I painted six pieces rapidly. Since, then, I always paint with music on. I find that the Blues helps me. Nina Simone, BBKing, Etta James, Johnny Lang, Clapton, Hendrix, all speak to me. So to anyone suffering, seek music as a refuge. Find what speaks to you and go in your studio, scrape off the palette of your self doubt, and smear the paint onto paper or canvas, and let go and let the music help you find your way back.
    Be Blessed and Creative

    Thanks, Courtney, Your helping someone somewhere realize they are not alone. I too enjoyed reading this entry.

    Paige Bacon

  6. i can’t believe this is today’s post. i had a total meltdown in my studio last night. but, i’m feeling better today and reminded myself that there is another side to that watercolor paper. just flip it over and do it again; knowing that i will do it even better this time. but, i had to have a mini temper-tantrum and storm out of my studio in a big huff before i could calm down. thank you for writing about this topic!

  7. I just had one of these myself….It actually lasted several weeks. Finally I decided to do a difficult painting to prove to myself, I could still create, it’s in process and so far I like it. I just started sketching and the sketch is now on a canvas, which will hang proudly over the studio part of my room.

  8. Thank you so much for this article. I bet we have all gone through this breakdown or ran into the wall. You are right that it causes insecurity to all of us. Yet so few people talk about it that sometimes you wonder if you are alone in this doubt. Thanks for bringing it out of the closet and into the light.

  9. I have been dealing with a breakdown for longer than I care to remember. As a psychologist, I am used to asking “what seems to be standing in the way of…” It took a while for the answer to come, but it did. All of the crazy rules of art that I internalized as a child. Cant start one before you finish the old one; never use black paint; copying someone else’s work outside of art school class is a nono. Why ws I painating and what made me feel good. I am slowly getting back to the passion I once felt, but unless it overwhelms me, I feel like a phoney. Growing up with two ununinspired artists made it difficult to feel the emotion and let it sweep me away. I now know that if I won the Academy award, it would not be enough. Gaining ground and trying other media to find my “turn on” now tghatg I do not have to worry about feeding myself through my creations. What horrible old instructions are stuck in your head? Rewrite them. Lori Secouler-Beaudry

  10. What wonderful heartfelt thoughts you gave us today. Thank you.

    It made me contemplate my current situation. I’m under a holiday deadline and finding it hard to paint my way thru it. I am therefore going to buy gifts tomorrow so that if I don’t finish or I don’t like my work I have an out. Thanks for making me take the time to think……. Sometimes “you just can’t see the forest for the trees”. (Google this if you don’t know what it means – there are some groovy definitions)

    Your words also reminded me of a recent event when I almost burst into tears (not at all like me) in the middle of a workshop. I snuck into the back room to gain my composure and wouldn’t you know it the teacher shows up while I’m taking my deep breaths. I turned away but I guess he could feel what was going on and he proceeded to give me some great advice.

    During a workshop you are usually under more stringent deadlines to process new things or to try them than you are at home. You may be using mediums or colors or brushes that are unfamiliar and you are also watching a demo by someone who has had many years experience. Talk about paralysis….. The advice: Don’t be hard on yourself and go at the pace that is comfortable for you. You may not get it all done but you will most likely get the advice that you need to go forward with your quest.

    I followed that advice and will cherish that workshop more than any I’ve attended to date.

    Another thing I do when I’m blocked is to write down my “Next Step” and walk away for minute. The “next step” needs to be the smallest thing I need to do next, it keeps you from thinking about too many aspects at once and reminds you “How to eat an elephant”. One small bite at a time…….. Happy Holidays, Jeri Lynn

  11. I just posted a drawing with a story behind it that is related to this post. It’s on my profile (figure drawing in ink).
    This drawing is an example of the result of freeing the mind from pressure when doing creative work. I drew this in a post-baccalaureate figure drawing class in 1998 (just to get back in the swing of figure drawing). I completed a drawing of this pose before the allotted time was up, so I thought I’d just start another one since I had some time left. I already had my required drawing, so the pressure was off… which is why there is so much more freedom and expression in this drawing than in the “official” drawing! Unfortunately, that freed-up state of mind can be elusive sometimes! (Like right now!)

  12. Ive had a complete meltdown with my art. I had to have chemo and now i get all these great ideas but cant get up to do any of them. i also keep finding fault with it in goes like this. hey thats a great idea..then what…you paint it and it sits in your home for 10 years collecting dust….youve never had a show…do you even care any more about a show or doing ANy art at all!!!then i just dont do anything. I REALIZE CHEMO IS TOUGH BUT GEES!!! This has been going on for over a year and started before i became sick. i have lost complete faith in it…what is going on!!!!
    samw with listening to music…once a usician now i dont care to ever hear music again….any ideas to get out of this rut…tthe chemo isnt keeping me down…its my head…it needs some readjustment!! i feel like im having post traumatic stress!!

  13. I know only too well those mental blocks when the paint will not flow and I am in the wrong frame of mind to lose myself in the painting. Under such circumstances I find that my best answer is to put on my coat, go out and get some fresh air. I am fortunate to live in an area of forest and it does not take very long before I have lost the frustration of the painting and become absorbed in the wealth of colour and forms which surround me. Invariably I will return home with my head buzzing full of ideas and anxious to get painting again.

  14. My breakdowns come when I am overloaded with all my muses speaking at once. Let’s say I want to re-create a fable. Do I write it, collage it, illustrate it, with what medium? Should it be a cartoon or graphic story? Maybe I should use Power Point with sound, voice, and music. I never settled down to a one style. When I am in the middle of a piece I come up with a great idea that would improve it. It’s nice I suppose, to have many disciplines, but it kind of sucks too.

  15. This article made me think that maybe my problem is I think too much! Stumbling over myself so to speak. Worry and guilt that I should be doing something else. Too much thinking. That’s it. Thank you.

  16. I recently reworked a painting that didn’t get into a juried show. It is an abstract painting, and for about a week after its rejection, I had it in my dining room. Each day I would turn it in a different direction to see if a spark would strike looking at it in a different way. Finally, I started seeing things I could do with it in its upside down position. The first thing I had to do was paint out my signature. Each of the next several painting sessions would end with me thinking, “Hmm, next time I think I’ll do…” When I finally looked at it and realized there was nothing more I wanted to do with it, I realized it was done. It is now hanging in a local show. It has a new signature in a different place, a new title, and a new life, not to mention I’m much happier with the results.

  17. Sometimes I take a 10 minute power nap, in my studio, which is hard to do because it’s the size of a bedroom. But I’ve discovered that many times I’m just tired and have lost my brain flexibility. I put my chair up against the wall opposite my easel and something I’m working on. I prop a pillow behind my head and put my feet up on a stool. I drift off to sleep looking at the easel. Time and time again, I wake up in 10 minutes, look at the easel and immediately think: Oh! THAT’S what I need to do. And I’m off and running! By the way, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling is a wonderful book. He actually re-painted his first few frescos several times, which meant having the workers remove the plaster and re-plastering the area before he could paint it again. After reading that, I decided that wiping out a part of a pastel, or even getting another piece of paper and starting again wasn’t such a big deal!!

  18. I always resort to doing a collage. The process is very hands on and I usually find that the outcome expresses my frustrations and gets me back on track.

  19. I have recently been studiously working on two different types of landscapes – neither has been working. So I put them both aside facing the wall and have started something new – totally different genre and style – and it is also for a competition and is due in three weeks. It gets me out of my mind set and focusing on something different and with a time limit – works for me !

  20. I take a different approach. When I hit a wall and start getting frustrated I take a
    day or two off and do something physically challenging like working in the yard
    or working on organizing my basement– something completely different. I try to exhaust myself physically because it works off my angst. When I go to bed at nightfall I relax totally and imagine that I can and will wake up the next day, go into my studio and have a totally inspired experience. I tell myself that I have what it takes to get the results I’m after and I praise myself shamelessly! I do this exercise for about 10-15 minutes before falling asleep. This is my first step toward priming myself for studio success. The next morning I finish the priming process by taking the time to revel in the works of some of my favorite artists. This kick-starts my artistic engine and then I’m ready to run into my studio with renewed enthusiasm and creative vigor. This almost always works for me.

    — Sandy

  21. Hi Courtney!! Good article:). I find that with a lot of my paintings, they start out fine then go through an ‘ugly’ stage..I can usually get them back to where I want them though, but the frustration is ..well, frustrating!! I am currently doing a commissioned portrait and am trying to utilize what I’ve learned about myself to avoid the ugliest..most importantly, I need to STOP when I’m tired. I paint part time and have a demanding career..thus painting is reserved for late at night for the most part. As much as a love getting in the zone, I know that I get sloppy when tired! I also have begun to set a timer to remind myself to step back and assess what I’m doing..I’ve found I can get so caught up in the process, I sometimes forget the ‘whole’. I’m hoping this makes a difference and less frustration! Thanks again for providing such inspiring articles!

  22. I am coming out of an extended period of artistic breakdown. For me the block was an indication that I needed to change something. Being stubborn and traumatized by the total block, it took me a very long time to find the right new path. Probably had something to do with a move to a new location and disappointment with the local art scene in my new home. But now I have changed my medium and my style and I am happy with my progress and my new artistic expression.

  23. I have posted a quote from the artist, Chuck Close. Like him, I believe in the just paint theory.
    “The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who’ll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you’re sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that’s almost never the case.”

    Chuck Close

  24. YES!!! Sad to say I have had Art break downs….having one as we speak, actually!!! There are a few things that I do to get through it … One is I read Art blogs such as this one … as I am doing now. 🙂 🙂 I also try to loosen up with sketching or doing a finished drawing. Probably more importantly, for me at times, is I grab and look for any resource I can get my hands on. LOL. All the while listening to soothing music and drinking my tea.

    I hope this helps my fellow artists out there as well.
    Happy Creating….:)