How Do You Make Art When You Feel Blocked?

13 Oct 2013

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.

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—get out of my own head and look around!

So I pushed myself away from my computer and went over to my bookshelf and picked up a book on watercolors past and present. I let my mind wander as I flipped through the pages, wanting to just react to images visually. This is sometimes what I do at the start of an art project too. To get myself thinking, I'll browse through my favorite magazines looking for design ideas and images that ignite my imagination. Turns out I didn’t have to look very hard—the watercolors of J.M.W Turner immediately caught my eye. His ability to use color to create a sense of light and space before he even settles on a subject was what pulled me in.

Then I just glanced over his works, techniques, and approaches to watercolor painting. It was a great way to remind myself of things I’ve forgotten and pick up new information that I didn’t catch on my first read.

Turner seems to approach a watercolor painting at once, working across the whole work, knitting the individual forms into a cohesive whole.
Turner seems to approach a watercolor painting all at once, working
across the whole work, knitting the individual forms into
a cohesive whole.
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. What a great way to think about watercolor painting, right? I immediately wanted to pick up a pencil and storm across the page!

The time you make for art is precious, so don’t waste it being blocked. It is a state of mind, and having resources—such as Splash Retrospective: 20 Years of Contemporary Watercolor Excellence—that can recharge your interests and pique your curiosity by revealing how other artists far and wide approach their work. This exposure makes all the difference. Enjoy! And how do you get over "artist's block"? Share your strategies for all of us to learn from.

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on 21 Feb 2011 2:00 AM

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.

on 21 Feb 2011 8:15 AM

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.

nanoscapes wrote
on 21 Feb 2011 10:20 AM

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.

KatPaints wrote
on 21 Feb 2011 2:12 PM

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.

Kisu wrote
on 22 Feb 2011 7:41 AM

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 *** at Britain's Mount Galleries dealing with MI6, the British intelligence agency.  

Maywyn wrote
on 24 Feb 2011 4:25 AM

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.

Stephen K wrote
on 23 Apr 2013 7:17 AM

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.

on 14 Oct 2013 6:49 AM

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  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.

on 14 Oct 2013 8:14 AM

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

De Vi wrote
on 14 Oct 2013 11:52 AM

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.

Yamakawa wrote
on 15 Oct 2013 11:05 AM

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".

marbydonna wrote
on 15 Oct 2013 8:11 PM

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.

on 15 Oct 2013 10:03 PM

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

nonnameme wrote
on 20 Oct 2013 9:57 AM

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.


on 22 Oct 2013 2:45 PM

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

John_Edwards wrote
on 15 Dec 2014 8:43 AM

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.