“Among the few consolations of what has been called [artist’s] block is the assurance that, so long as one has it, one is, indeed [an artist]. Of course, the longer it goes the more it resembes, and risks being mistaken for, proctologist’s block, real estate agent’s block and other obstructions ordinaire.”
adapted from poet Thomas Lynch on writer’s block
Have you ever stared at a blank canvas or blank piece of paper and felt completely empty of ideas or inspiration? Or, have you avoided going to your studio at all for days or weeks at a time because you didn’t want to feel that dreaded emptiness? If you are an artist and didn’t answer “yes” to either of these questions I’d be surprised. There are times for most of us when our creative stream of ideas experiences drought conditions.
Hopefully, you’ve developed your own strategies for seeding the clouds to produce a nourishing rain of fresh ideas. In this column I’ll share some of my own strategies. As always, I’d welcome feedback and other ideas. Let’s start a conversation!
1. Play. When there’s no particular subject or message on my mind, I use studio time to just play with materials, mixing media in new ways, trying out new color triads, working smaller than usual or larger. I commit to wasting paint and paper with no expectation of a frame-worthy result.
2. Look at art books or magazines. Picking up an issue of any art magazine or an art book nearly always infects me with an irresistible urge to pick up paper and paints and try something new.
3. Start a series. Some of my best work has resulted from a focus on one subject or theme over a series of paintings. Once you decide on the theme, the ideas for each new painting come easier. The result is a cohesive body of work that may interest a gallery or a publisher.
4. Read the newspaper. I’ve heard writers say they get ideas for novel plots from news articles. The same can be true for painters. Is there some current issue or event that stirs your soul in a way that begs for expression? Is it global warming? Meth addiction? War? Spring cleaning?
5. Start with the ordinary. Look no further than your desktop or kitchen counter and consider the beauty of the most common objects that surround you — paint brushes, tea cups, bowls, and gadgets. Challenge yourself to imbue the most common of everyday objects with beauty, mystery, or majesty.
6. Look for quotations. I have a folder in my computer with favorite quotations. These would make a great series of conceptual/abstract pieces.
7. Consider recent experiences. What are the issues and experiences that consume your life right now? Is it work-life balance? Death of a parent? Parental angst? The joy of digging in dirt in early spring? How could these become a series of paintings or sculptures?
8. Take a class. There’s nothing like a class, with assignments — even grades — to force you out of your doldrums and into a productive state of mind.
9. Change your music. When I switch the tempo of my background music, it can create new energy and ideas for my work. Creativity theory confirms that novel ideas come from changing the stimuli in our environments.
10. Set aside a time and place to brainstorm. Find a sidewalk cafe or park bench on a beautiful spring day. With pencil poised over notebook or sketchbook, let your mind wander among all the things that interest you at the moment. You might start with a list of “things I love,” or “things I’d want people to say about me if I died tomorrow,” or “things I want my kids to know about life.” Or you might let your imagination explore “what if” propositions — “What if — we could see the landscape from a bug’s perspective … we could stop the pollution of the Salt Lake Valley … we could create a mass cultural shift to greener living …?” The important thing about brainstorming is not to censor yourself, but to capture all ideas (in words or pictures), no matter how silly or unproductive they may seem.
A final thought: art instructors have often told me that if you paint what you’re passionate about, you’re more likely to create an emotional connection with the viewer. And it’s that emotional connection that often makes a difference in purchasing decisions or in jurors’ decisions to include your work in an exhibit. In our evolution as artists, there’s a point at which we are no longer so worried about technique, but we’re focused instead on the meaning we wish to convey. This evolution doesn’t happen overnight for most of us but is more akin (dare I say?) to a process of spiritual growth — a deeper understanding of the source and purpose of our creative drive. The only way to evolve is to keep working on your art — through droughts and all — always asking yourself, “What does this mean?”
Sue Martin holds an M.A. in Theatre and has worked in public relations. As an artist, she works in watercolor, oil, and acrylic to capture Utah landscapes or the beauty of everyday objects in still life.