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Overcoming Art Block

Updated: Dec 13, 2022

I experienced art block recently. Not an extreme case, but an unnerving one nonetheless. It started out with one bad painting - normal enough, nothing to worry about. But then it turned into two, then three. I'd sit down to paint, and each brush stroke would come out awkward and wrong. The paint consistency was too thick or too thin. My ideas were cluttered, my intention unclear. As I racked up a string of bad paintings, I began to question where my work was going. I looked back on earlier paintings that I used to love and saw only disappointment. I worried that I had lost whatever beautiful magic that had carried me along the previous months.

Art block is a very cold and lonely place. You feel suddenly thrust out of the warm glow of inspiration and into this dark abyss, with only your inner critic for company. It forces you to face the fact that you have no control over when inspiration comes and goes. For me, it was heartbreaking. Art is my primary creative outlet, it is how I feel connected with the world and with human experience. It is nourishing to my soul, and filled with meaning. But suddenly it lost all of that.

So what does one do in this situation? First, I recognized my problem, I was experiencing art block, which every artist is bound to encounter. It is part of the process. That simple recognition, knowing it was a common thing that would someday pass, already gave me the peace of mind to keep painting.

I then looked back at my old work, the paintings I had loved just a month ago. These paintings had not changed, only my mindset had. Given time, my mindset would change again, and I would soon remember why I had liked them so much. My recent work was similar to those paintings, so I would probably like it again soon too.

Next I focused on building "brush mileage," the idea that your growth as a painter is not through making great paintings but through the cumulative miles of brush strokes you put on canvas. Maybe my ideas were no good, but if I kept painting I would be ready when inspiration struck again. I looked at artists who inspired me. I did master copies, learning from painters whose work had withstood the test of time. I painted in my sketchbook with no pressure to make a beautiful finished piece. I worked through my to-do list of paintings, reminding myself that I had liked these ideas at one point, so maybe they weren't so bad after all.

In this way I kept up a slow momentum until finally, I had a good painting day. Then another, and another. One good painting became a streak. I could feel the glow of inspiration coming back and sweeping me up. The bad painting days again became few and far between.

Writing this, I'm now happily on the other side of the art block. But I know it will come back. And when it does, I hope to have the same peace of mind to help me make it through once more.

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