Creative blocks happen to all artists. How can anyone possibly be blocked from doing something that they love? The creative block comes in many shapes and forms and seems to adapt itself to each person. The quote above is spot on. Our perception of reality is what this is all about. If you perceive an obstacle to getting the work done then the obstacle is real to you.
What are the most common blocks to artists? The top three blocks appear to be:
We will always have challenges to face when art is is our calling. It has always been that way it seems, but what is the point of denying creativity? What price is worth keeping our creative spirit locked up?
"He who hesitates is lost" is a well known proverb with unclear origins. The meaning is however is clear - take too long to deliberate and you will miss an opportunity. Others will argue that a moment to reflect will save you from acting too rashly. No wonder life can get complicated!
Thankfully painting has opened so many avenues of knowledge for me. Dealing with risk is one of them. Compared to much else the risks in painting seems worth taking. So often artists get caught out by the fear of messing up a painting that the result is inevitable. The painting is lost and worse yet - the new artist's confidence has taken a beating too.
It is strange that we can be so harsh on ourselves. I have yet to meet the Art Police and nobody seems to actually care that much if I throw out a painting. It is me, my paints and a canvas. Oh yes - that voice in the mind that fuels my doubts. Did you know that we are hardwired to look for problems and fears even if these do not exist objectively? This has something to do about survival. It makes sense when we look at our early ancestors living short and brutal lives in the wild. Yet despite our advances in all areas of existence the unfounded fears persist. A massive boon for newspapers and medication companies!
Let us look at art again. Once we can see where our fears come from (hardwired response) and understand that they are unfounded we can give free reign to our creative drive. What are the risks? Criticism - so what! Who are we trying to please through our art? There is only one direct beneficiary from our artistic efforts and that is ourselves going through the process of creating. Purchasers or admirers of our work (bless them) have their own personal benefits and the artist cannot be a part of this. An artist simply channels a process. Then it is over and the energy passes on when the art is shared.
One useful approach to painting confidence is to paint quick studies. No more than half an hour on a small panel (20cm x 25cm) preferably outdoors. The idea is to get something down quickly - an impression of what is actually there. This focus on the moment shuts out the incessant doubts that you mind throws at you. By using a large brush - size 8 - 10, you prevent yourself from getting caught up in little details too. Squint to see the large shapes of light and dark and try to get the colours and values correct then put them on the canvas. Do not worry too much about getting the colours or values spot on. If they are not correct you will take this knowledge and learn from it before moving onto the next quick study. I may mention here that a hundred or so quick studies should get you on the right track.
Do the doubts ever go away? Of course not - I did mention that they are hardwired in our mind so we need to be aware. Awareness is the key to freeing ourselves. Painting with freedom and spontaneity is a constant challenge that opens our minds to life's bigger picture. Most hurdles are figments of our imagination so let us ignore the doubts. Lets us create.
Find out more about quick painting studies and demos on My Studio and go further with Breakthrough Art Workshops.
I have touched with a sense of art some people – they felt the love and the life. Can you offer me anything to compare to that joy for an artist? (Mary Cassatt)
The Sisters (1885)
Mary Cassatt (1844 - 1926) was born in America, but spent most of her adult life in France. She stood out as a successful female artist when it was still very much a male reserve. Her influence from the impressionists is clear and in particular that of Degas with whom she shared a friendship.
When I came across her paintings for the first I was struck by her images of people, especially, children. Her portraits were not formal, but captured everyday relaxed scenes. People were doing normal family activities. Mothers with children, family moments in the garden or indoors. There is sense of familiarity and vulnerability that only an artist with deep feeling and skill can convey. All this was achieved with a fresh and loose technique, which to me is so much more expressive than the classical realism or modern realist movement.
Portrait of a Lady Reading
Cassatt worked in oils, pastel and watercolour. Much of her work aimed to capture a moment of life - snapshots really. Many studies were done quickly and have a spontaneous quality that keeps them fresh to this day.
One forgets that for a female artist in the late 1800's formal art lessons were not freely available and the night life in Paris was unseemly for a lady. Male artists could get away with painting all walks of life while Cassatt had to look for subjects that were safer. One of these was the intimacy of home life. She was able to give a dignity and empathy to women like no other at the time. Cassatt was also influenced by Japanese art, as were other impressionists, which is apparent in The Boating Party.
Impressionism not only gave freedom to choose new subjects and techniques, but also opportunity for female artists like Cassatt to take their place as masters of art.
What are your reasons for not creating something? This could be a work of art or an experience perhaps with friends or family. Maybe completing a project. There will always be times, even for the disciplined, when taking a moment for yourself seems out of the question. Energy flags and stress steps in to kick us out of our game. The suggestion that we could be doing something worthwhile at these moments is irritating to say the least.
I am as susceptible as anyone to these moments. Yes the thought of paperwork when I could be painting may seem appalling. There are times when I prefer paperwork! Shocking, but I am willing to bet that everyone can think of a chore to keep them from doing something creative. Why? It is easier to do a chore when the creative project will test us. It is safer to do the mundane than put your neck out and do something risky. Oh sure we have to get certain chores done on time, but how many moments are sacrificed when they need not be?
This battle is a daily one. Mostly it is easily won and we can push on and do the work we are meant to do. But there is also potentially much time wasted on dithering and taking the easy way out. We can then kid ourselves that the filing had to be done today. It could not wait until I had finished the portrait or writing that last chapter. Even more insidious is when we use other people to help us procrastinate. "We just had to go to the shops to buy those socks for young James" or similar excuse. The fact that it took two hours of the day conveniently pushes the project to tomorrow.
It has made me look at ways to counter this tendency to let resistance creep in. One factor is time. How I dislike time! I mean that clock on the wall kind of time. I no longer wear a watch. The watch hands are like little fingers wagging at me and going "tut,tut... it is time you were doing something". Yes I cannot escape it entirely of course, but what if we accepted that we have this very moment - only. Forget about planning the day ahead minute by minute. Take the present moment and do the work. Finish what you are doing then move onto the next moment. Forget about multitasking. Soon enough a new rhythm develops and we fall into this cycle of getting the work completed with less stress.
Living in the moment.
This is an interesting photo retouch of Van Gogh's famous self-portrait by Lithuanian artist Tadao Cern. The process seems to reveal the sitter himself.
There is a unique signature style in every artist. When starting out this style is in its infancy, but it will mature and change with time. Much like us as we grow up over time our appearance changes too. Our art will develop as we take on new ideas, methods and throw off others. This is healthy. We have to keep on learning and trying new things to give ourselves a chance of fulfilling our potential.
I have said before that nobody can teach you a style of painting, but you can accept and reject as you please. If you are true to yourself your own signature will come to you. The potential that we all have to adapt and grow in our art is huge. In fact I am beginning to think that it is only by our choice that we encounter limits. Sometimes these choices are conscious and other times unconscious.
Perhaps some fear, discomfort or event steps in and we experience a detour. We can choose to get back on track or not. When I see or read about extraordinary achievements by those who have huge hurdles to overcome, whether physical or in their circumstances, then I am convinced that I am capable of so much more.
A few years ago I read a fascinating book called E=mc2 by David Bodanis. It is an explanation of Einstein's legacy (surprise) and the development of his theory of relativity written for average-joe (me) to understand. Among the mind bending facts about the abundance of energy in the universe was an example of the potential energy in any mundane item, like a sheet of paper. If this energy could be released it would flatten a city. Can there be any doubt that each tiny atom making up our very existence is part of the universe's infinite power? Within us is the power and energy of the sun! Seems the least I could do is watch a little less TV and paint something nice.
On the subject of potential it is every artist's privilege to interpret a subject according to his or her concept. If an artist likes representational art does this mean that the subject must not be changed at all? In my view every subject should be pushed a bit or as much as is necessary to convey the emotional response. Although I spend much time teaching how to mix colours and get values correct this is not to turn anyone into a boring painter.
The idea is that by knowing colour and value you will be able to ramp these up or modify them to give a painting energy and impact. You need to know the differences to make the best decision. There is so much potential energy and life to be conveyed in a painting. If a colour does not convey your feeling then give it more beans! There is nothing wrong with this if the relationships between colours, shapes and values are all in synch.
Remain true to your concept and feeling and do not to hold back.
My recent post on why painting landscapes can improve your portrait painting prompted me to look at the works of some of my favorite contemporary masters who seem to have the profound gift of saying so much with a few brushstrokes. One of these masters is American artist Jove Wang.
I often refer to the pursuit of lights and darks and simplification of a subject to get at the essence of the subject. Everyday scenes that we could so easily walk past without a second glance can be transformed with a sensitive eye for colour, values and design. I personally believe that Jove Wang is one of those rare artists who can combine all these elements together with deep and generous brushwork that seems to radiate colour, light and texture. Whether viewed from a distance or up close you will get pleasure from the combination of skills and insight Jove puts into his work. It is not photo realism and it is not abstraction yet, to my mind, it is life that is communicated in each of these paintings. Have a look at the artist's paintings of landscapes, portraits and figure studies at his website.
There is also an interesting video below showing Jove Wang painting outdoors. Note the bold start to the painting as darks get laid in quickly, shapes are simplified and brush strokes are kept large. The artist stands well back from his canvas, almost fencing with his brush, to avoid getting bogged down in little details.
Jove Wang's paintings remind me to relax and give in to generous painting. The more you give the you receive back. Very much like all things in life.
A popular question from collectors is where do I get the ideas for paintings. This may relate to the subject or the colours used or any other aspect of a painting. I often laugh off these questions simply because there is not a ready answer. Mostly the immediate answer sounds too trite. The truth is that stimulating ideas are part of each artist's process and it is helpful to know what fuels your idea engine.
I am attracted to subjects that have elements of strong lights and darks, a good design that will draw in the eye and keep the viewer interested. The third leg is that emotional connection that is much more difficult to define. Without it however the painting has little chance of survival. This makes commissions so tricky. There must be a spark for me to give it any justice.
Having accepted that I cannot paint a scene that does not move me there are others ways to get the ideas flowing. I need a positive frame of mind for starters. Some artists want to show the grim side of life, but that does not work for me. There is no radio news, TV or newspapers in my studio. They kill my creativity. I need positive energy and usually nature provides that for me. I guess that explains my love of landscapes. All I need is to take a drive out of town. It is a case of wanting to stop every kilometre to capture a scene. It has become a joke for my family. I am considering mounting a camera on my dashboard!
Waiting for inspiration? This does not work for me. Inspiration shows up when I get working. Preparing painting boards, stretching a canvas or just cleaning up the studio can get the ideas ticking over. If I get a good idea I will go out and look for the scene. For example I have just been working on a seascape. The idea was simple enough, but went a lot deeper into my personal nature. It was the idea of staring out at the sea, which I can easily do for a hour, and letting the shapes, shadows and light form images in the mind. Free thought similar to what you get from staring at clouds. In any case I then headed off to the beach on a cloudy day and watched the sea. That was all I needed with a few notes and I could work on a larger studio painting.
Other times I will set up an easel outdoors in an area that appeals to me then using a viewfinder I will look for a composition that has all the strong visual elements that I like. Whatever approach I follow is part of a working process. It is not a case of watching tv, for example, and an idea pops into my head. Creative processes lead to more creativity.
I am never worried about running out of ideas. I do not believe in creative block and so on. It comes down to a choice and then getting to work. If I do not do the work then there will be little in the ideas department.