Artist's Block & Covid
- You’re stuck at a creative stand still, unable to move forward on a particular project
- You just can’t make yourself start a project to begin with
- None of your ideas seem worth pursuing
- Nothing is working out
- You may start questioning and devaluing everything you’ve ever done
- to take a project to completion
- to create something good enough
- to create something others will appreciate
- to create something others will buy
Creativity & Covid
2020 has been anything but "normal circumstances". The Covid-19 pandemic has added a whole new set of challenges to our everyday existence in society. We are all trying to go about business as usual but Covid invariably impacts our lives, our mental health, and our creativity.
Since early 2020, we’ve all been required to spend more time away from society, staying at home or in the studio, which would normally be a blessing for an artist or craftsperson. However, for many of us, this increase in personal time has unfortunately been accompanied by a decrease in income, higher levels of anxiety, more family stress, and a degree loneliness from social distancing.
Covid & the Professional Artist
The financial and economic priorities of the general public have shifted, and a result many artists have seen the sales of fine art and crafts drop since Covid restrictions began. Craft fairs, festivals, and markets have been scaled back or have ceased altogether, and tourism in general is way down. Many artists have had shows canceled (or even had galleries and stores close down) and they’re struggling with how to proceed, or whether to proceed at all.
WHAT TO DO
The good news is that a creative block is a temporary state, but when you’re in the middle of it, it can feel hopeless; as though your creative well has run dry and you fear you may never recover.
1. Take a Break
Step away from your workspace and take a break from the frustration. It’s OK to dedicate yourself to some planned unproductive time. Being dedicated to your art is a good trait, but be aware that there is a fine line between being dedicated and being stubborn. Trying to unsuccessfully force the creativity to flow is only going to increase feelings of frustration and hopelessness.
- Talk to a human: Try commiserating with others about your challenges and frustrations. You may receive valuable advice or gain a new perspective. At the very least, you may have a good laugh together, feel connected and understood for a moment, and you may relax just a little.
- Clean or Organize: (I’m sorry for this, but it works.) Re-organizing or cleaning your workspace can feel refreshing (and inspiring) especially once it’s done. During the process you may also stumble across an unfinished project abandoned long ago, or plans for an idea you once had. These surprising little finds may actually excite and inspire you to dive in and get creating again.
Sometimes these simple measures aren't enough to move us out of a mental block. Our brains (not unlike muscles) need exercise and can benefit from cross training. Time to try some mental cross-fit!
2. Exercises with Limited Parameters
If you’ve been doing your thing for a while, you’ll likely have a large reservoir of tools and supplies at hand. Having a creative block in a well-stocked studio can feel like you’re starving yourself at a buffet…
Sometimes we just can’t see the forest for the trees.
Try limiting the amount of selection in your art supply buffet through some simple assignments with limited parameters; allowing yourself to use only specific media, tools, or techniques.
Here are three examples of limited parameter assignments:
This is a fun and simple exercise; great for practicing abstraction!
Use only found objects from your home or studio to create something from nothing. The only rule: don’t use new materials (unless necessary: such as mediums or hardware necessary to hold everything together).
Whether you’re a woodworker, metalworker, fibre artist, painter or sculptor you will likely have leftovers from some project or another. Have a look around for reserves of scrap material; even raiding the household recycling for flyers, magazines, scribbled notes, chip bags, egg cartons …literally anything. Try not to fixate on making or rendering something recognizable (if it happens, it happens), instead focus on assembling scraps until it takes a form that pleases you.
Grey Scale Rubbing & Collage
This project begins with relaxing, busy-making tasks where you can get engrossed in what you’re doing, leading you gently into creative decision-making.
Part 1 - Rubbings
- You’ll need a graphite stick, a charcoal stick and cheap, lightweight printer paper
- Go for a tour around your home, yard, and neighborhood looking for different textures (ie: stucco, cracked concrete, wood, brick, a maple leaf, a rusty handrail, tree bark...)
- From each interesting texture you find, make a rubbing over the whole page with the graphite stick, or the charcoal stick, or one rubbing of each (charcoal and graphite)
- When you’re finished you’ll have many pages of rubbings that you should then arrange into a grey-scale from light grey to very black (spraying the rubbings with a fixative at this point is a good idea!)
Part 2 - Collage
- Choose a very simple black and white photo as your source image
- Sketch the image out very loosely onto a durable mat board, canvas board or hardboard
- Using adhesive (school glue, mod podge or acrylic medium) begin to recreate the image by collaging the rubbings onto the board. You'll need to tear or cut the rubbings into small, irregular pieces in order to best fit the light and dark areas in the source image.
Wrong Tool for the Job
Just like the heading suggests, this exercise is about intentionally hobbling your ability to create in the "normal" way, yet still yielding results. This exercise is a reminder that you don’t need fancy tools and (for myself) it helps to break any fixation on detail and perfection. I’m always surprised at how much I like the outcomes of this exercise.
Part 1 – Chose a medium to small substrate (for 3D artists and sculptors, work on a medium to small scale)
Part 2 – Pick a tool that would otherwise be an odd choice
- If you’re a painter: try an overly large paintbrush, a large palette knife, a rag, or even a fork.
- If you’re more into drawing: pick a large graphite stick, chunky piece of charcoal, large coloured pastel sticks, or oil bars.
- Or, try creating using only your non-dominant hand
Commit to your inappropriate tool and do your best. Your brain will have no other choice but to start making concessions in your regular creative decision-making process. The results can surprise you! This is a fun exercise, especially if you can allow yourself to let go a bit.
3. New Methods
Now is as good a time as any to try something new. Try a change in your routine, your workspace, your project, or your focus.
Changes can be scary but they don’t have to be permanent. Once your creativity ball is rolling again, you can go back to your tried and tested methods, but for now it’s time to shake things up a bit.
The following exercises will get your brain’s synapses firing in new ways. I recommend choosing very simple subject matter: a basic still life set-up with strong directional lighting
In terms of drawing and painting, we are all very accustomed to working off of a white surface and adding layers of darker values. For this exercise, try working off a dark surface and adding light values.
- white or light hue pastel on black paper
- white or light hue paint on a black gesso surface
Another challenge is to try working off a mid-tone surface (such as grey, brown or another muted, half-tone colour) With a mid-toned surface you’ll need to add both light values and dark values to create depth and contrast.
Subtractive drawing is a technique in which a light coloured substrate (white paper or a blank white canvas) is covered with a darker media (such as graphite, charcoal, or a dark value oil paint). The dark media is then erased or lifted off to create the desired image.
You could also reverse the contrast and apply a light coloured media to a dark substrate. Subtraction works best with drawing media, oil paints, or Golden Open acrylics. Regular acrylics and watercolours dry too fast and aren’t suitable
Subtraction is a method often utilized by 3D artists and sculptors. Woodworkers, stoneworkers, and ceramic artists would start with a block and begin removing material to reveal their sculpture. Similarly, fibre artists may use a discharge medium to lift dye from textiles.
Use a Limited Palette
For this exercise, challenge yourself to use only 3 colours (plus white). Mixing from the three primary colours (red, yellow and blue) gives you a wide array of potential hues and potential drama, however you can also spice things up substantially just by choosing unusual primary colours.
Pick any reddish colour, any yellowish colour, and any blueish colour and off you go!
For the full explanation, check out our previous blog How to Choose a Colour Palette
4. Complete Something …Anything
All artistic endeavors will have unexpected hiccups along the way, and completing any project requires creative problem solving. If an artist reaches the crux of their project but has lost confidence in their ability to sort it out, the fear of failure can halt all progress.
It’s time for some baby steps! Embark on an easily achieved goal and don’t give up until it’s finished.
- Colour a single page from a colouring book
- Fold some origami
- Do a simple craft (such as a felting kit, macramé, beading, constructing something out of popsicle sticks)
A creative block can leave an artist feeling restless, anxious, distracted and even depressed. This exercise is the art-equivalent of a fidget-spinner (used to help people who have trouble focusing or to relieve nervous energy, anxiety, or psychological stress). Whilst you colour, fold, and glue, your mind will begin to wander to a more happy place (perhaps even to a more motivated place).
There are a few "mindless" activities I would not recommend; such as cross-stitch, embroidery, and paint-by-numbers because despite appearing simple, they are deceptively complicated projects and I have never in my life met someone who has completed a paint-by-numbers.
5. Chronicle Your Descent Into Madness
While researching this article I stumbled upon a wealth of hilarious imagery. I was cry-laughing within minutes of googling “artist’s block”. Artists of all sorts have used the creative block itself as an inspiration for a vast array of frustrated artistic expressions; cartoons, animations, paintings, sculpture, and (my new favorite thing!) hand-drawn infographics.
Hand-drawn infographics are graphs, charts or illustrations that represent data you’ve collected. What kind of data? It really doesn’t matter; in fact, the more inane and pointless the data is, the more fun it becomes.
Here are four frivolous examples of hand-drawn infographics:
This graph is actualy two graphs overlapped: Daisies represent a swear. Along the horizontal axis is the frequency of swearing in a day in the studio, the vertical axis is the swear category, and my stress level (the green area) is extra data collected by my activity monitor bracelet.
A Pie Chart
A Venn Diagram
A Flow Chart
The graphic elements you create can be repurposed into your actual art (such as a pattern made of pie chart!)
6. Don’t Panic
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
Thoughts like these are valid (and terrifying) but only serve to fortify the creative block. Try not to dive too deep into them. Acknowledge the challenges you’re facing and begin diving into potential solutions instead.
Temporary changes to your routine may be necessary to have your art be seen and be sold. Become more active online; Social media platforms are free to use and extremely helpful for self-promotion. Likewise, many galleries and stores are racing to get their operations online, making everything more accessible to their clientele.
Don’t forget that there will always be those who find comfort, joy and peace in purchasing new art pieces, regardless of a recession. Art resonates with and connects us all, and there will always be a need for art, artists, and craftspersons.
Lastly, try to get a handle on your inner dialogue. Don’t let your Inner Voice of Self-Doubt invade and consume your thoughts. (That voice is a lying jerk.) You are capable of wonderful things! You’ve done it before and you will do it again. Every single artist throughout history has had creative blocks, and difficult times, and has had to persevere to achieve any kind of success. You are not alone, and this will pass!