Slaying The Artist’s Block Monster

12One of the most frustrating things in the world for any creative person is that tricky artist’s block, lurking where you least expect it waiting to destroy everything that once brought you joy. It is quite literally the worst. I’ve experienced my own bouts of artist’s block on and off over the last year, and hope that some of the things that were effective for me may help other creatives out there. Without further adieu …

  • Get in the habit of daily practice. This first one is pretty standard yet still is, I think, the most difficult. You don’t have to complete something amazing every day. Even if it’s just a silly 5 minute doodle, do something to get in the habit of being creative on a regular basis. By keeping the creative part of your mind engaged daily, you will have an easier time getting in the zone when you have actual large amounts of downtime to work. As cheesy as it may sound, you can even try sketching something that made you happy each day. This is something I’ve done in the past that serves a dual purpose of not only helping me stay creatively engaged but helping me to focus on the gifts I am experiencing when the stuff of life is starting to get me down. Just think, even on your most awful days where you really don’t have much to be thankful for, look around you. Our world is pretty amazing, like a living work of art. We could live in a world where everything is brown and gray but we instead are able to live in a super saturated, colorful environment where everything that surrounds us naturally is so vibrant and intricate – even things many people think are gross or irritating like bugs ;). Ignore the schmaltz factor and just try it, I promise it works.
  • Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t meet your own expectations. Just make time to create where and when you can. If you get too legalistic about daily practice or having to work on your art for x number of hours per week without factoring in unavoidable external circumstances, you are just going to get defeated and end up creating the fated Impossible Task for yourself. Don’t discount the smaller moments and tell yourself you aren’t being productive enough. I am a big fan of sketching ideas on scrap paper over a lunch break at work, and then really diving in over weekends. Something different may work for your life and schedule. Just don’t let the fact that you may not have as much spare time as you’d prefer to devote to your craft stop you from doing it at all.
  • The Rush HourDraw from what you are feeling. Sometimes we have these specific  plans of visuals we want to create, but for whatever reason we just can’t get it out of our own heads. In the moment, something isn’t clicking. Creative practice is different from forcing yourself to to exercise or do the dishes … Sometimes not being enthused or inspired can be a legitimate barrier to getting anything done. If you experience one of these blockades, then what I’ve found works is to just roll with it and draw from what you are feeling in that moment. Are you feeling tense and exhausted? Make something about it, which is exactly what I ended up doing when I began the above drawing, “The Rush Hour”. Creativity is such a personal experience that draws on bringing the inside out, so if you aren’t in the right mindset don’t force yourself to make art about something that you aren’t feeling right now.
  • Don’t be afraid to start multiple things at once. As creators there is always that fear of being the jack of all trades and master of none, or being that artist who starts a million projects but never ends up finishing anything. However, I have found that within reason, having multiple things going at once can actually help you to be more productive. Sometimes you just get sick of looking at a project or you get stuck and are not sure how to move forward, and may need a couple of days to plan your next steps. Also, our brains all work differently, and some people simply cannot focus on one thing for an extended period of time even if they desperately want to. If you have multiple creative things going, you can simply put what you are working on away temporarily and move onto something else when you get stuck or lose focus, rather than putting your art away entirely and just turning on Netflix for the rest of the day.
  • 53786370_10156360021179895_3968639679464472576_nCreate challenges for yourself. I don’t watch a ton of TV, but I am a big fan of cooking challenge shows like Chopped and Masterchef, and am a sucker for the mystery box challenge. You can do the same thing with art instead of food. One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed participating in the ArtSnacks challenges while I have a subscription is because being limited to only a random selection of materials and colors and having to create something from that is a great way to generate new ideas and think of new ways to use familiar media. You can write different materials on scraps of paper, randomly draw 3, and make something amazing using only those 3 elements. This is something myself and other instructors have been trying to do with our Artshop Program students when we notice them getting stuck in repetitive ruts. Another idea is putting one of your favorite playlists on shuffle, and whatever song plays first, the words in that song title are your inspiration for what you are making. These are especially beneficial exercises for project control freaks like me (and probably some of you out there)!
  • 00000PORTRAIT_00000_BURST20190311175233624Get together with other creative people and do silly, low stress artsy activities. For my day job I run an art therapy based program, so I every day I get to see the power art has to inspire joy in both the creator and those around them, and how art has the power to make people feel heard and understood, and lift some of the individual weights we all have holding us down in our life even if only for a moment. Let’s be real though, art is also difficult and like any other skill takes practice and discipline. Make sure you have a balance in your life of serious artistic practice but also creative activities that are just for fun, where the process is more important than the outcome. I’ve recently been getting together with a small group of friends for monthly creative nights, and even if all we do is some silly home decor Pinterest fail project, just the practice of no-pressure creating is so rejuvenating. I’m also working individually on a screaming ceramic baby head paperweight, so there’s that. Ah, therapy…
  • Enter shows and events! Keep an eye out for opportunities to show your work. Sign up for things even when you feel you aren’t ready. To be honest, many of us are never going to feel ready so there’s just no point waiting around. To quote one of my favorite musicians, Amanda Palmer, from her very cool book for creators The Art of Asking, “When you’re an artist, nobody ever tells you or hits you on the head with the magic wand of legitimacy. You have to hit your own head with your own handmade wand.” Having clear deadlines will also help you get projects done, whether you are a do-everything-the-night-before creator or someone who plans for months. Also, don’t skip the openings even if it’s painfully awkward and not something you particularly enjoy. Don’t skip out on opportunities to network and talk to other people about what you do. When people hear the word “networking” they automatically associate it with generating business and making money but for me it’s not necessarily about that, but more about building confidence in what you do and being able to explain why you do it. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to inspire someone else!
  • Have a visible list of goals. I am a firm believer in the sticky note. I’m old school in the respect that I have to have my goals and reminders and deadlines physically written out with ink pen or I don’t pay attention to them, but digital means are great too, whatever works for you. The important thing is that you have a visual reminder of where you are going and when you want to get there.
  • 54257592_2437512312986061_671208117400240128_oLet other artists challenge and motivate you, but don’t compare yourself. Talking to other more experienced artists and learning from them is fantastic (Though I’d also argue you can learn from those that may be less experienced as well; I learn from my students all the time!), but it becomes toxic when you start comparing yourself to them. Everyone has their own style, and their own timeline. Don’t feel like you have to completely model yourself after someone else to be successful.

I hope this is helpful to other creative people out there, and if you have other things that work for you please feel free to share! Now get out there and make things happen :).

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Henri Matisse – Creative Minds Art History Project

Another week, another artist! I shared my Van Gogh project last week. In week 2 we covered Henri Matisse. His personal story really resonated with the students, being a group of adults with varying disabilities.

Matisse spent the majority of his artistic career as a painter, being one of the leaders of the Fauvism movement in the early 1900s. Fauvism is characterized by a painterly, non-realistic representation of people and objects and a strong use of bold “crayola crayon” colors. Unblended strokes of pure color divide objects from their background rather than shading. He wanted his art to be calming and cheerful, an escape from the world’s troubles. In 1941, everything changed when Matisse was diagnosed with cancer and had to have surgery. His life was saved, but from that point forward he required the use of a wheelchair for mobility, and struggled with dexterity. Matisse famously said, “Creativity takes courage“, and at the age of 72 no matter how he had changed physically, he refused to give up on creating. He shifted gears to a cut paper collage format for his work as painting was harder to manage with his dexterity changes, creating yet another influential body of work. He ended up liking this new, modern style even better than what he had been working on before, and you can still see similar shapes, styles, and color schemes taken from his paintings and applied to his collage works, such as the organic leaf shapes. His final project was stained glass windows for the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence as seen pictured above, designed in his iconic collage style.

Though the term disability pride wasn’t part of our vocabulary at the time Matisse was alive, I think his legacy perfectly embodies this concept. He did not look at disability as a barrier, but an opportunity to innovate.

matisse bowls 2

For our project, we created beautiful decoupage bowls inspired by Matisse’s paper cut works. I chose to focus specifically on shapes present in his chapel design, though if you do an image search of his collage work you could find many other ideas. I cut patterns out of some scrap matte board for the students to trace. We used colored printer paper for the cutouts – It is thin enough to be able to bend along the round shape of the bowl without popping back up or creating massive wrinkles, but thick enough that the color of the bowl won’t show through. We used matte Mod Podge to apply and seal the shapes onto the bowl, and the bowls themselves were picked up at the dollar store, making this a ridiculously inexpensive project with beautiful results.

This would be a fun project to do with all ages from kids to seniors, and makes for a great gift idea if planned closer to the holidays or Mother’s Day. Since Mod Podge is not food safe, obviously you do not want to try to eat cereal out of these or something ;), but they are a perfect catch all for jewelry, keys, pens pencils and paperclips, or change. Also a cute decoration when filled with decorative orbs, glass marbles, or stones. I love color, and may just have to make one of these for myself at home!

The C Word – Every Artist’s Worst Nightmare

Though I’m sure many sweary virtuosos out there could come up with a laundry list of words unspeakable in polite society that begin with C (I’m pretty sure I know some of these people, quite well actually), the word I’m talking about in this case is criticism. Artists put so much emotional energy, so much of themselves into every piece, it is hard not to take “I don’t really like this” as “I don’t really like YOU, I don’t like your THOUGHTS, I don’t like your FEELINGS, YOU as a person are UNACCEPTABLE”. We have to develop a pretty thick skin.

My junior year of college, I had the opportunity to meet with a guest artist and have them review my work. I’d gotten kind of lucky up to this point, and most feedback I received went along the lines of “Whoa, this is so cool!” so I wasn’t too worried. I got there early for my scheduled appointment, and waited, and waited … and waited. I had carried my laptop bag and ultra-gigantic portfolio case packed full of stuff all the way from my apartment, through the woods, to the art building (I sound like Little Red Riding Hood). At that time I didn’t work out regularly, so I was feeling the strain on my non-existent biceps. I had also been wearing a winter coat, and seeing as I tend to sweat like a 45 year old obese man, by the time I had been standing in the heated building for more than 5 minutes I was embarrassingly drenched. I had to keep holding my stuff because I was just awkwardly standing outside a door in an incredibly narrow hallway where people were traversing, and there was no unobtrusive spot to set everything down. I thought my arms might break off. After waiting for an hour, it was my turn to meet with the visiting artist. I got 15 minutes before he dismissed me. In that 15 minutes, I was told that my art looked like it was done by mental patients or someone with no prior artistic knowledge whatsoever, but that it was “interesting and unique” (Seeing as I know many wonderful people who have needed mental health assistance at one point or another, I didn’t take the first half of his comment as an insult at all, though probably not the best choice of words.). I was also asked pointedly if I was trying to be an artist or an illustrator, the word illustrator spoken as if it was synonymous with “cocaine dealer”. I’m still not sure I understand this disdain. He also kept comparing me to the earlier student he had gone over by an hour with, to the tone of “He’s making art about important social issues and here you are drawing robots and silly cartoon animals”. The thing is, this kid and I were totally different people with totally different life experiences. To try to speak about what he was discussing with my art would be ignorant and a little offensive – I had never been close to any of those issues, why should I be spouting off about them as if I know? Even for my more whimsical pieces, I always have a message in mind that spurs me on to create the images that I do. There are different ways to speak, both in ways that are graphic, blunt, and in one’s face and also ways that are more symbolic and open to multiple interpretations. We need all types of art.

The next week, my drawing professor asked how it went. When I told him an abridged version, he simply scoffed and said, “Oh, well he has no idea what he’s talking about”. But, we should never entirely dismiss a critic despite their bedside manner. We simply have to sift out what is constructive from what is just a difference of taste or opinion (also knowing that some people just have that wonderful grouchy, never satisfied personality type). At the meeting I was also told that the figures’ proportions were off in some of the ink drawings of people that I brought. It was a movement-heavy piece including quite a few people on a busy street, but instead of getting references for each different position, I collected a few references to use for the main figures and for the rest simply filled in the blanks with guesswork. Now, even if I have to pose and take them myself I get references for every detail that is going to be included in a piece. It is time consuming, but worth every moment for the stress-free creation process from then on out as well as the end result. I was also told in some of my portrait drawings that the central figure looked disjointed from the background, as if cut and pasted on top of a flat stage-set. This is because I would always detail first not what part of the drawing made sense to begin with, but what part I found the most interesting (for me, always the person). Whenever you completely detail the foreground before the background whether in drawing or painting, it is much harder to try and color around that fully detailed, finished object and therefore you end up with the cut and paste on top of the background look. Background to foreground : this is something I tell my own students to this day.

In the years since then, I’ve done solo shows where the venue wants everything BUT the one or two pieces that I had considered amongst my favorites and had been really excited about exhibiting. I’ve had pieces of mine rejected from display due to a complete misinterpretation of the message, which then ended up upsetting someone. I’ve sold hand-sewn dolls at art fairs and had a begging child’s mother say right in front of me, “No, I’m not getting you one of those dolls they’re too ugly!” Art elicits strong reactions, that’s what makes it so powerful a force for communication and inspiring thought and change. We don’t know another person’s story, what causes certain images to trigger a negative reaction inside of them. Artists can’t take these things personally. Just because someone doesn’t like a piece that we’ve done doesn’t mean it should go in the garbage, but at the same time we need to recognize when negative feedback could be absorbed into our process to teach us how to do better next time.

Yes, on the surface, this is just a personified octopus slumped over a desk. Titled "The Devastating Awareness of Absurdity", the title is a concept drawn from existentialism. This image embodies the absurdity that we as humans face when we are forced into meaningless roles in which we will never fit, and don't belong living within. It also may just amuse someone, and if it encourages a smile, then that's good too.

Yes, on the surface, this is just a personified octopus slumped over a desk. Titled “The Devastating Awareness of Absurdity”, the title is a concept drawn from existentialism. This image embodies the absurdity that we as humans face when we are forced into meaningless roles in which we will never fit, and don’t belong living within. It also may just amuse someone, and if it encourages a smile, then that’s good too.

Another one of my drawings I brought to the critique. This is why you don't get discouraged just because one person doesn't care for a piece you've done - It was so well received elsewhere that I ended up using it as the main image on my website's homepage, as well as my logo for all business cards and print material before the newest one.

Another one of my drawings I brought to the critique. This is why you don’t get discouraged just because one person doesn’t care for a piece you’ve done – It was so well received elsewhere that I ended up using it as the main image on my website’s homepage, as well as my logo for all business cards and print material before the newest one.