Advice for creativity -
“What to do, What to do????”

It is a fact that one’s creative juices can ebb and flow. It’s not pleasant when they ebb, particularly when you make your living being creative. I’ve experienced a few slumps in my day, and another while I write this. I know people are surprised to learn such a thing is even possible with someone they consider to be an accomplished painter. But it’s true and is certainly not uncommon among creative professionals. That is itself an important point. It’s not uncommon, so it’s a truth that first needs to be recognized, and then accepted.

Inherent in every creative slump is self-doubt, a feeling that you’re losing your creative ability. Of course, that’s not true, but it certainly feels that way. It just reiterates what I’ve said many times: if we rely on our feelings to be aligned before doing anything, we will accomplish very little.

During a particularly bad episode a few years ago, I remember entering the studio and realizing I couldn’t even remember how to start a painting. I felt I had forgotten everything. I mean it. Every attempt at painting just added to a growing sense of hopelessness and frustration.

One question asked of many artists that I’ve interviewed for my weekly blog is: “When you become discouraged and feel the well is dry, so to speak, what do you do?”

Here are some responses.

Dianne Massey Dunbar: I keep showing up at the easel. Keep on suiting up, showing up, and painting.
C. W. Mundy: The first and most important question you need to ask yourself is, “Why is the well dry?” The second question is, “Would it be more productive to work through this or take a break and get a fresh start?”
Denise Mahlke: The best thing for me is to do something different for a while, even if it’s not art-making; a long walk, gardening, going to a museum, etc. Or I will switch from pastel to oil or draw instead of paint, read and study instead of drawing. Copying the Masters from a book or online image is also helpful. All these things can spark creativity and new ideas.
John McCartin: I have a short break (couple of days). Plein air painting or charcoal drawing on the side of the road revitalizes me. Changing from landscape to still life or even changing mediums is a great help while browsing the work of great artists, past and present, can be very stimulating.
David Gray: Keep painting. Contemplate. Journal. Hang out with artist friends. Go to a museum if I have the opportunity. Perhaps experiment with a different medium. Above all, keep painting. One has to be in motion in order to get anywhere. Eventually I will come out of my dry spell.
Douglas Fryer summed his approach up in one word: Work.

Advice for creativity -
“The outlook is bleak, the vision is unclear, and the imagination blurred in the midst of a slump.”

Every artist needs to find what works best for them. When experiencing such slumps, others have suggested:
• Don’t sit and sulk
• Focus on related activities
• Tidy up the studio
• Get out and exercise
• Create in an unfamiliar place
• Learn something new
• Start small, build small successes
• Don’t compare your work with others
• Look for inspiration through the work of artists you most admire
• Don’t hang around doubters or negative people
• Start sketching. One idea will lead to another
• Set a creative challenge
• Don’t procrastinate. Get to work.

My usual procedure for overcoming these discouraging slumps is to start something new, create many small studies (4″ x 6″ range) of possible future paintings, or get outside and paint on location. Many artists, when going through such times, have expressed that they have always come out on the other side doing better work. Let’s hope that’s the case for all of us.

How do you work through creative slumps? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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  1. I’ve been painting in oils since I was 12 years old. I am now 81 and have been a professional plein air landscape painter for over 40 years. A couple of decades ago I just couldn’t get it together. No inspiration. No enthusiasm. No caring, which was particularly scary. I decided to change media and invested in a good supply of pastels and spent 3 months playing around and relaxing with this new material. Suddenly I felt better and was eager to get back to the oils again! Every once in a while for a change, I will spend a week or more on watercolors or pencil drawing or perhaps doing figure painting or still lifes instead of landscapes. It works.

  2. Over my many years as an artist, I’ve come to realize that the key to life as a painter is to understand and embrace that life. Just last week, we sat outside on a beautiful evening in conversation involving something about work, when it suddenly struck me. ‘When was the last time I held a full time job??’ I had to go back to my summers while in college forty years ago! Have I had slumps: have I ever questioned this life? Of course – many times. For me, the key is acceptance. To understand just what life as an artist is will give you great perspective.
    The only advice I can offer artists is what’s worked for me. We all have “slumps”, and times of waning inspiration. It’s natural to experience them. In my down times, I do something else. I love woodwork, stained glass, or just fixing my house. Don’t chain yourself to your easel. Yes, it really is OK to take a break now and then. Be kind to yourself: in the end your work will be all the better for it.

  3. Learning something new about painting can help. I watch training DVDs like the ones put out by Stearmline/Lilliedahl. On the other hand, I have one of those distracting office jobs, which should theoretically bring some balance and relief, but in reality sucks out all the energy I’d like to devote to painting.

  4. I was diagnosed with cancer last winter and have been afraid to paint ever since. I am half way thru a painting that just sits on my easle and I just can’t bring myself to finish.

    • Hi Darlene,
      I’m so sorry to hear about your diagnosis. Cancer, and many illnesses, can wreak havoc on our creative lives as well. I hope that you find a way to overcome any fear you’re having, especially about painting. In my humble opinion, making art (in any shape or form – music, writing, dance, sculpting, etc) has such healing benefits. Remember what it’s like to forget everything else when you paint. That’s the magic that we, as creatives, get to experience. It helps us time travel, and when we “return,” I think we’re a little more prepared for reality.

      If I may, I’d like to share my advice for you, as I would any friend. Maybe don’t worry about that canvas. Maybe start a fresh new one, or go back to the basics, whatever that means for you (mixing colors or drawing sketches) without the overall goal to come up with a complete and final painting.

      Our friend John might have additional advice and words for you, but I couldn’t help sharing some myself. I believe entirely that art can heal our mind/spirit, at the very least. Wishing you all good things…

  5. I’m totally with Cherie on this one, Darlene. Since the painting on the easel contributes to your anxiety and fear, I suggest you remove it and begin anew. Put aside all hopes of creating something of significance and just have fun. There’s less stress in that. It can be as simple as doing a drawing of a table setting or of something else of interest. You will find, as Cherie said, a mind shift. Focusing on the illness can greatly restrict creativity and increase anxiety. I’m not saying to downplay the seriousness of the illness, I’m just saying force yourself to refocus for a time. There is peace and healing in that. Blessings to you for a complete win over the cancer.


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