If you’ve regularly been spending time making art and have made it a habit in your daily life, it can be frustrating when suddenly you don’t have the energy to make anything. It’s as if your creative energy lifeforce has been zapped out of you. This energy zap, or creative block, is a spanner in the works to your rhythm and creative flow. Being sick quickly can drain all energy, but sometimes it seems for no reason you feel drained. The block can creep up on you when you least expect it, especially if you’ve had a good run of being creative.
Is it okay to stop during these periods or should you press through making art regardless? There is no right answer because both options are okay. If you stop, be kind to yourself. Your self-judgment no doubt will rear up and tell you off for not being productive and pushing through. Sometimes though, in order to let the energy flow more easily in the future, we have to take a break to refuel and recharge. Given we are human beings and not robots, we cannot stay in doing-mode all of the time. Breaks are a necessary part of the process. And if you choose to continue making, set your bar of expectation for the art as low as possible. If you’re not feeling your best, your art may reflect that, or may be noticeably different than usual. It’s also important to you be kind to yourself here because self-judgement may have a field day with any art it deems not as good as usual. Let it be enough you made something. Making one tiny sketch/drawing/piece of art is your new bar of acceptable.
Whichever path you take when creative energy is low, it’s okay to feel stuck. Low energy and creative blocks don’t last forever so have faith that there will be a point in the future where your energy will start to tip in the other direction. In the meantime, let yourself and your judgment rest.
Negative black-and-white thinking about your art can be harmful to your confidence and future art-making practice. While you may think labelling the art as “rubbish” or “bad” is stating the obvious, it could be blinding you to all the positive aspects of your art. Whatever your brain focuses on expands therefore looking at only “negative” aspects of your art, they will appear bigger, especially with similar repeated thoughts over time.
Kevin Gyoerkoe and Pamela Wiegartz talk about this extreme viewpoint in 10 Simple Solutions to Worry: “All or nothing thinking, or black-and-white thinking means viewing things in extreme categories. For example, you might describe a presentation you gave as “perfect” or “horrible.” Instead of a more balanced, reasoned view, you overlook the shades of gray, the subtleties of life, and force experiences into either-or categories (ie. describing yourself as “irresponsible” if you overlook a task or calling yourself a “failure” if you don’t meet an important personal goal.”
If by giving yourself constructive feedback you feel encourage to continue practicing then that’s great. But if you feel disheartened by your own feedback—especially if it’s black and white thinking—look for the more neutral “grey areas” instead. If you’re unable to find any small areas of the art you like, can you find one positive aspect? One specific line or dot? You can’t notice what you don’t look for. And “perfect” art is overrated. If we could do it perfectly instantly, we’d get bored very quickly. There’d be nothing new to learn and no joy from each step of growth accomplished over time. Look for the grey and let go of the pressure for your art to “be better” than it is right this moment.
Self-critiquing allows reflection on current progress but it is also is a tool for your future self. Looking at thoughts about past art allows you to spot development over time. While visually the art may have improved or changed, it’s the insight into how you felt at the time—your inner world—that can provide valuable feedback. If when making some of the first drawing attempts, you wrote how unconfident you felt, today you may have forgotten how nervous you were back then. Comparing against the past self, you recognised today you don’t feel as nervous and so your inner world has changed. Many small steps of progress that can’t be measured visually can be overlooked or ignored, but they add up in big ways over time. It could be argued that this inner development is more important than the visual improvement of the art: when inner confidence is grown, effects other areas of life in a positive way.
Get into the practice of regularly writing a small critique for some of the art your make. If you’re drawing in a journal, consider writing a note next the the art, or if on paper, write it on the back. Otherwise write on a post-it note and stick that on the work. Or use a seperate journal/notebook but make sure to date art as you make it so it’s easy refer back to specific pieces when writing about them in your notebook. Dean Nimmer in Art From Intuition suggests “Your sketchbook can also be a good place to write down notes to yourself about any topics that relate to your art, or to your creative process. For example, writing down self-critiques about what you think of your own work.”
Self-critiquing: While every ‘mistake’ in an artwork can be glaring obvious, feedback only why something is ‘bad’ isn’t as useful (or kind) as constructive feedback. If a friend asks for feedback on a drawing, you wouldn’t list all things wrong with it. You’d want to encourage them by focusing on the positive aspects of the art. You should offer the same encouragment for yourself. A helpful comment might look like: “It was tricky deciding on the colours. I like the blue corner best because its bright and I enjoying making it. The red area looks messy. I felt better using colours but want to work on drawing smaller details. I enjoyed the sensation of drawing the curves.” Or a shorter version: “Fun to make, love the squiggles, enjoyed making while listing to x music. Want to do more like this.”
However you choose to critique yourself, remember to be kind and compassionate. Making art takes a great deal of courage as an adult so there’s no need for harsh judgements. We are all doing our creative best and that’s good enough.
Most answers to most of your creative problems are so simple, you may not believe them. Making art as an adult can be challenging if you’re out of practice. Why then, if children make their art with so much freedom, do adults find it difficult to create with that same freedom? Dan Roam in Draw to Win suggests that we find drawing difficult because of our own beliefs about our drawing abilities and the answer is “you mostly just need to get out of your own way.”
He identifies a list of things that make drawing hard: Impatience, wondering what to draw, worrying about what’s next, editing as you go, a blank sheet and “art.” Then he suggest things that make drawing easy (which are also all solutions to the above issues): Curiosity, starting with a circle, letting your hand go, drawing now and editing later, making marks on the page and “just do it.”
Do you think the suggestions for what makes drawing easy are too simple to be true?For example, if you feel paralysed by blank paper you should make marks? But the mind is your biggest obstacle and it will try to resist at every turn (via the inner critic). “Make marks?” It scoffs. “What’s the point in that if it’s not “‘proper’ drawing? This is a waste of time!” But making marks warms up your hard and starts the creative process. It puts you in a different frame of mind, one where negative chatter can falls away so you can get on with the fun of being creative.
While the mind speaks louder and more forcefully about what to do, the heart has a gentler, wiser perspective. When making art, the mind may bombard with negative talk about the quality and usefulness of everything. Talk like “I should be doing something more important” or “This is rubbish! Stop immediately!” The mind wants to be instantly good at everything it tries and will go into survival mode to keep you ‘safe’ from the perceived pain/danger of being ‘bad.’ Listen only to this overdramatic voice and you’ll never make art again.
The heart on the other hand, knows you’re safe and no real pain will come from making something messy or ‘bad.’ It’s interested in what feels good and lights you up. It loves when you do more fun things, when you stop listening to the negative mind voice and embrace the play of making art. When you listen the calm heart, you hear how good it feels to make marks for fun. How playful you feel colouring something in and how relaxed and refreshed you feel after doing it.
Paulo Coelho in The Alchemist encourages “Listen to your heart. It knows all things… Because where your heart is, that is where you’ll find your treasure. Keep listening to what it has to say.” When making your art, listen to your wise heart and let the mind take a mini vacation. Its opinion is not needed.
Option A: set a goal to improve art-making skills. Focus only on the technical aspects and visual progress made. Consistently judge the art and push yourself to improve. If progress is deemed acceptable for the time spent, you’ll be encouraged to continue. If progress is not seen quick enough in polished ‘final pieces,’ question if time investment is worth it. Focus only on the external visual qualities of your art because the goal is improvement.
Option B: decide to make art because it seems like a fun thing to do. You want to feel more colourful, engaged or creative and making art can help you access those feelings. Let you curiosity and enthusiasm guide you and focus on the fun aspects of making something out of nothing. Get a mug of your favourite drink, find a quiet place to nestle into and make art just for the fun of it.
Option A is how we’ve been taught to think.
Option B is where the joy and real creativity lies.
Self-judgement can quickly show up when you start making art. The small whispers of “you’re no good,” “don’t waste your time” or “you can’t improve.” Self-judgment, or the inner critic, can paralyse progress if you believe the stories it spins. It wants to minimise ‘danger’ because the mind feels threatened attempting anything new or unfamiliar and so seek safety in the known and predicatable (in this case not making any art). Shaun McNiff in Imagination in Action argues “The inhibition to act in unfamiliar or apparently strange ways combined with the harsh inner critic is the most essential one-two punch of repression, and for the most part it resides completely within the person, manifesting itself with great power even in situations unconditionally supporting creative expression.” But it’s not just beginner art-makers who suffer from the harsh inner critic’s feedback. “Even the most accomplished artists are stricken when approaching creative expression.”
So how do we overcome this? “Suspend judgement” McNiff suggests. “We all need egos to help in the making of decisions, and arguably artists require ego strength to persist in the face of obstacles, but during the process of insisting the formative forces of expression, ego (and its tendencies towards control) restricts the free and unplanned circulation of possibilities.”
Our brains really do have a mind of their own and that’s why you can’t believe every judgmental thought they tell you. Adyashanti on Oprah’s Supersoul podcast talks about a dream world where we live “primarily in our brains.” He asks us to question “What am I, before my thoughts, before my memories, before my ideas about myself, good and bad and indifferent?” After discovering a quiet space, “our minds do not know what do do with that. So they tend to run away, they go back to the mind.”
The mind is programmed to think a certain way and can run away from you so how do we quiet the mind to access our creative potential? Question judgemental thoughts. See them as a concerned but overdramatic and repressive voice that doesn’t know what’s best when it comes to your creativity. It’s not easy to do, but with practice comes confidence and freedom.