Getting unstuck in the studio

November 19, 2010

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“Artists don’t get down to work until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working.”
– Stephen DeStaebler

How true. I know that I’ve gotten to this point when I walk by my studio and stare longingly at my canvases and paint, but am afraid to walk in. When I promise myself that “tomorrow I’ll paint” but find the day passing without picking up a brush. I feel a restlessness inside of me – pent up energy that has nowhere to go. Sometimes the feelings arise as anxiety or frustration. When I was young my parents tell me that they used to send me up to my room to draw for a few hours whenever they noticed that I was in a bad mood, or had too much energy and no direction. They report that I would come back down a few hours later with a smile on my face, and like a whole new person.

With all of that in mind, I have to admit that I’ve been having a very hard time getting back into the studio over the past few months. The longer I put it off, the greater the fear seems to grow. So here I’m compiling a list of ways to get back into creating. They are all methods that I have used in the past. With any luck, I will follow my own advice and get back into my painting rhythm. I hope some of these ideas will inspire you as well, especially if you find yourself creatively stuck from time to time.

  • Un-clutter your creating space, whether it’s a studio, a kitchen table, or a spot on the floor. This doesn’t mean making it spotless! In fact, most inspirational creating spaces have a certain degree of clutter. However, if you have to literally leap across a pile of stuff to land at your easel (true story) then you might benefit from some space clearing rituals. Plus, the action that you take to clean the space up a bit is a very productive activity in itself, which might give you further motivation to just keep on doing (creating) when you are finished!
  • Make the environment more inviting through music. Are there any artists or songs that consistently lift your spirits when you are down? Or maybe there’s some really angry music that gets your energy moving. (A lot has been written about listening to soothing music while creating, but I often find the opposite type of music gets me motivated, so it’s whatever works for you!) Music itself can be a source of inspiration for a painting, poem, or drawing.
  • Try a new material out. Sometimes we expect too much of ourselves with familiar materials. Using a new material (or one we haven’t used in a while) can free us up to be more spontaneous in our exploration. If you’re an acrylic painter, try oil sticks. If you’re a watercolor painter, try using gel mediums and playing with texture. Using collage elements and found objects can also be helpful when we are stuck, as it provides us with an automatic source of inspiration (and may be far less intimidating than staring at a blank canvas).
  • Create with a friend – collaborate. Creating can be a lonely endeavor. Sometimes this is what we seek, but at other times it may be helpful to have the added creativity and motivation from a friend. Creating with a friend is like having a three-way dialogue, between you, your friend, and the object that you are creating. It also can just be more fun that way!
  • Get out and see some art. Or if you can’t get out at the moment, look through some art books or browse the internet to look at art you are drawn to. Sometimes while looking at the art of others, we are re-inspired and remember what draws us to art in the first place. While you’re thinking about getting out, why not consider joining an artist’s networking group?
  • Brush up on your drawing and painting foundation skills. I’m not saying that you have to be classically trained in order to create (not at all!) However, sometimes getting back to the basics (paying attention to line quality, composition, color theory etc.) can be a source of inspiration in itself. Focusing on the basics again can help us get back to seeing with “beginner’s eyes.” Consider taking an affordable art class at a community center or local college. Or, think about buying one of many great drawing foundation books, such as “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards.
  • Find a space and time to show your work in the near future, and then work on a body of work for that show. This does not have to be a Chelsea gallery or the Guggenheim! Think outside of the box, and exhibiting in places like restaurants, coffee shops, or friend’s apartments if they have a good space. Often times places like restaurants and coffee shops are happy to have an artist’s work on their walls – it’s free decoration for them, and free exposure for you!
  • Create a small daily goal for yourself to create – anything. This could be as small as creating a miniature drawing a day on a little piece of paper or cutting out one image for collage each day and collecting them in a folder for future use. The goal could be bigger as well, such as paint for 1 hour each day. Sometimes scheduling the creating time into your day is extremely helpful. Look at it as something that you owe yourself – and that is just as important to your well being as the other things on your “to do” list.
  • Stuck without ideas? Here are a few random ideas to get you creating on a little theme: Paint a picture with only white and one other color. Mix the white in different amounts to the primary color and see how many different hues you can make. Create a list of different feelings such as angry, sad, joy, etc…Then pick one feeling from the list and create an abstract representation of it. Create a self-portrait of your “ideal self” as well as your “monster self.” Create a sculpture out of found objects, and then create a drawing or painting of that object – as realistic or abstract as you’d like. Re-imagine and create a piece based on a famous painting such as Picasso’s “Starry Night.” Take an image from a magazine, paste it onto paper or canvas, and extend the image outwards using paint or drawing. Cut up old paintings or drawings and create a mosaic piece (this is great when you have a lot of old pieces you are not fond of but do not want to get rid of – recycle them!) Make an altered book: go shopping at a used book store (the Strand in NYC is great!) and alter the book pages to make it your own, using collage, paint, textures, and cutting to transform it into something new.
  • And finally, here’s a saying that I have found very useful in creating art and for life in general. “Action precedes motivation.” Sometimes we need to make ourselves do something before the actual motivation is there. When all else fails just do it! As you engage in the creative process, inspiration and motivation to continue is sure to emerge.

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