It happens to best of us. No matter where you are on this journey to becoming a full-time artist, at some point in your studies you are going to suffer a block. It doesn’t matter if you are just starting out and in school, or if you have been a full blown professional for 20 years. I have talked to many artists over the years and even the most disciplined and systematic creators find themselves stuck sometimes when working out an idea. When you are working in a studio or for art directors, it happens less because the motivator to keep moving is an exterior force that constantly looms over your shoulder. There is nothing more motivating to help work through a block when you know you have to have that scene roughed in and shown to the director by Friday. But when you find yourself working on independent projects where the deadline is more fluid and the boss is you? It is a hundred times more difficult when you suffer a block.
I have always admired artists who are incredibly habitual and disciplined in their workflow. These are the folks who get up at 6am and are at their desks by 8:30am and do their warm-ups and are back on their project by 9:30am. They take lunch around the same time every day and they work diligently until quitting time, take a break to be with family and have dinner and then before bed they do a couple “cool down” sketches. Then they wake up and do it all over again. Ronald Searle was like this. His wife would complain that she never saw him because he was always in his studio working and if you look at the bulk of his work over the years you are overloaded with his vision and dedication to his craft.
I am NOT like this. I am one of those annoying artists who needs to be visited by the Muse. I am fearless in my dedication but I do things in spurts and starts and if I do not have an outside motivation like a deadline, I tend to be distracted by shiny things. But simple procrastination is different than an actual block. Blocks are where you are not distracted and really WANT to be working on that project but you find that for whatever reason you can’t. Sometimes it is because of fear; maybe you are afraid you can’t accomplish something because you are struggling with it. Or maybe it is because emotionally you are distracted with Life’s challenges. Whether you a full time parent or you have a day job that is taking more of your hours than you’d like, there are always going to be excuses as to why blocks happen. But I have found over the years the WHYs are less important than the HOW. As in…
How am I going to snap out of it?
So how do you get out of a block? It’s cliche, but it truly is different for everyone and you have to find the right cocktail of motivation, inspiration and will power that allows you start cranking those gears. However, I can give you the tips that help me and hopefully they will give you ideas for your own blocks.
1) Be Kind to Yourself.
This is something that I am intimately familiar with. When you suffer a block, no matter what kind of artist you are… the first thing you will do is beat yourself up about it. But I can assure you, this is counter productive and it will only make things worse. I cannot tell you how many times I have run up against a challenge and because I get stuck on something, I will become anxious and eventually depressed about the fact I am stuck. All those pesky demons in your head will come out to play, and will start telling how you are not a “true artist” and how “you aren’t as good as so and so” and suddenly every insecurity you have ever had about your craft will be playing out in your head in stereo. DON’T FALL FOR IT. Remember this is for the long game and six months from now you probably won’t even remember this block and how you suffered it. Unless of course, you allow yourself to wallow in self pity and depression and then you may still be suffering the block but now it has expanded into a full blown complex. This is the danger of insecurity and every artist stands on the precipice ready to fall into the abyss. So the first thing I do when I suffer a block is to give into it and not beat myself up about it. My Jewish grandmother was famous for saying “This too shall pass.” and I try to take that to heart. So if you need to walk away from your desk? Play video games instead of work? Suddenly take up the banjo? Do it. And do not dwell on why or what ifs or what this says about you as an artist. Turn those inside voices off and treat yourself as you would treat your best friend who comes to cry on your shoulder. Would you beat your best friend up for not feeling the creative muse? No. You deserve that same sympathy from yourself.
2) Inspire the Child Inside
So while you are walking away from what you “should” be doing, see what you can do to tempt that kid inside into loving it again. The reason most of us become good at our craft is because we are geeks about whatever it is that we do. Deep down, we love it…even when the act of doing it is impossible, frustrating or downright boring. And each of us came to our craft from a different angle. Maybe you were a comic book geek when you were a kid. Or maybe like me, you would see an animated movie 7 times in the theater. Maybe music helps you get into the mood or maybe listening to endless YouTube videos on writing motivation for actors. Whatever it is that initially inspired you to pick up that pencil and try? Do it. For instance… you suddenly don’t want to draw? Watch a video about a favorite artist and listen to why he or she loved to do what they do. It probably seems obvious but one of the important aspects to a block is that you are not feeling the love of what you do in that moment. You are probably feeling the adult pressure of deadlines, or insecurities or life distraction. But have you watched kids when they are really into something? They are FEELING it. An example: My son is obsessed with Star Wars legos. He can get lost in it for hours. Sometimes he is so engrossed in the fantasy of whatever he is creating, he makes sound fx and jumps up and and runs around the room. He is so excited and in the moment. Kids are inspired by dreams of whatever they are creating, and no matter how old you are? It is this child psyche that motivates us when we are in the groove and really feeling our work. So take a break and find ways to inspire yourself.
Yes, getting outside and taking a walk is a good thing and will probably help. As well as hanging out with friends over wine or seeing a movie or clearing your mind in general. But I actually don’t mean PHYSICAL exercise in this tip. I actually mean doing the kind of exercise you do to practice your craft. For actors that might be voice exercises or writers it could be composing haiku with a theme. (I am not a writer so I just sort of made that up.) These are the mindless, craft practicing tools you have in your tool box that you learned in school or practiced as a kid. For me specifically, I doodle. I took a perspective course once and one of the exercises was to draw 100 cubes from all different angles. Now when I am on the phone, I find I still draw cubes and I usually don’t think about it too much. It just something I am doing but even though I am focused on my conversation, unconsciously I am remembering all those lessons about horizon lines and angles and the do’s and don’ts. The key to this, is to practice your craft without having any high stakes attached to it. This is especially helpful if your block happens to be partially motivated by stress. Another thing that might help, is if you change your medium. If drawing on the computer is your norm, try doing that mindless exercise on something else using a different tool. Sometimes all it takes is putting one foot in front of the other, even if it has nothing to do with what you are trying to achieve. Think of it in baby steps, and even if the process is slow and clumsy sometimes just the act of doing allows you to create the momentum you need to get back into it.
The Most Important Tip
Keep trying and don’t give up. This is where I get back to being that disciplined artist that I set as an example in the beginning. You may not be the strict kind who works like clockwork, but you have be disciplined enough to keep trying to find ways out of your block. Eventually, you will find your way out if you keep at it and attack the problem from different angles. It isn’t always on a timeline that is conducive to deadlines and being productive, but remember you want to create a method of working that is going to be sustainable for the long term. A week of doing nothing may seem like a long time to be suffering a block, but remember the Ronald Searle example. After a lifetime of creating, no one is going to notice you didn’t create for an entire week. No matter what deadline you have, this is a marathon. Not a sprint. Just keep attempting to scale the wall, and eventually you will find the path that allows you to keep moving forward.