This weekend found Myla scribbling on her paper in agonizing frustration. “I can’t draw foxes anymore!” she cried. She told me that she had been thinking of a new way to draw a fox face, and it just wasn’t coming out right, no matter what she did. She even tried going back to her old way of drawing foxes, and even THAT didn’t work. It brought her to absolute tears, and all I could do was hold her as she sobbed uncontrollably, pen clenched in her hand. It was the first time in her life she WANTED to create something that just didn’t work out. It was a new frustration that she had never experienced before.
Luckily, I’ve had this problem myself. Most artists have. I’ve written blog posts in the past about art block, but this is the first time it had ever happened to her.
“You’ve got a wonderful, creative mind,” I told her as she cried in my arms. “But the down side is that sometimes you’ll have a block. It’s usually when you’re trying something new. And you try and you try and it just doesn’t look right. So you try your old way, but your mind is already trying to figure out the new way, so you can’t go back. But as hard as it is, it’s actually a GOOD thing, because it means you’re getting ready for something new. And I promise you EVERY artist I know has had a block before.”
After talking to my friend Lori Nelson, who is a Brooklyn painter (who reassured Myla that it does, in fact, happen to every artist), I started thinking of what I do that works for me when I have an art block. But this time, I sort of gathered up a list to fit a kid’s speed. Maybe it’ll help someone you know. Maybe it’ll even give you some ideas for when art blocks hit you…
1. TAKE A STEP AWAY. Get out of the house for a bit. Go outside, take a walk around the block. Go to the zoo. Pet an animal. Get lost in the woods. Take a hike. Spend some time in nature to clear your head. Sometimes reconnecting with the world around you can settle a restless mind.
2. TRY A DIFFERENT MEDIUM. Whatever you usually do, switch it up a bit. Get some chalk out and chalk a sidewalk. Bake some cookies. Play an instrument. Sew something. This is a good time to try learning something new, like embroidery or sculpting. Mixing up your medium might give you a fresh perspective.
3. DO SOMETHING PHYSICAL. I cannot tell you how good physical activity is for a stressed-out mind. Go for a jog, take a long fast walk. Skate. Sweat. Take an aerobics class. Focus on something other than your art for awhile.
4. LOOK AT YOUR OLDER WORK. I keep a scrapbook full of my past work, and I take it out sometimes and look at what I’ve done in the past. It’s a good reminder when you’re beating yourself up and doubting your skills, that you’re NOT horrible. Remind yourself that you’re awesome.
5. DO SOMETHING FOR SOMEONE ELSE. Give someone a gift. Make them something. Draw them something. Help someone with their yard, or offer to watch their kid or pet for an evening. Focusing your energy outward is one way to avoid that internal downward spiral.
6. CREATE SOMETHING WITH SOMEONE ELSE. Lori told me the way she gets out of a rut is to ask someone to “assign” her something. Working with another person or with someone else’s ideas helps your mind go places you wouldn’t normally go on your own. Nothing’s helped me more with that than the collaborations I’ve done with our daughter.
7. MAKE A MESS. Gasp! “WHAT?!? But messes are so…MESSY!” Messes are an awesome way to just let go of control for a bit. Just get the fingerpaints out, and go outside. Baking soda, vinegar, and food coloring are also good mess combos. Splash in the water. Splash in the mud. Do you realize how often we DON’T do that, now that we’re adults? Kids know that messes cleanse the soul. If messes freak you out, you should REALLY consider doing it. Get towels, get yukky clothes, and just prepare yourself to make a mess. Like my mom always said, “You’re washable.”
If ACTUAL messes are too much to bear, maybe try a little project Myla and I do, where we take turns messing up eachothers’ drawings. You each start out by drawing something simple, like a mouse. When it’s your turn, you draw something silly on the other person’s drawing. When it’s their turn, they draw something silly on yours. It’s a lot of fun, and good practice in letting go of control and expectations in your artwork.
8. DRAW ON YOURSELF. Grab those non-toxic, washable kid markers, and just doodle away. Or use a pen. Once in awhile isn’t going to kill you. Draw on eachother. Sometimes, the idea of drawing on something “forbidden” sparks something in your creative mind and makes it happy.
9. KEEP TRYING AND DON’T GIVE UP. Every now and then, test it out and see if it’s passed yet. If it hasn’t, keep going. Keep trying over and over, keep pounding your head against that sketchbook. If you have to make 100 bad drawings before the good one comes out, then you’d better get started now. When I told Myla this, she asked me, “But isn’t that a waste?” But nothing is a waste if you’re learning from it.
10. KEEP A SENSE OF HUMOR. You have to trust that if you can push through this art block, it’ll come back to you. It’s scary at first. You start to question your skills and abilities. But if it’s something that drives you, you can push through it. Keep your chin up, and don’t take it too seriously. Your art skill’ll come back when it’s good and ready, and it’ll probably bring you stories of the road, and some new souvenirs. And that’s a good thing.
So here’s to hoping the foxes come back.
Have you or your kids ever had a big block? What do you do when art blocks hit?