The empty canvas mocks you.
It taunts you and points out your ineptitude and lack of imagination. The longer you wait to start your painting, the worse this feeling gets.
But how can you start if you don’t know how to start? If that’s what you’re thinking, you’re probably making it harder on yourself than it has to be.
You’re seeing the looming enormity of artist’s block instead of looking at it as a number of small issues you can knock down one at a time.
Maybe you’re looking at the canvas trying to imagine an end result. This is ass-backwards. Finished work doesn’t just appear on the canvas. If it did, that would be terribly unsatisfying and there would be no point in making art.
Your muse might be dragging her feet, but she’s waiting for you to start moving your hand.
You begin with one stroke.
Here are 20 ideas to help you get started.
1. Tone your canvas or at least mess it up a little first
A bright, shiny new canvas is the work of Satan and his minions. You can take away its soul-crushing power right away by putting down a layer of color. Then it won’t be stark white anymore and you can look at it without feeling like you’re staring into a void. A mid-value or light layer you can still see light charcoal lines on is perfect.
It doesn’t matter if the color you put down first will be the main color of your background. It might be better if it isn’t, so that you can leave a little of it showing through. Broken color helps add areas of interest that delight a viewer’s eyes.
2. Try making shapes and texture by writing words on the surface
Letters themselves are little drawings. We don’t think of them that way because we’re so used to translating them into sounds and words. But our alphabet is made up of 26 totally abstract drawings.
Even if you want to paint something representational, having some lines and shapes down can start to suggest imagery you can pull out and make something with. If you normally paint representationally, make an abstract painting.
3. See how many different marks you can make
Play with your brushes. Roll and twist them. Make as many different kinds of strokes as you can. But you don’t have to stick with paint brushes, either. My two favorite things to paint with are old toothbrushes and crumpled up wads of paper.
But you can use anything. Your fingers. Your hair. Rags. Q-Tips. Make marks with anything and everything you can think of.
4. Pick 3 colors you’d never use together and see how many ways you can mix them
Ever wonder if you can make a painting with Yellow Ochre, Quinacridone violet and Titanium white? Separate your tubes into dark, medium and light hues and pick three with your eyes closed.
Even if you pick three that you think will look wretched together, try it anyway. Giving yourself a limitation like that will present your mind with a puzzle.
Humans like to solve puzzles. We’re too curious not to.
5. Draw scenes from your dreams
Even if you don’t remember your dreams very often, there’s usually enough raw material in one to make a few sketches every now and then. And weird stuff happens in dreams. Turning those scenes into drawings can conjure some powerful imagery you can use in your work.
6. Illustrate something that happened on the news
There’s another huge bank of inspiration for drawings in the news. For one thing, people are always doing crazy things. If you’re not going for crazy, it could come from a story that warmed your heart or made you laugh. Or one that scared you.
7. Do blind contour drawings
This is one of the easiest ways just to begin shoving that pencil over the paper. Get some marks down. It doesn’t matter what the drawing looks like when you’re done. And they’re usually hilarious.
Actually, the more you practice this, the more accurate your blind contours will be. It improves the communication between your eyes, brain and hands.
8. Go through photo albums or social media profiles and practice portraits
If you’ve gotten stuck drawing people the same way every time, this is the perfect way to remind your eyeball-brain-hand connections that there are different ways to draw people. And it’s a good way to practice drawing clothing. Especially fabric folds and patterns.
9. Doodle with your non-dominant hand
This will be uncomfortable at first. There’s a useful purpose for that. Sometimes you’ll do your best work when you go outside your comfort zone.
It’s good to get used to working with both hands. If you’re right-handed and start practicing with your left hand, something strange happens. The editorial part of your brain shuts off. Suddenly that inner voice that criticizes your work while you’re painting falls silent as if someone put a strip of duct tape over its mouth.
You feel lighter. Your fine motor coordination takes a while to catch up, but it’s oddly satisfying. Practice this enough and you’ll be able to draw and paint with both hands.
At the same time.
10. Pick a few inanimate objects and translate them into cartoon characters
Ever seen Beauty and the Beast with the singing teapots and brooms? Pick some objects and draw how they would look with human features. This could stretch your portrait skills even further.
11. Reduce a famous painting into geometric shapes
This is a great way to see how the masters arrange their composition without getting lost in details and brushwork. All you need to do is print out a copy of a famous painting. Big enough to fill the page. Get a sheet of tracing paper and trace the painting’s simplest shapes.
If you don’t have any tracing paper you can hold the papers together against a window and see the shapes with the sunlight coming through.
12. Do studies of subject matter you have problems with
Have trouble drawing ears? Fill a page or two with ears. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but that’s a good thing. Perfect is dreadfully boring. But you’ll get faster and better at drawing whatever it is you’re having a problem with.
13. Go draw in a different location
Your brain stores long term memories episodically, anchored in location. Ever been working at your desk and thought, “Oh, I need that thing from the other room.” And you go to the other room to get the thing and immediately forget why you’re there?
What do you do? You go back to your desk and remember the thing and have to get up again.
In the context of creating, this means if you normally draw in one location, it feels natural. Maybe too natural. If you’re in your normal location and stuck while trying to draw or paint, you need to change your context. Try taking your sketchbook outside or just to another room to return a little novelty to that experience.
14. Switch media, genre, or both
Do you normally paint realistically? Try a few minimalist color or texture fields. Make a collage or two. Or a few sculptures. Those can give you subjects for drawing and painting. Have you ever tried to draw an abstract painting with a pencil? I did this once, I got really good at shading by the time I was done.
Hell, try writing.
15. Do some art history research
There must be a few artists whose work you love, but you don’t know much about. Spend some time in someone else’s world. Where did they grow up? What was going on in their world at the time? Who inspired them? Who did they love? What made them get up in the morning and work?
What about an art movement you don’t know much about? There are all kinds of ways we can be inspired by events of the past.
16. Start an art group and give each other assignments
It doesn’t have to be a big group, and you don’t have to meet up in person. I’m currently doing a small quarantine project with my sister and a mutual friend. Every day we take turns deciding on an assignment and have a group MMS chat where we share the photos of what we make.
Taking turns coming up with the assignment for the day makes things easier. I only have to come up with an idea every third day and the other two days the idea comes from someone else.
It’s been great.
17. Create an image bank
Every creative person should have one of these because we should look at art frequently. The Web and social media have made this easier than ever. There is a ton of art being shared on Twitter, Instagram, Vero, Facebook and DeviantArt.
Spend some time looking at what other people have done. It’s hard not to get ideas when they come from other people. If you find images you love, download them and put them in a folder so you can look through them whenever you want.
18. Use song lyrics or poems to spark ideas
Sometimes if your mind is devoid of images, words can pick up the slack. Great writers can invoke potent imagery with words. Like this:
With a perfectly breath-taking suddenness several mast sheaves of varicolored rockets were vomited skyward out of the black throats of the Castle towers, accompanied by a thundering crash of sound, and instantly every detail of the prodigious ruin stood revealed against the mountainside and glowing with an almost intolerable splendor of fire and color.
Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad
19. Get a little buzz going first
I learned this trick in a MOOC I took on Coursera. The class is called Learning How to Learn and is taught by Dr. Barbara Oakley, a professor of engineering at Oakland University and McMaster University. She proposes a model of two modes of brain function involved in learning — focused and diffuse (relaxed).
In one of the lectures, she gave some tips of how we can put ourselves in a diffuse mode learning state. One of her suggestions was to have a glass or two of wine.
Why would being slightly tipsy help you learn something?
Because it helps your brain go into a more relaxed state in which you can find familiar patterns in different ideas that helps reinforce what you’re trying to learn.
You know what?
Creativity works a lot like that, too.
20. Stop making art for a while
A lot of artists will tell you that you should make art every single day. Some are so militant about it that they’ll claim you’re not really an artist unless you do.
I call bullshit on that.
I think this is damaging not only to your creative process but also to your self-confidence as a creator. Trying to tap your creative resources every day, day after day without fail, is going to burn you out.
It’s like going to the gym every single day to do weight training. Ask any personal trainer or knowledgeable fitness buff if that’s a good idea. They’ll tell you it’s counterproductive and can injure you.
Instead, consider this.
Artist’s block could be your brain’s way of telling you, “Enough, already. Let me do something else.”
Most creative people go through a fallow period sometimes. This is nothing to worry about. It’s healthy to let your mind rest and replenish its creative resources. Use this time to take in artistic nourishment. Go to museums and galleries. Take a road trip. Get outside and do something physical. Read books. When you’re ready to start making art again, you’ll know.
Above all, know that this doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you. If your friends and family pester you because you’re not making art, tell them you’re not a machine.
A perspective you really shouldn’t miss
In #19 I talked about Barbara Oakley and I bring it up again because learning about how your brain works goes a long way towards helping you understand the creative process.
Here’s a video I highly recommend. A lot of the concepts in learning Dr. Oakley describes are just as applicable to creativity.
Let me know if you’ve tried any of these and how well they worked for you. They are really just the tip of the iceberg. You probably have some great tips for getting through artist’s block, too. If you do, share them in the comments.