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Carousel 027: Artist’s Block

We’ve all heard of “writer’s block,” that dreaded condition which prevents writers from writing, but artists have a somewhat different obstacle to overcome: “artist’s block.” Let’s look at what artist’s block is and how to overcome it.

Many complain that what we call “artist’s block” is simply laziness. “There are artists and there are loafers,” they claim. “If you work, you’re an artist; if you don’t, you’re a loafer.” But this misunderstands the nature of the problem. The problem is not simply that you aren’t drawing enough. If that were the trouble, you could solve it by forcing yourself to draw more by an act of will, much like forcing yourself to get out of bed, or do the dishes. Yet most who have suffered from artist’s block have already tried this solution, only to find that no matter how many drawings they force themselves to make, their trouble remains. Their true problem is not a lack of productivity, but a lack of satisfaction: their drawings fail to meet their own standards. You may churn out a hundred drawings a day, but if the process is unenjoyable and you hate the results, you have artist’s block.

To be sure, every drawing will always fall short of perfection. What distinguishes blocked artists from others is that the flaws they see in their work are fatal flaws. They don’t see trivial imperfections in otherwise effective work; they see utter failure.

For some, the root cause of this is self-hatred: They dislike themselves, and they therefore dislike their creative output, which reminds them of themselves. The solution for those artists lies outside of art; they won’t love their art until they develop a healthier self-image.

But for others, the problem is artistic. They’re happy with who they are, and they know they have skill, but the beauty that should result from that skill isn’t showing up on the page. It’s as if the printer is in good repair and is making all the right noises, but the prints that emerge look terrible. I think the culprit in these cases is that the artist has let technique take the place of self-expression. An artist may begin drawing as a child with enthusiasm, but may later find—as he or she gains sharper skills—that the joy has leaked out of the process, resulting in art which seems dead and unsatisfying. What these artists need is to return to that childlike enthusiasm. Here are three key steps toward that goal.

1. Discover your own point of view.

There will always be artists who have greater or lesser skill than you. What distinguishes your work is not where you fall on the skill spectrum, but the unique perspective you bring to your material. Nobody selects music to enjoy by saying, ”I need songs that are between The Beatles and The ‘Stones on the skill spectrum.” We instead select songs whose specific moods can’t be found elsewhere—even when those songs aren’t the most skillful ever written. The same is true with drawn art. Skill is only important to the extent that it communicates your vision, your own unique reactions to life. Take time to get acquainted with those reactions. What do you like or dislike? This is what powers your work.

2. Draw from observation.

We each have a limited supply of images in our minds from which we source our drawings. If you find yourself listlessly drawing the same things over and over from your head, it may be time to refuel. Art is about your unique reactions, but you can’t react to what you haven’t seen. When you came to art as a child, it was about discovery, not mastery. Draw photos of things you haven’t drawn before. This will drag you outside your comfort zone, but it will also replenish your artistic vocabulary, enabling you to express new things in response. This will enrich your readers and rekindle your creative joy.

3. Draw to express, not to impress.

Trying to impress others is competitive and stressful, and is all about achieving goals. That mindset may be useful in sports or business, but I find it runs counter to the attitude from which art springs naturally. Art flows most readily when you are discovering beauty in the world and reacting to it. Look at children drawing: They are unaware of themselves, totally focused on the act of creation. They don’t have time for self-critique; they are too busy chronicling the majesty and wonder of all the things outside themselves that most command their attention. Think back to the last time you struggled with a drawing. Was your attention on the subject and what you enjoy about it, or on your drawing and what others would think of it?

If you want to hit a target, look at the target, not at your hand. If you want to walk in a straight line, look at your destination, not at your feet. And if you want to draw fruitfully, think more about your subject than how good your drawing is. Contemplating your subject will increase your enthusiasm and lessen the pressure and vanity of performance, which is death to art.

Not only will your enthusiasm grow, but your art will become more effective. I mentioned children, absorbed in their drawings. As lacking as they are in skill, young children’s art is often more expressive than that of older, more skillful children, who have learned to judge their own work and rein it in. The younger children serve no critics; they are pure self-expression. Pair that attitude with your grown-up skills and you’ll have a winning combination: a humble enthusiasm that circumvents artist’s block, and the effective, expressive art that results.

See you here next month!

Carousel by Jesse Hamm appears the second Tuesday of each month here on Toucan!