So, your creative juices have stopped flowing. Try as you might, you just can't seem to come up with a concept that inspires you.
How do you get rid of art block, and how did it get here in the first place? Let's take a look at ten creative pitfalls that can start up art block, and how we might be able to kick them to the curb.
When Burnout Takes Over
Sometimes, I love to fool myself into thinking I can work forever—super long hours, without any real need to recharge. Imagine the amount of content we could put out, if we never had to take a breather! If I had as many hours in a day as I have ideas, I'd have a lot of hours freely at my disposal. There just aren't enough hours in a day to do all the things I'd love to do, especially as a creative professional.
I'm not a machine—and even if I were, machines need maintenance and a power supply. Aside from physical and mental exhaustion, excessive work always seems to take a toll on my creativity. It's hard to feel inspired and motivated when your body and your mind are just plain old tired.
Let's get real here—this is especially heart-breaking when professional commitments leave us feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, with little room for passion projects or creative exploration. No one wants to feel burnt out, right? But bills need to get paid, and due dates need to be met. How do we feel inspired and creative under these circumstances?
The Value of Not Working
I get it—"take a break" is so easy to say, and "self-care" has become a popular phrase in recent years—but it's so much easier said than done. Life is full of commitments, responsibilities, and obligations. Even if they are an important part of life, they can also be wildly draining, if not a damper on our creativity.
So what do we do?
I'd like to propose the following—turning off work is essential, just as essential as working hard. Sometimes, we need to unplug and not think like a content creator. Just exist for a moment!
I used to think that "time off" meant "time for my other creative projects", but no. I mean real, genuine time for rest. Just let your mind breathe a little. This can be as simple as giving yourself a little time, every day, to just unwind, rest, and "be"—without thinking about what you're working on or what's due.
What do you like to do to relax and let go? Do you have a go-to routine for resting your mind and allowing your creative juices to recharge? It might be just what you need to get rid of that art block and return to your work with fresh eyes.
When Everything's a Snore
Ever worked on a project and it just seems to go on forever? No matter what you do, the hours just slowly slink by, and everything starts to feel tedious.
I'm a creative person, so I thrive when my mind is stimulated and curious. In a perfect world, I'd always be working on something that has my heart in a tizzy, wildly excited and curious.
However, that's not always reality. It's not unusual to have a project that, while interesting and appreciated, isn't exactly a whirlwind romance.
Likewise, sometimes I just feel... bored, even with my own work. I'm a game developer, and after drawing thousands of sprites, it does get a little tedious, and, well... boring, sometimes.
"Bored" goes hand in hand with "uninspired" for me, and it can make my creativity feel sluggish. So what do you do when boredom takes a toll on your creativity?
Falling in Love Again
When I feel boredom setting in, I like to look at it as a red flag. It's time to not only mix things up but check myself, too.
I see my creative projects a lot like a relationship—sure, it's easy to be involved in the beginning, when puppy love sets in. Things are a lot harder when you're knee-deep in the development of a large project, and you've got to revise, troubleshoot, and rework content. That stuff can be stressful and a lot less exciting—but it's a part of reaching the finish line.
However, that's not to say I think the solution to boredom is "sucking it up". Rather, I like to remind myself of why I'm doing what I'm doing.
I think it's important to continually fall in love with your work. Enjoy and feel pride in your progress, no matter how small. Remind yourself of why you're doing this—and if there isn't an inspiring reason, maybe something has to change.
When Nothing's Ever Just Right
I think most of us out there want our work to be good. When you're a content creator, your work can feel especially personal. We pour our time and our hearts into making something, and then, in many cases, it's put out into the world for others to enjoy, consume, and observe.
Honestly, that's a little stressful, sometimes.
A friend and I were talking once, and we joked that 75% of an illustration is actually the last 1% of the entire drawing—when you stare, poke, adjust, observe, and tweak things to make sure it's just right. Of course, this was said in good humor, but it was an interesting look at the perfectionism that often plagued us both. A lot of time is potentially spent (or even wasted) on debating if the work is "perfect".
Ever been there?
Aspiring to be the best you can be is admirable, but perfectionism can be immobilizing and frustrating—not something I typically associate with creative freedom. So what do we do when perfectionism starts to go beyond striving for our best and into excess?
It's hard to see it sometimes, but imperfection isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, even the biggest hiccups in a project can be very rewarding learning experiences. Sometimes, if I'm too focused on perfection, it can discourage me from taking risks, trying new things, and having fun with my work.
It's worth noting that "perfect" can also be wildly subjective. I was working on logo design concepts for a client once, and found myself very surprised when the client picked my least favorite concept—he actually didn't like my favorite concept, at all! And you know what? That's okay—it's not always about being "perfect".
I like to think it's more about doing your best. Do good work, enjoy doing it, and allow yourself to make mistakes. It's one of the ways we learn and grow. Allowing yourself to be imperfect and enjoying the process can be a great way to help get your creative juices flowing again.
When Your Eyes Are Closed Tight
Working alone can be a very rewarding experience. Sometimes, it's nice to create without outside influences—to just create for yourself, by yourself. There's something very refreshing about having that kind of personal relationship and time with your work.
However, when we completely cut ourselves off from the rest of the world, creatively, we potentially miss out on a lot of wonderful ideas and energy. For example, I would never have known about the principles of design if I hadn't read and studied these ideas, crafted by designers that came before me.
When I say "isolation", I'm speaking of disconnecting from anything outside of your own creative headspace. This, of course, is a choice—but personally, I've found that it can be a big damper on my creativity. It's hard to feel inspired, sometimes, when the only creative stimulus around me... is me.
The Joy of Perspective
There is so much knowledge, so much community, and so much support out there to enrich our creative lives. If you're feeling creatively apathetic, maybe some outside perspective and experience will help inspire you once again.
This could include getting involved with other artists or designers—consider joining a professional organization or participating in a creation event. I love themed design or development challenges because they usually involve multiple creatives, a specific time frame, and specific tools or focus. It's awesome to see what others create!
Or maybe it's about expanding your personal library—read up on design topics or pick up a creative magazine. Take a class or make a list of tutorials you'd love to walk through! Learning about, observing, and appreciating the world around you—all the wonderful creative people and content in it—can be very inspiring.
Wondering If It'll Work Out
Sometimes, I have pretty nasty anxiety when it comes to my work—I don't think I'm alone in that. Being an independent, creative professional isn't easy, and there has been a lot of uncertainty, at times—especially early in my career. I knew I wanted my professional life to be a creative one, but could I pay the bills like that?
Then there's the logistics of how to do "everything". What software do I need to know? How do I stay up to date? How do I afford it? Do I go to college—and which one? Do I want to freelance? Do I want to be an in-house designer, or maybe work at a firm? What type of art or design is right for me—and should I care how they pay, in comparison? What should I be paid—what is fair pay? What about copyright and ownership?
When I was teaching, I had a lot of students with similar fears and anxiety about working towards a creative career. It can be really difficult to feel inspired and creative when you're bogged down with worry—worry if this will "work out" or if pursuing your creative passions is an idea you'll regret.
You Will Make Mistakes, and That's Okay
I've made a lot of mistakes in my life, personally and professionally—but I like to think it's an important part of continuing to grow as a person. For example, did I know how to handle my taxes perfectly, in my first year of being an independent artist? Well, I did my homework, but I still made mistakes—and when I made a mistake, I had to make it right. Lesson learned.
Being immobilized by the fear of making mistakes or something going wrong doesn't really help anything, in my opinion or experience—it just feels tense, which isn't normally a creative space for me.
Things are going to go wrong sometimes. Maybe you'll experience art theft, one day. Maybe a due date will get messed up, or you'll get burnt by a bad contract. All we can do is arm ourselves with knowledge and have confidence that we'll continue to learn and grow, as long as we approach our work ethically and in good faith.
If fear, confusion, and doubt are taking a toll on your creativity, consider speaking with another creative professional. We often go through a lot of the same growing pains. If there's something you don't know about, make a point to learn it. Empowering yourself is a great way to combat uncertainty.
Waiting and Waiting, Then Waiting Some More
What are you waiting for?
No, seriously, what are you waiting for? This is something I have often asked myself, when it comes to a creative project I've been itching to work on—but hesitant to start.
Starting a project, a piece, or even going after a big opportunity can be both daunting and intimidating. What if it doesn't work out? What if I don't have the time to do it? Do I have what I need to complete this? There's such a circle of thought there that can feed into this hesitation.
There's nothing wrong with being cautious—in fact, it can be really intelligent to wait, weigh your options, and make an educated decision about your projects and professional life. However, there can come point where hesitation begins to turn waiting into... a lot of waiting. If we wait forever, life's just going to pass us by.
It can be really frustrating to look back on things we've really wanted to do—but haven't. It's not typically a creative space to be in. Rather, it can feel limiting, anxious, and filled with loss.
Take the Initiative
Why not today?
Day one is often the hardest day of any project—it's the starting line, so we don't have any progress to look back on. We only have the path ahead to look at. Rather than looking at the distance ahead of us as daunting and scary, consider looking at it as a wonderful journey with bountiful rewards. It's going to feel awesome, once you hit that finish line.
Is there something, creatively, that you've always wanted to do? What have you been waiting for?
Maybe this is why art block has crept its way into your workflow—maybe it's time to take the plunge and go after something you've always wanted to do! Whether it's an illustration you've always wanted to draw or an entirely new, creative business venture, chasing after what inspires you is a great way to give art block the boot.
When There's No Flexibility
Many of us have a process—we know how we make our work, from start to finish. In my opinion, there's a certain comfort and confidence that comes with knowing your process. You know how to start and finish your work, and this is generally a good thing.
However, there have been times that I've caught myself feeling really rigid, when it comes to my process. This rigidity, while I thought it was the stability that I needed to get work done, has actually ended up costing me both time and inspiration. Art and design are not always as simple as Step A + Step B = Step C.
There are times when a project might need a different approach. Likewise, the same can be said for our inspiration and creativity. Doing the same thing, over and over again, without any flexibility can make for an environment that feels stiff, rather than a space that is curious and open to ideas.
New Can Be Wonderful
Flexibility can open a world of possibilities—whether your creative work is of a personal or professional nature. Sometimes, just stepping back and looking at the possibilities can reveal options that we may not have considered, given our "normal" process.
In my opinion, there are always options; it's our job to step back and allow ourselves to see them. When we're at a loss for creative concepts, we might be depriving ourselves of the opportunity to see things differently.
If you're feeling devoid of creative ideas and art block is taking a hold on you, maybe it's time to step back and look at the bigger picture. Are you forcing yourself to create work in a rigid way? Are there other options, other solutions, and other processes that might better serve your work or your project?
Hurry Up and Happen Already
Who wouldn't want to get things done faster? I'd love to be able to create numerous projects and pieces, every single day—but that's just not how things work. Art and design take time, as do different parts of our professional and personal lives.
However, that's not to say that impatience isn't still a struggle. For example, when you're learning design software, it can be easy to slip into frustrating impatience. No one wants to futz around with software, trying to figure out how it works. We want to dig in and make wonderful things! We want a portfolio full of works that we're proud of!
These things, however, take time. It takes hours of practice and training to learn design software, to learn design theory, and to build a solid portfolio of work.
Impatience can be a major downer and lead to frustration and disappointment. It can be really difficult to feel creative and excited about your work when you feel impatient with yourself and your progress.
Slow and Steady
I know it's easier said than done, but I think it's important to be patient with ourselves and our work, as creative professionals. Set due dates and timelines that are both reasonable and realistic, so you don't end up frustrated, disappointed, and overwhelmed.
But sometimes, this happens on a smaller level, too. For example, sometimes I've worked on an illustration—for myself—and felt impatient with my process. Why can't I finish this faster?
In those cases, I try to remind myself that the time and energy I'm putting into my work is precious. Enjoy the process. Learn from it! Art and design are not necessarily just about the finished product. As creatives, the process is the part we're living for, right? It's what we do—we don't just enjoy art and design, we live it and we experience it.
I often feel impatient, for example, if I can't come up with concepts fast enough. Instead, I try to reframe my thinking—of course conceptual work takes time. That time is precious and worth it. Be patient—give yourself the time to create work that you feel great about.
When There's No Beginning or End
When you don't know where you're going, and you don't know what you're doing, it can be a lot harder to make consistent, confident progress. Maybe that's why a clear and organized desk feels so good—you know where everything is when you need it.
I associate creativity with freedom, so talking about something like structure, as a means of combatting art block, feels a little backwards. Why would we want structure, especially after we just spoke about rigidity?
Well, too much of a good thing can turn into a not-so-good thing. For example, having no design process—just winging it, from start to finish—can make for an anxious experience. Who knows how long it will take, or how we'll get to the finish line, with no map?
Or imagine having no professional boundaries and just working haphazardly until bedtime. Or what if we want to make design our professional focus, but we have no plan of action to make it happen?
If you're feeling discouraged, or your creativity is feeling drained, maybe it's because you're spread all over the place, without any structure. Do you create with a plan? What are you working towards, and how are you doing so?
Know Where You're Going
I think there's a lot of value in clearly defining what you're doing and how you plan to do it. This works on a large and small scale.
So, for example, if you want to be a professional graphic designer, you should probably have a plan. This is more than "I'm going to school"—a degree isn't a guaranteed pass straight to success. Your plan should potentially inspire and excite you! Actively engage with content and projects that support your goals.
This works with single projects too. For example, when I sit down to draw, and I have no idea what I'm going to draw, it's easier for me to get discouraged. I don't have any plan—it's easy to end up with disjointed doodles, instead of a concept I love. Instead, it's often more advantageous to draw thumbnail sketches, choose a concept, and then start to formally draw. Even the simplest of roadmaps can help clearly define where you're going and what you're doing—a focus that you love can be very inspiring!
Who Knows What Might Happen?
All the research, classes, books, and conversations in the world can't prepare and protect you from life—there are going to be unexpected twists and turns in your creative pursuits. Some of them might even knock the wind right out of you!
One of the unknowns that really hit me, earlier in my career, was the uncertainty of freelance life. Some months, my income would be great—but others, not so much. Sometimes, job offers wouldn't pan out. Inquiries might go unanswered.
Even the best of students aren't going to know everything there is to know before entering the professional world. In fact, any professional who thinks they know everything is probably just a good actor—we all have something to learn, and life takes us all by surprise sometimes.
So when are you ready to create? When can you call yourself a professional? The unknown can be intimidating. It can leave you feeling less than ready to go after your creative goals.
You've Got This
No, seriously—you've got this. We get one life. Even if your experience is limited, you can put yourself out there, handle yourself in a professional manner, and continually build a body of professional, quality work.
One of the best counters to fearing the unknown, or "not knowing what to do", is arming yourself with knowledge! Think outside of the creative side of art and design on this, too. For example, many of us have to deal with the business side of design—we can't just ignore that vital part of being a creative professional. Educate yourself on topics like copyright concerns that pertain to your work. Research best practices, when it comes to practical, professional skills. Don't wait—actively move forward.
Being proactive not only arms you with knowledge. I find it very empowering—and when I feel empowered, it's a lot easier to sit down with a smile and create something awesome.
Here's to Staying Inspired and Creative!
Thanks for joining me in this conversation about the many things that can bring about art block—and how we can combat them! These are my two cents and experiences—what do you think? What helps you get inspired when you're feeling out of sorts?
Special thanks to PixelBuddha and their wonderful Watercolor Dry Brush Effects for Adobe Photoshop! I used this wonderful Photoshop effect in this article—it's super easy to use and apply to your favorite photographs. Check it out!
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