Making Friends with Art Block

Written by Jasmine Maddren

I get into an art slump every few months. It’s a frustrating trend which I know doesn’t just happen to me, but it still feels very isolating, especially when I see the amazing art being posted daily by all of my favourite artists. I love their work because they just breathe life. They are filled with stories. Purpose.

The thing about art block —or creative block if you prefer— is that you can usually sense it before it happens. It creeps into your mind, then your mind translates it into your art like a parasite greedily seeking out a host to grow and multiply. But unlike a parasite, art block has a very important and humbling purpose that will only help you become a better artist. It tells you things, if only you will listen to it, and I’m sure it has a different message for everyone.

The message that art block relays specifically to me, is that I’m no longer inspired. That I’ve lost the drive to create because I’ve lost that essential spark that steers the creative wheel in my head. To put it as plainly as I possibly can: art block tells me I have no story to tell, and that’s OK.

It’s important to listen, even when you don’t want to hear the message. Especially when it’s filled with negative thoughts that only seem to make you wriggle until you’re completely stuck. You can try and ignore the art block, pretend it’s just going to pass by with minimal impact like a considerate meteor landing in the middle of the ocean, causing harm to no one. 

But if you listen to the warnings, you can coexist peacefully with art block. You can even make friends with it, and help it navigate safely to the Earth without completely blowing it to bits.

Once the art block has passed you will have changed. Even just a minute part of yourself. I like to think of this change as “evolution”: you either adapt to the environment, or you let it consume you and you stay stuck forever. 

Luckily most people have more common sense than to let their art block manifest into an impermeable wall. We have a need to continue. To keep evolving. If anything, the day you self reflect and come to the conclusion you will never experience art block again, is probably the day you’ve reached level 100 in art and you can go no further. I’ll be interested to learn if anyone really has reached this peak.

Once you’ve made friends with art block, you’re probably wondering where to go from there. 

I don’t have a step by step guide, but I do have some tips based on my own lived experience. 

The trouble is that everyone manifests art block for a different reason, and it can be influenced by SO many different things. Mental health, lack of time, self-doubt, impatience, etc. 

For me, and I’m sure lots of others, it’s often a conglomeration of each of these things. My (undiagnosed) ADHD is usually the main culprit though. My brain gets bored so easily, it loses the drive to create, and when that happens I’d rather do anything else. But there is a deeper reason, one that I have only just recently figured out, and it’s so stupidly simple.

What story am I trying to tell?

When I feel art block rearing its ugly head, I start to try too hard. 

This illustration is a perfect example of that:

I drew this right before I submitted to art block and realised I needed to take a step back. You might think it’s nice, colourful, calming or whatever (and if you hate it, then I 100% don’t blame you), but for me it’s a representation of an artist scrambling to preserve the drive to create. To hold onto the familiar with a death grip, scared that if I were to let go I’d lose whatever progress I’ve made. 

Eventually, and honestly not that long afterwards, after I listened to the message my art block was trying to convey, I created this:

I felt proud of it, for the first time since the beginning of my art block, and then it happened again. Within a couple of weeks I was experiencing the same creative frustrations. But this time I didn’t dwell on it, I knew exactly what I had to do. Just listen.

You see, when you start to feel the passion seeping out of you it can almost feel as though you’re doing the same thing over and over again. It’s the same face, just a different hat. It becomes an entity that’s pretending to be more than what it is, and realising this can feel extremely defeating. Why, after all the hours you spend drawing, practicing, erasing, re-doing, perfecting, why does it feel worthless at the end? You send it into the void of the internet where it reaches any number of strangers, who might actually like it, yet you still end up with nothing but critique of your own abilities.

Ask yourself a simple question:

What story are you trying to tell? What’s the purpose of what you’re trying to do? How can you do things differently to accomplish that?

Stories are everywhere. Told in more ways than I could possibly articulate here. Some people tell literal stories in books, poetry, songs… Words are the most basic way we can express what we want to say.

But what about the stories in art? How do we say what we want to say with a picture? 

Art is like a different language, but EVERY artist has their own dialect, which they constantly change, refine, perfect, and expand. Sometimes they’re the only ones who are able to fully understand the story behind their art, but most people, even those who don’t consider themselves artists, are equipped with the ability to interpret their own meaning from something. I still remember the endless English classes at uni working diligently to dissect the “true” meaning behind poetry. The task was always misleading, because most poets don’t leave behind a book of meaning to compare our thoughts with. Unlike physics, or chemistry, or the countless disciplines with comforting binary conclusions of right or wrong, art is completely open-ended. Its limits exist firmly in the boundaries of your own mind.

Why is the story behind art so important?

Honestly? It’s more important to you than anyone else, because everyone makes up their own story. Think of yours as the seed that grows the tree which people harvest fruit from.

Remember when I mentioned being in awe of my favourite artists who are able to produce pieces, which I think are amazing, consistently? 

How do I know the thought process behind it? How do I know whether they’re pumping out this stuff with only prime admiration of their own work? The answer is: they probably aren’t. Chances are, all the artists I look up to are experiencing the same thoughts and feelings about their art from time to time. A way to really inspect this shift in confidence is clearly identified by an artist’s change in direction. Even subtle changes can spell massive amounts of self-reflection.

Go to any of your favourite artist’s Instagram pages and scroll down as far as you can go. Look at what you see, then scroll all the way back up. You can see a clear  chronological order of change in not only their ability, but also their style, subject matter, and ultimately the stories they tell. 

Art by: Paloma El Duraznito – left is an older piece, right is more recent. Which one has the more compelling story? One shows a lovely Instagram-algorithm-friendly aesthetic, while the other houses a story about self-reflection (literally) and learning to love your own self.

Every artist experiences self doubt and art block, and most also experience the self-reflection and confidence that is necessary to experiment, evolve, and grow their creative identity. 

So the next time you find yourself being swallowed by the void of art block. Don’t think of it as a void, think of it as an opportunity to transport yourself to a place filled with endless possibilities. Answers to questions. Inspiration. 

And don’t forget to ask yourself that stupidly simple question:

What story am I trying to tell?

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