Thursday 20 May 2010

Climbing Out of a Creative Abyss

"Everything I produce is rubbish! I’m useless! Why did I ever think I could call myself an artist! My work isn’t progressing it’s getting worse! I’m thinking of giving it up".  I’ve just come off the ‘phone from an artist friend, who is having one of ‘those’ spells. Ouch!  The only consolation for these bleak moments is the fact that numerous other creative people have felt this way too. The fact is it just goes with the territory. Numerous books have been written on the subject, and if you  ‘Google’ creative blocks you will find acres of helpful advice on how to overcome these bleak periods. The sooner you accept it and work out your strategy for moving on, the sooner it will pass.

So why does it happen?  I think it is probably a very good thing that it does.  Life always has two sides so why not creativity?  Without this experience would we strive for something better?  For me that is what the whole process is about – the idea that one day I may paint something seriously good.  The fact that I am unlikely ever to feel that I have done is neither here nor there; it is the motivation that is important!

Changing materials, canvas size or shape, looking at a subject from a different perspective, spending time working with another artist, or just going for a long walk with the dog on a beautiful day, can shift the gear. My daughter Beth Nicholas who is just starting out on her career as an artist found that getting all her jumbled thoughts down onto paper before she started work helped to clear her head, then she started writing those thoughts directly onto the canvas where they have now become an important part of her work.

Sometimes after these down periods I think I have made a discovery.  I produce what I term a ‘gateway’ painting – something new in my approach which has the potential to open up a new horizon and that will get me motivated again.  

There is a canvas ‘graveyard’ in my studio that bears witness to these periods: pieces that I have worked and worked and continue to feel dissatisfied with until I abandon them completely, regretting bitterly the volumes of wasted paint. But they don’t get chucked out, they eventually get re-used and the previous layers form a very helpful basis of texture for something new. Bonnard’s girl on the swing took 10 years to complete – I wonder if there  is something else lurking under the paint on that one?


  1. Totally agree with you on this subject of the creative block. I've made those same comments as your friend. Then a breakthrough happens and I start feeling better. I do think these help us grow as artists. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I think as an artist, waiting on inspiration is useless. There is no substitute for sitting in the studio getting work done.

    As for what I think is "rubbish" (I love the way you all use it, it is so discriptive, it even sounds like what it means) and what I think is brilliant, it often turns out my patrons have other ideas. A piece I might thing of as trite or too deriviative may be the one that attracts the most attention, where as inevitably the one I think that captures the absolute essense of my communication garners shrugs from the public.

    So I try not to sit in judgement of those items I have kicked in the corner. I do refer to them as vampires and when I finish one I say I have staked it. When I am completely out of inspiration, picking up a vampire and finishing it off helps as at least I know where I was going with it when I started even though the thread has been lost.

    I feel an artist will never develop a body of work if they keep reworking the same painting (or whatever) over and over. A series always emerges as I work over an idea; rather than trying to perfect the thought on the first try, I have decided when the thread of the thought starts emerging, its time to start a new canvas.

    Beyond that I find a lot of creative blocks have nothing to do with the creative process so much as personal stuff, fight with the fam, problems at work, money troubles, or what have you, creeping in and disrupting the process. The only solution is to discipline yourself to lay brush to canvas whether you feel like it or not. My spacial creative mode cannot co-exist with my literal problem solving/chewing side, so doing the work is its own cure.

    My two bits as we say here in the wild west.