Have you ever gotten stuck while making your artwork? You are not alone: this happens to every artist, regardless if you are a beginner or a seasoned artist. The traditional definition of artist’s block is when an individual is out of ideas, uninspired, and unmotivated to do or complete their creative work. Unfortunately, artist’s block is a common thing, and while it can be frustrating, I believe it is also an opportunity for growth.
I have found that I am more likely to get stuck when I am doing abstract and non-representational artwork. Abstraction requires invention, and for the artwork to be strong, originality must coincide with strong elements and principles of design. When we don’t have a clear reference image which we can replicate as in realism, the road map to where we are going in our abstract art can be unclear. For me, abstraction is more challenging, as stated by Susan Avishai so eloquently, “Abstraction demands more from me than realism. Instead of reproducing something outside of me, now I go inward and use everything I’ve learned thus far in my life.”
This is not to say that realists don’t experience getting stuck in their artworks, but if you are an abstract artist who has an intuitive process of painting, you can find yourself unsure about what to do next in your art piece quite often. Embrace this uncertainty and try to learn from it!
Before I go into the five techniques, I have some general suggestions about mindset and painting so you can reduce the number of blocks you encounter. Having a flexible, open-mind allows you to flow with your painting and approach your process with more ease. When you are open to taking risks, making mistakes and bold moves, you set yourself up for success. In fact, according to Brendon Burchard’s research (2017), courage is associated with high performers. Therefore, tapping into courage while making art can improve your mindset and ability to be successful in your creative process.
First, try to adopt the attitude that “nothing is precious” in your artworks. When we consider our paintings precious, we hold on too tightly to what is on the canvas and we are unwilling to make bold changes. Sometimes this looks like holding on to one part of the painting which you love, but you can’t resolve the rest of the piece. I have spun my wheels for hours doing this, only to finally paint over that precious part and let the artwork transform. When I observe my toddlers paint, I notice they don’t stop and question and ponder what they should do for long periods of time. They just flow, paint, choose colors, splash, add water, wipe away, and have fun. They also finish the painting before it gets overworked. Adopting a child-like innocence while working can allow you to let go of control of your piece and flow more gracefully while you work.
Another way to avoid artist’s block is to allow yourself to make bold moves when you are painting. Sometimes it’s the drastic change in your process that allows a breakthrough to happen. If you don’t take risks in your artwork, then it can be hard for your painting to advance. Think about the amazing Bob Ross’ “happy little accidents.” He embraced accidents and allowed them to be part of his landscape paintings. Having a mindset of experimentation in your painting process allows the unexpected to occur and can have beautiful results in your artwork.
Even though I have been painting for twenty eight years, I still get frustrated and hit roadblocks when painting at times. Getting stuck feels like intense frustration, coupled with the desire to literally trash my painting. The painting feels like it’s going in circles and not getting resolved, and I usually feel disdain for the piece. When I am feeling this way, I know I need to do something different. Luckily, I don’t trash my paintings, and instead I try out these techniques to “unblock” myself.
If you are working on the piece vertically, flip it to a horizontal. When you do that, it resets the way you are able to perceive and view your piece. When your eyes get accustomed to seeing the painting in a certain way, it can be hard to perceive the areas that need work. When I flip the painting, areas that need work usually jump out immediately. When you do this, look carefully for balance–are the values, color, lines, shapes, forms, negative space all balanced? Is any area looking too busy or not busy enough? Are there too many colors in a certain part of the piece? Observe your piece carefully in this other perspective, and areas that need attention in your painting are sure to stand out.
In this method, you would flip your painting upside down and work on it like that for an extended period of time. This works well for both realism and abstraction. For example, I had a portrait commission recently, and I flipped the painting upside down multiple times in order to check for balance in the shoulders and symmetry in the legs. My abstract paintings have also benefited from a good ‘ole 180. I will often paint on the piece upside down for 30 minutes or so without peeking. Then, when I flip it back, it often feels more resolved. Sometimes I actually end up preferring the painting upside down and continue working on it that way.
While you can ask a non-artist for advice, I think it’s best to get an opinion from someone with a trained eye. If you don’t know many artists that can help you, then try out groups online. There are many different acrylic painting groups on Facebook that you could try. A search on “acrylic painting tips” and “abstract painting for beginners” will both turn up many results. I am a part of several of these groups and find that members in the group enthusiastically give advice when others ask for it.
Obviously, if the advice they give doesn’t seem to fit, then by all means don’t follow it. However, if you ask five people and they all say the same thing, then maybe it’s time to consider making the change. Regardless, asking someone for feedback on your piece can be extremely helpful because getting different eyes on your piece helps you see things you might have been ignoring.
You might just need a break from this painting, so allow yourself to start something fresh. In the meantime, I recommend hanging the piece in a place in your house that you will walk past often. As you walk past the artwork, you will see it in different light conditions and from different viewpoints, and this will allow you to see it in a fresh way. Once I was unsure if a painting was done and I had it hanging in my living room for three weeks before I took it off the wall and added some finishing touches. I find that taking a rest from a piece that is causing frustration can be quite helpful, especially when I can start on a new piece and refresh my creativity.
I don’t mean to gesso over it! I recommend picking a color and painting over the entire piece with a dry brush. This allows some of the background to show through. Sometimes the piece transforms into something better in the act of “destroying” it. You might find yourself refreshed by a new color and it could feel like a new piece.
Personally, it’s rare for me to gesso over a piece. Why cover up all those layers of paint with a coat of white gesso? That’s like starting from ground zero! Those layers of paint can help create complexity and depth in your transformed piece, so don’t erase them all! Further, the layers of paint will always remain in the painting, and I love the idea that a painting can carry a history. This is definitely the boldest move of all, so you might try the other steps first before doing this one, but at the same time, have the courage to take this step if the painting needs it.
In conclusion, having a flexible mindset and attitude of risk-taking and courage can help you to avoid artistic blocks. If you do find yourself getting stuck, flipping the painting in a different direction, working on it upside down, asking an artist friend for advice, working on a new piece, and painting over it can all be helpful. I hope you don’t experience artist’s block very often, but if you do, try out these five techniques to help you to move through them easily. Feel free to comment below on what you do when you are stuck on a painting, and let me know if these tips help.
Do you know I teach painting classes and 3-day artist retreats at my professional studio in Santa Fe, NM? I teach people how to paint using a step-by-step method that I developed from 28 years of painting experience. I make learning how to paint approachable, relaxed and fun, while at the same time teaching students the fundamental principles of good design so they develop the confidence to continue art-making at home. Book a class today!