Mary Mary Quite Contrary

It’s been a really long winter here in Alberta. I had, up until Spring arrived a few weeks ago, hardly been out of the house aside from weekly trips into town for groceries, and the odd trip to a nearby city for appointments. I was decidedly housebound and eager to see green and get outside to paint. This funk had extended itself to my work at the easel.

I’ve had various paintings on the go over winter, and have a whole stack of sketches waiting to be painted, but my contrary mood has me bored with it all. When a conversation with a friend who was experiencing similar problems happened, we thought maybe doing some focused exercises together (via the Internet since we don’t live close enough for in-person visits) would help. So we quickly put together a small group with the aim of doing monthly exercises into different topics to help refresh or refine our painting skills.

Our first exercise was colour shifts: using different colours of the same value in larger shapes. I thought I’d start with doing some block studies, but the problem is I only have a couple of blocks. When I saw the candy jar with liquorice allsorts, I saw blocks of a sort. Perhaps not quite as easy as the solid colour wooden blocks that many artists use, but block shaped objects which could offer that spark of fun I am always looking for in my projects. So I set up a couple blocks, then thought “I need something else”, and saw the rubber duck in the bathroom and added him to the set up. “Why not?”

Before I knew it I was taking a left turn from my regular landscape work, studying some key skills I’d always been meaning to study, refining my skills in both painting and seeing, and most important…..having fun and getting excited to show up at the easel each day. Three little still life paintings featuring the candy have been done so far. More will likely follow. 

What A Sweet Duck – 8×10″ – Oil on paper

Identifying areas of skill that you’d like learn or improve on, and setting up some exercises to study and practice those skills is a great way to help get over any creative slumps. Even if it doesn’t directly help with a slump, you will have a reason to show up at the easel each day and be working to improve your painting abilities. Self-improvement can never be a bad idea; and showing up to the easel every day is half the battle. 

“Frustration is not an interruption of your process; frustration is the process.”
– Elizabeth Gilbert

Here is a list of other things I often turn to when I am feeling stuck or frustrated:

  • Do something completely different for a day or two. My muse always seems to show up if I go out and commune with nature. Go for a walk, or a drive in the country. Do some baking, or clean the house. Meditate or exercise. Don’t go visiting friends. Don’t do something that requires a lot of thought that isn’t related to your work. It’s okay not to directly think about your art, but you want to allow those thoughts to happen naturally. Spending time alone is important for allowing you to zone out and get in touch with your inner voice. 
  • Quit looking at other people’s work. If you are in a slump, your monkey voice is likely pointing out all the areas you are inadequate and how much better everyone else is. If that is happening, even slightly, unplug yourself from the temptation to compare. If you have to unplug the computer to keep yourself from checking into Facebook daily, do it. The world won’t implode in your absence! 
  • Grab your sketchbook and sketch whatever is in front of you. Don’t set up anything, just draw what is there now. Your coffee cup, the paintbrushes sitting idly on the table waiting to be used, your breakfast, the dog or cat, your spouse, whatever is in front of you. Don’t take more than 10 or 15 minutes. Don’t over analyze it and don’t be precious with it.  You are not creating art. You are exercising your hand eye coordination. Bad drawings, horrible drawings even, are to be expected. Do this once a day at least until your slump is over, or longer if you find it a valuable exercise. 

    A similar exercise is to use a small viewfinder and randomly place it on a magazine, newspaper, or other image and sketch whatever the viewfinder happens to land on. 
  • Start over: take an old painting that you don’t like and sand it down. Be sure to use proper safety practices by wearing a particle mask and surrounding your work area with dampened newspapers to catch the dust, which is toxic. Paint over this old painting with whatever. Taking a old painting that was likely to end up in the trash, and reusing it, frees you up from being precious with a new canvas. Who cares if you have to toss it in the end. It was likely going to end up there anywhere. Alternatively, use paper – coated or not. I like to use uncoated paper because there is absolutely no expectation for archival survival. In other words – I know it’s not going to last and can’t be sold, so I’m free to make a mess. 
  • Ask yourself why you paint. It’s pretty simple really. If you can get in touch with what inspired you to become a painter in the first place, you’ll be well on your way to ending that slump. 
  • Give yourself permission to fail. Along with this, give yourself permission to play. Just show up at the easel with your permission slips, and do something. Anything. No rules. “Today I am just going to play.” “It’s okay to produce bad work today.”
  • Read fiction, poetry, or artist biographies. Don’t read art technique or how to books though. How about W.O. Mitchell’s “Who Has Seen The Wind.”? Or watch a movie. Not those horrible American movies loaded with violence and special effects though. Look for foreign films. I have become a huge fan of British programming on Netflix. So many are well written, lack the crudeness of American television and film, but also have beautifully inspiring cinematography. A well written piece of fiction, be it book or film, can spark my imagination like nothing else. 
  • Do a master copy. Pick your favourite historical painter and do a copy of one of their paintings. 
  • Finally, take the Buddhist approach: “This too shall pass.” Everything is temporary. The world is always changing. Day to day, minute to minute. So just go with the flow and enjoy the beauty of rest and renewal. Oftentimes slumps happen right before creative leaps, so there’s actually good reason to celebrate the slump rather than trying to fight it.  

“The will to do springs from the knowledge that we can do. Doubt and fear are the great enemies of knowledge, and he who encourages them, who does not slay them, thwarts himself at every step.”
– James Allen 

What about you? What are some strategies you have used to help you overcome a creative block, or slump?

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