Raise your hand if you’ve gone through days, weeks or even months, where everything you make looks like an absolute steamy pile of ????. I’m not just talking about the times you can’t even bring yourself to put brush to canvas, I’m talking about when it seems like everything you put your hands on turns to garbage. Then that feeling grows and changes into the dangerous thought “I’m garbage.”
I’ve been there, friend. We ALL have. Our work as artists is so personal often it’s hard to separate the normal artistic ebbs and flows from how we value ourselves as a whole. Recognizing these ebbs and flows when they happen and that the ebbs are only temporary is a huge first step.
When we flow, we’re riding high. Everything is just spilling from us. It’s almost effortless. When it stops, we feel stuck, uninspired and just crappy. The ebbs feel like a forever kind of thing but the flow is our natural state. And there are ways to get it back. Here’s some tricks I’ve learned to help me push through and get back to making art I actually like:
SWITCH IT UP
I know very few artists who have only one creative outlet. While you may have one focus, that’s not the only way to get creative. Jean-Michel Basquiat had a punk band, Picasso often wrote poems and we all know that Degas was obsessed with ballet.
To paraphrase Maya Angelou, creativity isn’t something that can be used up. The more you use it, the more you have. So that’s why when everything I’m making looks like a shit-sandwich, I like to switch it up for a bit. I’ll bust out my ukulele and play, or even write a poem. It doesn’t even matter that I’m not really good at either of those things (especially ukulele), the point is that they are creative and fun and they don’t have the pressure of being perfect tied to them.
Other things you can do to take the pressure off and get creative: design/redesign your logo, write a short story about your pet, try to teach yourself how to dance from a YouTube video, even bringing out those crazy detailed adult coloring book should do the trick.
Not like a juice cleanse but more like a social media cleanse. When my work is turning out especially shitty, it’s usually because I’m not actually making MY work at all.
We live in a world that is completely saturated in content. It’s nearly impossible to not get sucked in from time to time. Other people’s vision and direction and process can seep into your mind and before you know it you’re making their work and not your own. So, of course, you don’t like it! You may love the work that you’re accidentally replicating but it’s not genuine or authentic and it’s not yours. You can feel that in your bones. You have something in you that is dying to come out but this is just not it.
This is when you need to disconnect and take a break from social media and just focus on your own vision of your work. Sometimes a day is all I need but other times, when I’m in especially deep, I need a week or more. It’s a great time to gain perspective without the distractions of social media cluttering your mind. This is not to say that you shouldn’t or that it’s wrong to draw inspiration from other artists, but there is something vital in looking inwards instead of outwards all the time.
NARROW YOUR FOCUS
While tip 1 and 2 were about stepping away, this tip is about diving in. You’ve heard of the saying “the only way out is through”? That can also be true for the ebbs in your creative flow. You will make good work again, without a doubt, but the time and struggle getting back to your flow state can be painful. Yet, the trick I find I use the most often is simply to power through.
While it’s true that you could just keep making garbage day after day until you have some sort of breakthrough, I think it pays to be a bit more strategic. As I finish my work, I allow myself a moment to find the good in the piece before I label it as total crap and not work the paper it’s painted on. Pinpointing the successes, even in failures, gives me something to build off of in the next piece.
Maybe it’s the color combo or the way that this part blended with that or even a happy accident that turned out pretty cool, I don’t care, I’ll take any win I can get! Each time you focus in on those successes, you are building a ladder out of the pit of shitty art.
TAKE A WALK DOWN MEMORY LANE
While it may not feel like it when you’re wondering why you even bother to buy art supplies if all you are gonna make is terrible crap, you’ve made some wonderful art in your life. And you will again! Sometimes you just need that reminder, that you are an Artist (with a capital A!). You are good at what you do. Just look at all the amazing work you’ve made in the past!
Beyond the confidence boost, I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve looked through my old work and found a path I started down but never finished or a new direction entirely born out of looking at my old work with fresh eyes.
For example, my newer “Reminiscence” series (2017) was created after looking at my older piece “Never Let Me Go”(2013). I realized as I looked back at that piece, that I hadn’t explored that thought to completion. There was a lot left there to work with and expand on.
TAKE A LITERAL WALK
I can’t be the first to tell you that exercise is great for creativity. I can show you article after article about it. Exercise boosts your mood and keeps your mind sharp and heightens your thinking. It’s an obvious recommendation for how to push through a creative slump but I also think it’s good advice at all times.
My exercise of choice is running and I bet half of you just went ‘ewwww, no thank you!’ Which is totally understandable, running is not for everyone. But I think everyone has a physical activity they enjoy just waiting to be discovered. Hiking, biking, yoga, swimming, pickle ball, playing fetch with your dog, jump rope or those weird bouncy shoe-things, the opportunities to find your perfect activity is endless. The goal is to get your blood flowing and your mind on the simple task of focusing on the functioning of your body so you can get back to making art with a clear head.
REPURPOSE YOUR PROCESS
This tip is a bit more drastic than the others but it can do wonders if you really feel like you just can’t break through. Making art is less about the finished piece and more about the process of making that piece. So it would make sense that if you want to change the result, you should try changing the process.
Use this time to experiment with different methods of art creation or even different mediums. Try making your art using collage or markers instead of paint. Change the order of how you add elements of your work or replace a portion of it entirely. Go from 2D to 3D or visa versa.
You might find things that you like and want to expand upon in the future… or you might not (you weren’t liking anything else anyway so what do you have to lose). Again, like in tip 1, the goal is to mix it up and remove the pressure of perfection.
Hitting the shit-wall is just part of the cycle of artmaking or it could be a warning sign that it’s time to change direction. Without realizing it you may have taken the idea that drove your art up until now as far as it can go with you. It’s a dead-end or maybe the road ahead is just under construction and needs a little bit more time (see #9), either way, you need to move on to the next thing.
Uh, easier said than done, you say. True, true but I bet there are ideas you’ve been sitting on because this used-up one took all your time and energy. Now is the time to take a leap and try a new idea. Boredom is a real creativity killer, so you might just find that a change in direction was all you needed to power through the slump.
Being an artist involves a lot of honesty and self-reflection. That is why I’m going to tell you to lean into the shittiness. Don’t just throw it away and move on before you’ve taken the time to really be honest with yourself and dig into what went wrong.
I remember back in college having to go through critiques with my peers and professors. We would bring in our latest work and stand by as it got torn apart (metaphorically of course). It was brutal BUT it helped me grow immensely as a young artist because it put my weakness into focus.
Now, I’m asking you to be a lot nicer to yourself than my classmates were to me but still be brutally honest with yourself. If you don’t feel like you can do that right now find a friend with a good eye, who’s opinion you trust and ask if they can give your work a mini critique. Say thanks by giving them cupcakes or donuts, but only after the critique is over—You don’t want to sway their opinion.
MAKE LIKE ELSA
Let it go! Don’t force it. If something is just not matching up with the vision in your head, maybe it’s just not its time. It’s the curse of the artist to always have our tastes surpass our capabilities. It’s what pushed us to improve but also what makes the things that don’t measure up look like shit compared to the idea in our head. The struggle is real!
I find that when that keeps happening I have 2 choices. I can either keep at it until completely destroy the vision in my head because of the negative feelings that build up with each failed piece OR I table the idea for awhile, let it come into clearer focus or let my skill-level play catch up. The choice is obvious when you lay it out like that but I cannot tell you how many times I’ve refused to let an idea go and strangled the life out of it. Don’t make my mistake.
I didn’t say these things would be easy. Being an artist and putting your creations out in the world isn’t easy but hopefully, these tips can act as tools in your creative toolbox and help you get back to making good art faster. No matter what though, I want you to remember that this terrible feeling, the one that’s like “your work sucks and you suck and everything is shit”, is temporary. You’ll make it through. Trust me.