From Artist Block to My Favorite Painting

I have heard a lot of friends and fellow artists talking about and dealing with artist's block lately. I recently went through my own stint of artist block. It was rough, the roughest and longest spell of block I have experienced since I began painting back in 2012. I thought it might be helpful to share my experience here, and what helped me get out of my creative rut to create what is, to date, my personal favorite painting.

Typically, I do not suffer from artist block. In fact, I tend to have the opposite problem. I have more ideas for pieces than I can actually paint. When I post a progress photo of a piece I am currently paining, on my white board in the studio is usually written 2 or 3 ideas for my next pieces. I always have something "on deck", as it were. When I am not actually painting, I am sketching the follow up pieces. Not all of them will make it past this initial phase, which is why I try to have more than one at a time. This process has served me rather well since I have been painting, as I don't have to worry about what is next the minute the final stroke goes on the current work.

However, 2018 was not a typical year for me. I had a huge amount of work to do on our home following Hurricane Irma. I was planning a wedding. My father was ill. The wedding came and then we were off on our honeymoon. I felt like I had a lot of balls in the air at one time. All through the year I continued working diligently, but eventually the "go, go, go" of it all caught up with me. I had burned out, which was inevitable, I suppose. I began painting my "December Nymph" piece, and for the first time in 6 years, I had nothing "on deck."

At first, I didn't let it get to me. It was alright after all, an idea would come to me sooner or later. But as I got closer to completing "December Nymph", I began to panic. Ideas were still not coming. I took a breath and decided to employ some of the techniques I have used in the past to spark creative ideas. I listen to music I love that I haven't listened to in some time. I put some of my very favorite songs on repeat and really listen to the lyrics and meaning for inspiration. I watch a favorite movie that I haven't viewed in some time. I read a brand new book. I play a new video game. What these activities usually do for me is get me to see something very familiar in a new way. I sometimes pick up on something I haven't noticed before. A phrase will strike me as poignant in a song, or a scene from a game or movie might give me a color palate I find interesting. Sometimes the materials I reference have nothing to do with the final painting. But they get me started. For example, playing Zelda: Breath of the Wild with my husband gave me the idea to put a unicorn in my Garden series, and also include a full moon in my bat painting.

While these techniques have never let me down before...they did this time. I started a few sketches, but they went nowhere. They were weak and uninspired. I was completely stuck. One week passed, then another, and yet another. After about the one month mark I was nearly at my wits end. If I am not in the middle of the creative process for more than a few days, I tend to go a little off the rails. It effects my mood, my ego, my belief in my abilities, not to mention not having much to do during studio hours. I spend extra time cleaning the house and running errands, but I am extremely grumpy about it. I probably should not let the inevitable block get to me so badly. It is not the healthiest way of reacting to such a hurdle, but that is how it goes with me. I had also never been this stuck before.

Then, one evening, I was sitting on my back patio, chatting to some friends on my phone. We weren't talking about art, rather just slinging around stories of our day, stupid memes, and silly, off color jokes. After relating an anecdotal story, a friend made a joke about how everyone, regardless of who they are, loves, or at least appreciates a certain part of the female form. (I apologize for the potential crassness of this statement, but in full transparency to the story, this is what happened!) I chuckled at the joke, and then, suddenly, my brain just lit on fire. Some lightning-quick spark of a feeling jumped in and just made this....connection?...a train of thought? It is hard to describe. But it went down like this:

Brain: ha, funny. Something everybody loves. Do YOU love it? What is it that YOU love, Elizabeth? What are the things you really love looking at?

My brain began to flood with all these things. Some were large concepts with deep meaning, while some were trivial and small. But they all brought me some level of joy. I ran into the house and grabbed and notepad and pen and within seconds I had a list of 17 things that brought me aesthetic happiness. The list included some of the following:

Art/Art History

Books

Gothic Dripping Candles

Fashionable Gloves

Lace Fans

Emeralds (my birthstone)

The Sound of the Violin

Roses

Cardinals (they remind me of my grandmother)

Chris Corner (my favorite musician)

Fun Lipsticks

Skulls

Masquerades

Black and White Photography

Etc, Etc.

It felt so weird that for weeks I could not think of a single thing I wanted to paint, and then suddenly, all at once, ALL of these things were on my mind.

Which brought me to the next idea. These things were now all on my mind. In a way they are always on my mind, I just forget it sometimes. I decided my next painting would be of a woman with all of these things floating around in her consciousness. Ok, that was a challenge. There was a lot of items on this list. How best to frame it? A few months prior I had been watching a special on Marie Antoinette. I had also just finished season two of the TV show Versailles. I had spent some time researching how they achieved those massive pouf hairstyles back in those days. I even watched a few YouTube tutorials simply out of curiosity. Bam! That was perfect. All of these items could be set within one of these giant pouf hairstyles. The fact that such a hairstyle could be appropriate attire for a masquerade ball, and item on the list, made it all the more fitting.

Soon I was in a storm of creativity. I spent two weeks sketching out the design, trying to aesthetically fit in as many items on the list as I could. I couldn't fit them all. Some I could fit but didn't quite work. I tried my hardest to include a mini portrait of Chris Corner, for example. It just wasn't working. This wouldn't do. I needed some representation in there. Instead, I decided to cross the black gloves in the center of the hairdo in an "X" pattern as an allegory to his music. He also is a fan of black gloves, so it worked for me. My little hidden nod, if you will. Finally the sketch was complete and it was time to put the dreaded block behind me!

I had never painted a concept of this scope before. It had so many more elements and details compared to what I had done in the past. At times I worried if I bit off more than I could chew, or if it would eat up months of my time that I could instead use to crank out smaller works. But I knew I had a winning design on my hands that I felt very passionate about, so I just kept chipping away at it. All told she took m a little over a month to complete, working 6 to 8 hours in the studio, 5 days a week.

The results turned out to be my latest painting, and my personal favorite, "Her Aesthetic"

While I connect with all of my art, this one is my personal favorite for a few reasons. I work hard on all of my paintings. none of them are ever a cakewalk. But the work and hours I poured into this one has been unprecedented for me up to this date. In order to get all the detail I also had to go with a large canvas (28 by 36). That is a lot of ground to cover! But it was work I am really proud of. It is also full of my favorite things! So It's hard to smile about it. Lastly, I think it is my personal favorite because going through the struggle of artist block was brutal. But in the end it produced an idea I loved. This painting is a great reminder for me that if you continue to fight against the struggle, there is growth on the other side.

Maybe my story will help those with artist block. Maybe it won't. I hope it is helpful. I know how awful a mindset it can be. I am sure it will happen to me again in the future. I'm just going to continue to fight against it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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