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How to break an “I can’t create” rut

I can’t imagine anyone out there who has not experienced the soul-destroying feeling of being unable to create. I am coming out of a period of this myself, and for a couple of weeks of nearly nothing in my creative tank, I finally broke the cycle.

You know what it’s like: your paper is blank. Your supplies untouched. Your mood flat. For me, I get this way with depressive episodes (and because of this I am unable to create every day, despite my best and loftiest intentions) and I have been in and out of depression with relentless regularity for a year or more. Sometimes I’m fine(ish) and I get a lot done. Sometimes I go for days at a time without making a mark. I envy those who don’t go through this, but even for people who don’t experience clinical depression, the dry spell is a very real thing.

What causes this temporary inability to create? I can only speak for myself, but here are a few things I’ve learned about my ruts:

Fear of something.
I haven’t been afraid of a blank page or canvas for years (another topic for another time), but I have other fears. A recent chat with other top teachers on Skillshare highlighted that even highly successful people have doubt devils in their heads. Imposter syndrome is very real, even in the people we admire most. There is also fear of being a has-been or no longer interesting. The doubt devils will turn the volume up on these fears and it can be difficult to hear anything else.
One fear I had recently was of everyone moving on without me. I’ll explain: iPad art is huge right now and lots of the artists I follow and admire have begun to create totally digitally or collage their physical art (through scans etc.) with digital art, typically with Procreate or very recently with Adobe Fresco. I felt irrelevant and like I had nothing new and interesting to share. Everywhere I looked was a time-lapse of some digital art coming together or that distinctive “look” of digital illustration. I don’t have any interest in creating like this and yet my doubt devils convinced me that this trend was a problem. It’s not, of course, and traditional materials will never ever go out of fashion, but it is easy to let the fear creep in.

What about when you have too much going on? Life is complicated at the best of times, and over the past few years, we’ve all watched world events with unease, no matter which side of whatever you’re on. For me, I have deep issues with politics and society, and it contributes to a feeling of helplessness. Sure, I vote in elections, but the day-to-day news grinds down my coping mechanisms and I feel the weight of it all. Sometimes, I can channel this into emotional art, but most of the time I feel a pointlessness that stops me before I make a mark.
Overwhelm can take other forms too: I have so many things I want to do (or need to do) that I feel too heavy to do anything at all. To combat this, I have created a laminated sheet with task prompts for myself so that when I have no idea where to start, I can look at the sheet of options and tick a box to remind myself what I’m doing. Sometimes it’s computer maintenance tasks, sometimes it’s creating a new Skillshare class, sometimes it’s business tasks… you get the idea, but it has been a pretty useful thing to create my “Hey Jen, what are you doing?” charts. I use a dry erase marker on them and as long as I have the courage to look at and use them, the prompts help to keep me on track when overwhelm is everywhere.

Hoooo boy, that’s a big one. I have always said I am never bored, and it is true. There is always something for me to focus on, good or bad, helpful or not. I don’t get a lot of FOMO (fear of missing out) but I do use distractions to seem busy when I really am feeling fear or overwhelm. It’s hard to not fall prey to distractions- we live in a time where everything is competing for our attention, whether it is a new filter on Snapchat or too many email subscriptions. Buy this. Watch that. Like and subscribe. I know that when I am feeling fear or overwhelm, my social media and smartphone time spikes and I get into a cycle of checking things way too often. It’s like I become a broken record and I check Instagram, Facebook, and email over and over all the while convincing myself that because my business currently relies on connecting with my clients and students through these platforms that I’m doing work. I know better… I’m lying to myself and yes, I do work through those outlets, but mostly I’m distracting myself to avoid confronting the fear or overwhelm. The only cure for me is to get focussed on a task that takes my full attention, like writing, colour correcting images of my art, creating art, or something unrelated like housework or beach cleaning. I distract myself with the news too, so I took Apple News off my phone. That made a huge difference in my anxiety levels because I now have to go out and collect information rather than having a buffet of info effortlessly served up whenever I feel fear and overwhelm. Make it harder to slip into bad habits.

So how do I break out of the “I can’t create” rut?
It’s not easy to face the fact that you can’t create. It feels like failure. No one likes to fail and of course as soon as you acknowledge the feeling it feels a bit worse still. You might cry. You might have a little too much wine or decide to distract yourself with websites or movies. Been there.

abstract art
What I did in my most recent effort to start creating again was to get out a blank sheet of watercolour paper, wet down a set of paints I don’t use often but have great colours (my Kuretake Gansai palette), and pushed colour around. I had no expectations for great work. I had nothing in mind. I don’t believe in the idea that you can waste paper (paper is only wasted when it remains clean), so I smeared colours around to watch them blend, found colour combinations I like, and by the time I had gone through three sheets of paper, I realised I had broken the rut spell.
It’s important to reward and nurture yourself for doing something so brave and difficult, so my final creative effort (I don’t consider these paintings, because that puts pressure on myself to create something for approval by myself or others) was exploring very simple, illustrative cats. They’re cute and were created with no pressure at all. What was pretty great about my “reward” cats is that I now have a fun idea to explore with refining the cats illustration process into a pattern and a print. Win!

illustration of cats

I could not have painted the cats first. No way. Too much pressure even though they are loose and whimsical. I started with the simplicity of abstract paint on paper. I wasn’t concerned with composition or technique – just dirty some paper. I could’ve done this with charcoal or pastels instead, of course. It doesn’t matter what you use; you just have to get to that point where you pull out some paper and do something – anything. I put good music on, but it was only after I started painting that I began to feel less numb about creating.
Do I magically feel like the artist I know I can be? Heck no. I have a lot of healing to do, but I have proven to myself that I can create, even when the doubt devil is shouting, my studio feels like a reminder of failure, my mind is a mess, and I feel sorry for myself.

Make the mark.
Perhaps it has been a week since you last created. Maybe it’s been a year. Allow yourself to feel free of expectations and put a blank canvas or paper in front of yourself. One mark at a time, you’ll get there. If it feels awful, try again tomorrow. You haven’t failed, you started, and that’s something good. Pretty soon, I’ll be able to put the doubt devil back in its box for awhile. Today it whispers rather than shouts. That’s progress.

My process of mounting art

This painting is now in its new home, but I thought I’d show you the basic steps I take when I mount art.

  • Cut down a large mount board to 300 x 400 mm pieces
  • Figure out what dimensions I want visible, then the border math is:
    mount mm number minus visible mm number divided by 2 = border mm (do for h & w)
  • Cut on my Logan Artist Elite 450-1 (The BEST secondhand purchase I’ve ever made)
  • Add piece info and care instructions sticker to the back of the back board
  • Position using t-square (because there is a landscape horizon) and glass paperweight
  • Tape down with specialist tape. (Tape tabs affixed to the back of this piece.)
  • Hinge the aperture mount board to the backing board
  • Cello sleeve the whole thing with my business card inside the back
First steps in mount cutting
First steps in mount cutting
Mounting a watercolour painting
Mounting a watercolour painting

I buy mount board in bulk from Jackson’s Art in the UK, and the colour is a slightly off-white called Porcelain. I’ve been using it for years. I occasionally buy another colour if needed, like a pale grey or black, but typically stick with Porcelain. Black mounts are also a huge pain in the ass since black gets dirty easily and also shows dust like crazy.

My methods can change depending on what kind of art I am mounting, but this post should give you a basic overview. There are so many tricks I’ve learned over the years of cutting hundreds of my own mounts. I’ve even tackled multiple aperture mounts (with different sized holes), floating mounts and more. I learned all this by doing, and a few books and websites along the way.

If you want to cut your own mounts (also called “mats”), I highly recommend buying a Logan or similar – they stay put (stable) and they pay for themselves. I used to waste a lot of board when I had a more simplistic system of only a ruler and cutter. I have no doubt that being able to provide my work in custom mounts (often cut to fit standard frames, or IKEA frames) has led me to selling more work. Mounts are also great for protecting art when stored or in print racks.

Hope this helps and maybe encourages you to give it a go. There’s lots of detailed info out there, and I promise it’s not that difficult once you get up and going.

The penis joke that became more

I did a very silly #Inktober challenge yesterday that was totally a snap decision based on something in another artist’s stories… The artist is @noramaha and she linked to an account that seems to be all about the penis: @lordofschlong. After seeing the #schlongtober parody prompt of 31 days of drawing schlongs, I posted a story that I could draw 31 dicks in one day. Encouraged by the Lord of Schlong in a DM to “DOOO EEET!” I responded with CHALLENGE ACCEPTED. And so, as if I don’t already have enough to do, I devoted my entire evening of “me time” to studying and drawing thirty-one penises in pen and ink. Yup. I did that with my time.
I only wish my mom could see me now…

schlongtober prompt list and message

But here’s the thing: The drawings are pretty good. I’m pleased with them. And I learned more about male genitalia than I could’ve ever guessed. I’m no stranger to penis, mind you, not only because I’ve encountered a fair handful in my varied sex life, but I was a life drawing teacher for several years and so the drawing of genitals is not new to me. Nor is it shocking, taboo, or gross. Frankly, it’s interesting, varied, and psychologically really fascinating.

I hear you asking: Jen, where did you get so much dick reference? Well, Google may be good at lots of things, but dick pics isn’t one of them. I drew some classical, statue phalluses and a couple of anatomical specimens from there, but the gold mine for immodest models?
Reddit. If you want penises, there is a whole subreddit devoted to dudes showing their junk. I said “psychologically fascinating” a few sentences back- it totally is. Seeing how men present themselves for peer approval/arrousal is quite something. I should also clarify that not a single one that I studied for drawing was a turn-on, but I wasn’t there for a wank, I was there to life draw. I even found an “awards” post in a subreddit that ranked guys by their various attributes, such as thickness, curve, hair, bare, and so on. Incredible learning experience, I gotta say.

I chose to draw them all on one single sheet of light brown A4 mixed media paper. I used a mapping dip pen and Higgins ink. I did not draw anything in pencil first, instead I used the same “slow looking” and drawing techniques that I would in a life drawing class. Somehow, I managed to fit thirty-one penises of various sizes, shapes, arousal, and so forth onto the page. It took me about four hours to draw them, which included the time it took to choose my reference photos. Nearly all of my phalluses include testicles for context, and many (but not all) have hair. They are all perfect in their own ways. There is a censored photo of this feat at the end of this post.

Spending four hours of focussed learning of a subject is good for any pursuit, and to dedicate four hours to learning the nuances of one thing – whether it is a hand or a penis – is priceless practice of your skills. Sure, I started off giggling like a twelve year old at the #schlongtober prompt(s), but after diving in and doing it, I found true value as an artist. I guess I knew I would, but seems the experience was profound enough for me to write this blog post about it.

tl;dr [too long; didn’t read]
I saw a parody of Inktober called #schlongtober that wants people to draw thirty-one schlongs (a dick a day) and so I drew all thirty-one in four hours with a dip pen. It was an amazing, educational, and fascinating experience.

I might do vulvas next… #snatchtober, anyone?

Oh, a final note: if anyone wants a print, hit me up. I can make it happen.

censored art
See? It is totally art and totally fascinating.

Meditation and making marks

sketchbook page progress

I’ve spent the last several years making classes as a priority and art secondary. This was an important shift of focus for a couple of reasons, but mainly to create a sustainable income as a full-time artist.

With the focus on writing what I know as video chapters for my Skillshare classes, I fell out of the habit of being an artist for myself. I need to make it clear: I love making classes. The “but” after saying that is that I began an increasingly unhealthy relationship with my own art and my own discipline for making it. I – wrongly – built up an impossible standard that if I wasn’t learning, writing, and making examples for classes I was failing my path in some way. This unhealthy shift was a slow process, but came to a head over last winter, which, to be frank, was a really crap time for my mental health. I stopped creating everything, with few exceptional bursts of creative output. I didn’t even produce a class for six months. I was at a rock bottom.

In a way, it had to happen. I had to hit the wall to see the problem. I’ve recently been on a path toward energising what I do – both teaching and creating art – and it’s working, if slowly.

I have revisited what it is to keep a sketchbook, and am now making it a morning meditation of sorts. I know in my mind that no one will miss me if I take ten minutes or an hour first thing in the morning to fill a page or two in a little sketchbook. I know that keeping a sketchbook is a valuable tool for experimentation and learning. The “doing” is a little more challenging because of my guilt-centric thought processes, but I’m getting into it now.

I used to draw all the time. Drawing is my first love. It’s always been my conduit to the weirdness in my head, the outlet for expression and the wonderful (and, at times, frustrating) challenge of documenting what I observe. I love freaky drawing. I love realistic drawing. I love it all. So what the hell happened that I stopped filling sketchbooks?

Somewhere along the way – let’s just say, since art school – I programmed myself that art wasn’t going to be a viable living. I didn’t go to a traditional art school; I have an industrial design degree. I regret nothing, but something about that planted a toxic seed deep inside me that sprouted slowly into a full-blown “you’ll always be a hobbyist” mentality. I overcame this for a few years of genuine fine artist success a handful of years ago. I was represented by a couple of galleries. I sold expensive paintings around the world. I had large solo exhibitions. I grabbed the dream and made it work for a little while.

But art sales are difficult to count on and so I looked to establish a secondary income stream. Teaching on Skillshare has been the best thing for my confidence and income but also created a difficult situation: I found I had to really focus on one or the other – either class creation/teaching or fine artist, and so I chose to build my teaching career into a reliable income. I pay my bills with what I teach online and that’s fricking fantastic. What is not fantastic is that now I’m ready to balance the two areas of my art life and it is so hard.

I haven’t seriously, regularly painted canvases in several years. I haven’t drawn for the joy of drawing in sketchbooks for years. I don’t feel like a beginner, but rather like someone coming out of a coma and being very, very rusty at everything. Sure I can draw. Sure I can paint. I have been competently and successfully teaching others how to do that stuff for years. But, can I paint for me? For what’s in my head? Can I risk the weird stuff rising up and splatting onto pages and paintings? Of course, but it’s tricky, I won’t lie. I have been mostly creating examples for classes for years but rarely challenging myself. I’m in the process of changing that now.

I’m taking those 10-60 minutes in the morning to break down some barriers and tap back into the truly creative me. I’m beginning a journey of belief in my own work again and it’s already making a difference in how I feel about my art and being in my studio.

I’m in the middle of producing a new Skillshare class now, and it is taking longer than I’d like, but at least this time it’s because of allergy season issues preventing me from working rather than mental health reasons. I’m forging new, healthy work habits and the sketchbook work is one aspect of that. I’m pretty rubbish at traditional meditation, so the sketchbook time is my morning meditation. I meet myself at my desk, perhaps listen to an art world podcast, and draw. Today I added gouache to the drawings and love it. I actually enjoyed the process instead of feeling like I was wasting time or making crap. (Maybe it is crap, but I enjoyed it.)

I feel like I’ve turned a corner and perhaps I’m entering a new phase of my art life. It still involves teaching (I love teaching), but I am returning to the joy of making things for the sake of making them. Instead of rare or infrequent bursts of creativity that leave me exhausted, insecure and unhappy, I am making a daily effort to reconnect with my creative self. Feels good.

The journey to my abstract art style

First, let’s start with, what is abstract art?

If we go by the definition from The Tate Guide to Modern Art Terms, ‘abstract art’ is as follows:

“The word abstract, strictly speaking means to separate or withdraw something from something else. In that sense it applies to art in which the artist has started with some visible object and abstracted elements from it to arrive at a simplified or schematised form. The term is also applied to art using forms that have no source at all in external reality.”

The definition continues from there citing styles, origins, and example artists, but I think that first paragraph is enough to go on at the moment. I think it is important to then look at the definition of ‘abstract expressionism’ to understand a little further about what I do:

“Abstract Expressionism- Term applied to new forms of abstract art developed by American painters in the 1940s and 1950s. […] The name evokes their aim to make abstract art that was also expressive or emotional in its effect.”

The entry continues with more information and example artists, but let’s move on.

I do a bit of both, mostly leaning more towards expressionism. The journey to abstract art that pleases me (in so much as it turns out in a way that achieves mostly whatever I needed to achieve) has been a multi-decade process and evolves still.

I’m not gonna lie to you: My early abstract art was derivative, lacked skill, boring and did not come close to tapping the things inside me that needed so desperately to come out. But they were important works. You need – NEED – to make a lot of bad art to get to the good stuff (which comes and goes like a stray cat). I have MOUNTAINS of what I consider ‘bad’ art. The way I put together shape and colour now was learned by years of getting it often wrong, but with an occasional feeling of getting closer to ‘right’ to keep me going and experimenting. I have also had long periods of time where I’ve not painted or drawn at all. It is OK to pause. Take a break if you need to.

I have not wasted a single art supply in my entire life.

This is important to realise and say to yourself out loud in the mirror if you need to hear it. No mark is wasted. No blob of paint you let dry on the palette or scraped off a shit painting, no pile of paper with overworked, contrived, or ugly marks is money down the drain. This stuff is necessary and you have to make the effort. You have to use the pencil in order to find your line.

I have destroyed most of my old work because I believe you can curate however you please. I did not always think that way; I used to save EVERYTHING. Now, I can take a photo and light a bonfire. Not everything I create is worth saving, in fact, most of it isn’t because that stuff is the learning part of this creative process. I gotta learn what works, what materials and marks complete the sentences in my head, which lines take my mind to new places like a drunkard drawing a map.

I recently created and launched a video class on Skillshare called Find Your Line: Develop Your Drawing Style and it’s all about the hard work part. The drawing things over and over, using materials as tools not precious things, and discovering – through lots of iterations – what stuff feels like you, but you in a more authentic and unique way. The exercises work. I found out the hard way over years and years of no one guiding me, but I’m pretty sure the class will cut some of that frustration out for you. I digress.

I am still evolving.

I look at the work I liked even just five years ago and I see that my abstract art has matured and shifted. I figured out what does it for me and am always finding new ways of putting it on paper or canvas. I have changed my entire mindset over the years on how I put down what is in my mind: I start cold. Typically, anyway. No idea. No sketches. Just do. I tend to figure out what material I want to work with (oils, pastels, watercolours, etc.) then pick a colour and make a mark. There is nothing in my mind other than what is in front of me and I let the piece guide me, rather than me guide the piece. At some point, we – the piece and me – work together to find some kind of finish. Sometimes, I let my brain dictate too much and that’s when I usually overwork something by trying to cram ALL THE IDEAS into one piece and it becomes a bit shit. Knowing when to put down the paint is a struggle that I reckon will never end.

If you are frustrated with your progress but have only been creating art for a year or two, maybe five, I have some good and bad news for you:
The good news is that you’re making art and – if you don’t ignore the signs – you’re going to find some exciting and satisfying work along the way.
The bad news is that you are going to make a lot of shit too. You will feel frustrated, lost, and like a fraud. And if you aren’t making a lot of shit, you aren’t growing, experimenting, or pushing yourself as an abstract artist.

Fail often.
I certainly have and vow to continue to do so. That’s how I know I’m an artist and not a machine. And remember, no art supply is wasted unless it sits unused.

Now, a little walk through some stages in my work over the last twenty-five years: (click to make larger)

See all this? Most of it is crap but all of it is important to the process.