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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.

Overwhelm.
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.

Distractions.
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 painting 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.

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.

Open Studios 2016 Time!

conservatory gallery
It’s Open Studios Cornwall time again and things at Penwarren are already in full swing. I held a preview party last evening to kick things off, and boy did it! Thought up and arranged somewhat last minute – and credit to Pete for the idea and much of the prep – we invited people to eat, drink, check out my art before anyone else, and have a good time. Mission accomplished, and though I hadn’t set up the evening to promote sales, work sold, and I have already had an email from a collector showing her purchase framed and hanging in her house! Still smiling about that as I write this.

As for Open Studios, the official event started a few minutes ago for my location, and I’ll be open 11am – 5pm everyday from 28th May – 5th June. It’s always a tiring event to be a part of, but so worth it. I love having people ask questions, see new things in my (mostly abstract) work, and of course, it’s great for sales. Art can be a fairly solitary profession, spending hours alone in a studio, but this event allows me to share my creative sanctuary for a while.

If you find yourself in the neighbourhood, do stop in. You’ll find a map and address on my contact page and additional information on the Open Studios site.
(Photo above is of my conservatory art gallery.)

Getting inside my own head

Been mostly doing jenporium.com shop website stuff today. There are at least a couple hundred more paintings, drawings, and illustrations to add over the next few months, and each of them requires some copywriting.

One copy task is to write individual descriptions for my works, and – alas – I’m the only one who can do it. Although slow-going, I’m finding it really interesting analysing my own art sometimes years since completion. I’m seeing connections I never understood until now, patterns in my marks, colours, and styles. Fascinating.

It’s still going to take me forever (at least) to get something written for each piece, but if I tackle a few a day, I’ll manage. In the meantime, here’s one I wrote up this afternoon that surprised me a little:

https://jenporium.com/art/107

(If you’re interesting in buying any of my art, let me know. Due to the complicated nature of shipping what I create, the site only supports UK shipping addresses for now, however, I am always happy to put together a quote.)

2015 and what’s ahead for Jen Dixon in 2016

Greetings! I have gone from being an almost obsessive (personal blog) blogger to a most infrequent long-form typist. This deterioration is the result of a few things: Twitter, depression, and a few major life changes. Dust has, inevitably, settled and you’ll be seeing more regular updates here both in the blog and in the portfolio pages.

2015 was perhaps the best and worst year for me professionally. I’ll explain. I sold a lot of work, both large and small, thanks to a great increase in exposure and hard work via social media avenues. I ended a relationship with one gallery, began (and ended) a relationship with another, had a very successful large, three-week, solo exhibition, followed closely by a well-trafficked Open Studios, great sales and conversations at the unique Cruel and Curious exhibition, and two additional exhibitions including a run (which is still going till the end of this month) at the National Trust in Boscastle.

“How tremendously successful and wonderful,” you might be thinking. And it has been. But… 2015 killed my creativity and led to deep professional depression. I barely painted or made anything creative in 2015 because the focus was on the business end of art, almost exclusively. I didn’t update my portfolio. Or Saatchi. Or get my sales site (minimally) launched until December. I was busy with dates, times, spreadsheets, appointments, sales, space planning, installations, tear-downs, contracts and left the art creation in the cold. I have vowed to myself that 2016 will be different. Here’s how.

Firstly, reclaim the title ARTIST. That’s what I am, and while the business of being an artist is woven into my chosen career, it is not to dominate as it did last year. I was terrible at achieving professional balance in 2015 – and I understand the psychological reasons, which is for my personal blog, not here – so, I am changing the way I operate this year. I am an artist. I need to make art.

Secondly, manage my exterior engagements and opportunities better. I intentionally have not sought another solo exhibition for 2016. I do not need to do one every year – that’s madness. I am doing Open Studios again [28 May – 5 June], but although the work involved is deceptively great for such an event, it is not all-consuming in the same way a solo exhibition is. I am interested in being a part of Cruel and Curious again, but that happens later in the year, so I feel I’m spreading the ‘public engagement’ load.

Thirdly, I am the best salesperson for my art. I have been included in two, very good galleries in Cornwall and have sold one – inexpensive – work through them. That’s after each had a selection of my paintings for – combined – a year and a half. Unacceptable. In the same amount of time, I sold thousands of pounds worth of my paintings, drawings and prints around the world. Direct sales is the way forward, as no one wants to sell like I want to sell. This is my living. I sell to pay rent, go to the dentist, eat, and buy materials to make more art. I don’t buy myself perfume, handbags, or go out to restaurants. I make art for living, and no one will ever sell my art with that in mind but me. So, no galleries this year; I can’t afford them.

Lastly, share the knowledge. I have a huge amount of teaching experience and have had two art book manuscripts started for years. Years. That changes now. I’ll get one written this year, possibly published. I’m also looking into becoming an online tutor with a specific site, and will have packaged, downloadable lessons on my own site as well. Private tuition will still happen in my studio, but growing my student base through online avenues and publications is the way forward.

In summary, 2015 was great and terrible, but that was largely down to me making it so. 2016 is building on all the tough stuff learned and moving very positively forward. Let’s go!