Breaking through blocks: 10 ways to reclaim your practice
Are you having that kind of day, or month, or even year, where you’ve forgotten what it is to be an artist?
Do you feel that you’re neglecting your creative spirit and that it lies dormant, smothered by your responsibilities as a parent, wife, daughter, and friend?
Perhaps you are so busy nurturing other people that you haven’t the time or energy to nurture yourself. Perhaps you have a hundred unfinished pieces crying out to you as you rush guiltily past to the next emergency. Maybe you’re so overwhelmed with choices and distractions that even if you grab some precious time for your practice, you don’t know where to start.
It is true that life gets in the way of art but, if we’re honest with ourselves, we ourselves get in the way of our art.
And it’s vital that we nurture ourselves as artists: it’s not just about production. For our practice to grow, for our development as artists to blossom, we need that time.
Time is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. Time for experimentation, for creative inquiry, for showing up and making a joyful sound, as creative development expert and textile artist Jane Dunnewold suggests should be the daily practice of every artist.
So how do we steal some minutes or hours out of our busy days to rekindle our creative spirit? How can we create a territory of time as well as space to make that joyful sound? Time, self and energy management are interrelated so we’ve put together a blend of ways to help you grab some time, know what you need to do and get started.
Taking back time
Your diary may be so packed with responsibilities, duties, work and commitments that the last thing you want to do in the evening is experiment with colour as social value. Here’s how to get some headspace and overcome overload.
Just say no
Saying no is hard. But saying no does not mean you are a bad person. It means you are a good artist.
Saying no when people ask you to do things that you’d rather not, or are not your priority, means that you are taking yourself seriously as an artist. And this trains others to take you seriously as an artist. Saying no is a skill and you can learn it.
In her book How to have a good day, Caroline Webb suggests,
Start with warmth: first acknowledge and show appreciation for the person’s request. Then, instead of starting with “I’m sorry”, begin by highlighting enthusiastically your artistic priority and why it’s important to you. Then explain that this means, with regret, that you can’t do what they’ve asked you to do, and then end with warmth. Perhaps there’s a suggestion or an offer you can make without detracting from your priority.
Automate. Automate. Automate.
Automating annoying but important tasks, like paying bills or shopping, can pay sparkly dividends in saved time in the future. You may not think you have time to set up your bills online or to put together a re-order list for an online supermarket today, but taking a couple of hours now will free up days of time in the future. Automation is to time what compound interest is to money.
Routines will set you free
Some creative souls shudder at the thought of a routine, but routines are essentially the route to freedom and to an energised mind.
The myriad of micro-decisions we have to make every day – what to wear, what to cook for dinner – gradually wear down our decision-making capabilities over the course of the day until we lose our ability to judge well. This is decision fatigue, and it means bad choices like slumping in front of the TV rather than sketching the design for the new piece. Willpower runs out of steam as we tire, so the fewer decisions we have to make, the better.
Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.
Routines help us by creating habits that don’t need a decision. Always have pasta on a Tuesday night? Great! That gives you headspace to think about texture. Go extreme and spend two hours cooking up all your week’s meals on a Sunday afternoon. That will give you hours of time in the week to get back on creative track.
Reduce your choice of clothes, lay them out at night; order your food shopping online in half an hour on a Thursday. By creating and sticking to routines, you’re gifting yourself precious time.
And routines are not only fruitful when applied to the day-to-day. Creative routines are a sure-fire way to get your artistic juices flowing. Finding a creative routine will help your brain know that it’s time to start creating.
Roald Dahl had a shed he worked in, Steinbeck only wrote with his Blackwing 502 pencils; what’s your object of choice? A favorite chair? A piece of music? Use an object, sound or view to anchor the start of your daily creative practice into your mind.
You could try warming up with any kind of mark making and suspend judgment or, alternatively, allow yourself to make the worse ever mark possible, to confound the inner judge and entertain your inner child.
Forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain whether you are inspired or not.
OCTAVIA E. BUTLER
Getting on track
Sometimes it’s not always carving out time that’s a problem for us, it’s the artistic mindset that works against us. We all know that showing up in the studio, or in the spare room, or in our creativity corner is a start, but what now?
It’s at this stage when a real opportunity to make work is staring you down, that it’s common to lose your nerve.
Vulnerability is constant for artists. We’re frightened of the creative well drying up; we feel exposed attempting new paths or skills. The strategy is to cultivate stamina, which is showing up, despite the fear, and the first step in cultivating stamina is to trust yourself. Trust yourself that showing up will mean mastery, even if you don’t feel like you’ll ever be good. You have to cultivate ultimate trust in yourself.
The fear will always be there, but trusting yourself will stop it from being a block to action. Focus on the doing and the making and not on the judging.
Add a trust-based personal mantra to your psychological toolbox to give your intention wings, such as “I trust myself to show up and make” or “I trust that I will learn what I need to learn.” Mantras that capture a positive personal paradigm can be powerful remedies for artistic wobbles.
Get some clarity
Sometimes it is confusion that stops us in our tracks.
Perhaps you have too many choices, too many unfinished pieces, too many ideas. Or perhaps no ideas at all.
Confusion is only a lack of information so your next step is to gain clarity about what you want to do, what you need to do, to show, to make. Gaining clarity will lead you naturally to your first step. Clarity is our decision, it’s not bestowed on us from the outside, but something we choose.
One effective method of gaining clarity is to journal. Do this as part of your artistic cross-training as practised and taught by Jane Dunnewold. Jane recommends that journaling be an integral part of the artistic process and through this you can ask yourself some clarity-inducing questions, such as:
- What draws me to textiles?
- What do I really love doing?
- What do I really hate doing?
- What would I really love to try?
- What does my ideal week look like?
- What kind of artist would I be if I could wave a magic wand?
Journaling, Morning Pages (courtesy of Julia Cameron), writing: whatever you call it, the process is a strong link between you and your psyche and is a powerful tool to draw out clarity.
It might not happen overnight but through consistent journaling, you’ll be able to pick out patterns that lead you to clarity. You may even have a Eureka! Moment: Of course, I should be embroidering on felt!
Perhaps, before you even think about making art, spend twenty minutes on the sofa with a cup of tea and your journal; free-associate ideas about yourself as an artist or the work you would like to make or finish. Or go to a boutique stationery shop and pick out a beautiful journal to write in. Even this small exercise will strengthen your creative spirit.
Every artist’s clarity will be different. For some it will be producing art, for others it will be making something for an exhibition, for others it will be exploring or finishing, and for others simply showing up every day.
Now you have a little clarity, drill down to find your Most Important Thing (MIT).
Your MIT is the thing that will help you on the way to where you want to be, artistically. Your MIT could be about producing a work, or exploring a new method, or gaining inspiration from other artists.
Your MIT is how you purpose your creative time; it should be the first thing you do when you show up. It’s also the first, smallest step you can make towards your goal. Small steps mean big differences, and a small step every day means you keep moving forward artistically. In a year, who knows where you will be?
Even when you know what to do, it’s easy to be distracted. The outside world bubbles into your creative space and time, or your own brain pops out idea after worry, almost to sabotage your efforts. But that’s natural and the way to cope is to write it down.
Use a notebook or online tool such as Todoist or Remember The Milk to note down things you need to remember; or have a Big Ideas notepad for creative ideas. Set reminders on your phone if you need to be somewhere at a certain time.
Once you’ve written it down or set that alarm, forget about it. It’s out of your head and safe on paper. You’ve eliminated the noise in your brain and have released the headspace needed to get on with your job of making work.
Banish the Procrastination Fairy
Procrastination is what many of us artists at excel at. Whether through fear, confusion, overwhelm, whatever the uncomfortable feeling thinking about making work creates, your journaling is the method for channeling, exploring and overcoming these fears. So let the journal do that job, while you make art. And you can kick start your work through these tricks;
The start point is sometimes the biggest barrier. Physics suggests that a body at rest remains at rest while a body in motion remains in motion, and this is the same for creativity.
Overcoming inertia in order to create artistic momentum is hard, but can be doable using time chunking techniques like the Pomodoro method. Set a timer for as little as fifteen, ten, five minutes, and focus on your work. You’ll find that the momentum you’ve created by starting will make you want to continue long after your timer beeps.
In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron suggests that you can start something big by finishing something small: so dig down into your pieces and find something to finish.
The act of finishing gives you momentum to act on something else and is very motivating – you’ve produced something, you’ve made work, you’ve finished. Celebrate your success and keep judgment well away.
No More Zero Days
No More Zero Days is a frame of mind and it’s a method of making a habit of making work.
You don’t have to bury yourself in your studio for a week: but you do have to do something, anything, the tiniest thing, every single day, that gets you towards your artistic goals. Every day.
Five to midnight and you’ve done nothing? Sketch a rough outline for that pattern piece. Tiny, doable steps will help embed the habit of creative process in your head and in your everyday life.
Jane Dunnewold recognises the link between athletes and creative practitioners,
Making and writing strengthen our ability to be conscious artists, and making space for our art will help us align – find out what we love to do and are good at doing.
Aligned work needs time and space to manifest.
What’s your go-to method for starting work? How have you beaten procrastination? What’s your tip for taking back time? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
45 comments on “Breaking through blocks: 10 ways to reclaim your practice”
The article on being an artist and overcoming inertia is great. Thanks. I’m really going to try the suggestions.
I am going to try those questions to start journaling. Great article. Just being in the work space and putzing gets me started, or even cleaning up and reorganizing my stuff. I agree wholeheartedly with committing to 15 minutes on a task will easily expand into an hour with little effort. My issue is getting into the studio after an eight hour day plus commute, it makes it very easy to plop on the couch. The 15 minute habit I need to recommit to will help me turn some of those evenings into productive time.
Great article! Thanks a lot for sharing it.
Wow, this article is chock-a-block full of good ideas, all very timely for me. Most of these ‘tips’ I’d been aware of but putting them together and articulating their impact on creativity and production was amazing. Thank you!
I have spent years working on kitchen tables, in spare bedrooms and at last am in the process of having a studio build, looking at this wonderful light space I have had a few moments of doubt. Will I be able to create and justify this expense.
The 10 points are very positive and I will be rereading them to keep me focused and chase away the doubts.
This article just came at a perfect time for me. I trust myself to get back into a routine and will spend more time doing what I love doing.
Thanks for your inspiration and guidance.
Very inspiring , thank you, I just spend far too much time thinking abut what I’m not doing. Today I’m going to finish the sofa that is cluttering up my mind, my workspace and my storage.
I like the idea of using an artistic journal to record feelings, ideas and projects. This should help with motivation and as a means of focusing creativity. I also like the idea of simplifying the mundane to allow more time to enjoy being wildly artistic.
So I’m not just lazy ? Thank goodness this article came at a time when it was becoming extremely difficult to justify my work. I’ll re-read this for affirmation often.
this article is really helpful; it’s tackling all the things that i need to! Procrastination out of feeling overwhelmed or fear is my main bad habit and I will try these techniques to work through it.
Reading this has been really helpful, so much so that I have printed it off and will refer to it whenever I need to remind myself that I NEED to practice my creativity and as such should feel no guilt that I am not doing whatever else my mind tries to distract me with.
Thank you so much for this helpful article. Making space and time is what we all need to do. If you consider yoga as art – I love the mantra from a great yoga guru K.Pattambi Jois ” practice, practice . . .all is coming”
This is great and just what I have been focusing on recently after a long time feeling ‘stuck’, yet struggling with how to move forward.
Wow! I feel like this was written exactly when I needed it (selfish artist that I am thinking everything is about me!) You also reminded me that I am not alone in this 🙂 Thank you, truly.
I sell through a shop where I rent a space, and I make a few things which sell fairly consistently – a flower tablemat, for example. When I can’t think what to do, I make a flower mat, because it doesn’t require much creative input, but I know it won’t be wasted, and at least I’m doing something. I also save up things like pricing and labelling for uninspired days. In a way, it doesn’t matter what I’m doing, as long as I keep some kind of momentum – inspiration doesn’t normally strike when I’m sitting on the sofa, but the more busy I am, the more ideas I have.
To me this is a very helpful and structured approach to discuss in next week’s work retreat with my artist friends. I shall love to suggest the 10 points for everybody to think about it and exchange within the group. A great tool! Thank for sharing it here. For myself as regards ‘tomato time’: I sat down and tried to figure out a moment within my daily schedule where I would be sure to provide for 10-15 minutes. For me this just after lunch … and it works. It is a most rewarding and a precious highlight of the day.
To me this is a very helpful and structured approach to discuss in next week’s work retreat with my artist friends. A great tool! Thanks for sharing it here.
Unfinished work is my problem and I feel I aught to finish this and that first but after just doing an online sketchbook course and then reading this article I’ve come to realise that maybe they are unfinished for a reason, they are just samples and experiments and do not need to be finished. A brilliant article, thank you.
Like many others, this article came at a perfect time for me. I was being faced with many opportunities and inspiration but was not able to execute them due to the state of my studio.
Just this past week I decided that I was getting in my own way by not honouring the space where I work. I blocked out some time and decluttered and reorganized my space. (It had become a bit of a drop zone). I feel a new sense of freedom and intention as well as the gift of honouring myself and my creative spirit. I will take some of these sugestions and start a new routine to keep me inspired and creating.
Good for you, Lori. I love how you used the word “honor” for your space, yourself, and your creative spirit. I’m going to remember that.
I really enjoyed this article. You’ve hit a lot of important points and given us tools. One of my favorite motivators lately has been Elizabeth Gilbert’s Magic Lesson podcast and of course her book Big Magic. Giving myself space to follow my curiosity has been key. And also showing up each day ready to work. I appreciate the analogy of artist and athlete and how we need to train ourselves. Very well written, thank you!
Tis all stuff I know already! But boy I need to read it. Very helpful and it will take me down the road to a new resolve: and to DO. Thanks
Fantastic advice and structure! This is such a useful article for art and life. The author really gets and addresses the psychology behind this. Thanks
I am a 62 year old woman who if asked would always have said I was a textile artist. Having spent most of my life teaching and trying to inspire others, which I loved and found very rewarding, I am now free to concentrate on the development of my own work and find myself overcome with doubts about my ability and fear of personal failure.
Funny all the advice I have tried to give others and especially the one about “It is NEVER too late to discover your potential” just goes out of the window and the fear of not been able to match my own expectations immobilizes me.
I stumbled upon this website and this article has given me a focus.
I have materials, studio space and plenty of time now I just need to get on with it.
I have written this wondering if there are others out there in the same situation as myself but also so I can come back and see if I might write something different in 6 months.
Thanks Barb for expressing this so clearly and honestly. I am almost in the same situation as I am considering retiring from work at the end of the year. I have taught and encouraged others but feel lost and almost paralysed when it comes to developing my own textiles/mixed media work. So many ideas in my head, so many doubts about my abilities. I keep pushing on with small, safe exercises and workshops to keep busy and engaged and quell the fear! Good luck to you!
I am in the same sink hole as you, Barb. i have been retired for 6 yrs but lost my identity when that happened. Just now trying to pull myself up by my boot straps -joined a textile/weaving guild which helps with the inspiration but not the motivation. I have found my art interests have shifted since my college days but the need to create is still there. Personal failure overwhelms and I can’t even pick up a tool. Waiting for motivation.
Barb and Helen, I find myself at the same point as you both, so suppose there are more of us out there! Having spent the the last decade and more being responsible for getting between 30 to 40 students through BA Textiles annually, I have pretty much crashed out or caught up with chores in any “free” time. The energy to do any work of my own went years ago as the student numbers and work load went up and the mentoring (which I did love) became more involved. Can’t remember what I did on my MA course at all,so far away from those ideas and concepts that I have to start again. Quite exciting, but also terrifying at 63 as I start an early retirement due to husband retiring and a major move.
Perhaps the comment earlier by Angela who suddenly realized she didn’t need to finish all her works but could regard them as samples (practice/reference pieces) would remove the pressure many of you are feeling. Just start to “experiment” and enjoy the process like a child does.
I find I’m full of enthusiasm but before getting down to being creative I HAVE to do all the boring jobs ! but do I ? And before I start I have to tidy my work room don’t I ? I must then decide what it is I’m going to create!
patchwork, Embroidery, felting, polymaclay, or use my indigo or rust fabrics or maybe I’ll paint or glue and stick things! or should I take a break and have a coffee or walk the dogs! I think I’ll start tomorrow for definite, and that’s the way it goes.
I’m going to go to bed now because
Tomorrow I’m going to get started on that journal I promise so whatch this space
Hello all you artists out there! I have never thought of myself as an artist but I came upon this blog and signed up out of interest. I am not in the best of health, getting on bit, don’t get out much and I dabble in embroidery, patchwork, dressmaking and other fabric interests. I have no training, except a grandmother – I could embroider and knit before I went to school!
Like all of you I find everything tries to get in the way of my needle and sewing machine BUT I do have one or two suggestions:
Read books and blogs – how to and inspirational. Take an interest in any artist who comes across your path. Get the habit bug and do something even if it’s designed by someone else. My default button is cross-stitch and I spend an hour every morning from 5 – 6 am on complicated cross-stitch kits THEN every few months I have a piece I really like I can make something of. I then find I can try other things in the moments of the days when I am able to create.
Don’t worry too much about your workspace. I live in a flat with a CD collecting, bookish husband so space is a premium. Be organised – keep your stuff in boxes and shelves but just make sure you have things labelled and you know what you’ve got. It’s great fun to have a project in mind and travel round your stashes with a basket collecting all the possible odds and ends. It’s wonderful just what you acquire over many decades.
My very best wishes to all of you.
Why can’t I make a routine of going into the office for an hour a day or for one day a week. The only routine I have is one of being overwhelmed with things I don’t want to do and find myself doing nothing hmmm !!
Well…I’ll be 82 in October and have created throughout my life… But so sporadically with my own work… I ran a successful decorative painting business for 30 years , and taught extension classes for about 30 years as well.. I was able to help students with their creative angst. I have really been stuck for a while now..
On the strength of this article, I went upstairs and finished and framed an embroidery I have been working on for weeks… And I truly feel motivated to rearrange my days and to insist on taking creative time for myself.. I like the word honor and intend to help myself with my own creative angst by honoring my right to take time doing what I want to do when I want to do it … The dishes sat in the sink while I finished the embroidery.
This reply just made me so happy. I am so glad you have continued your work. And yes, the dishes will wait.
This article clearly touched a nerve – so many comments.
Routine for me: breakfast, prepare tonight’s dinner (which means I don’t need to break off work later), 15 minutes with Pinterest to get ideas flowing THEN START WORK.
I have recognized myself in the many processes described in the article and find myself very encouraging with the advice provided by the author. Thanks for a very encouraging and useful article.
This topic is the theme of my week, it seems. I renovated a shed last year to be a new studio, and will have people come this week to figure out how to heat it; I had a coaching session this morning, which I have never done, to figure out how to get to artmaking; and have said no to a couple of things that keep me busy away from the studio, and will keep going until all that’s left only brings me joy. After many decades of service, that’s hard, but the rewards can be great and I anticipate having a great time with new and current projects. A good article to keep around for a gray day! Thanks.
Me senti tocada pelo artigo e isso é positivo. Li as 10 dicas inspiradoras e resolvi tê-las perto das vistas.
Temos que começar de algum lugar, não é mesmo? Em primeiro lugar é sermos honestos para não haver espaço
para o auto-boicote.
Obrigada pelo post e, sim darei notícas!
Hello thank you for your comment, please find the translation below for our English readers.
‘I felt touched by the article and that is positive. I read the 10 inspiring tips and decided to have them close to the view.
We have to start from somewhere, don’t we? First is to be honest so there is no space
Thanks for the post and, yes I will give news!’
if i have something i consider “difficult” i have one compact disc (showing my age there..) which i put on and by the time i have been bathed in the music of Mozart, i have if not resolved the problem, i am on the way to a conclusion. maybe not mozart for you, but some other genius will help you through….
Thank you,,,thank you,,,thanks a lot!!!!! I have been out of sorts with my work as of late and after reading these reports from others gives me the enthusiasm to start it up again!!!!!
I keep several small notebooks in my living area and frequently add ideas to them when they occur to me. Less intimidating than a sketchbook, they are places for inspiration that can then be fleshed out in the studio or in a more formal sketchbook if they seem to be going somewhere. They are places to park my thoughts when they occur to me, and, in the practice of writing them down, start them simmering into something more concrete. Lots of scribbled and erasures, lots of discarded ideas, and lots of clarity emerge from these little pages.
I started to reconnect with my inner artist by getting involved with community textile projects. They are led by artists and include people of all abilities and backgrounds. Some have been on zoom and latterly in person. It’s been a refreshing way to get back to textiles and there’s a community goal at the end of the project. So there’s a start and finish with no gaffing about whether to add more or whether you’ve done enough. The exhibition process has been gratifying and fulfilling too. You can also help others and working with like minded artists helps you to zone into your work. Being accountable to the group is a great way to focus and be organised. Your 10 tips will be a great help to pass on to new group members. I’m hoping that these projects will give me the confidence to start on my own projects too.
I really enjoyed this article. Thank you.
I am 62 years old and went back to school almost 10 years ago and finished my Geography and Planning degree in the sciences in 2015 (with a minor in Art Studio). After working in municipal government jobs for 7 years, I found myself needing inspiration and incentive to do some serious artwork (I make cards all the time and quilt but it’s been a while since I have created something of greater significance). I signed up for another university course this Fall- I was able to audit it for $25 with permission from the professor and start class again on Monday. It will be tough with my full-time work schedule but I think it will be like going for a cup of tea or a bowl of ice-cream at the end of a long work day. I am so excited, a bit nervous, and I hope to be able to maintain my strength and sanity. There is no incentive like an assignment being due in a course full of 19 and 20 year olds!
This sure came at the right time for me. I have been procrastinating since the passing of a close friend. I couldn’t seem to get my ‘artsy’ me back even though I knew she would want me to make something. We had spent so much time together over the last year between Dr visits and tests of mine and taking her to her appointments. She went through a major surgery and was convalescing the last while. We lived in the same seniors lodge so I was at her place almost more than mine. I now am trying to get back on track. I finally finished the applique part of a wool applique wall hanging last night. Next will be the machine quilting of it. But I promised myself that I would get the borders on a queen size quilt first so that it can then go to the quilter. I next have to get my cupboards organized so that I can see what I have to finish. I know that I made and finished a Christmas quilt in February because my friend bought it. Hopefully her grandkids will enjoy it.
I feel more energized now that I got that wool piece to its next stage. this article has helped me figure out how to get back to making art. I used to start about 8 every morning to do my 15 minutes which almost always lasted about 1 hour.
Thank you so much for this timely article.