Diagnosis: Artistic paralysis
How to get started and build a regular disciplined practice
This is it. No excuses. Today is the day you start work on that idea that’s been brewing away for months!
So you gather your fabrics. You gather your threads. You grab your pins and your needles and…and…and…
And then what?
The symptoms begin.
The first marks just won’t come.
So you open your sketchbook to work through some ideas.
But the blank page just stares back at you.
So you make yourself a cup of coffee.
And you browse Pinterest for inspiration.
And one click leads to another.
You comment on that pic of your friend’s cat – sooo cute!
And now you fancy another coffee.
But you’ve run out of milk.
So you nip to the shop…
And clearly today is not the day!
Diagnosis? Artistic paralysis!
By the way if you prefer to watch rather than read, scroll down or click here to check out the video we made for Facebook to go along with this article.
If not now, when?
Every day you don’t make your textile art a priority is a day further away from ownership of your techniques. A day further away from developing an artistic voice that is clear, strong and original. A day further away from adding beauty, creativity and connection in the world.
Deep breath. The first step on the road to recovery is to forgive yourself. You are not alone. In all walks of life there are talented people with untapped creative potential resisting a regular, disciplined practice.
It’s hard to believe that multi-award winning fiber artist Susan Lenz, who now has a string of successful solo shows to her name, was one of those people.
But back in 2002, Susan was utterly miserable.
She longed for a more productive practice. Actually, she longed for any kind of practice. But with bills to pay, giving up her “day job” to focus on her art was not an option.
She wasted a lot of time feeling sorry for herself. Feeling jealous of artists who had freedom and money. Feeling guilty that she wasn’t in the studio.
Whenever she tried to be creative, instinct was overpowered by negativity. What was the point?
The revelation came one day at an event held by another artist. An artist who had the “luxury” of dedicating herself exclusively to a full-time practice.
“It happened to be during some ritual, a bonfire set ablaze by the artist, which was supposed to carry personal dreams and prayers to heaven.
I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the notion. Almost in silent defiance, I said to myself, “Okay, God… Hear my prayer. I want to be an artist”.
Bam! A thought hit me like a lightening bolt, a true moment of epiphany”.
Susan suddenly realised why she was feeling such resentment and envy. She couldn’t stand that the bonfire artist was living an authentic life. And she was not.
“I got a time card. I kept track. With the help and support of my husband who started doing his share of the household chores, I gradually increased my studio time. Eventually, this new schedule became a habit”.
Not only did Susan overcome her aversion to getting down to work, nowadays she enjoys a disciplined, fruitful studio practice and a rewarding artistic career that has enabled her to ditch the “day job”.
What’s stopping you?
Whatever your aspirations for yourself and your art, one thing is for sure; they won’t become reality if you don’t get started.
So once you’ve forgiven yourself for being human, why not take your lead from Susan and identify exactly what’s keeping you “stuck”.
In other words, to prescribe a cure for artistic paralysis, you first need to know the cause.
8 stumbling blocks to getting started
1. Fear of failure
Your inner critic tells you you’re not creative or talented enough. That what you make won’t meet your expectations. That other people will hate it and mock you for daring to try.
Remember your inner critic is a bully. A bully whose number one aim is to make you fear failure so intensely that you never even begin.
Will you let the bully win? Or get to work in spite of her?
“If I am working and thinking, all is ok, whether I’m ‘succeeding’ or not”.
2. Lack of time
Finding windows of creativity can be tough. Holding down a job, looking after the kids, caring for an elderly relative. These things are non-negotiable and leave very little time for you and your art, so why bother?
But isn’t doing something better than doing nothing? Small steps are still steps after all.
3. Lack of money
Making art can be expensive. You have a specific outcome in mind, which requires materials and tools you just can’t afford. Or you need a special skill but don’t have the money to take the class.
True, compromising your artistic vision can be painful. But have you considered that finding an alternative path could actually make you more inventive? And the end result more original?
“I always prefer to work with found materials, mostly from around the home. I try hard not to buy anything new. Even the wire I try to get from the scrap yard.
Everything is about exploration of these materials”.
4. Total freedom
Having all the time in the world to work on your art practice sounds like heaven, right? But, if you’re not careful, total freedom can lead to total inactivity.
When there are no deadlines, nothing feels urgent and time fritters away.
Structure can be a great motivator.
Shannon Weber, whose textile sculptures have been featured in 40 books worldwide, is a creature of habit.
“Embracing the discipline of a routine has led to a very productive and rewarding creative practice”.
5. Waiting for inspiration
Have you ever told yourself you can’t work because you don’t feel inspired? You’ll start to make when the muse appears. That’s when you know what you’re going to create will be truly meaningful and unique.
Maybe it’s time to take a leaf out of the late author Octavia Butler’s book:
“Forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not.”
6. No clear action plan
Without knowing how your time will be spent, a lack of direction and enthusiasm can become a real handicap.
Ali Ferguson, who runs The Purple Thread Shed in Scotland told us:
“Setting goals, planning and making lists is essential to my practice.
I write things down because I find it easier to plan when I can actually see what needs to be done”.
7. Seeking instant gratification
One of the tough things about the creative process, particularly when working with textiles, is that it can be a long road. The work is often arduous and repetitive. And progress can be slow.
Much easier to check Facebook. Much more fun to watch the video of Donald Trump being spray-tanned for the 10th time (It’s weirdly addictive – trust me!).
There will always be less resistance to a quick fix than to getting down to work. But ultimately which will offer deeper rewards?
Re-arranging your workspace. Flicking through the latest edition of your favourite textile magazine. Having endless debates with yourself about exactly which thread to use.
All these things feel like you’re working and they do have their place. But beware of using them as delaying tactics.
Are you making excuses?
I don’t want to negate how debilitating some of these stumbling blocks can be. An extremely harsh inner critic for example can cause crippling anxiety. And a particularly demanding job can leave you so drained that it’s impossible to function creatively.
But often, the simple act of recognising what’s keeping you stuck is the first step to creative health.
Next, you need a prescription. A course of action.
Exactly how you attack your own particular strain of artistic paralysis will vary from artist to artist, but the following 3 tips should help you come up with a plan.
By the way, if you want to put these 3 tips into practice, we made a free PDF to go along with this article called The ‘Getting Started’ workbook. You can download it by clicking on the big yellow banner below.
3 tips for getting started
1. Make it manageable
You’ve probably heard pop psychologist Malcom Gladwell’s theory that to become world class in any field takes 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice”. 10,000 hours!!! That’s a pretty overwhelming thought. And nothing will perpetuate inaction more effectively than feeling overwhelmed.
And what if you’ve discovered your passion for textile art later in life? Theories like Gladwell’s can feed negative beliefs like “I’ve left it too late” or “I’ve missed the boat”.
But how about coming at it from a slightly different angle?
To begin with, forget about mastery and focus on what you can achieve now, in this moment.
Set yourself small creative tasks that can be carried out in a short amount of time. Find quick ways of exploring an idea or simple exercises to get going with a design. And even if you only complete that one small task, it’s been a good day. You started!
And with progression comes momentum.
You can gradually become more and more ambitious as you find more and more momentum in your practice.
2. Keep it consistent
“Make work. Make that work constantly.
Even if you hate what you already completed or are working on, it is a stepping stone to something that will eventually be great.
Re-work things. Tear them up if need be and use them differently.
Push yourself, always.
Make the work”.
In simplistic terms, if an athlete trains every day for a year, their skill, speed and stamina will improve. If an artist makes every day for a year, they’ll be braver with their techniques, start to push boundaries and their voice will strengthen.
If the thought of working every day is too much, work every other day. Or once a week. But make it regular and consistent.
The more you work, the more familiar mark making will be and the easier you’ll find it to get started the next time.
3. Know where you’re going and how you’ll get there
When you sit down to work, set a goal. Remember, don’t be too ambitious to begin with. Make the goal achievable. That way you’ll know your destination.
“If I can get to 100 french knots today I can go get a cupcake with my daughter.”
And make a plan of how you’ll achieve that goal.
Think about working deep rather than broad. If you try to incorporate lots of different techniques and materials into your project, you’re likely to become overwhelmed very quickly and be tempted to give up.
Whereas if you challenge yourself to achieve your goal using a limited number of stitches and threads, the journey becomes much clearer and more do-able.
Does having a plan mean you can’t deviate from it? Absolutely not! Your plan will empower you to get started. But after that, if you find yourself in a state of flow and your instinct tells you to take a new direction, go with it. That’s when the magic happens.
Don’t forget to download your free PDF, The ‘Getting Started’ workbook, by clicking on the big yellow button below.
One possible cure for artistic paralysis is to take the pressure off. Start small and build gradually.
Don’t expect to make a masterpiece. Don’t even expect to make something you deem to be good.
Just expect to start.
What holds you back from getting started and building a regular disciplined practice? Leave your questions and concerns in the comments section below and we’ll try and help out.