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Clara Lieu, RISD Adjunct Professor

How Do You Face Artist’s Block?

Clara Lieu
Art Prof & Partner

“How do you face artistic burnout or times of no motivation?”

It’s inevitable for every artist to go through difficult periods, especially if you’re in an intensive working environment like art school where your life is so fully saturated with art all the time.  Being an artist is a dramatic roller coaster ride where you can experience everything from moments of exaltation to moments of painful failure.  If you’re not experiencing this, it means that you’re not pushing yourself enough creatively.

I went through quite possibly the worst creative crisis I’ve ever had in my career in the summer of 2012, when I couldn’t figure out these sculptures I was working on.  I don’t remember ever being so completely consumed by my lack of focus before.  I had experienced brief periods of no motivation, but nothing on this level. I wanted so badly to slap myself back into shape, but that desire only heightened my frustration with myself. Eventually, I did come out of it after several weeks, but it was an excruciatingly slow process that was unbearable at times.  And when you’re in the middle of it, you feel trapped like its never going to end.  Below are some concrete actions I took at the time that worked for me.

Emerging Artist: Zoe Schlacter

1) Reach out to other artists.
This is one of the most effective strategies for staying sane if you’re having a tough time. Talk to your friends who are artists, explain to them what’s happening with your work.  If you have a mentor, call them up and whine your heart out.  Your artist friends and mentors will provide the support and encouragement that is so critical to have when things aren’t going well.  Try not to have a pity party for yourself and wallow in despair on your own, none of that is productive and will only allow you to sink deeper into destructive emotions.

2) Suspend your inner critic.
We are our own toughest critics.  Usually we are much tougher and more demanding of ourselves than anyone else around us. Throw away your ambition and expectations for yourself temporarily, knowing that when you’re ready, you can reinstate them.

3) Change your environment.
Taking a short trip can sometimes break up the monotony of your regular environment, and can often times stimulate some sorely needed inspiration.  A day trip to New York City almost always works for me. Even spending a whole day in a local museum can be incredibly refreshing and allow you to reset your brain.

Ask the Art Prof: RISD Adjunct Professor Clara Lieu

4) Change media.
Switching to a different material can provide a different perspective on the same subject. It can keep your hands busy and get you thinking about your work in different ways. For example, if you’re working with two-dimensional media, change to three-dimensional media and see how that transforms your outlook.

5) Take a break.
Drop everything and hit the gym, read a good book, go pig out at a good restaurant, whatever works for you. This will provide the distance and time away from your work that you need. Many of us will hit a plateau with our work:  we know that we need to change something, but we don’t know what because we’ve been staring at the work for too long. Getting away from the piece will allow you to see the work with fresh eyes when you return.

6) Don’t give up.
One of my friends said this to me when I was in complete despair, and it was exactly the kind of straight forward, no-nonsense advice that I needed to hear at the time. Know that as much as it hurts when you’re in the thick of it, that this too shall pass. Ride it out as best as you can and try to have faith that in the end, you will persevere.

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5 responses on "Facing Artist's Block"

  1. Profile photo of Alexander Rowe

    As you work as an artist you’ll find that you use all of these techniques at different times, but find one that is your favorite way to get back into the groove. I finally got into running for exercise not for health reasons, but because I just had to get out of my head and literally run away from my painting! Whenever I come back, I’m in such a better mindset to work.

  2. Profile photo of Casey Roonan

    The great thing about being an artist is that, even when you’re feeling uninspired or simply don’t want to work, there’s always some kind of mindless but necessary chore you can be doing… Try switching gears in those instances to easy tasks which require zero creative thought, but allow you to feel productive on some level in order to keep your self-esteem up! On days or moments like these I take the opportunity to respond to emails, update pages on my website, fulfill Etsy orders, cut bristol board, letter my comics, trim finished pieces, clean my studio, or even just go grocery shopping or do my laundry… In fact, I make a point of leaving at least a few of these things unfinished each week, just so that I do have something to do during these “burnouts”! You can’t be “on” all the time, no matter what, so the trick is to not fear them but anticipate them, and create systems for yourself that keep you going and – most crucially – sane.

  3. Profile photo of Deepti Menon

    These are all such great pieces of advice. I feel creatively blocked ALL THE TIME. But going outside for a quick walk, looking through old sketchbooks, and talking to other creative folk always help me get the juices flowing.

  4. Profile photo of Ellie

    This is really helpful! To be honest, I’m in a bit of a slump myself. It’s been a while and I’m trying to sketch and brainstorm everyday, but to be honest, nothing’s lighting a fire for me. Hopefully, these tips will help me get back on my feet.

    • Profile photo of Clara Lieu

      I think it’s very, very common to have slumps. If you don’t have slumps every now and then, you’re either delusional or in serious denial! Slumps are so frustrating, but they do eventually dissipate, and I think sometimes for me just literally going through the physical motions of making the work helps. Like if I just grab some clay with my bare hands and just play with it, it’s rare that something won’t happen. I think the worst thing one can do when in a slump is to sit around and huff and puff, you have to move!!

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