Bonus Post: How to Deal with Artistic Blocks

Screenshot 2017-10-31 17.04.19

Daily Doodle just reached it’s 500th post, and as with other milestones I like to mark the occasion with a bonus post.

This time round, I would like to talk about creative block, more importantly, how I combat artistic block.  I have been posting a doodle every day for just over a year now, and I can tell you one thing; creative blocks are real, extremely annoying and completely temporary.  The trick to speeding its departure?  Practice…  Did I just hear you roll your eyes?

For those of you have have followed me for a while you may have seen the occasional comment, or feature post elsewhere where I have talked about drawing as a practice.  Anyone who has a regular practice in anything will be familiar with entering a state of flow.  So I thought I would share with you how I enter this mental space while drawing.

Brace yourselves, this is where my inner hippy is going to fully engage.

First of all what are we aiming for?

A state of flow is that mental space where you are focused on a particular activity, often times something which can reduce stress or anxiety, with which you are very familiar.  You will know you have entered flow because you attention will be absorbed into the activity with very little effort.  For some this may be a physical activity such as running, others may find this space through playing a musical instrument.  Whatever it is it will likely be something that you will be so well practiced in that muscle memory will kick in.  As your attention shifts into flow you will find you are able to focus the mind in such a way that allows for clarity of thought.  One sign that you have found your flow is that time will slip past you unnoticed.  Have you ever been so engaged in an activity that you start in the morning and before you know it lunch time has come and gone and you just continued through?  Welcome to flow.

While it may sound airy, the phenomena of flow is well documented and shares a great similarity with ‘hyper-focus’.  One of the main reasons the state of flow is so important  is that through this engaged, extended concentration, we loose a great deal of our self-consciousness, while still remaining self-aware.  Who doesn’t want to inhabit an inborn sense of confidence and shed some of those nagging self-doubts which follow us through modern life?

How to get there?

So now we know what we are aiming for, you might even have an idea of an activity which will get you there.  I think no matter what the practice there are some really simple steps you can help to enhance it:

Arrive in your activity.

If you are trying this with drawing or art it can be as simple as consciously taking your seat.  Take in your surroundings.  Notice the quality of light.  See if you spot something you have never noticed before, if if your surrounding are familiar to you, look at these normal objects in a new way.

Take a moment to check in on how your body is feeling.  What’s your posture like?  Are you sitting comfortably?  Feel the weight of the pencil in your hand, the texture of the paper you are going to draw on.  Take a moment to connect physically with your environment.

If you find you activity is a more physical one, it may be that you want to really engage with putting your trainers on.  If you are a musician then show up and enjoy the tactile activity of setting up your instrument and tuning it.

The main aim for this step is to take a moment to get curious about the world around you.  Give yourself permission to let go of anything outside this moment in time.

Don’t aim for flow, just be in the activity

So here’s the tricky thing I have found over time.  Flow is a great space to be in, it’s relaxing, open and incredibly creative.  I have done some of my favourite drawings while hanging out here, but it is hard to intentionally get there.  Ready for the cliche?  Flow is the journey not the destination.  Sometimes you won’t get there at all, and I have found the more I force it the less likely I am to find it.

Because it is impermanent, and sometimes elusive, enjoy it when you are there.  Celebrate when it ends, and know that any time spent trying to get there and failing is still time well spent on training your mind.  I found the moment I let go of my need and desire to be there, it was much easier to gently slip in and out of a state of flow.

Notice when your mind is drifting and bring it back to the task at hand.

John Kabat-Zing is often quoted for saying “practice like an athlete” when it comes to Mindfulness.  Any athlete will tell you there are great days, when you smash personal bests and break records.  There are also days when your form is sloppy, you hit a wall you can’t break through and really you would rather be doing anything else.

The mind is really no different.  Humans are conceptual animals and your mind will wander.  The practice is not effortlessly maintaining your focus, the practice is the discipline of noticing when your mind is floating back to what you want for dinner, that important deadline at work, that unfinished email in the draft inbox or that really stupid awkward teenage moment that you always remember when you experience stress.

In the same vein, if you haven’t practiced for a while that’s fine, you can always pick up the pen and start again.  It’s a practice because it takes discipline, but it should also be fun, and something you want to willingly engage with.  On that note…

Celebrate the fact that you noticed, don’t punish yourself for wandering.

If you notice yourself wandering try approaching the thought with gentle curiosity, “That’s interesting, I’ll come back to that later”, take a deep breath, reconnect with your pen and congratulate yourself for noticing the fact that you wondered.  In my experience there is no single human being who couldn’t benefit from being kinder to themselves.

If you notice your mind has wondered WELL DONE! It means you are doing it right.  You haven’t failed because you weren’t perfect.

This attitude is also invaluable for learning a new skill or developing an existing one.   Have you ever watched a baby learn to walk?  They do an enormous amount of falling over.  Embracing my mistakes has changed my whole attitude to drawing.  It is the single most useful tip I have, and the main reason I am able to post a doodle a day.  Is everything perfect?  Not a single one.  So many artists I know have found themselves blocked because they need to get their drawing, story or song just right before they can share it.

The search for perfection is admirable, but is the enemy of a practice in that it you miss out on opportunities for developing feedback.  You also miss out on a huge amount of surprise.

Some of the drawings I least like have prompted surprisingly nice comments, because the things that bother me as the creator, don’t even register with the audience.  It’s the most important lesson I have learnt, but it also the most hard won and easily forgotten.  Which is why it is even more important to celebrate when you get something right!

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The great thing about cultivating a practice that allows you to find a state of flow, is that it takes a huge amount of the pressure off.  When this pressure dissipates, it makes maintaining a steady creative output relatively easy.  It’s not a fool proof approach, but it does help.

I hope that was at least somewhat interesting.  I also hope it encourages you to have a go at intentionally stepping into an activity.  If you have already found your practice then I would love to hear about it in the comments below.  Share your tips, insights or even just what you do when time flies by.

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10 thoughts on “Bonus Post: How to Deal with Artistic Blocks

  1. sjvernon says:

    Good and valid stuff. My father told me this… and I experience it too… the stuff I spend the most time often gets the “meh!” responses, while the things I whip out quickly without a lot of thought sometimes end up being the most liked things I post. There are exceptions… but often it’s hard for me to predict what is going to be most well-received. You just have to get used to it… and keep creating, and sharing, because you never know which things will connect with people.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. My Small Surrenders says:

    After reading this, I had to take a step back before commenting.
    I love the way you’ve adapted your mindfulness practice to include your daily art.
    My first introduction to mindfulness included teachings from Jon Kabat-Zinn and his book ‘Full Catastrophe Living’, which teaches to focus on the breath in the same way you give attention to your time drawing. I’ve experienced “the flow” you describe while running and at times when drawing, usually when I draw Zentangle doodles.
    I will definitely try approaching my future creative practice in this way, not just when I feel blocked, but to whenever I pick up a pen, pencil, or brush.
    Thanks so much for sharing this 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • PMu says:

      Thank you so much for your comment. My daily practice means a lot to me and this is the first time I have written about it so directly, it felt a little exposing. Very reassuring that it has resonated with someone else in the world 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • My Small Surrenders says:

        Writing is exposing, which is probably why I still write my blog anonymously – except for the friends and family members whom I’ve trusted enough to share my thoughts and feelings about how my life has changed and continues to change because of my illness.

        There is something that happens mentally and emotionally when we write about our experiences, an unburdening, is the best way I can describe it. We free ourselves.
        My blog started because I was journaling every day but it felt like I needed to connect with other people who might have similar experiences to my own and I wanted to know how they managed similar issues in their lives.
        What you wrote resonated because it’s truthful and connects with what so many people want to feel but don’t know how to get to. Mindfulness, however, it’s practiced is personal but also something universally beneficial.
        I hope you write more about your practice in the future 🙂 💛

        Liked by 1 person

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