The days when you just can't draw
So here’s something I find extremely frustrating. Some days, I just can’t draw.
Yesterday, I did some sketching and felt satisfied with both the process and the results. Today, I sat down, expecting a similar experience as yesterday. But for some reason, I just couldn’t draw a single thing. Even basic geometric shapes came out warped, squiggly and wrong, until I gave up in frustration.
This happens quite often for me, and it takes quite a toll on my ability to work as an illustrator. Because every project I take on involves a lot of stress and frustrations when whole days go to waste because I suddenly couldn't draw. It feels like working in an office and some days you just don't remember how to use a computer.
I suppose part of it has to do with performance anxiety, stress and stuff like that. But is that all? I constantly struggle with this, and I’d like to hear your thoughts on this. Do you also suffer from this "illustrator's block"? How do you deal with it?
xin li last edited by xin li
I recognise what you are talking about. My goto solutions are:
Copy artists you admire.
I do that on a regular basis. If I have no idea what I am going to draw or paint today, I would open up a Pinterst board where I save all the illustrations I love, and I copy something on my sketch books. Normally, I would not do a full master study - which is making a replica of an artwork. I only copy the elements that are interests me that day. Very often it would be the shapes in a particular image. Also I can do that with a simple pencil. Sometimes, I will make a thumbnail of a finished illustration by an artist I love, just to see what is the basic form of the image. I never post these on social media, only for my sketch book.
I am a picture book illustrator and a mom. So I have a lot of picture books in my house. If I can not draw one day, I read and study some books from my bookshelf. I try to not feel bad about that... productivity is totally overrated sometimes.
Go for a walk.
Recently, I was having a deadline for a project. All in the sudden, I did not feel like doing anything. It was very scary especially there was little room to push the deadline in the last moment. I took a walk, played with my daughter, and got enough sleep. Then I got back to work with a fresh mind the next day.
Hope these make some sense.
willicreate last edited by
@Joen-Söderholm I get what you call "illustrator's block". I'll hold the pencil, tip to paper, and idk what to do with it. I COULD draw a circle, but meh. I've come to terms that I'm an emotionally-driven person and need constant kindling of passion. Here's a list of methods that has worked for me.
- New experiences Returning from vacations, I'm always pumped to draw my encounters and discoveries.
- Switch from a creative to a manual task If I can't invent something, then I switch to a 'mindless' task: adding values to old thumbnail drawings, take an old sketch and make it into a finish, do studies, switch to photography, etc. Just keep making stuff.
- Stimulants Do a sketch, take a sip of caffine. Repeat.
- Accountability If you have a competitive nature, having an art friend or rival helps to push you further.
- Inspiration I find reading a story (either fiction or non-fiction) about an artist's life/career motivates me to try harder.
- (Re)build your ego I'll admit I've shamelessly went out to a public space and did observational drawings for praise Someone is bound to say something nice or at least acknowledge your dedication to the craft. Based on your DeviantArt site, you may do well visiting a natural history museum and sketching an animal diorama.
@xin-li thank you, those are some really great suggestions! I used to copy from other artists a lot, but have moved away from it these past few years for some reason. Deadlines and the constant need to be productive have made it more difficult for me to go and do other stuff. But since it doesn't work to just push through and try to force myself to draw, it might be a good idea to try to find my way back to these solutions.
@willicreate thank you! Those are some nice suggestions. I'm definitely an emotionally-driven person too, and it sure can make things difficult. Reading your suggestions, I realize how under-stimulated I might be too, now that the pandemic has made it so much more difficult to travel, meet people and get inspiration.
I definitely like the idea of going to a natural history museum for some sketching! Though I live in Stockholm, and I can tell you that people definitely do not come up to you to give you praise over here At most, you just get some curious looks from children.
Jeremy Ross last edited by Jeremy Ross
Hi @Joen-Söderholm, maybe some warmups will help you break through the inability to draw.
I’ve found dynamic sketching from Peter Han to be very helpful.
Oh yeah, Jake’s how to draw anything course here on SVS also has great tips for starting out with basic shapes.
@Joen-Söderholm Happens to me all the time. It’s like my fingers stop knowing how to hold a pencil. Those are the days when its good to practice the simple stuff - making lines and filling gradient boxes. Or you could print off the pdf pictures from Jakes inking class and just practice inking over someone else’s lines. It’s frustrating, but you don’t have to throw your pencils out on days like that.
@Joen-Söderholm hi! When I hit a rut where I just can’t something right, I find that rest is the best answer.
@Jeremy-Ross Thanks for the video, I'll check it out! I think it was Bobby Chiu who once recommended that you always start with a long warmup session before you start out drawing "for real".
@Pamela-Fraley Thank you, I suppose this goes well together with what Jeremy said. I don't think I've tried inking over someone else's lines since I was a teenager! So that might definitely be something to try out.
@Nyrryl-Cadiz Oh yeah, you're definitely right there. I think a large part of the problem for me is when I feel that I can't rest, because I have a deadline and so on. Which turns into a difficult paradox when I can't draw, because I need rest, and can't rest because I feel like I have to work on the project.
@Joen-Söderholm lolz been there. all I could do was to force myself to draw and accept the fact that the art will be s***
willicreate last edited by
@Joen-Söderholm Haha, tough crowd in Stockholm.
I re-read your original post and realized I didn't address your concern about performance. I think everyone has those days. Type in to Google "drawing bad day" and you'll find others asking the same question. I've asked professionals about this and all they can say is they empathize and ask you do your best at the moment.
Is it possible you're drawing too frequently in a short timeframe? Sometimes the mind and/or body doesn't want to do the same thing as yesterday.
This is a wild guess but could your anxiety be caused by not being able to visualize what the finished image could look like? Sometimes if you don't have a firm idea of how the final composition looks you'll end up doing unsatisfactory exploration sketches.
Like Nyrryl, I usually sleep it off or re-visit the work later in the day. I believe the more we draw outside our comfort and build our visual library, the less likely the performance issue will occur. And as you said, mental simulation can help fire up dormant neurons and recover your art energy bar .
A few thoughts, in case they help:
The phrase you wrote, "expecting a similar experience as yesterday," jumped out at me. It reminds me of this book I read, Tiny Habits by Dr. B.J. Fogg. One of the things he notes in there is that it is impossible to maintain motivation levels over any extended period of time, so your best chance of success is to to establish a very low--tiny--baseline. Something so simple or easy that you can be successful at it even on your worst days.
And he specifically warns against raising the bar. So, even though you did the simple thing yesterday no problem, you keep the same baseline going forward. You can always do more, but don't require yourself to do more.
I've practiced this as much as I can, and it seems to help. There are still MASSIVE fluctuations in productivity, but at least I have a small and steady progress over time. It's helped me a lot with performance anxiety and blocks. (There are some other great ideas in that book as well.)
The other thing that comes to mind is brain endurance. Especially when you are learning a new thing, or doing something new, your brain is on overdrive trying to process everything. It takes some time and patience to build up to the level of endurance we think we should be capable of, based on what we can do in more familiar situations.
When I started taking art classes in college, I really noticed the difference between an art class length of focus and the amount of time it took to do homework. It literally took me all semester to build up to doing 5 hours of painting at a stretch, just because it involved so many new brain pathways.
I heard a similar version of that in this recent interview with Yeonmi Park, who had to rebuild her brain after escaping North Korea. It's an amazing, inspiring, humbling story, and she specifically mentions that she would spend 5 min thinking and have to rest for 5 hours because of the level of brainwashing she was trying to recover from.
We don't think of our brains like a muscle...but sometimes maybe we should! And so much of our drawing is going on in our head, only a fraction is actually on paper.
Anyway, just some thoughts. Better to be successful in a small and steady way over a long period of time than beat yourself up over not doing "enough." (What is "enough" anyway??) And be patient with yourself, especially when stretching your comfort zone boundaries. (I keep telling myself that. Easier said than done!)
Hope that helps!
@willicreate Haha, generally speaking, I think people in Sweden don't want to be viewed as intrusive. And so we usually don't strike up conversations with strangers. Even if they are making really cool art.
That's a very interesting point about not being able to visualize the finished image. I definitely have a hard time with that and often just have a vague, general idea of what I want the finished image to look like. And often it looks completely different when I'm done.
Interestingly enough, I realize that I usually don't have this kind of problem when I'm drawing something way out of my comfort zone. Not in the same way at least. Maybe because I have to do more research and really think about what the finished image will look like, just to get it done at all.
@MarksByMallory Thanks, those are some really helpful thoughts! It really is difficult to not raise the bar. I'm working on the 8th book I've illustrated at the moment, and I realize that I've always had the goal to make the current book better than the last one I illustrated. Which of course means that I've raised the bar quite a lot by this point.
And really great points about brain endurance! I've definitely felt that these past few years. I've dealt with quite a lot, not just with the pandemic, and sometimes it feels like there is never enough time to process it all. Especially not when you're kind of impatient and just rush into the next thing, like I often do
My plan right now is to finish this current book project and then try to take a break for a while in the hopes that I can rediscover the joy of drawing. Right now, I think I'll go for a long walk in the forest to give that brain muscle some rest.
Annaaronson last edited by
I totally deal with this too!
I have limited childcare and when I have childcare and I can't sit down and do something it is SO frustrating. I have found that in those times I stick an audiobook on and do random admin/ tidying so that I am set up for the next time. If I push through and try to draw something awesome or give up and watch TV it makes it worse.. so I clean my office, send some agent queries, do research and development, re read (or even copy out) the manuscript to see if I missed anything I can bring to it, or sometimes I just get paints out and play with random layerings and shapes . Since I started doing that.. I struggle with this less often. I think the anxiety of not being able to draw make it way worse- its a vicious cycle. So I TRY to acknowledge the struggle and say "ok well this is here today, what am I going to do about it so I don't completely get behind"
This is such a good thread. I am loving reading how everyone deals with this!
danielerossi last edited by
One trick I learned recently (I think it was from one of Jake Parker’s videos on YouTube) is you scribble. Just scribble randomly. Then draw whatever you see what the scribble formed over the lines. It’s a fun way to draw when you have no ideas or motivation.
The first time I tried it, I ended up with a real stylized cartoony moose!
@Annaaronson Thanks! It really is great to see how people deal with these things. Doing other tasks that needs to be done sometimes works for me. But sometimes I get kind of stuck on only doing the side things, so I end up avoiding the actual drawing for way too long. But that point, I think it's part of that vicious cycle you mention.
@danielerossi thanks, I've heard of that exercise but have never really tried it!
donnamakesart last edited by donnamakesart
I usually treat client work as a job and take emotions out of it. At worst, I might cry but still draw.
A few scenarios I can think of that have challenged me when I’m creatively drained:
1. When conceptualizing. If so, I would bam out 3-5 rough sketches. Usually, I could pick one that is technically good. What’s important is you have something to show to the client. I usually think of it as a placeholder and go back and rework it when I have extra time or creative energy
2. When I’m burnt out mentally, physically, emotionally. In which I message my client/s of my dilemma and ask if it’s ok to extend the deadline so I can rest. Start with the lower paying clients and Prioritize higher paying clients.
Sometimes, the work doesn’t need to be good, it just needs to get done.
Some tips outside the art area which I did were:
1. Raise my prices. if you are juggling too many projects that you are juicing out, consider raising your prices. This will enable you to take on few clients with the same income and create more quality work.
2. Change of mindset. Our art career feels like a self-growth game to me so when I beat myself up because I didn’t draw I laugh cuz it feels like I’m acting like a child who cried because I lost in monopoly
3. Make it fun. When you don’t feel like concept work, do line art, when you’re bored of line art, do colors. Another way to do this is challenging yourself: do this illustration but in this style, with these colors, or get this done before dinner.
Sometimes, some other task or problem is weighing on your mind which makes you unable to draw. I found that getting those tasks out of the way frees my mind to draw again. Is it like that for you?
Sorry for the long message Hope this was helpful
@donnamakesart Haha, I appreciate the long message, thanks! I definitely think it can be like you say, that it becomes more difficult to draw when other problems are weighing on your mind. This past year, I've realized that my focus is much worse than I thought, so other problems in life tend to be on my mind even when I'm drawing.
Rest is probably on of the better solutions when there is so much on your mind, like you say. Like I said in another post, I do plan to take a bit of a break from professional illustration when I get the opportunity in a few months. Maybe it will be easier to see the problems after that.
Janette last edited by
Oh I TOTALLY relate to this! It's like, what the heck???!!!!! I think it happens to me when I'm thinking too hard about what I'm doing. I don't know if others have noticed that when you doodle a character when you're talking on the phone, that it almost always cool. It's like I need to distract that side of my brain in order to just go with the flow and let it come out. I shock myself sometimes at how awful my initial sketches of a character are!
So, I try to flip a switch. Do something else. Still creative preferably. Lossen up by just doing some abstract work. Throw some paint at a canvas. Create random shapes, or ask someone else to do that, and then make it into a character. It's really easy to overthink things. And when I over think things, I get stuck.
Most importantly, don't beat yourself up over it. It happens to everyone at some time or another. Just don't let it stop you. Some days you just have to put the pencil down and walk away from the drawing board. It's not like you sold your drawing ability off to the highest bidder. It hasn't gone. You just need a reset, and forcing yourself to keep going when it's just not feeling right usually only ends on frustration.
Alzamon last edited by
Ah, artist's block. We've all been there at some point.
Sometimes it just happens, when I finally have time at night to doodle off, that I'm just too wasted and tired to keep going on. On those days, I rather call the day over and get some much needed sleep — tomorrow's another chance to crush it, and I usually do after a good rest.
I think social media exerts a heavy pressure under us all, in order to feed the algorithm beast and stay relevant. But— the beast won't ever stop being hungry. Not everything we draw has to be an Instagram- or Pinterest-worthy thing. Sometimes it is just okay to give yourself time to copy a master, to experiment, to "mess around and find out" as they use to say now. The rest of the world doesn't have to know or see it. I think embracing this is liberating.
And if you are really stuck in a rut, switching activities definitely help, specially if they involve some active work (ergo: anything that isn't plopping yourself in front of the TV). More often than not, ideas come forward when you're busy doing something else. It is always good to have a recording device of sorts (your phone or sketchbook) nearby so as not to let these ideas be forgotten — the mind forgets faster than we think.
A late reply, but thanks to all who have contributed to this thread!
@Janette Haha, I've noticed that too, how doodles will often turn out so much better. Yesterday, I actually managed to do some decent sketches for the book project I'm working on, just because I was talking to a friend on the phone while drawing. Strange how that works. Maybe I just need to find more ways to distract those parts of the brain while I'm drawing. Thanks for the encouragement!
@Alzamon I've realized that I've automatically become less and less active on social media this past year, probably because I just don't have the energy to keep up with the high pressure-low reward ratio. Even though I'm stuck more than usual these days, I think it would have been even worse if I hadn't cut down on that pressure. When it comes to ideas, I usually have the problem that I get frustrated that I have way more ideas than I feel I can express. In some ways it's better than the other way around, but still frustrating.
Switching activities, like you say, is the only thing that has consistently worked for me. Since I started this thread, I switched to rendering a lot of drawings that I had done the line art for. It worked quite good to relieve the pressure, even though I'm still a bit worried about those drawings I still have a deadline for but haven't even started on yet. Thanks for the reply!