Advice on creative block

  • Hello,

    I have been drawing off and on since I was 5. It is a big part of my identity yet I have been struggling most of my life to do it consistently. I want to progress and grow as an illustrator but everytime I think of putting the pencil down, I start getting stressed out thinking about it. Drawing used to be fun, but these days it's just a grueling battle with myself to do everything perfectly and effortlessly. I joined SVS Learn as a way to teach myself the fundamentals and sharpen my skills and hopefully fall in love with drawing again. But I stopped viewing the lessons because I would doubt myself or tell myself it wouldn't amount to anything anyway. I just want to enjoy drawing again. Has anyone experienced this? Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thanks for reading.

  • SVS OG

    @Mike-C Hi my one advice to you is be kinder to yourself. Allow yourself to make mistakes. Keep in mind that you need to fail a lot in order to succeed. Also, feel free to post your assignments/personal projects here in the forum. Having peers cheering you on and helping you improve is really encouraging.

  • Pro

    @Mike-C You are all up in your head. Doubt, perfectionism and stress are the death of creativity and fun. I think you are being way too hard on yourself by expecting of yourself that it needs to be perfect and effortless. I'm a professional illustrator and art is still hard for me, far from effortless! And sometimes my pieces don't work and I have to start over.

    To learn and get better, we need to get comfortable with mistakes and failure. We need to let go of the notion of getting it perfect all the time. Think about it, the reason children learn at such a fast rate is because they're not afraid of failure and just jump right into everything with gusto. They try to walk, fall flat on their face and just get up and try again. You'll never see a baby putting pressure on themselves to walk perfectly, or thinking to themselves "I'm a human, this should be easier! This should be effortless!" I know it's easier said than done, but you need to relax and stop expecting perfection from yourself because that's literally preventing you from getting better. You are your own worst enemy.

    Can you only enjoy art when you're amazing at it, otherwise it's not fun for you? I don't think you're that vain Mike, do you? To try to get out of this perfectionist head space, I would suggest you get messy and experiment with different media, different styles. Splash around some watercolors, draw lines and shapes with big pastel sticks. Try to do some abstract work maybe. Go in with a goal of having fun and seeing what happens, and let go of any expectations to get a masterpiece.

    It is a difficult problem that many artists have. Yes to improve, we must practice and take classes, do exercises, get feedback, work on our flaws. But the most important part is having fun, otherwise it will be impossible to maintain in the long run. Creative block comes from pressure, expectations, doubt and burnout. For you right now, it's more important to work on removing those rotten elements from your recipe than it is to tweak the spices and flavors. Because you are in danger of the whole pot going bad if you don't.

  • @Mike-C I think you should read the book Art & Fear because it talks about all of the struggles you describe. It is about all kind of creative work, and it talks about what an artist needs in order to keep going. Here's an example of what the book talks about : "Recently, out of pleasure alone, an accomplished visual artist took up dance. Never before experiencing an artform so purely physical, she threw herself into it. Her involvement became intense: more classes, more practice, more commitment, longer hours. She excelled. Then one day several months into it, her instructor asked her to consider joining a performing troupe. She froze. Her dancing fell apart. She became stiff and self-conscious. She got serious, or serious in a different way. She didn't feel she was good enough, and her dancing promptly was not good enough. She got frustrated and depressed enough that she had to quit for a few weeks to sort things out. More recently, back to work on new but shaky ground, she's having to teach herself to enjoy working hard for others at the art she previously enjoyed passionately for herself."

    Basically, there are fears we all have (of what our work says about us, about how others might not consider it art, etc) that can stop us from making art, but the inefficiency and imperfection you're trying to rid yourself of is exactly the valuable thing you have to share with the world, so please embrace it and continue making art. We seem like we are in competition with each other sometimes, but it is only you right now that can make the art you make.

  • @Nyrryl-Cadiz being kind to myself is something I am working on every day and it is definitely a struggle. I really appreciate the candor in your advice. I keep telling myself to let go. I guess I just have to practice these things more instead of just thinking about them. Thank you.

  • @NessIllustration Thank you so much for your thoughtful insight. I love the analogy of babies learning to walk. It's so true and so relevant! That's exactly what the issue is. As children, we're so much more carefree. When drawing is fun for me, it is carefree and without constraint or pressure. I do it for the sake of exploring. It loses it's fun and charm the moment I put an expectation on it. I am trying to get back to that mindset of childlike wonder. It is, as you said, easier said than done. But it is definitely encouraging to know that even as a professional, you deal with the same struggles. I agree with your statement about vanity as well. I don't think that is my issue is being vain so much as it is arrogance. This need for perfection has caused me to believe I am capable of perfection and nothing else is acceptable. Which is obviously an unhealthy notion. It's definitely something I have to work on if I want to begin to enjoy drawing again. Thanks again for your comment!

  • Hi Mike! I am also a full time illustrator, and I recently struggled with not feeling like it was worth continuing as an artist, and thought about leaving illustration to do something else entirely. What saved me was SVS learn. I would listen to the classes with zero intentions to do an assignment, just to listen and learn. ( I would recommend doing the assignments, but I wasn't emotionally in a place that I could). However, as I listened to them, I started to want to try it out. So I started small. Choose one small thing that you might be able to do. Even if it's just drawing a 100 circles in your sketchbook to get better at your hand doing what you told it to.

    I also listened to every single podcast. Every time I felt unhappy and upset with myself I would put a podcast on and I'd feel excited about art again, like it was achievable.

    Then when I would draw, I would tell myself if I felt frustrated that meant I was learning, because when it was easy I wasn't growing. Every time you fail is an opportunity to learn.

    And I never compare myself to another artist, just to myself a few months ago, or a year ago. I look to other artists for inspiration and how to push myself, but not "they're better than me, or I'm better than them" etc.

    And finally, don't worry about if you are going to amount to anything. If your goal is to do art that you enjoy, focus on that. If you are making art that excites you, that will show up in what you create and you will push yourself to get better. And in my opinion the artists that "make it" aren't the most skilled, they are the most persistent.

    Listen to the recent podcast "dream big" I feel like they touch on this a bit there. And good luck ❤

    I hope we get to see you try and fail and keep going.

  • @carolinebautista Thank you so much for your helpful advice. I have been wanting to find a book with relatable anecdotes and examples like this one! I really like the excerpt about the dancer, it really captures how I've been feeling quite accurately. I was once drawing purely for fun and expression but then at sone point I got the notion that I'd like to draw for a living. Suddenly all of the pressure and expectations came flooding in from nowhere else but my own mind. I am aware it's totally a mental battle. But I am open to any literature that could help me find a way to work through this. Thanks again!

  • Those voices of doubt and perfectionism will always be with you, so accept them as part of the creativity process...and learn to ignore them and create anyway. These are internalized messages we've received from society/family/peers and they are hard to block out because we want to do the thing that gains us love and acceptance. When my own doubt-infested voices get too loud, I know it's time for me to walk away for a moment or a day and come back later with fresh eyes. Also, maybe play some music while you're drawing and bring a little levity to it, or use crayons or collage to just "play." We're so wired in society to produce something, but we forget how to play. I second reading Art & Fear.

  • @carlianne Wow. Comments like this are why I was so excited to join this community. Thank you so much for your relatable insight! I used to listen to the podcast religiously and I agree, it did make me feel inspired and excited about drawing every time. I should just start listening again and start getting back into the video lessons as well. I like the idea of just listening/watching the lessons without the intent to actually follow them. That makes the task feel a lot more manageable and less intimidating than the act of diving back into drawing. Regarding comparing ourselves to others, I definitely agree with you on that. I am constantly doing that especially because I'm always on social media following many great artist. I often ask myself how it is possible that they are able to stay so consistent and produced on a consistent basis. For me, the thought of that sounds impossible when every time I think of drawing, I imagine the constant barrage of self criticism. I do think I have a lot of mental hurdles to overcome. But I really am inspired by your input and am beginning to feel like I can try again and maybe finally stick with it this time. Thank you!

  • Pro

    @Mike-C My boyfriend, a writer, has the exact same problem. He expects too much of himself. He knows he can write really well, and instead of giving him confidence this knowledge only puts pressure on him. He wants his writing to be so perfect right off the bat that he struggles with writing a first draft. Because the first draft is supposed to be messy, and that's not good enough for him. It takes him forever to write a chapter because he's trying to focus on everything at once: great prose and character development and natural dialogue and great action and clear exposition and, and, and... When inevitably he slips and lets a mistake in like a plot hole, he berates himself endlessly and starts doubting that he's a great writer in the first place. When he gets out of his head, relaxes and just writes for fun, his true talent is finally free to shine.

    That's the cruel irony of creation: the more perfect you try to force it to be, the less perfect it is. To create the perfect thing you have to try many different things and rule out everything that doesn't work. This means you have to be comfortable with failure. It's hard to do, but even just being aware that a perfectionist attitude is hindering you is the key to slowly modifying your attitude towards creating. My boyfriend just finished the first draft of his new novel! I know he had to fight every step of the way to keep it messy and just get it out on paper, but he was talking to himself very sternly about not falling into his old bad habits haha

  • @Laurel-Aylesworth Yes! I want my art to feel more like play. I have always been intimidated by experimenting with other mediums like crayons or collages. But maybe that's exactly what I need. Thank you!

  • @NessIllustration "To create the perfect thing you have to try many different things and rule out everything that doesn't work. This means you have to be comfortable with failure."

    This is such a simple, yet powerful explanation of exactly what I need to comprehend. Thank you so much for breaking this down. Your boyfriend and I definitely sound like we have the same demons (or they're neighbors, at least!) It's so helpful to hear from other creatives, especially those with much more experience and to know that our struggles are similar. I will try harder to just have fun with my drawing and embrace failure. I will have fun and fail my way to success!

    Thank you so much.

  • Hi @Mike-C, you might also enjoy reading The Obstacle is the Way, by Ryan Holiday.

    One of the best things you can do is stop comparing your work with other artists. Sure, it’s good to strive for betterment, but betterment without judgement is the way.

  • @Jeremy-Ross Thank you so much for the suggestion! I'll be adding it to my reading list.

  • Pro

    @Mike-C "Fail my way to success" That is a motto to live by! Well said!

  • @carlianne oh I'm so happy to hear that! I honestly really relate to the feeling.

    I agree with a lot of what other people said about those doubts not really going away. So try not to beat yourself up for feeling insecure. It happens to most of us. There's nothing wrong with you. I view it as I have to decide if I want to be controlled by the thoughts in my head, or if ignore them and keep going anyway.

    When I was in art school, it took me 3 tries to even get accepted into the program (6 months wait between each attempt). I was not at the top of the class, and I doubted myself often. In my senior year I cried weekly because I didn't know if I would make it after I graduated. My teachers recommended I change majors But after crying (and sometimes during) I'd pick my pen back up, put on my self confidence music and keep going. I was determined to prove my teachers and the voices wrong.

    I landed a great job right after graduation and have been working full time ever since.

    The only time I had a bump after that was when I got comfortable. I stopped pushing myself and my passion and skill dropped. Again I was told my people in authority that I was no good. That's what let to my recent insecurity.

    I realized my insecurity resulted from lack of competence, which in turn resulted from lack of knowledge and practice. That is why I came to SVS.

    So being uncomfortable is ok. Failing is inevitable. Beating yourself up is probably going to happen. But if you listen to those voices and give up, then they win. And you deserve better than that.

    But don't start on everything all at once. Start small. Just listen at first. Then just do a tiny assignment or drawing. Don't critique it. I think Lee said he allowed himself to have 100 bad paintings before he tried to critique it. So all you need right now is some mileage. Critiques can come later.

    One other thing that has helped me is drawing in sketchbooks with a pen. When I switched to pen it forced me not to get detail oriented or try to be perfect. If you mess up in pen you just draw it again. You get really used to accepting bad drawings as a part of the process. I still do all my thumbnails and thinking in pen so that I don't freeze up. Even though I work digitally for the final product.

    Anyway that was a lot!! But I hope helpful. Good luck ❤

  • Pro

    @carlianne I relate to your account so much! I was far from the top of my class when I studied animation - I was a slow animator and had a hard time keeping up the harsh pace. I was overwhelmed and always fell terribly behind. I nearly flunked almost every semester, and did flunk the semester once! But I got a job 2 weeks after graduating and have been working since. Some top students from my class aren't working today. You just never know how things are going to shake out and great grades or overwhelming natural talent aren't a guarantee of success, just like bad grades of lack of confidence aren't a guarantee of failure.

  • I love this thread and I've loved reading through the very smart responses. I can really relate to you @Mike-C. I struggle with this too, but have gotten to the point where I can at least keep returning to art over the long run, and have been able to see progress in my skills. Still have mental healing to do, but a few things that have helped me:

    1. Seeing early sketchbooks and early work of artists I admire. Seeing their humble beginnings compared to the level they are at now really is inspiring. If they had given up at any point along the way, we wouldn't have their amazing work now.

    2. Becoming a parent! Lol, of course this can't apply to everyone, but experiencing the unconditional love for a child, has helped me view myself in a kinder light and extend some of that love to myself. I would hate it if my children are as hard on themselves as I am to myself. I want them to be able to make mistakes and to keep trying even if things aren't perfect. Why shouldn't I want that for myself? When I'm over critical of myself, I try to be my own parent. What advice would you @Mike-C , personally give to a kid who feels like they shouldn't draw because it's not perfect? You can extend that advice to yourself.

    3. Drawing on cheap-ass paper and sketchbooks. My first sketchbooks after coming back to art were line-less marble composition books, bought 50 cents a piece on sale. The paper is very thin and they are practically falling apart by the time I'm done with them. I tell myself that the drawings on them are allowed to be super ugly. My kids are allowed to draw in them if they want. It takes a lot of the pressure away.

    4. Giving myself a mantra. Some mantras I tell myself to keep away perfectionism "Finished not Perfect". "This is Not a Life or Death Situation" or "It's Not a Tiger" (our primitive brain is very good at treating inconsequential situations as if it's a life or death situation, when it's not. Me making an ugly drawing is not as big of a deal as I'm making it out to be). "Nobody Cares" This one may sound negative, but coming from my background, it helps me relieve pressure. Nobody cares if I make an ugly piece of art, but this ugly piece of art will help me get better in the long run. "I am a Robot". Sometimes when I lose motivation and have to get a certain task done, I just pretend I'm a robot that needs to complete the task without hesitation or emotion (this is super silly and I can't believe I'm sharing this).

    SVS has also had big impact! Reading everyone's view points and being able to commiserate with others on similar hangups is a huge help. Thank you fellow SVSers!

  • Thank you, @Mike-C for starting this wonderful thread! Self doubt is certainly an emotion that everyone faces at some point in their life, no matter how far down the road they may be. It becomes crippling when you’re not able to think of the flip side and you just dig yourself deeper in your own grave. The best thing to do at this time is ask for help. And you’ve done exactly that so you’re already on the right path! It’s perfectly ok to look to others for support, and with time you learn to pick yourself up. Just like what Vanessa said about a baby learning to walk. They start with help from their parents till they’re able to walk on their own. This doesn’t mean that they won’t fall again even though they know how to walk, so doubts will always be a part of life. But it’s about getting up and walking again, with, or without help.
    Interestingly, if you follow Pascal Campion’s work, he occasionally posts about self doubt And other such struggles too. I mean, you would imagine that a brilliant illustrator such as himself would have everything sorted right? But no. He’s human, just like us, walking on the same road, just a little ahead. With time, he’s learnt to pick himself up, as will you with the right mindset 🙂

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