Emma Howell

Artist Block: How to Overcome It

Emma Howell
16 August, 2017

So, it’s time to start a new painting.. You arrive at your studio/work space, get yourself a cup of tea, line up your brushes, set up your blank canvas and then you just stare at it. At this point, are you the type of person to get artist block or do you get stuck in straight away?

As artists, we all have our own ways of doing things and I’m going to take you through the steps I take to remove any pressure that comes with a blank canvas and how to avoid artist block.

Step 1: Grab A Notebook And Do Some Research

Now this is something I never did before making artwork. For a long time, I didn’t plan a thing and I either copied a photograph of something or made a big mess of random colours on a surface that meant nothing. To avoid this, I bought myself a mini notebook. Here, I write down pretty much anything that inspires me- whether it be the colour of an old scooter I saw by the side of the road, wise words that I overheard, song lyrics that moved me, a quick sketch of a texture.. anything. You will never know when these little notes and drawings will come in handy.

I also make an effort to plan how artwork could look to avoid that fluster in front of the blank canvas. What do I paint? Where should it start? What colour should I use? Why am I doing this? What is life? You know the feeling.

Having notes that you can refer to doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve got your whole painting idea figured out- it just means that you can at least start and have a path to walk down. If the path changes, that’s totally fine.. and actually happens quite a lot with me.

Step 2: At First, Don’t Go Wild With Colour

As you’ll see, quite a lot of my paintings involve many colours. However, my palette at the start of these paintings is rather absent of colour. I have a rule that when I start, I’m only allowed a white plus two/three other solid colours on my palette. This avoids the temptation to slap a whole rainbow on the canvas, which firstly- for me, causes a panic about the composition, secondly- it confuses the flow and looks messy, and thirdly- I think it gives all the colours the same status on the painting, which would make it difficult for me to go with a certain colour theme later on. Obviously, this is my practice and it works for me, which essentially might not work for you- we’re all different! Try out this tip if you do find that you get yourself in a fluster about the colours on your artwork- keep it simple at first, go a bit crazy later.

Step 3: Make Your First Mark Blind

Having a blank canvas in front of you is a bit intimidating when you have artist block. That plain white, empty space that longs for you to make them a bit more interesting. It’s so much pressure! So, take that pressure off by closing your eyes when you make your first few marks on the canvas. It sounds quite ridiculous, but honestly it avoids a whole commotion. After these initial marks have been made, I refer back to my notebook and pay attention to any scribbles and notes I did that can harmonise with the marks I have just made. Once I’ve settled on an idea/composition/theme, I blend up the marks and start to move them around. Quite often, the direction of marks change, but it’s got me going and I’m now in the flow of creating – fluster avoided!

Step 4: Don’t Be A Control Freak

This one has been quite crucial in my art practice. Quite often (and certainly at the start of paintings), if I were to do a very controlled paint stroke or mark, it just looks uncomfortable and awkward- they would stick out like a sore thumb. After over a decade of painting, I’ve learnt to be really free with my brush movements –  it comes very naturally to me now. I see it like rough sketching. Usually, when you’re sketching something quickly, lots of chaotic marks are made and you end up with a Picassoesque disarray on your paper that may or may not look like the intended subject. Rough sketching does not mean that you sit for hours, drawing each line out perfectly in a super controlled manner- it’s meant to be quick and uncontrolled. If you draw something quickly in a controlled manner, unless you’re fricking incredible at drawing accurately, you’ll most likely end up with awkward lines that are a poor representation of the subject. Come on, we’ve all done awful drawings that just don’t look like the real thing! So, usually when I begin my paintings, I take my time and use the same method as rough sketching.

Just relax and trust your hand’s instincts – they’ve got this.

Step 5. Make Some Miniatures

A great way to avoid artist block and being intimidated by a large blank canvas is by practicing first – make some mini versions! If you have an idea in your head or you’re unsure about a colour combination- make 5-10 mini versions on small bits of paper first. It’s great to do this because firstly- you’ll be able to then get an idea of what your artwork may look like, secondly- you’ve created 5-10 more artworks that you could potentially sell or exhibit later on, and thirdly- more practice means that you’ll slowly get more in tune with your own way of working. You’ll learn how your hand wants to move and be able to then transfer this onto a larger piece.

Step 6. Have Faith In Your Own Ability and Trust Your Own Ideas

This is quite important. You aren’t any other artist. You are yourself and you’ll never be any of those other artists out there. So, if you ever try to imitate or copy the style of another artist, you’ll eventually get very stuck and flustered because you won’t be able to replicate what they do exactly (also, it’s quite plagiaristic and unethical). I get it – they’re great, inspiring and amazing in everything that they do and you wish that you could be like them, but stop this and find your own style, your own niche and come up with your own ideas. At the end of the day, if you start to make artwork based on someone else’s idea, you’re not being true to yourself and eventually, you’ll be sat in front of that blank canvas feeling guilty, uncomfortable and frustrated. Have faith in yourself. Be inspired by these other artists and perhaps try out some of their methods and colour schemes as experiments, but when it comes to making your own original artwork – remember, that no one else has your hands and eyes. So, when you’re in front of that empty surface, take advantage and be you all over it. It’s quite an exhilarating feeling when you finally find your own voice as an artist.

Don’t be afraid of the blank canvas – you can overcome artist block!

Thank you for reading. I hope these tips help you, somehow. If you have any comments about this blog post, please send me a message here. Also, if you don’t already, follow along with my journey as an artist on Instagram.