Art Blocked? The Anatomy of Art Block

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A brief edition, 7 years later, as this article is still receiving attention.

AS a webcomic artist who has now produced over 1,000 pages of work with no hesitation, I should amend this article with the following summary:

Art-block is caused by a lack of creative purpose. Purpose is the best means by which a vacillating artist might finally become motivated again. Whether it's as simple as the need to capture a beautiful image, like a sunset with a loved one, or as dire as the need to communicate an imperative revelation before death, this purpose is the key to allowing the feeling of importance, which will allow artists to undertake as great a task as making art.

Avoid distractions.

Avoid irrelevant information.

Understand your own desires.

Achieve perspective.

Feel no shame.

===============

ART-BLOCK

We all get art-blocked at one point. "I don't want to draw" or "I don't feel like drawing this..."

By understanding what art-block is, we can take steps to avoid it in the future, and possibly even control its presence.

Let's start by removing the term "art-block" from our vocabularies for a moment. It is too vague and only describes its effect, not what it is. This doesn't help us except when we want to commiserate.

Now let's start to take apart the artistic process. If we can understand why we draw in the first place, it will help us to understand why we stop drawing.

The artistic process developed and culminated in homo sapiens sapiens, who had mutated large brains that were able to support complex social networks. Art serves as a tool not only for communication, but for solidarity. Art can be defined as the process of reaching outside ourselves, to make another self out of something that is not.

We probably have an audience or an effect on an audience in mind when we are spending hours creating a piece of work. Hour after hour of crafting detail and examining potential flaws will be put to the test when we present our work. When it is well-received, it is one of the better feelings in life. Conversely, a rejection of our work can leave us devastated. These two aspects of acceptance and rejection permeate the human social experience to its core. Will we form a group, or be denied one? Can we create something that other people can enjoy and use for themselves? Or will our work be too distant and inaccessible?


WHY DOES IT EXIST?

The term "art-block" hides psychological twists and turns. The subconscious is a very efficient place, working quickly and effortlessly to analyze what is worth spending energy on, and what is not. Take this news article for example. Perhaps you have already closed this window due to my excessive use of the collective pronouns "us", "we", or "our." This might have irked you but you are not quite sure why (it's my assumption of our collective state when this has not been firmly established beforehand--a "hostile takeover", if you will, of your social relationship to me). Or maybe you are suddenly paying attention because I have mentioned the word "psychology" and you are having a psychology exam later in the week (a subtle nod to upcoming threats and the strategies used to meet them).

In any case, your subconscious is an exact machine, deciding--based on past experience and animal intuition--precisely what will benefit you, and what won't, faster than you can think about it consciously. This was an important development in human psychology, because it freed up top-level consciousness to process increasingly complex social structures.

We may consider art-block to be a form of subconscious decision. We don't want to draw, because it is suddenly in some way not beneficial to us. Our job, as the top-level consciousness, is to figure out what triggered the subconscious to make this decision.


IN PROCESS

Because each case is unique, it will be up to you. But let's examine some sample cases.

1. "I can't draw because I don't feel like it. My art doesn't look good any longer." This is a common form of art-block: suddenly, work which we might have felt proud about is now giving us the doldrums. As a third party, I have witnessed some of my friends' art-blocks of this type, and I can say with conviction that I was not able to notice any change in their works from before or after the art-block. The change must then be in their own perception of their works. What has changed, exactly?

I could also call this the "beginner's luck" art-block, since it seems to work off of the same function. Perhaps you have played a video game and have been doing well, when suddenly you reach a point where your game ends. You try again and now, the game ends before you even reach the point you had previously gotten up to. This doesn't make sense! We have memory of this earlier, easier place already. Why did we make a mistake? Again and again you attempt to reach the part where you had first gotten up to with "beginner's luck". Occasionally you do reach it, but perhaps, the game ends a little beyond that point. Eventually, the game is conquered, but only after an intense memorization experience.

This process is analogous to the art-block mechanism. The "mistakes" we started to make were in actuality limits being tested. We got far the first time on our "beginner's luck" intuition--the ability to intuit a problem when meeting it for the first time; we got far the last time on our strategy and technique, a process borne of repetition and exploration.

As such, art-block in this instance will be a process of repetition and exploration for the artist. Just like in the video game, the "mistakes" that the artist is making are an exploration of the artist's limits in order to examine technique and procedure. It is a growth process: When faced with new, elaborate challenges, our intuition can only take us so far. When we can finally accept our technique as sufficient for beating that game, this art-block can be dissolved.

This process of internal critique may last quite a while. It can possibly be sped up or denied by acknowledging how it works. If we can't get a good feeling about our art because suddenly, it doesn't seem so good when compared to other artists, then step back. Take a breath. "It's okay. I think my skill is good, at least for now. Especially for now, when I have this big project to do... I can improve later. Right now, I have to be me: my skill, my technique." Saying this and believing it are two different things, but in synthesis it will help to eradicate this art-block.


2. "I don't feel like drawing any longer... [because the group of friends I was drawing with has gotten into a big fight] [because I'm moving away to college and I won't see my old drawing buddies again for quite a while] [etc.]" I've also experienced this art-block, quite more prominently than our first example.

As stated in the beginning, art is a communal process. We make art to share and to bring together. When that which we have brought together falls apart, it's natural that the vehicle for that community will also fall apart, creating this form of art-block. The cure is to find another group to draw for, or rather, another group to bring together. Finding a new audience receptive to your art will abolish this art-block in short order. However, this social scouting process alone may take some time. It might be sped up by using our art as a lure to attract those like us. That is, if we didn't have art-block in the first place. Some older art might be in order here: post the older art and let it do the scouting for you. Do you think it represents the current "you" well enough? Or perhaps there may be a way to bring your old group back together. Some art might be in order there.


PLAYING DIRTY

We've analyzed art-block a bit and now have an inclination as to how it works. But sometimes, the technique that our art-block is using to keep us from expending energy on art can be elusive. It may be obscured by something we don't want to acknowledge, or simply too inextricable from the grasp of the subconscious. In such a case, we can employ some down-and-dirty psychology to use our bodies against themselves in order to take back control!

A. Pavlovian Inspiration

This is the sneakiest technique. It does require some setup. We will be using classical conditioning on ourselves.

1. Take some form of stimulus. Light, environment... Music is good, since it is accessible on command. Whenever you create art, play music, or activate whichever stimulus you have selected. This is especially important at the start of the artistic process.

2. Continue to play music throughout the art. Do this every time the art is attempted. If the music is the same every time, we will get a particularly strong effect from this pairing. (It will be a bit repetitive though. If it is the same type of music throughout, it should be OK.)

3. Continue to repeat this process every time the art is attempted.

4. Over several months, a pairing between art and this stimulus will be established.

During a period of art-block, exposure to this stimulus will bring out the pairing... and instantly suspend art-block! You have to be quick; this is a chemical reaction, and it will go away if you do not respond to the impulse to make art. (Or you may convince yourself that "I kind of want to draw now, but I bet it won't be worth it..." in such a case, ignore yourself, just sit down, and get to it. As you get into it, you will automatically feel better. Art-block works best as an incipient block; when we're already into the art, it will be more difficult to stop it!)


B. Time

It is said that time heals all wounds. We can use the passage of time to decrease the influence of art-block.

If our art-block is stemming from something resembling example 1 (self-critique), it may be best to take a break from others' art for a while, and to just soak up ourselves. To regain confidence in our own art, about what makes it unique, our time and technique, may be just what the doctor ordered. For this period, do not watch TV or use the internet for the fastest effect. Something in your daily life may re-inspire you during this duration, something you might not have noticed before (because you were too busy paying attention to others' art!).


C. Money

Money is the greatest motivator, because its potential is practically limitless. By exchanging art for money, we can realize some new possibilities, such as new art supplies or a subtle change in our life that can re-inspire us (like a new pet, or some new furniture). Not to mention cuisine. But business will support us and our art. It is important to indulge it sometimes.

There may be some Marxist concern, that using our art for money will lead to alienation. This is a valid concern, and to be honest, I don't have an answer to this, as I am currently wrestling with it myself. It may be best to engage in two different forms or venues of art at the same time, with one to contrast the other.


THE EFFICIENT MACHINE

Art-block is a complicated process. It prevents us from feeling like making art, because to put passion into something that we are subconsciously analyzing as ineffective would be a tremendous waste of energy--energy that could be used in gathering food or siring young. It's our job to undertake a little post-analyzation and figure out why our art isn't working for us any longer. Then we can start the repairs in spite of ourselves!

And when all else fails, give it time. The efficient machine will eventually beat that game!
© 2007 - 2021 zack-sr
Comments150
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Enricthepenguin92's avatar

Maybe Artblock causes by brainfog?

andbrg's avatar
Thank you very much for this article, zack-sr.
I hope it helped me.

I don't know what exactly my problem is. Since months I am sitting in some kind of art education school and I am experiencing a worse-growing art block. It's growing physical in my case even: when I think of art I grow so indescribably tired and just return to rather meet friends and playing video games; or doing class stuff of course. I find it frustrating and sad because I want to make a salery out of my talent and I fear if I let this art block go on for too long I will not make it as a Concept Artist for I need to learn constantly and so much more than my current skill has to offer. It's frustrating indeed. When I don't do art I feel downright free and it scares me.

If you have any advice to my current situation I'd be so super grateful because I've tried a lot by now. Nothing -seems- to work.
Sincerely,
Andrea
PaperQxeen's avatar
Also, something interesting to do- if you have art block, draw your feelings about art block. 
What if someone else is critiquing your art,and making you feel like you can't possibly do anything to please them?
zack-sr's avatar
Hi Roses,

Is such a person the person who you aim to please? As an artist, you must decide what you want to draw, and in effect, who to reach out to.

The number one time to accept critique is when you are getting ready to accept peoples' money in exchange for art services. This is the time when you will be held accountable for your work, because you are offering it as a service to other people who admire your skill and want to borrow it for their own purposes. It is important to accept critique in this situation.

If you are not pursuing the above situation, you do not need to accept critique at all.
ZeFrogSharqThing's avatar
unless, you are critiquing anatomy, then i feel that is also a need.
Inkserval's avatar
Hey, thanks for writing! I find it interesting that you said money can get you out of an art block, but what if it gets someone into one? I was doing fine as an artist, until a relative decided to overpay me drastically for a painting. She stated that she would have spent the money (around 500 dollars) on a professional artist, but instead decided to hire me. I know this sounds like a wonderful situation for a student artist, but unfortunately I now have an incredible amount of pressure to get the painting done in a week. I choose a medium that I thought would be appropriate for the type of painting (a man and his car), but I am finding myself a HUGE art block. I cannot sit down and work on the painting, I just stare at it and feel dead inside. I know I have the skill, but there is some sort of lock on it, keeping me from finishing the damn thing. I don't really know how to sate this art block, but I think it has to do with the pressure of the deadline and amount of money. I am by no means a professional. If you have any advice, I would love hear it! 
zack-sr's avatar
Hi FrayAldernari,

In this instance, I would say, go for it. Just start painting.

You may be feeling a lot of pressure to perform well... because, if you do, you will receive the money. But this assumes that you will receive less money if you do not perform well. Is this true? Will you truly receive less money if you do not do a very good job?

Because the woman has placed her trust in you, you should simply complete the work as you see fit, regardless of how you perceive your own quality of execution. Let's say that you somehow "mess up" the work, and she "fines" you $200. (I place "mess up" in quotes, because this is an abstract concept for an artist.) You will still receive $300.

Your relative knows that she has not commissioned a professional artist. She commissioned you, because she wanted you to paint it, whatever flaws there may be. Even if she said $500 and really meant $300, she chose you as the artist. It does not have to be picture-perfect; if she had wanted that, she would have taken a photograph.

The exchange of art is often not based on the physical endproduct. Your relative (and the subject of the painting) want to feel a connection to you. So I say, let her. Let your art come out and meet her, no matter how much money is involved.

Sincerely,
Zack
Inkserval's avatar
Thank you very much Zack, this is very encouraging. I will go ahead and go for it, because I think you are completely right. I do not think she will "fine" me, so I suppose it's no use to get worked up about "messing up". Thanks again for replying! 
AceOfKeys72's avatar
this is a very detailed and useful guide. i've learned quite a bit from reading this and hopefully i'll be able to incoprate it into my art process ;)
CherryRedRose's avatar
thank you for this. I've been having an artists-block for over a year now but thanks to this, i think I know what it is that I need to do to get back into drawing again :) again, thank you ever so much! <3
SauceyFellow's avatar
Stop being so much smarter than me! CURSE YOU! 
Rayneofhearts's avatar
Thank you for this...I've had artblock for 4 yrs now. It's even embarrassing to say (ㅁ ㅗ ㅁ) but even more, it's frustrating. Reading this has motivated me to try once more. Thank you
FeatherWishMLP's avatar
Thank you so much! I've had an art block for a few weeks now, and I finally looked up "why do i have an art block" and this came up. It's really helpful!
Didiher's avatar
Thanks for this.
rrrust's avatar
c: thank you.
Jazzy-sama's avatar
One time, I was like, "OOH! CIEL PHANTOMHIVE! I'LL DRAW HIM!!" But then... it was the cursed  ART BLOCK!! I couldn't get the chin right, the eyes, the mouth, etc. Heck, I couldn't even draw the nose! It was the same for all the rest of my drawings for a whole TWO WEEKS. Untill my inspiration was my favorite Vocaloid. (Len) I got my spark back after that. :)
FeatherWishMLP's avatar
Ugh, I did that once. I be like "let's draw my lovely lil Ciel today!" *starts to draw, realizes I have an artblock* xD Ciel is so adorable, and I can't draw him! D:
Luckyluck244's avatar
Yes ciel phatomhive for the win XD 
OOQuant's avatar
I forget every time what to do first when you're going to start your drawing -.-
OOQuant's avatar
uhhh... how should i fave this? so that i keep reminding myself with this..
AizenAkumetsu's avatar
I came to ask the same thing, I remember I wanted to fav another journal some time and somebody told me how to do it but I don't remember, it was a few months ago
jessikitty00's avatar
There's a button near the top of the page to the right that says "Add to Favorites". Click that and you're done! :)
AizenAkumetsu's avatar
ty for your time
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