Category: Artistic process

Your creative treasure chest

Creative block is a topic I keep revisiting because my thoughts on what it is and how to overcome it are always evolving. Creative block is an umbrella term which includes, but is not limited to, creativity fatigue, artist’s block, and the more well-known writer’s block. I’ve read a lot of articles and blog posts on the topic, from people who have experienced it to varying degrees, to people who write about how to overcome it, and I’m still none the wiser on why it happens. What I have learned is there is no-one-size-fits-all approach to solving such dilemmas in creativity. The reasons for creative blocks are subjective, thus the solutions and/or steps to overcoming blocks will also be subjective. The key might have something to do with our own expectations and the solution might require forgiveness.

Lately I find myself in a period of low production. I hesitate to call my current state a “block” because I didn’t stop creating; my imagination is always active and engaged. What I am lacking is motivation. Creative motivation, at least in my case, is mostly intrinsic. Meaning, external motivations, such as financial or other rewards figure very low on my list of reasons for creating anything. They’re nice, but not necessary.

Once I would have agonised over this low level of production. I would have berated myself for it, told myself I was being lazy or defeatist, which could then have led to weeks of pointless self-flagellation. I feel comfortable admitting to this because I know it’s a common theme when it comes to creative flow and most of us have subjected ourselves to this at least once. These days I know the tap hasn’t been turned off, I’m just refilling the reservoir. What is still daunting, though, is that there’s no timetable. I can’t schedule the downtime or the (hopefully) inevitable reboot of the motivation to produce. Even after decades of being a creative and experiencing fluxes in levels of creativity, I can’t give myself an estimate on when this era will be finished. Will it be days, weeks, or months? All I do know is this as a new permanent state of mind.

What is helping now is redefining what counts as a creative outcome and tempering my expectations of myself. Jotting down ideas and making (even ugly) scribbles is still an act of creativity and one which I am content with for now.

Thinking deeply about not much

I am a deep thinker. I enjoy mulling over things I’ve read, heard or seen. But more than this, I love visualising, inventing and reflecting on scenarios or scenes to write and paint. It was said when I was a child that I had an “over-active imagination” and I was a daydreamer – sometimes by teachers in school reports. “She needs to apply herself” was a common refrain in those reports, but there was also an expectation I’d grow out it. Daydreaming was considered puerile and a waste of time. I think a lot of creatives can identify with this.

I didn’t listen. No matter how many times I got in trouble for looking out the window too long or not hearing all of the question, I would sneak away to the corners of my mind and explore. I still love being in my own head and it serves me well in the downtimes.

I wrote a lot of the ideas down over the years and kept them to remind me what a rich resource the human mind is. In this way the ideas, no matter how good or bad, will always exist in a library of potential. They can never be failures while ever they remain there. So I keep them and they keep me. If I could generate income from all the notions alone . . . well, I’d make a modest income because not all ideas are created equal. Some ideas are scaffolding for much bigger ideas, others are nutriments for embryonic projects. Most, though, are fragments of ideas whose function is really just to beget more ideas and to keep the creative furnace burning. There will be many of broken pieces and castoffs, and that’s ok. I am whiling away the hours doing the important work of procrastinating.

Refreshing your imagination

Sometimes you just need to let it happen and trust that your mind is incubating.

Where once it was widely seen as a character flaw, and even an act of avoiding responsibility, procrastination is now finding a niche for itself in the creative process. Procrastination can be seen as a form of creative incubation. It can give you a much needed distraction from the pressures of a project, and importantly, allow time to digest ideas, or mull over problems and solutions without over-thinking. Procrastination is an important state of mind and one we all know how to do intrinsically. Best of all, you don’t need special tools. You might feel like you’re engaging in fruitless daydreaming, but the mind knows where it goes.

Creative people are creative all the time, even when we don’t feel like we are. I have started to envision creativity as a chest filled with treasures. And it is always full. Frustratingly, ownership of the chest doesn’t guarantee me permanent access to the goodies within. Sometimes the lid closes, sometimes I just see a jumble of seemingly useless glitter, sometimes the jewels just aren’t my cup of tea. But there is always something in there. If I can’t identify the objects or I see nothing that interests me, it’s time to close the lid and go and bake. Or read a book, watch documentaries, make sketchbooks, or spend too many hours on Pinterest. The point is to stop looking so hard. Maybe look at something else for awhile. Procrastinate, refresh the imagination.

The act of envisioning the chest might itself be a pathway to breaking down whatever barriers are holding you back. After all, creativity begets creativity.

What tinnitus tastes like

I produce a lot of monochromatic (sometimes two-hued) artwork, such as in the top three recent entries in various sketchbooks. Mostly, I think this is just aesthetic preference, with a side order of apprehension over colour-coordination.

I have always had an unusual relationship with colour, mostly because what makes sense to others doesn’t necessarily make sense to me. For me, certain colours can have a sound and vice versa. Mostly colours and sounds are associated with sensations in certain parts of my body or often tastes. These perceptions aren’t present all the time and they aren’t usually intrusive. Most of the time I just go with living in a noisy rainbow world. Except when my tinnitus is switched on to high: it turns out even the sounds my brain produces, can have taste too. In my case, tinnitus tastes like a dirty silver coin under my tongue.

I have early-onset hearing loss which causes tinnitus in my left ear and means I need to wear hearing aides in both ears. The hearing aides mostly alleviate the silver coin under my tongue, but they haven’t cured my awkwardness with colour. Hence, most of what I produce in my sketchbooks remains monochromatic. Monotones are quieter, easier to navigate. Ultimately, though, I really do love the way it looks, the delicacy of tonal changes, the way they can communicate form, as well as the level of detail I can achieve without too much effort.

Even when I attempt to reproduce the colour of the fruit of yew tree (below), next to the blue-green leaves, I feel I’ve done a woefully inadequate job, so I retreat very quickly back to the safe zone of monotones, which is fine. It’s allowed. It’s only a visual journal, after all.

Visual journals aren’t meant to be laborious endeavours, requiring us to perspire over the slightest detail or hue – unless it’s what makes your heart sing, of course.

Good art days and art expectations

I feel like I have’t had too many good art days lately – those days where reality comes close to meeting expectation; when more things go right than go wrong with a piece of art; where you can put down the pencil, pen or brush and be satisfied, even a little bit happy, with the marks on the paper. This is probably because I generally prefer do a lot of detailed art and am always pushing myself to refine and achieve a certain level of work. But art, like most things in life, can become unfulfilling when the frustrations outweigh the positive outcomes. (I hesitate to use “failure” and “success” here as they are both subjective).

Here’s the wonderful thing about the creative mind though: it’s incredibly flexible. There are no parameters save for the ones we set ourselves. With that in mind, I decided to set aside my very limiting expectations, and just have fun. The only rule was that the process was more important than the outcome.

Below are three postcard-sized bits of art that didn’t turn out as expected, but I like them anyway. Mostly my goal was to test some new watercolour paint, use up some scraps of paper and jog my creativity. I had some idea of what I wanted to achieve, but decided it was best to remain flexible about the outcomes. Initially, the top card was meant to be some sort of watercolour blob creature in watercolour, to which I was going to add pen and ink on top. It ended up being a bunch of weirdly misshapen critters that I didn’t know were there. You have to love the brain’s ability to detect patterns in chaos. I especially like the gorilla on the trike on the far right.

The second card was going to be a blob bee, but ended up being a blob-hippo-rabbit-thing. I can also see a rhino-rabbit-thing. Finally, the card on the left was always meant to be a rainbow lorikeet, inspired by the noisy many around my neighbourhood at the moment. I was going for an even more loose looking blobikeet, so I didn’t expect it to look like a bird, much-less a lorikeet. I don’t mind how any of them turned out; they were never meant to be accurate or detailed, rather just a chance for some creativity that didn’t demand much input from the inner over-thinker.

I had a good art day. It was playful, enjoyable and pleasantly surprising. A good art day happens not when my art expectations are met, although those days are important too, but when I accept the unexpected.

Forest time

Most of my time at the moment is consumed with a fairly large mixed media piece I’m working on. I haven’t had much time for sketchbooks, so I thought I’d share some progress pics on the piece instead.

The first image is the pen and ink sketch which probably took too many more days than it should have to complete. In the second image I’ve started laying down the first layer of watercolour, mostly washes with a little bit of deeper shading, trying to get the greens of the moss right against the dull grey/green of the bark and the blue/grey of the stones. It’s a pretty ambitious piece, and a bit of a gamble as I’m trying new techniques and strategies to achieve the results I’m after.

The painting isn’t based on a reference photo or a real place; rather it is a medley of scenes from my mind’s eye, collected from years of staring at pictures of megaliths and trees, two of my favourite subjects. I saw the scene as I was drifting off to sleep one night. The next day after I’d prepared the board and paper, I started mapping out in pencil where the stones lay and the larger trees were situated. Ordinarily I sketch out thumbnails digitally and then print them to be transferred to watercolour paper. This scene was already written in my mind and I felt like I knew it well enough to go straight to paper. I still have many more hours of work to do as I attempt give the painting the substance and depth I see in my mind’s eye.

Moonlit portal

Following is painting I did last weekend on a whim, including the ink rendering and then with watercolour over it. It was a good exercise in not overdoing the ink when I know I’m going to paint. I wanted to create more depth with watercolour rather than have the pen and ink do all the work.

Note: this isn’t based on a location from the real world; it exists in my own imagination. Some of the fun is inventing the rest of what is “off-screen”, like a prompt for story tellers.

Artistic Process

It’s been awhile since I created a large piece because when I do it takes up most of my creative headspace and time. This means I don’t spend much time in my sketchbook. I’ve decided to share my process instead.

The piece I’m working on is a large leaf lime or linden tree (Tilia platyphyllos). I don’t like to copy reference photos when I ink trees, but I still use reference photos to inform the drawing and create a representative tree, a sort of ambassador for its species. Every tree is unique, even within a species, but every tree species has features which are characteristic of its kind. These are the things I look for when studying the tree. This means I end up studying at least hundred different photos, watch videos and read descriptions to get a feel for a tree. Visiting trees in person would be best, but given that I live in the subtropics, there aren’t too many linden’s around. This inspiration stage of the artistic process can take a couple of days before I even pick up a pencil.

Tilia platyphyllos. Image Wikimedia

The next phase is to sketch some trees in Procreate on an iPad or using a computer and drawing tablet. I like to do this digitally because it saves paper and I make many many adjustments to the drawing. I start by sketching actual specimens to get a feel for the species form, the way the trunk splits and the boughs twist, how it branches, how leaves clump and so on. These sketches don’t look like much and I never spend too much time on any of them. I create at least five sketches of individual trees.

Next I create a draft in procreate and tweak it to the shape that pleases me. This is where I allow myself to erase, redraw and generally fuss with the drawing. It still doesn’t end up looking like much, but once I’m happy with the draft I’m ready to transfer it on to watercolour paper.

Draft I have chosen

Creating the pencil underdrawing can be achieved either by printing the above image on to an A3 sheet of paper, or in this case, drawing directly on to the watercolour paper using a very basic grid as a guide. I prefer this method as it allows me to adjust the picture as I go. The pencil drawing is very light and only serves as a guide.

Very light pencil drawing on watercolour paper.

Inking: putting the pen to the paper is by far the most nerve-wracking phase of any piece for me. There’s so much potential, but anything can go wrong. Once the first mark goes down I’m committed to the painting until it’s done. Inking is a slow process and it can take many hours. To me it feels like the first few hours is the worst, because I’m unsure of how to read the map, I’m constantly referring to reference photos, constantly worrying about the placement of every line. This is the ugly phase that all my ink drawings go through, but I’ve done enough now to know to persevere. And if it doesn’t work, it’s only ink and paper (and time).

Committed!

With any luck there will be a lot more to show tomorrow . . .