Creative block is an artist’s greatest enemy. It sneaks up, takes over and fills your creative brain with anxiety. As your deadline looms, the dread spirals out of control and you’re left groping around in the dark looking for that bright light bulb of an idea.
It’s ok. It’s normal. Artists of every kind encounter creative blocks all the time. You shouldn’t let it stop you from starting a new project or finally finishing a piece you’ve been working on for a while.
There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to battling creative block. We spoke to ten creative professionals to get a wide range of advice for handling those moments when you hit a wall. Photographers, filmmakers, designers, illustrators and fine artists from around the world told us how they deal with creative blocks.
The most important thing to remember is that creative blocks are just temporary. Once you find a technique that works best for your creative process, you become a better artist for the long haul.
“Go on trips, watch movies, have coffee, everything you do in life helps you be more creative.”
You need to immerse yourself in your surroundings. If you are a person who sits by a desk, your work will suffer and you will never really reach your potential.
Go on trips, watch movies, have coffee, everything you do in life helps you be more creative. Sometimes we have to work until something good happens, but most of the time if you prepare yourself by being out in the world, you will have enough ammunition once you are stuck by that desk.
You have hit a block when you find yourself surfing the web for useless things. When you can’t focus. It is important to recognize these moments so you know when you need to stand up and walk away. Come back in an hour recharged.
“I like to go as far away from my usual surroundings as I possibly can.”
I definitely need to feel inspired. I have to feel something—that passion and excitement—to really make a project happen or produce any kind of work. It’s gotta be genuine and I’ll usually be obsessed with what I’m working on until I’ve completed it. Sometimes it’s necessary to step back and take a break from what you’re doing to then come up with something really great and true to your interests.
For me, I can’t churn out work every single day, I like to get deep with a project and spend some intense time on it. However, I do always carry my camera with me as you never know when inspiration might hit.
You’ve got to experience things to be inspired to produce new creative work. I’m never going to make something that’s just a throwaway. I like to go as far away from my usual surroundings as I possibly can. I try and surround myself with inspiring friends, who usually through conversation can spark some sort of project or sick new idea.
“For every 10 ideas, there may be just one worth investigating, which only goes to show the value of working and refining an idea rather than waiting or searching for inspiration.”
Creative work starts with a brief moment of inspiration, but from that point forward, the bulk of the process is a matter of sitting down and getting the work done. Rather than calling it inspiration, let’s call it an idea. This way, we take the burden off of ourselves.
Ideas often come while working, so if we’re not feeling inspired, sitting down to generate ideas can be a great help. For every 10 ideas, there may be just one worth investigating, which only goes to show the value of working and refining an idea rather than waiting or searching for inspiration.
Creative blocks will come when least expected. Sometimes this will be during the life of a project, making the task seem difficult to complete. Other times, it will be in between projects. This will make the prospect of starting something new seem overwhelming. To overcome these setbacks, every person will find a unique solution. When a creative block rears its head, we actually have an opportunity to use that moment to our advantage by finding the best remedy for ourselves.
There are so many methods that we can use to get out of a creative block. I have found that the common thread between all of these methods is that they redirect our attention away from the task at hand. Our minds will wander and find simple solutions to the problems that seemed difficult before. Practical ways to achieve this include going for a long walk, run or bicycle ride. We can go to museums, gardens or other quiet places where we can observe art and nature. After leaving these places, our perspectives noticeably change.
We can always make a project seem more digestible by breaking it down into smaller parts. Write down a list of these project milestones and approach them one at a time. After crossing a few items off of your list, you will be happy to find yourself working busily once again.
“If I feel uninspired, it’s my responsibility to decline the job.”
Within photography, I’ve been able to maintain my momentum, but with my branding-related work, I’ve hit blocks from time to time. Anyone who goes through it knows it. That’s when I hand it over, or leave it for a while and come back when I’m energized about it.
If I feel uninspired, it’s my responsibility to decline the job. As an individual, I feel a compulsion to only do that which comes effortlessly. Anything else should be done by people who feel inspired by the tasks. I’ve never taken work on that didn’t excite me creatively.
“Doing personal work, outside of commissioned or client work, definitely gets me out of the creative block. It gives me the opportunity and flexibility to experiment and to take risks.”
To do creative work, I absolutely need to feel inspired. It would be difficult, stressful and time-consuming for me to enter a shoot and work until something good happens. I make better and quicker decisions when I feel inspired and I’m far more satisfied with the final output.
I know I’ve hit a creative block when I blank for ideas, I begin to feel agitated, I become indecisive, and I also notice I tend to repeat and re-use a lot of previous techniques. I feel too comfortable and “safe” and that’s when it all slows down.
If I need to get out of a creative block quickly, I usually look online for ideas. I have a lot of pinned lists of images—on Flickr, Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr—of a huge number of creative photographers and lots of resources that help me get ideas if I’m feeling stuck. I usually create mood boards and style references before photoshoots which combine a lot of ideas that I like, and help me create a more original vision.
On a broader sense, and a more long-term way of keeping myself out of a creative block: traveling usually inspires me. It gets me out of my usual comfort zone and an entirely new environment helps me see a little clearer. Doing personal work, outside of commissioned or client work, definitely gets me out of the creative block. It gives me the opportunity and flexibility to experiment and to take risks.
“Most importantly, it is getting myself to the studio and spending time there since I know that is where all the magic happens.”
Personally for me, I do need to feel inspired in order to create. But I know there are a lot of times where I am uninspired and I have to push myself through it in order to overcome it. Sometimes that consists of sitting down and working until something good happens, but most of the times it’s thinking through it and letting things percolate till the next flurry of inspiration.
For me I know when I have hit a creative block when I am not creating. I look for inspiration in order to get out of my creative blocks usually through research. I find that through reading about certain subject matters that interest me leads to new ideas and questions. I also look towards new materials and processes to generate inspiration. Sometimes I change up my process to see if that creates a shift. But most importantly, it is getting myself to the studio and spending time there since I know that is where all the magic happens.
“Sometimes you just have to throw yourself into situations you wouldn’t normally be in, in order to get yourself back on track artistically.”
I feel like inspiration can be drawn from basically anything. It can hit you either when you’ve done extensive planning, or are in a situation that you haven’t planned for at all. I can sit down with an idea I believe in and plan towards executing the idea, but personally I prefer to see something or be in an environment for the first time to feel truly inspired.
I like to be engulfed in new experiences and situations that excite you just because it’s something that you’ve never seen or experienced before. It can lead to realization and inspiration towards planning towards a goal or a good idea. Sometimes you just have to throw yourself into situations you wouldn’t normally be in, in order to get yourself back on track artistically.
“Throughout the years, I also found that sadness and melancholy were quite good at fueling ideas and getting me out of a block, though I wouldn’t recommend that too often as it is a very effective but also destructive state of mind.”
I have a very hard time getting shit done if I’m not inspired. It might have to do with my approach to photography, which is very emotional and mostly driven by intuition and the way a particular scene or environment makes me feel. It’s about thoroughly observing and being sensible to my surroundings, and it seems as though I can’t achieve that if I don’t feel inspired. I wish I didn’t think that way, but I believe you can hardly force it. I often go out without a plan because that’s when I feel creativity really connects to the emotions, but if you don’t have a plan, you better be inspired.
Weirdly when it comes to words, it’s the opposite. Words and ideas will come naturally only if I start writing something, anything. But wherever you are, there’s always tons of stuff to shoot. It can be an empty cardboard box in the middle of the street.
I read something one day: ‘There is nothing uninteresting, only uninterested people.’ That pretty much sums creative blockage to me. It comes from our state of mind. I need to be shaken out of it.
When I need to adapt, that’s when my creativity really takes off. The more violent is the change and the need to adapt, the steeper will be the creative recovery. Staying in one place or the same state of mind for too long numbs my senses and diminishes the spectrum of things that I find interesting and that catch my attention. Voluntarily putting myself in a state of insecurity brings this kind of ‘thought adrenaline’ that will break any creative block.
But I can’t travel all the time, and inspiration is something you need to cultivate on a day-to-day basis. Of course, I will spend hours going through photo feeds and photographers portfolios while listening to Radiohead albums, reading Japanese wisdom books about the mind, awareness, control, technique and discipline, but nothing really gets me out of a creative block more than actually going out there and doing something. Deep inspiration comes from within, in these particular moments.
Throughout the years, I also found that sadness and melancholy were quite good at fueling ideas and getting me out of a block, though I wouldn’t recommend that too often as it is a very effective but also destructive state of mind.
“It’s a priority that needs to be nurtured and worked at daily.”
The creative impulse is always there for me because it’s about validating being here. It’s a priority that needs to be nurtured and worked at daily. It’s a reflection of a personal state, good and bad.
I think a level of struggle and risk are necessary parts of the creative process. An art practice is like chasing an imaginary resolution and realizing a beautiful awkwardness in the process.
I think if you’re sensitive to what’s happening around you, there’s not a lot of time for creative blocks.
“Switching tasks and doing something that I know will be productive usually helps, even if that’s just going grocery shopping.”
If I’m making a quick poster for an event, I can just sit down and make something nice. If I’m doing a video, photo shoot, or a more involved project, I definitely need to make a mood board and gather inspiration.
I know I’ve reached a creative block when I’m really frustrated. I usually find myself making a lot of “ugh” sounds and rolling my eyes at the computer.
Taking a step away from whatever I’m working on for at least a couple of hours can help get me out of that creative block. Switching tasks and doing something that I know will be productive usually helps, even if that’s just going grocery shopping. After that, if I’m still stuck, I’ll take the night off and sleep on the idea, and then make a mood board or gather inspiration the next morning.
“Often it is necessary to work with bad ideas, flip, mix, let them rest a while, to reach a viable idea.”
You need to feel inspired. But this is not a voluntary act. As an artist you can do things that keep active, but nothing ensures that you’ve got a good idea. The truth is also that we must work with those ideas that come. Not all of them are good; I would rather say that a low percentage of them are good, at least in my case. But often it is necessary to work with bad ideas, flip, mix, let them rest a while, to reach a viable idea. Other times it is necessary to break everything and start from scratch. I do not think there is a universal rule as a reference. Each person is different from the other and has a different perception of the world and reality.
Do not give a creative block more importance than it deserves. Start with something completely new, a project or photographic series that has nothing to do with what you were creating, and do other things that you enjoy.
Life doesn’t finish if an excellent idea doesn’t come tonight. Remember that you are part of a something much bigger; it is in a good way. This relieves you of the pressure to create a masterpiece tonight. Think of it as a game that frees you from many pressures, gives you great freedom to create, and have fun in the process.