Thursday, March 20, 2014

Blocked and Unblocked

If you follow my posts you know that I was away from home in January, and I got an incredible amount of work done.  It was great!  I completed pieces that have been 'in progress' for a long time, years in some cases.  I also came home and made some very big decisions about the direction of my career.  You know, the kind of decisions that make your blood vessels constrict just thinking about them.  This was followed by several days of glorious Flow working on some pieces that had been too large to take with me, taking up the paint brush and experiencing the physicality of acrylic painting and how it differs from my scratchboards, basically to put it in terms my sister uses 'falling in soft' with my art.  

It was great.

Then it all stopped.

I've experienced what I've called artist's block before - but never like this.  One morning I got up and looked at my paintings in progress, looked at my scratchboards in progress, went to get some coffee, wandered around and looked at the works again, checked Facebook and email, glanced at the painting on the easel beside me, refilled my coffee, ambled out on the porch and just stood there looking at the scenery for awhile.  

Okay, so I was having an off day - everyone's entitled to an off day if they have the luxury of taking one, tomorrow will be better!

But tomorrow wasn't better, nor was the day after that. 

I tried the 'work for 15 mins' approach which usually does lead me to get into the groove and keep working... but after 15 minutes I felt restless and would get up and find some dishes that needed cleaning, or laundry, or maybe I should have a snack or more coffee.  There was almost a strange undercurrent of desperation to physically not work on my art even though that's what I wanted to do.
Then I would stand on the other side of the room with my coffee looking warily at my works-in-progress (of which several had accumulated by that point).  I wanted to work on them, I just couldn't.  I would distract myself by thinking about them... 'how will I tackle the background on that one, where do I want the light source coming from on this one, what colour scheme will I use for this other one'.  All valid things to ask, and issues that truly did need to be addressed for each work.. but not necessarily at that moment, and not for so long, and not at the expense of actually working on the art itself!  They were becoming an excuse, a distraction.  Similar to the housework, which also needed to be done - but again there is a time for chores and a time when chores are clearly a procrastination tool.

This went on day after day.  Then, predictably, the fact that I'd not gotten really anything done for several days started to cause stress.  One very non-constructive way to deal with stress is to escape into video games.  When you're feeling unproductive firing up Skyrim is really NOT the best thing to do (although Jane McGonigal can probably explain better than me why this is precisely the kind of thing that we DO do when feeling nonproductive).  So of course it's exactly what I did, and for me the reason that it is not a good coping mechanism is that I do it with gusto (yes, a bit of diversion in Skyrim is cool... Skyrim until 4:30am is not cool), and then I berate myself about what I did until I feel so bad that the only answer is to eat pringles and go back to Skyrim where I can save the world and can't hear the voices in my head telling me what a lazy procrastinator I am (also not effective if you listen to Jane's twin sister, Kelly).
I'm not an artist, I am a great Enchanter of Things!
It reminded me a bit of depression.  That obstruction to feeling that one can have.  You remember what it was like to feel - happy, sad, etc - but there just seems to be a space between you and there.  I remembered how to do art, what it felt like, and yet there was this uncrossable chasm between me and that ability.  It is the strangest thing in the world to me to stand in front of my easel with a half-completed painting or scratchboard on it and simultaneously feel so strongly that I want to work on it and at the same time that I absolutely can't. 

My mind would say 'Pick up the scratch tool just do a bit!' and nothing would happen.  I actually had conversations with myself - 'Work on this a little, come on, you know you can do this, you know how good you feel when you are doing it, you know what nice artwork you can produce if you just pick up the gorram blade and do something!' (yes, apparently one of my inner voices is Jayne Cobb) to which my internal answer was a vague 'Yeah.... I know....' followed by, you guessed it, nothing.  As if my muscles just wouldn't respond. 

The cognitive dissonance of this eventually would make me have to walk away from the art, the situation, the whole thing - and find something to distract my brain that was now becoming distressed.  This is when some house chore would prove absolutely urgent to complete, or I'd remember that I had to go pick up groceries, or if none of the above were available I always knew that Skyrim or Borderlands were just over there waiting for me. 
Oh Gaige!  You seductive minx!

During this period I stumbled on something that I think really helped - it is a series of YouTube videos from Peter Draws.  In desperation I did 'Circles & Lines'...
 Which spontaneously spawned 'Stems & Leaves'....
Then I tried 'P or P' (Perpendicular or Parallel).... and little animals started to appear!
Bonus points if you can guess what animal is top and center (and where he's from)!
I'm not saying that my block broke immediately, but these exercises really did help.  Around the same time a friend of mine loaned me 'The Artist's Way' by Julia Cameron.  An old book, but one I've amazingly never read.  I'm working through it week by week now and it's just awesome!  I highly recommend it whether you're blocked or not, whether you consider yourself an artist or not.  I'd say ESPECIALLY anyone reading this blog who does not consider themselves an artist should read this book!! (I'm serious, do it!  Do it now!).

She discusses blocking in great depth, getting into the psychology of it.  Her exercises are very helpful too (I'm still working through her 12 week program).  And as my block lifts I do think this was a stepping stone in moving forward with my art - it was terrible while in it, but now I feel better than pre-block about what I'm doing.
Post-block ideas for tiny scratchboards - yes IDEAS!  And lots of them!
During the period of block one of the several works-in-progress that were suffering was a commissioned portrait of an amazing little dog named 'Banner'.  His portrait sat on my drafting table and stared at me, day after day.  Each time I put blade to board, though I was making scratches but I didn't feel that I was making progress.  The work was inconsistent and I didn't feel confident.  The nagging idea that I was going to screw up anything I touched was hard to keep fighting - I felt weary from it.  But being a commission there wasn't the option of just stopping so I pressed on, until one day I looked at it and realized I had to start over.  Yes, after more than 10 hours invested in the work I took out a new board and started from scratch.   
(LOL - I see what I did there!)
"Banner" first draft (abandonded).
In hindsight though, I have to wonder if the fact that I was so blocked, and so detached from my work, is why I was able to see the flaws in the above piece - and to learn some very interesting things that I knew but had always sort of done intuitively.  My biggest concern was that the crop was off - the face was slightly too large, his chin was going right to the edge of the board.  The other is that his eyes looked 'wrong'.  My blocked state meant that I spent much more time than normal staring at it and pondering why they looked wrong, and then it occurred to me - they are too human!
When a dog looks straight at you, as Banner was in the reference photo, their eyes will appear a little bit crossed.  Most dog's eyes are slightly on the sides of their head, as compared to ours which are front facing.  So the original portrait, in which Banner's pupil's were perfectly centered, was just plain wrong.  When I restarted the piece I was easily able to correct this - and the eyes in the final portrait turned out to be my favorite part!
'Banner' final image (c) Pam Boutilier
I wanted to share both this experience and my crappy, abandoned first draft because I want everyone reading this to know that this happens to everyone even though it doesn't ~feel~ that way when it's happening.  You look around and everything posted online by every artist looks polished and finished and gorgeous and you know that you alone suck, in fact you could be crowned the Queen of Suckitude.  In reality though every artist has bad pieces, things that didn't work out, things that they struggled with - they just don't generally post them on their website, which makes sense, but is easy to forget that when you're blocked or feeling down. 

If you're blocked, or the self-confidence gremlins are gnawing at your heels, or your inner critic just won't shut up - I highly recommend you sit with your sketchbook and do Peter's exercises.  Do them long enough and the gremlins will get bored and leave, the critic will fall silent and then your shy little artist will come out and you may find animals, or figures, or flowers - whatever it is that you like to draw - starting to emerge from the abstraction.

Art is not without struggle.  And being a good artist doesn't mean that you don't struggle, it means that you keep making art, you find a way through, and you forgive your inner artist if they hide from you for awhile. 

1 comment:

Pthalio said...

I love this whole post and can relate very much. Especially the playing Skyrim instead of being productive part.