Battling Artist’s Block

actual photo

My brain is a scrapyard. Most of the stuff laying around in there is just waiting for the landfill or furnace. Instead of crushed cars stacked five stories, it’s jettisoned art projects, blurry nights from my 20’s, and all the forgotten cheat codes from GTA3.

You don’t always find a lot of useful things in junkyards, but if you wander around long enough, you’ll see some cool stuff. Either that, or you’ll get lost, beating the same paths over and over until you forget why you were there in the first place. I like to call that “artists block.”

I don’t have artist’s block right now, and that’s probably why I’m able to write about it. I think. I’m not really sure. Fuck, maybe I do have artist’s block. There’s more ideas than action, that’s for sure. That’s most likely because the ideas come faster than I can take action, or possibly because the ideas are just vague enough to stop me from starting.

How are yo supposed to handle that? I’m not 100% sure. There’s a lot of methods, and over the years I’ve found some that work for me, but that doesn’t mean they work for everyone. I’ll still share a few things that help me when I’m struggling with artist’s block.

1. Switch Mediums

If I’ve been doing marker drawings for awhile and I start to get stuck, I switch mediums. Maybe I’ll knock out some acrylic paints, or switch to watercolor. I’ll often go in a completely different direction and work on sculpture or assemblage pieces.

One of the reasons we get artist’s block is because we dig ourselves into repetition and routine. It’s easy to fall into a rut and then lose inspiration. Forcing ourselves to work in other mediums makes us think in different ways, and the different techniques can usually transfer from one medium to the next.

A lot of people may not realize it, but working on mixed media abstracts has been one of the biggest influences on my tattooing; especially cover ups. The fact that I don’t have any preconceived notion or concept as to my finished product is the biggest driver.

Now how the hell does that make any sense? How can slapping paint and glue and glitter and trash together have any influence over tattooing? Tattooing is meticulous in its details, and skin is an unforgiving work surface. There’s little room for error. The other is just haphazard and chaotic.

So yes, the techniques are different, and the final products are worlds apart. Yet there is kindred mindsets and approaches involved. The loose, fluid nature of my abstract process is a stark contrast to tattooing, but with cover ups, that loose approach is important. I need to remain open to making changes to structure, shading, color selections, and light sources; sometimes when I’m more than halfway done. Without my experience with mixed media abstracts, my vision would be narrow and confined to the conventional, rigid process of tattooing.

This is what switching mediums can do for your creativity, and for the times you suffer artist’s block. Force yourself to be uncomfortable and think outside the box. It can broaden your horizons and give new perspective.

2. Steal People’s Shit

Hold on, I probably need to clarify that very loaded and controversial heading. I’m not saying steal in the sense of plagiarizing and claiming other people’s work as your own, or selling and making money from it. No, I’m talking about reproduction as practice.

Early in my career, I was bad. I mean, I was really really bad. I fucking sucked. I could draw to a degree, and I spent a lot of my childhood and teenage years with my head buried in a sketchbook, but I had no idea how to design tattoos. Those first several years were basically learning how to draw and doing shitty tattoos.

After hobbling along and botching plenty of tattoos, I started mimicking other artist’s drawing styles. I wasn’t copying designs, but rather attempting to utilize their abilities to further my own. When somebody else has figured some shit out, following their blueprint will help you figure it out too.

Being a copycat; at least behind closed doors; helps you understand why certain artists do things the way they do understanding can blow the doors off of your creativity. So if you’re fighting against artist’s block, go ahead and copy people. Just don’t try to make money off of it, and give credit where it’s due.

3. Get Random

Since 2005, I’ve been doing a drawing exercise called three in a hat. You write down a number of loose ideas; dog, dagger, rose, etc.; and randomly pick three of them. Then, you put all three into a single drawing. The results are often things that shouldn’t go together, and working out a design using them is challenging. This forces creativity in ways that are out of your ordinary process. It’s a wonderful exercise for tattoo artists, who always need to mash up eclectic concepts in one drawing.

The whole process can be fun if you really run with it and let yourself get silly. The only problem I regularly ran into was losing all of the little slips of paper and having to rewrite everything. That’s an avoidable problem with the Brainstormer app, which functions in the same way. It has customizable and unique random generators. I recommend it, but I’m also wary, since it hasn’t had an update in 4 years and doesn’t appear to be very active or monitored. For now, it works.

4. Smashing Your Face Into a Wall

It might not fix artist’s block, but you’ll forget all about the frustration, and instead focus on the gushing blood.

Feeling like your creativity has reached its limits is normal. We all plateau from time to time, and waiting it out sucks. If you can kickstart the process back to creating, that’s fantastic.

If you felt this blog was helpful, please pass it along to someone who could use it. I always welcome feedback and discussions, so feel free to comment. You can also continue the discussion on Twitter, or my Facebook group, Unstoppable.