Saturday, March 6, 2010

Breaking Through The Creative Block

With the onset of spring coming out of the descent of winter I now find myself fighting fighting off the winter humdrums that generally fall onto others during winter living in the Great Northwest. This isn’t who I have been in the past.

Instead of the joy that Fall and Winter normally bring me the grey skies and drizzly days have led me deep into the dark recesses of my mind. As a result my A.D.D. is considerably more pronounce and so my concentration is sharply decreased. My patience for things is falling faster than the patients of Dr. Jack Kevorkian. My ability to think positively about anything is just not present. This is especially true in regards to my creative endeavors.

I am suffering from a creative block even while writing this article. Where do I want to go with this article? I do not know. What do I want to say in these words? I do not know. Why is it so damn hard to produce anything? I do not know. I did not have a title for the article until the third draft and not until I knew what the article was about.

I can attribute some of these symptoms described above to my diagnosis of Fibromyalgia, but I have been dealing with Fibromyalgia symptoms for years. It has only been in the last few years, since I have taken to photography as a primary artistic medium so seriously, that my feelings during winter in particular drop so low.

So this begs me to ask, “Why am I hyper critical of my art now? Why will I be even more critical of my work tomorrow than I am today? Why is it now, when I look at my work do I believe I am not good enough? Why, when I read this article, do I think about not submitting it? I believe, that like every other artist experiences in their creative lives, I have been going through another season of creative block. It can and usually does happen to everyone at some point.

The strangest thing, in my opinion, is that creative blocks are usually cyclic. It is like a never ending rollercoaster ride. Up then down. My work is fantastic and I can’t do anything wrong one month, then nothing seems to go right the next month. Twisting and turning then straight and focused. One day I am asking “Why am I even trying to feign my way through photography when my work’s horrendous?” then suddenly I can produce masterpiece after masterpiece. And although the rollercoaster effect of the creative block is brutal on the psyche, the hardest part about dealing with a creative block is trying to break out of it without the tools or knowledge of how to do so.

To better understand how to break out of a creative block, we need to understand where a creative block originates from. A creative block can be the result of just about anything; getting stuck in a rut, losing the ability to see new things or not being able to see familiar things differently, receiving some poorly communicated, or poorly received, feedback on your work or it can come from an actual medical condition, like depression.

So how can you break free from a creative block and start getting out of the hole you are in? If it is a medical condition, like depression, you need to seek medical treatment, but if it is not a medical condition, I have found several methods that work for me and I will share them with you now.

The first thing to try is to take a break from your primary art medium. This does not mean quit. It means you put down whatever medium you are working in, be it painting, photography, drawing, writing, music or even pottery and walk away for a short time. If you don’t take this break, you run the risk of continuing down the same path and strengthening the block on your creativity by growing your frustration with your uninspired results.

During this break from your primary medium, experiment in a different medium. If you are a photographer, try writing. Write about photography. Write about light. Write about your feelings. Write about anything. Or you can buy a guitar and teach yourself how to play. Or pick up a pencil and try doodling, sketching or drawing. The point is to do something different. Doing something different will break up the monotony of your primary medium and will eventually spark a new creative fire in your brain. Keep up with this new medium until you feel the inspiration come back to you. It is important to understand that your creative fire will come back. It may not tomorrow. It may not the day after that, but it will come back to you. It may take month, or two, depending on several factors. Just do something, anything, different for a while as long as it is still creative.

The next thing to try is look at other people’s work for inspiration. This is especially beneficial if done in conjunction with taking a break. While I tend to not look at other artist’s work when I am in photography mode, because I don’t want their style to influence my own, when I am taking a break I use other’s work to inspire me. When I am looking at other’s work for inspiration I don’t compare other’s work with my own. There is always someone, a lot of people actually, better than me. So rather than lead myself deeper down the rabbit hole of disdain for my own work by seeing how much better other people's work is compared to mine, I look at other people’s work as a reference for insight and perspective. I will look at other people’s work and ask “How could I do this my way”. I ask, “What is right with the work and what could be better?”

It is important that whenever possible to carry a pad of paper and pencil to make notes on the work you are reviewing. Make notes on themes, styles, technical notes, subjects or even generalized comments. You can come back to these notes later, even without the image in front of you, and see a note like “The shallow depth of field worked very nice for the chain link fence with the sun setting over the beach in the background.” Inspiration can come from the use of a shallow depth of field, the meaning of the photo (urban meets nature) or even the reminder that background matters. I may not look at the note I wrote for a month, a year or even longer, but when I do there is inspiration in it and it can light a fire in creativity furnace.

Possibly the best method for me in breaking into an inspired state of mind is to be surrounded with like minded individuals. This is critical to successfully pulling me out of the darker areas of my conscious and subconscious mind. The way I accomplish this is by being an active member and one of the organizers of a local photography club as well as an active member of the Flickr community. You can find a just about any creative type of club in almost every major city by searching for it online.

By surrounding myself with other photographers and their work I have made the choice to keep the company of those with similar struggles, achievements, goals and mind sets. These people inspire and mentor me. In return I mentor and, I hope, I inspire others who are aspiring to be better. The enthusiasm I have when working with others is authentic and they respond to that positively. This is especially true when, working together, we create something new and fresh. It is a sense of accomplishment that we both share and bond over and from this experience is born motivation, passion and eventually inspiration.

I was at our most recent photography club meeting and was pulled aside and asked to provide a critique on two images from one of our members. In reviewing the images I thanked her, the photographer, for the opportunity to review her work and provided honest feedback. The first image was a shot of farm workers laboring on a hay wagon. It was a very busy scene, but was composed well and had perfect exposure. The only issue I really found was that the image was cropped in such a way that a worker on the far right side of the scene had part of his arm cropped off and I communicated that to the photographer.

The next photograph was a stunning close up shot of an osprey that had just tried to catch a fish in the water. The background was a deep green that was out of focus producing a deep green bokeh, the bird was blurry with motion. The shot was absolutely beautiful. The wings of the osprey were in focus enough that you could tell it is was a bird. Water was blurred coming off the bird giving a wonderful sense of movement through the frame. The entire scene was stunning. And I communicated those points with the photographer. I was inspired by the photographs and I was able to make the photographer feel great about her work as well, which she was doubtful about. As a matter of fact, she told me that she almost deleted the photo of the osprey when she reviewed it in her camera but that her husband told her to wait and look at when she got home before deleting it, advice I had given them a month ago at a class I was teaching. In the end this review was a win-win situation for both of us. I was truly inspired by both images, especially the osprey, and she was inspired by my honest review of her work.

Finally you may need to reinvent yourself as an artist. As a photographer it is easy to shoot what you know and only what you know. The same thing holds true for painters, musicians and even quilters. Going to the same place or places with similar themes becomes comfortable for you as a photographer. If you started by learning macro flower photography and mastered it, it won’t be long before you grow weary of your own work. There are only a finite number of angles and types of flowers to photograph before you have to start shooting the same thing over and over. As humans we are prone to a common Catch 22. Because we are human we become complacent with repetition. We resolve to stay in our comfort zone because it is safe. At the same time the complacency and repetition leads to boredom and boredom leads to negative thinking and this is the Catch 22. Deep down artists long for change because the simplicity of repetition is tedious to our complex minds.

Learning is a lifelong endeavor in the world and especially in the creative world. Therefore once we stop learning as artist our art starts dying. To avoid this death you have to try something different in your art.

Step outside of your comfort zone and break free of the repetition that is wearing on you day in and day out. Combine mediums or experiment with different things in your current mediums. I once spent a half a year taking landscape photographs of old barns and bridges just so that I could take them home to sketch the scene on paper. This allowed me to think of photography from the point of view of a sketch artist and this advanced not only my drawing skills, but also my photography skills.

Find something, anything, you have not done before and give it a try. Trust me, as I know from experience, you are not going to be a master at your first attempt, but keep at it and you will improve; Mozart was unable to write “Sonata in B flat major” when he first sat down at the piano. Like Mozart, you will continue to improve until you can create your own Sonata. Once you have mastered it, and you become bored with it try something else that is new.

In closing I want to say that it is normal for artist to have slumps in their creativity. You are not the first and will not be the last artist to suffer from a creative block. It is usually a sign of boredom and is always a sign for a time to change as an artist. It is important for artists to know how to inspire themselves out of their creative blocks through change and interaction, but even more importantly the artist must know when this block is happening to know when it is time to act.

How do you break out of your creative blocks of your artistic life?

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