At my university, the usual timeline to complete a painting for class was about one month. As soon as the assignment was given, my brainstorming would begin- What to paint this time? How big? What materials to use? Bittersweet freedom! I had to come up with something all on my own to paint, all while impressing myself, my classmates, and my professor. The ideas I came up with last week? They looked dumb now. Couldn’t there be a prompt? A clue word? Well, that was hard too (harder even?). Why is the creative process so difficult?
So many questions like these resulted in my surface blank for a week or more as I struggled and mulled over an idea. Some of my classmates spent even longer, often not beginning until three weeks had passed.
This is a problem for many artists, and to be honest, it still happens to me. But since university, I’ve learned a few things that have helped me overcome Blank Canvas Syndrome. This "method" might not work for everyone, but I hope some parts can help. Here we go:
All Ideas are Good Ideas- Could it be true? Yes, it is! Let me explain. You know that fleeting feeling when you see or hear something, and you say, “I love this scene, or this mood, or this little moment happening between these two colors (or the balance, the shapes, etc). I think it would make a really great painting (or element of a painting!).” Well, you are RIGHT. Don’t ignore these tiny little signs, they are the direction for your next piece. Let the whole image come to you all at once, and don’t overthink it! Be sure to write them all down.
Pay Attention- These little moments are happening all around you. Pay attention to what you enjoy, and even what you dislike (these make good paintings too). And I’m not saying you have to put down your phone. These moments even come from what you may see on social media or from other artists. Be sure to save images or make a note about them. Identify what exactly it is you are enjoying about other works or images, or the moments around you. Be honest with yourself about what you enjoy. The best work you will make is honest. Which leads me to the next tip:
You Don’t Have To Impress Anyone- Yeah yeah, we’ve all heard this. But as soon as you accept it, a whole new door opens. The truth is, trying to come up with something profound, complex, technical, etc. to impress your audience doesn’t always come across well in your finished image. Growth in these areas happens as you are in the act of painting and working through to complete paintings. Paint as if you wont be showing anyone, and remember, you don’t have to if it doesn’t come out in a way that impresses you. If you spend too much time thinking about what your audience might enjoy, you may end up coming up with nothing “good enough”, and then have no finished work to show them. Your perspective is interesting enough.
Write Things Down and Collect Images- Refer to them often, and keep them. Sketch out the important bits or take photos. Sometimes as they sit in waiting for their turn, you lose interest. But you don’t have to let them die all the way. If you’re really starved for an idea, try out one of your old notes, see if you can bring new life into it. After all, you thought it was interesting at some point!
Not Every Painting Will Be Good- Some of them will absolutely flop in your eyes, and to others. Maybe only a few, maybe half. Maybe most of them for a long, long time. But that’s ok, because doing is learning, and at least you DID something instead of sitting on it forever wondering ‘what if?’. And it’s not that its flopped because of your ideas. Sometimes its the translation into a physical work that kills it, sometimes you just lose interest along the way (check out my other post about finishing paintings if you’re held up mid-painting and finishing nothing).
Don’t look at your failed paintings as “wasted time.” Just as much learning has taken place. Even the most planned out, well-conceived ideas can flop as you see them translated into physical form.
Time To Get Started- Those little blips of things you enjoyed throughout the day? Start there. Theres plenty of time to think of the background, the details of the painting, as you are working. If you know what to work on first, where your first brushstroke will be dedicated: its time to start the painting. Do a lot of paintings, and let them take as long or as little time as they need to be finished.
You Don’t Have to be Married To Your Original Plan Or Idea- Sometimes halfway through a painting, it becomes clear that the road you’re traveling down is no longer appealing. Maybe a new and better shape is forming, or a rogue brush stroke has created a more interesting color. Let it. Go down the path. Here is where you will learn the delicate balance between when to carry something through to the end, or whether to drop it and move on. It is very, very delicate, and is not found in the Ideas and Planning stage.
You Can Always Start Over- And it doesn’t have to be right away.
Keep Plenty of Surfaces Ready- If you are hoarding and guarding your precious, short supply of materials, you will be reluctant to begin a painting. Have plenty of panels/canvasses/etc ready in several sizes so you can begin at any time. But be sure to keep within your budget. Find balance between quality surface and materials, and the ability to paint on and with anything.
Sometimes, None of This Works- And that’s okay. Don’t rush it. Show up to the studio, clean, organize, prepare canvasses. It still counts as working, and while you’re in there you might find something to work on!