Five things to get you through a creative dry spell

Written by Josh Tiessen

One of the most common questions I am asked is whether I experience creative block. With demands for new paintings from galleries and collectors, how do I keep the creative juices flowing?

Maybe you are in a season of staring at a blank Word document, scratching your head at what you should write next. Or you are trying to compose the next song, but you feel like your well has run dry and it all sounds like your earlier music, or worse, someone else’s. Perhaps a white canvas glares from your easel, while you procrastinate because your ideas “aren’t good enough.”

Rest assured, most artists go through dry spells at some point, so it’s not something to fret over. In my artistic practice, I have found several ways to fuel long-term creative output. Not every painting is a “masterpiece,” but I rarely experience creative blocks when following these five guidelines:

1. Prayer

Whether you’re religious or not, many artists recognize that artistic inspiration is mystical, tapping into something beyond ourselves. For me, a daily practice of talking with God, the Maker of heaven and earth, has been abundantly fruitful. I believe God’s Spirit is living and active, indwelling people of all ages (including artists) with visions, dreams, and prophetic gifts (Acts 2:17).

I also believe contemplative prayer—sitting with the Creator in silence—is a wonderful way of stilling the soul, listening to God’s whisper, and remembering that “every good and perfect (creative) gift is from above, coming down from the Father” (James 1:17). As a result, I am reminded I paint for an audience of One. This is the most important advice for overcoming the fear of what people will think, which is often the culprit behind creative block. Legendary record producer Rick Rubin said in an interview with Jay Shetty, host of the ON Purpose podcast, that the best art is created when it is an offering to God.

2. Rest

One of the first things therapists advise patients struggling with depression is to get their sleep. When I am fatigued, stressed, or depressed, creativity is hard to come by. It’s like trying to squeeze out the last drop of paint from a tube. Sleep experts say that keeping a consistent routine of going to bed and waking up at the same time is the best approach, with adults needing at least seven hours per night.

Following your body’s natural sleep-wake cycles (circadian rhythm) sets you up for an ideal creative rhythm. Furthermore, getting outside to experience nature, feeling the earth beneath your feet (called “grounding”), and breathing in fresh air are all restorative forms of rest. Beethoven went on a walk every day through the forested valleys of Vienna to refresh his mind and inspire his compositions.

3. Travel

Famous artists of history travelled to bustling cities to witness the greatest art of their day. Artists like Caravaggio flocked to Rome to study the Renaissance masters, Vincent van Gogh discovered Impressionism in Paris, and Yayoi Kusama found greater artistic freedom in New York City. If you can’t afford to live in one of these art cities (now plagued by gentrification) perhaps you can visit them. Closer to home, you can explore local art districts, museums, unique architecture, parks, or conservation areas. And don’t neglect your own backyard, where new sights may appear each season. Change up your usual environment and you will find new things that pique your interest.

4. Non-Art Activities

While I am grateful for art history, visiting galleries, and reading art magazines, most of my inspiration actually comes from outside the art world. I love philosophy, theology, and biblical studies. I enjoy watching nature documentaries, hiking, and kayaking. Pursuing an alternative outlet from your art can help you to expand your mind and become a well-rounded individual.

5. Experimentation

Too often, creative blocks are perfectionism in disguise, a soul-crushing straitjacket which leads to anxiety-riddled paralysis. One of the ways I avoid the stark blank canvas after an exhibition wraps up is by developing ideas for future paintings years in advance. I keep a running folder on my computer for gathering inspiration. Successful musicians keep voice memos on their phone, recording melodies and lyrics.

I recently started using the Freeform app, to create digital mood boards for collecting images of art, movie stills, quotes, and colour palettes for upcoming painting series. As someone who specializes in oil painting, I also experiment with different media, such as clay sculpting, 3D modelling, pastel drawing, and non-fiction writing. I am always sketching new concepts and making notes in my little sketchbook.

Some ideas are terrible, silly, or dull; occasionally they are promising. The main thing is that I’m using my hands to explore a plethora of subject matter and composition. Ultimately, I believe it is the spirit of playfulness and delight that can unlock your creative flow, leading you out of an artistic desert to discover a new wellspring.

Josh Tiessen is a fine artist, speaker, and writer based in Stoney Creek, Ont. Read more of his columns.