Art Block

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Words: Jenny MacInnes (she/her)

The first thing my art teacher told me in school was to “ruin” the canvas before you start a piece. A wash of paint, some collaged paper, a scribble from some felt tip pens; anything that took away the emptiness. To 13-year-old me this made absolutely no sense because, up until this point, the extent of my artistic pursuits were drawing cartoons with thick black outlines in the center of an otherwise empty page. This felt like I was destroying the potential of my picture before I had even started. I mean, there are so many variables of what could be even slightly off about this first decision. She told us that there is nothing more daunting than an empty page and that the fear of starting is half the battle, but even just one stroke of paint can combat that. 

I thought that was the worst advice I had ever heard. 

I have used creativity as a release for my emotions my entire life so, as a very indecisive person, have tried almost every medium imaginable: songwriting, painting, dance, piano, sewing, scrapbooking, jewelry-making, baking, a long-lived hama beads phase; and many more niche, and potentially embarrassing, ones from my primary school days. I’ve always considered myself a creative person, but I have now developed some expectation for myself to create magnificent spectacles or pieces of groundbreaking literature whenever I sit down with a pen and paper. I’m sure it’s a relatable experience to have something you previously found joy and comfort in turn into something that weighs you down with expectations that don’t actually amount to anything. No one will read my journal so why do I expect myself to write poetic monologues about my very average week with lines that people would underline and bring up in pretentious conversations? So I find myself staring at that blank page and then quickly give up, forgetting the reason I got the urge to open my book completely. 

For me, this was what fueled my art block. Unless what I produced was a masterpiece, I wouldn’t want to have any part in it. First I’d need to decide what my stimulus is, then I’d need to decide a style, and a medium, and soon it became all too overwhelming and I would give up completely. Either that or I’d spend hours looking at other people’s work wondering how they do it. The annoying thing is that despite all this (and no matter how hard I tried), you can’t force creativity. Sometimes I think that I relied on the looming deadlines and structures of school to keep me motivated, but then I would also complain about the lack of freedom and time that came with that structure. I came to the conclusion that I could never win and – in a very melodramatic and annoying way – decided that maybe I wasn’t a creative person and had, in fact, just been lied to my entire life. 

This “discovery” was, to simplify it, stupid.

For countless reasons, but mostly because if I had spent my entire life returning to creative pursuits (no matter what they were) for comfort and happiness, it meant that I enjoyed them. So the thing that changed was not my love for art or my actual artistic ability but rather my ability to actually let myself be creative again. 

Subconsciously I had been removing the scariness of the blank canvas in everything in my life except for my art. When I’d write an essay I would just start writing and suddenly the word count was in reach, the walls in my bedroom were filled with little thought or planning because I just stuck stuff up, everything I cooked started with an onion. I would never just start with a daunting outcome at foot, I eased myself in. Ironically, I did exactly the same thing with this piece I’m writing right now. But I still held my art under a veil of perfectionism which, in many ways, is the exact opposite of what art is. And if I had managed to apply my art teacher’s advice to most of my everyday life, why couldn’t I apply it to my art? 

I can’t blame myself for feeling like everything I create is inadequate when social media is an amalgamation of perfectly manicured final products disguised as “sketches” or something that was just “thrown together”. Seeing Taylor Swift release an album full of ‘music written in the middle of the night’ or Hunter Schafer’s watercolour storyboards, my notes app poem starts to feel trivial. And, regardless of the exercises and activities and pinterest boards, if I can’t muster up the courage to put anything down on a page, the art I hope to create will continue to live in my head. 

The thing with an art block is that it can vary in intensity. I remember the art block when I was expected to produce something of quality, something I knew I could do. But instead, you have to endure the torture of having something preventing you from completing the one task you have. It’s frustrating, humiliating, and an experience that can turn creatives into a shell of self doubt. There is also the art block I am recently all too familiar with: where creativity is the familiar heaven for your emotions, good or bad, and not being able to create can start to feel like not being able to cry. It’s weirdly intense and demotivating and suddenly looking at the blank canvas feels really scary again.

When I make my way out of an art block I get a sense of validation that I would never be able to get from another person. I have somehow managed to produce something I love after being stuck in a void. And it feels good freeing to be able to give myself that validation because I have been there, every step, in allowing myself to create again. It fuels me until my next inevitable art block. 


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