Finding Creativity without a GPS

Most artists readily admit to having creative “dead zones” when no subject or theme appeals. That can be disheartening.  It can be hard to find one’s way back, and for some artists, creative block can last for a very long time, even ruin careers.

An experience a couple weeks ago made me wonder precisely what puts artists in a creative frame of mind. Can I put my finger on specific tangible or intangible things that help me think creatively? Maybe triggers for creativity aren’t the same for every artist. I feel as if I’m creative, but it is not a characteristic that is with me 100% of the time.  And if I can identify things that make me feel creative, I can probably also find things that bar my way, such as my inner critic, stress, or several consecutive paintings that don’t turn out well.

Creative block was not on my mind one evening as I drew a composition for a demonstration in a watercolor class the following morning.  I’ve always found that if my concept and the drawing are going well, I feel as if I’m driving on the entrance ramp to a creativity freeway! Speed up, speed up, merge, and GO!  Once the concept and drawing are ready, I have a hard time disciplining myself to interrupt the forward creative momentum. But that is what I do each week I teach in order to demonstrate putting paint to paper to my students.

The next morning in front of my class, I picked up my brush but somehow couldn’t at first find the turn onto that entrance ramp. I painted slowly, without conviction and even made some wrong choices. From long habit, what I was painting was OK, but I didn’t have that exciting forward momentum.  It seemed like work rather than play. The brush that normally feels like an extension of my arm and hand felt awkward. Luckily my right brain soon took over.

That failure rarely happens to me, but when it does, I’ve learned not to dwell on it. If my head is full of “Why can’t I think of something interesting to paint?” or “Been there/done that dozens of times!” or even “ I’ve used up every morsel of creativity I had!” ……there is no room for creative thinking.

I’ve found a creative journal to be helpful. An instructor in a workshop suggested writing in a journal daily. That workshop fanned my creative spark into a raging blaze to start with. So within hours after the class I followed that advice. I bought a nice journal with a leathery marshmallow cover. It feels nice, opens flat, and stays flat. The added bonus? A red ribbon bookmark. In the days following, I regularly jotted down creative ideas, drew small sketches, added clippings, and wrote about making art. Over time I’ve not been as faithful about writing in it. But re-reading earlier entries, written during a particularly creative period, slams me firmly back into that creative zone.  At that point I can’t write fast enough to jot down new ideas that spill over into my painting efforts.

I’m quite certain that creativity spurs ever more creativity. However, we all have necessary activities and chores that bring all of that to a halt. I doubt that the IRS, for instance, would be impressed if I were to be creative with preparation of the figures for my income taxes. So after necessarily paying attention to that left brain, the trick is to recognize the things that quickly draw us back to right brain creative thinking.  Such as new art stuff……

The delivery of new art supplies at my back door can make me forget the pan on the stove, ignore recorded messages on my answering machine, and fail to put laundry soap in the load of clothes. It doesn’t take much – a tube of paint I’ve not tried before, a new brush. This somewhat explains my 30-year collection of art gadgets and widgets I wrote about in my last blog. It’s not all bad! There are two pages in one of my early sketchbooks that make me smile. I well remember the day I painted those two pages – a day new ½” and ¾” watercolor brushes arrived in the mail.  I filled a page with each brush, painting every conceivable mark I could think of.  It was fun - and creative. The long ago doodles I made with those brushes still find their way into my paintings today.

Right now my laundry is in the wash – with soap. The latest bank statement is balanced. So I now have the luxury of looking through my creative journal or one of my sketchbooks to find something that beckons me, asking for my imagination to grab it and turn it into a composition. My next class is a few days away, so for today I can take that creative onramp and enjoy the momentum without slowing down or stopping.  

Oh....I’ve cleared my calendar for tomorrow. I’m expecting delivery of a big carton of new art supplies.