This guest post is an excerpt from artist and author Elena Parashko’s new Survival Guide for Artists from Xanadu Gallery’s RedDot Press. The excerpt below comes from Chapter 1
Have you ever experienced the discomfort of staring at a blank canvas, unable to begin painting?
You are not alone. Authors describe the same sensation as “writer’s block.” Once you understand the cause of this procrastination about beginning a new work, you will discover easy ways to overcome the problem.
Fear is often at the heart of this creative block. As humans, we are biologically wired to automatically feel fear as an emotional reaction to perceived danger, whether that threat is real or imagined. The typical behavioral response is to flee, freeze, or fight. A creative block is simply an attempt to avoid (flee) what we fear in beginning a work of art. Sometimes the block can even appear later in the creative process with fear about completing the piece (freeze). Dissatisfaction or frustration with how a work is progressing can also lead to an impulse to destroy it (fight). As a result, artists become skillful in creating convenient excuses to delay painting and therefore avoid facing and overcoming the underlying fear.
What, exactly, do we fear when faced with a blank canvas? There is no real physical danger; instead, the fear is based on worry about possible future consequences. A fear of failure can prevent starting or completing a painting if you have the following concerns:
“What if I make a mistake?”
“What if this painting is not as good as my last one?”
“What if it is not accepted into that exhibition?”
“What if I can’t sell it?”
“What if my client doesn’t like it?”
As strange as it sounds, a fear of success can be just as debilitating as a fear of failure. There may be an underlying fear of success if you feel you are not deserving of recognition and reward, you dislike being the center of attention, others are jealous of your achievements, or you worry about how you will cope with change. (For more insight into managing success, make your way to chapter 20.)
You may not even be aware of the reason for fear, but it will express itself in a host of excuses as to why you can’t start an artwork. To break this pattern of self-defeating behavior, there are some simple strategies that can be implemented right now to eliminate these excuses and get you creating again. Once you can recognize the excuses, work through procrastination, and get into the flow of creating, fear of the blank canvas will no longer be an issue.
Focus on the process rather than the product
Stay in the moment for as long as possible, and focus on the satisfying process of creating rather than on how the finished artwork will look and what will happen with it next. Worrying about all the what-ifs can be paralyzing. Enjoy the feeling of inspiration and the excitement of a piece coming into existence. Remember your passion for art and why you are doing this. When you are in the creative moment and doing what you love, you have no room to worry about failure, success, or anything else.
Practice a positive mental attitude
Whether you think positively or negatively is just a habit of thought. If you are a “glass half empty” person, then consciously practice seeing the glass half full, and eventually you will shift your perception. If you must think beyond the painting process, then instead of automatically imagining the possible negative what-ifs, practice thinking about positive outcomes such as the following:
“Wouldn’t it be fun if this painting flows smoothly and easily?”
“Wouldn’t it be satisfying if this painting is even better than my last one?”
“Wouldn’t it be exciting if it is accepted into that exhibition?”
“Wouldn’t it be great if it sells?”
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if my client loves it as much as I do?”
If you have difficulty staying positive about these specific outcomes, then it may be easier to focus in a more general way on what you enjoy about creating. Try the following:
“I really like expressing myself artistically.”
“I’m so glad I can spend this time doing nothing else but focusing on my art.”
“I just love the colors in this piece.”
“I feel satisfaction when other people get pleasure from my artwork.”
“I get so much joy from being an artist.”
Have a designated painting space
Even though you may have practical restrictions about where you can do your artistic work, be territorial, and create a special space just for you. Some artists are fortunate to have a studio, while others work out of their garage or in a corner of a room shared with the rest of their family.
No matter what your circumstance, it is better to have even a small designated area where you can leave some of your equipment setup at all times. This will make it easier to pick up a brush or tool and get straight into creating when the opportunity arises.
It was a few years into my journey of becoming a professional artist before I was fortunate enough to have a studio in my home. Before I established my own painting space, I was using the kitchen bench to paint on, and I stored canvases behind the sofa and frames in an unused shower. When I wanted to paint, I had to wait for my young children to go to school, and then I would retrieve and set up all my equipment. At that stage, I didn’t even have a large studio easel, so when I worked on big canvases, I stood them on the floor, leaning against the kitchen bench, and I sat on the floor to paint. It seemed like just when I finally got into the flow of painting, I would have to stop and pack everything away again before my children came home from school. This time-consuming chore of setting up and then packing away often became an excuse to not even bother painting that day. Some days it felt like too much effort. If you have no alternative but to set up and pack up for each session, then make the process as quick and painless as possible.
Identify your ideal working conditions
What are your personal ideal working conditions? Everyone is different. Some artists have more energy and focus in the morning, while others at night; some like to paint with music playing, while others prefer silence; and some like to paint with people around, while others need isolation. Identify what works for you and your lifestyle. Don’t force yourself to paint in situations that don’t suit your preferred working style, as this will make painting harder than it has to be. Make the surroundings where you create as pleasant and inviting as possible. If your designated space is physically uncomfortable (too hot, too cold, drafty, or dusty), then the thought of having to physically endure such conditions can become another excuse to delay working or avoid it completely. Your painting time should be something to look forward to, not an endurance test.
Additional tips for overcoming the fear of a blank canvas in the Survival Guide for Artist’s first chapter include:
- Establish a regular painting routine
- Manage distractions
- Recognize when a break is needed
- Reignite your inspiration
- Replenish your emotional resources
- Pick up a brush and start
Learn more about Elena Parashko’s Survival Guide for Artists or
Other topics included in the book:
PART I: ISSUES COMMON TO THE MIND, BODY, AND SPIRIT OF CREATIVE INDIVIDUALS
Chapter 1 | Overcome Fear of the Blank Canvas
Chapter 2 | Get in the Zone
Chapter 3 | Be Inspired
Chapter 4 | Develop Your Artistic Voice
Chapter 5 | Deal with Isolation
Chapter 6 | Acknowledge Your Sensitivity
Chapter 7 | Maintain a Healthy Body
Chapter 8 | Be Kind to Yourself
Chapter 9 | Set SMART Art Goals
Chapter 10 | Plan Your Creativity
PART II: ISSUES THAT ARISE WHEN ARTISTS TAKE THEIR CREATIVITY TO THE OUTSIDE WORLD
Chapter 11 | Live the Dream
Chapter 12 | Enlist Supporters and Manage Saboteurs
Chapter 13 | Cope with Rejection
Chapter 14 | Be Persistent, Not a Pest
Chapter 15 | Build a Reputation
Chapter 16 | Communicate Effectively
Chapter 17 | Accept Challenges
Chapter 18 | Deal with Stress
Chapter 19 | Recognize the Myth of Luck
Chapter 20 | Enjoy Success
Learn more about Elena Parashko’s Survival Guide for Artists or