• Michelle Carlos

Honor Your Block

As an artist, ideas and inspiration come and go or not at all. What does your block tell you?



My year of art

Hello, 2021! Yes, it has been a crazy year for everyone. How any times are you going to hear this? But we good humans move forward and thrive.


Living in forced quarantine was not so different from the four years we have been living in Johannesburg. As an expat stay-at-home introverted artist, I am familiar with a solitary and quarantined life. In fact, I was an expert! The difference was that during months of lockdown, I had the pleasure of sharing the dining table with my husband all day. We made an arrangement and developed a routine that worked for us both. He worked in the dining room and I spent more time inside my studio/guest room. We planned the menu for the week and shopped only on Saturdays. I cooked and he cooked, too. It was team work.


Best of all I have been very artistically productive. I have produced more and much improved pieces than the previous year. Apart from the Make Art That Sells My Year of Art School courses, I even participated in an online group exhibition and worked on big projects.



Artist's block

After 12 months of making art almost daily I did not know what to do next. I just learned how to make a picture book pitch and I have finished all of the MATS 2020 course. I wrote a story and illustrated the story board. I knew it by heart. In the end I did not think it was a strong pitch. So I wrote another picture book story. This one felt more like my kind of whimsical magical realism story. It was about a pink tiger who can talk. I loved the character and immediately searched for my inspiration. I studied tigers and facial expressions. What would make a tiger look docile? It is all about the eyes and posture. Tigers have the most intense eyes. Instead I looked at kittens, baby lions and tigers, even big cats that have been domesticated, including one particular Lord of the Rings actor that I wanted my tiger to resemble and lastly I referred to existing picture book and cartoon tiger characters. I made hundreds of sketches. But still I could not materialize my pink tiger and I have painted tigers many times already. I stopped. I was not going anywhere with this.



I began to get irritated and then worried. Without a strong character, I could not proceed with my pitch even though the scenes in my head were crystal clear. This was all happening while we were packing and getting ready to move and leave South Africa. In between were the last MATS course of the year, which was heavy with arts and crafts activities everyday for five days. I also signed up to a two-week writing course also with daily prompts. Then I joined the Folktale Week Instagram challenge that I finished in a couple of days after scrapping my intial idea that I was already working on for a week. Procrastinating and being indecisive was a telltale sign that I was drained of creative juices.



Inspiration is fleeting

According to author Elizabeth Gilbert, ideas are magical sentient energies that float amongst us living beings. An idea comes to you anytime but especially when you are calm, relaxed and worry-free. Once they touch you you then have a choice to accept it or reject it. Once you have agreed to work with it you must prepare yourself for creative suffering and the consequences of it.


I was not relaxed. I was worried about many things related to our living conditions. The whole moving to another country threw me off my creative routine. Also I was doing many things at the same time. I was eating more than I could chew.



"Florals? For spring? Groundbreaking." Miranda Priestly, The Devil Wears Prada


Stop and smell the flowers

What do you do when ideas are blocked? In my case, there are a series of steps for unblocking ideas. I research for visual pegs and make notes. I try to be disciplined about it because the internet is a freaking rabbit hole. If that fails, I move away from the desk and do something else like make tea, look outside or do headstands to change my perspective. If that also doesn't work, I move farther away to walk in the garden, go to the bookstore, museums or arts and crafts store, or meet friends. The key here is to get out of your head and by literally going out you are bound to get any kind of inspiration from all these activities.


But if that also fails, then do something else. Creative, of course, or maybe not. It is up to you. I on the other hand make things because that way I am still productive. Remember that my blockage here is all about creating my pink tiger character and not being creative in general.



Another step in the unblocking process is to just sketch or paint anything. So I painted flowers. You cannot go wrong with flowers. It can be a thoughtless activity. Plus, they always sell and birds, too. And I have leftover paint on my palette that needed cleaning before packing them up. Then I dug out my botanical illustrations, bacteria doodles and mark makings. I also painted vases and pots to add to my library and made whimsical flower arrangements. Next thing I knew, I was manically creating one bouquet after another. I have so many materials in store that the possibilities were endless!



Then I opened a flower shop on my Society 6 store. They are now available as prints and matching repeat patterns to compliment them on other products.


I have also tumbled upon Mexican nicho frames in one of the arts and crafts market that I visited, which gave me an idea to expand my flower business. See? Productive.



Ideas can wait

Finally I decided to let my tiger sit in the corner for now. Quiet but patiently waiting for me to settle down. He will come to me when both of us are ready. The hardest part of making a picture book is over anyway. The story is written and I have two more in the series. The best part is I have a good feeling about this because I am challenged. This is the beauty of the creative suffering.


"However, I’ve always had the sense that the muse of the tormented artist – while the artist himself is throwing temper tantrums – is sitting quietly in a corner of the studio, buffing its fingernails, patiently waiting for the guy to calm down and sober up so everyone can get back to work." Elizabeth Gilbert in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear

What I learned about the floral exercise was that flower illustrations need not be boring nor generic. Florals are the least groundbreaking artistic concept, I know. Therefore I did not want to simply paint realistic watercolor still life in one go, I wanted a quirky assembly of botanicals, bacteria and doodles. I learned how not to be very precise. At the same time I unlearned painting realistically. I also took my inner Patricia Field, unorthodox and irreverent stylist of Sex in the City, out of the closet. In the process I have enhanced yet again a budding style and technique that I could use in my picture book illustrations and everything else arty. More importantly I was just having fun amidst the chaos!



I see a world that's very colorful and textured with ice flying through it. Patricia Field


#productivity #creativity #beinspired

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