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  • Writer's pictureMichelle Carlos

How to Get Unstuck: Overcoming Art Block and Finding Creative Inspiration

Updated: Mar 11

Discover how to break free from art block and ignite your creativity. Overcome the rut and fuel your inspiration by exploring new experiences.



A visit inside a Hundertwasser water closet may help unblock your creative constipation!


Honor your block

Art block happens. People ask me a lot if I experience it and how to overcome it. In one of my older Blog posts, I tackled this common problem amongst creative people. In that post I emphasized how to honor your block by acknowledging that there will be bumps along the road and that we can either drive head-on collision against the blockage or take a detour and find a solution along the road less taken.


At the start of the year, I have been working on four children's books and have a full calendar until summer. Another one just came in, which makes it five for the entire year until spring 2025, at least for now. Surely it is a good problem to have and I am fortunate to have regular gigs coming my way. However, it can be mentally draining to create concepts, characters and scenes from different stories one after the other on top of the actual sketching and painting.


Unlike a river, creativity does not flow continuously. There will be days up to months when you, as an artist, will not be able to create anything for numerous reasons. You can be burnt out, unmotivated, ill, bored or simply out of ideas. There are ways to overcome this difficulty and here are some of my hat tricks.


The brain cannot differentiate whether you are working on another project. It is just constantly active. But it knows when a break is needed because your body keeps score.


Plot your Schedule

The first thing you need to do is get a physical calendar and plot your work schedule. I prefer one where I can note down the task. I used to purchase artsy calendars, which can be fun and exciting but can be pricey. I now print my Calendar directly from my Mac. That way I can customize and color code the calendar for each event, aka the project, block and highlight the period to work on each book, see which ones overlap and still have ample space for note writing.


Each project deserves your 100% attention. What I have learned so far is that each project has varying requirement. Some project timelines are generous or flexible while some are time poor or worst, unpredictable, which can wreak havoc to your own schedule. In which case, you need an open communication with your clients as well as your agents, if you have already.


It helps to have physical work calendars to keep your pace and stay on track


Add buffer days

You should know that you can negotiate your schedule and clients are more than willing to work around your time. They understand that you might also be working on multiple projects. Your project schedule should be stated clearly in your contract. My daily art practice has made me consistent, which therefore taught me how much time I need to create an art piece or a spread. Based on that data, I can calculate how many days I need to work on a 24-42 page picture book plus cover art. I use hybrid techniques, which is a mixture of traditional watercolor painting and then finish in Photoshop. This workflow takes much longer than pure digital work. But I trained myself to work fast although some scenes cannot be rushed. You also need to include research and brainstorming into your schedule and allow for personal or family time, because you are also a living, social person.



My hybrid workflow for illustrating children's books


I remember our MATS teacher, Lilla Rogers, mentioned how to advocate for ourselves by adding buffer days into the work schedule to account for personal and unexpected events such as illness, emergencies and, of course, art block, that might affect the project. (I, for one, have been debilitated by menopausal symptoms.) For example, if you think you can finish the work in two weeks, add another week just to make sure you have enough time to meet your deadline.


Advocate for yourself by adding buffer days into the work schedule to account for personal and unexpected events such as illness, emergencies and, of course, art block, that might affect the project.

The art block

Now that you know how much time you need for each project, you can easily navigate your way towards your goal. But then there is the rub! The art block. What to do?


Because you have anticipated hiccups and have accounted this into your work schedule, you now need to deal with overcoming the art block. A mature professional artist will not just wait it out to disappear. You actually need to act on unsticking yourself from this creative rut because you have deadlines!





Get out of your comfort zone

While most of us have a dedicated spot for making art, may it be a studio, a space in the house, a corner in a cafe, this area can become stationary. I am a hermit! I rarely see and talk to people and lately I have been feeling the monotonous lifestyle of an illustrator. I chose this, though, and therefore am comfortable with my solitary confinement. However it can be dangerous because I can eventually unlearn social skills and miss out on interactive collaboration with other creatives, which can stagnate growth.


Browsing the infinite world of the internet can only do as much. Sometimes a breath of fresh air can do the trick. I have advocated on taking walks or visiting museums or meeting friends but if this is not enough, you can go out further.



Even this snow globe was inspiring!

Travel

I went to Vienna! The good thing about living in Europe is its accessibility. Great artistic cities are right next door. I have been stuck inside my cave for months and I am having trouble executing an idea for a double page spread for the current book I am working on this month. I know what I want to achieve but how to actually put it all together on paper was tricky. The idea is to create a collage-type structure made of random objects a 5 year old child is able to assemble. It has to be unthinkable, unexpected but also believable for a child to create. I did not only want it to be just a pile of stuff but I also want it to be artistic and at the same time have an ounce of logic, meaning there is no magic holding it all together because the story is not happening in a fantasy world.


It so happened that my niece is in Vienna for her exchange study program and so I took the chance to visit her in the city of Mozart and Klimt. I checked my calendar once again so I could plan and accommodate the idle 6-hour travel. I packed my A2 drawing board, sketch pad, laptop and Wacom as well as my week-long supply of tea for fuel.



My temporary work station in a hotel

Viennese artists

I set-up my temporary work station in the hotel room and used the daylight to sketch and the late afternoons or evenings to socialize or visit museums. It was also fortunate that the family with whom my niece is staying has children and therefore has a house adorned with all kinds of knick-knacks, toys, children's books, as well as juvenile art and decorations, which was a perfect set-up for the scene I was trying to create.


Did I mention Klimt? Of course I had to see his work again. Viewing an artwork up close and experiencing it first hand is no comparison to viewing on screen. I took my niece to see The Kiss along with his other works at the Belvedere. Gustav Klimt is a great influence to my work and therefore my go-to artist. I also went to see for the first time another of his masterpieces, the Beethoven Frieze at the Secession Building, which inspired a few of my artworks such as the Hamlet series and Lullaby for the King. Although Klimt's work will not directly inspire this picture book, his upright and one-point perspective composition might.



Serious contemplation of the masterpiece


Another local artist I absolutely needed to see was Friedensreich Hundertwasser. He was an Austrian visual artist, architect and environmentalist who built wacky structures all over the continent. His famous Viennese landmarks are the Hundertwasser House and the Kunsthaus, where his paintings and screen prints are on permanent display. And boy did I get a revelation as soon as I saw one of his unconventional pillars at the entry way! His two-dimentional pieces were the best samples of "chaotic grandeur" I was searching for. I was in awe and immensely inspired.



Some of Hundertwasser's works that kicked me out of my art block



Take note

You can absolutely mix work and pleasure even in the midst of back-to-back projects. I even included research into my trip. While it is not necessary to cross borders and go to another country, you only need to get out and keep your eyes open to observe your surroundings and capture every bit of detail that might be useful to your creation. You must identify what is blocking you. My intention was to find a way to assemble on paper an object that is wacky, whimsical, childish and festive that is also sensible for a child to build and yet showcase the character's ingenuity without underestimating my young readers' intellect.



The Hundertwasser House in Vienna


I had an opportunity to travel and so I took advantage of it and it was indeed a good decision to come to Vienna. Even the amusement park in Prater was abundant with structural forms that ignited ideas.


On the last day in the city, I began roughing out my initial ideas of the said object and was happy that it was finally taking form. As soon as I arrived home, I grabbed a few more visual references that came to me while I was brainstorming. Heck, I was manically searching for image references and pinning on Pinterest while on another 6-hour ride back to Germany! I was even able to write this on a whim after scouring for ideas for my March newsletter and Blog post. I have a few days left to work on this double page spread before the deadline and I need to get cracking. Art block, be gone!




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