Are you Stuck on a Painting? 3 Reasons Why, and How to Get Unstuck – Marianne Vander Dussen

Are you Stuck on a Painting? 3 Reasons Why, and How to Get Unstuck

We've all been there. You've happily started a new painting, things seem to be going well enough, and all of a sudden, WHAM. You're stuck.

Maybe it's that you no longer have enough time, perhaps you're feeling trapped by perfectionism, or maybe you're worried that you could potentially ruin the painting if you were to continue. Or perhaps, in the worst of cases, you just don't feel like working on it anymore.

Artists, I have been there. I have started paintings full of excitement, energy, and enthusiasm, only to run out of steam halfway through. Over the years, I've become better at identifying the why behind my sudden inertia, and I think all of it boils down to one simple word: friction

I believe that friction can be split into external and internal factors. 

External friction may be caused by environmental factors (such as a messy workspace), time management (not enough hours in the day), or other pressure points that interfere with your ability to pick up the brush. Some other examples might be sickness, missing supplies or materials, other commitments, or family responsibilities. 

Internal friction means that there is absolutely nothing outside of you holding you back, it's purely a mental block. Perfectionism, fear, or lack of motivation hold court in this category, and it doesn't matter if you have the perfect studio setup and a completely empty calendar devoted entirely to painting...when internal friction kicks in, you may still struggle to pick up the brush.

Feeling uninspired makes painting seem like a chore, so how do you push through?

I've identified 3 possible sources of friction that could be holding you back, and have offered some possible workarounds below. If you'd prefer to watch the Youtube video, you can watch it here: 

1. Perfectionism

Ahhh, perfectionism. That whackadoodle idea that you can only create work that meets a certain ideal, even if that ideal is impossible to achieve. I could write an entire essay on perfectionism and why it's the definition of self-sabotage, but I also wish to reiterate that I experience this all. the. time.

What's helped enormously is sharing the entire process through my social media, and actually talking about the mistakes that I'm making in my YouTube tutorials. For example, in my Botanical Sketchbook video, I discussed the fact that I made a bunch of mistakes in creating the spread, including accidentally positioning all of my writing on an angle...oops. 

But if the idea of publicly admitting all of the things you're doing wrong makes you cringe, here are three words I like to chant to myself whenever I feel perfectionism creeping in:

Progress Over Perfection.

The ultimate goal for all artists should be growth. The growth itself doesn't need to be linear, and sometimes it may be in a slower season, but you should always be growing. Perfectionism threatens your ability to continue advancing, because it traps you into obsessing over an ideal that may or may not even be attainable. 

I'm not saying to lower your standards...having a high calibre of work is an achievable goal. But if perfectionism is stopping you from picking up the brush, change your goal to achieving progress in your work as opposed to a perfect outcome.

Is this painting better than the ones you've created before? Did you try something new that perhaps didn't work, but you learned from it? Are you challenging yourself? This is all indicative of progress, and should be celebrated. Focus on that, and allow yourself to release your expectation of perfection, because a perfect painting probably doesn't even exist.

2. Fear

Have you ever found yourself saying, "I want to work on my painting, but I'm afraid I'll ruin it!" So you'd rather leave it in its semi-finished state than see the process through, because a potentially good half-done painting is better than a potentially ruined completed work?

Me too.

Fear prevents us from picking up the brush by dangling all of the horrible what ifs in front of us.

What if I mess up?
What if I make it worse?
What if nobody likes it?
Some of the fears that I've had were related to trying a new colour mix or technique that I've never tried before. Below, I've pictured one of my landscape paintings that caused me intense fear and anxiety, because I was afraid that I would mangle the canoe. I was happy with the background and the water, but when the time came to add the canoe, I froze. Because...what if I ruined it? 
Eventually, I was able to muster the courage to tackle the canoe, but I wasted precious time agonizing over it, when all I needed to do was just get started
So how do you find the courage? Lower the stakes. 
Whenever I'm stuck out of fear, I take the opportunity to pull out my sketchbooks or a canvas board, and I troubleshoot by practicing what I need to do there. I can test my colours out, or attempt a blend, or play with the composition, but all within the safety of a no-risk environment. 
If you mess up, who cares? But once you're successful, you'll know that you're capable of pulling it off, and you'll feel more confident when you return to your canvas and prepare to move ahead.
3. Lack of Motivation
Of all of the reasons I've identified, this is perhaps the most difficult to address.
When you're inspired, it's like you're on a high where you can easily fall into a flow state, your mind is full of ideas and hopes, and working on a piece feels effortless and exciting.
When you're uninspired, all of that is gone.
The truth is that I lack motivation frequently. After the initial rush of starting a new painting subsides, I'm not terribly excited about the slog that happens between the beginning and ending of a piece. Since I work in a realistic style, I'll sometimes spend hours working on a section that amounts to only a few square inches, which on a large painting seems like I'm barely making a dent. 
So what's the workaround? Discipline.
Discipline is anything but glamourous, but it's tremendously effective. Being disciplined actually removes your emotions from the equation altogether, and puts systems in place that will steamroll any feelings that are making you feel uninspired. 
Discipline means that even if you don't feel like it, you show up anyway. You have committed to setting aside the time, you've prepped your workspace, and now you're going to do the work, regardless of how you feel. 
For anyone saying, I'd love to be more disciplined, but I've always struggled with it, my suggestion would be this:
Focus on an easy win.
Discipline is a muscle. It needs to be exercised repeatedly in order to grow and become more effective. So give yourself an easy win to create evidence that you are, in fact, disciplined...which will in turn motivate you to become even more disciplined. 
An easy win could be a quick sketchbook entry, or setting up your workspace in advance of painting. It could be batching some social media posts showcasing your art, which may take an hour or two but saves you from scrambling for the rest of the month. Or it could be committing to a 20 minute work period that if you exceed, great. But if all you do is that 20 minutes, that's also a win. If you do 20 minutes per day, five days per week, that's an extra hour and 40 minutes that you'll have dedicated to working on art. Over the course of the year, that's 86 extra hours of work, all from 20 minutes a day. 
So when you find yourself struggling with your lack of motivation, ask yourself this: what's an easy win that I can accomplish today?
Then tell yourself this: I may not feel like showing up, but I'm going to anyway. 
Thank you so much for reading this blog, and if you have any thoughts, suggestions, or other ideas for overcoming being stuck on a painting, feel free to leave me a comment below! 

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