5 Ways to Attack Art Block

Maybe I’ve already written a lot about art block. But just because I’ve defeated it once doesn’t mean it I won’t struggle with it again. And again. And again. In general though, there are some tricks that have and still do help me get through a slump.

When I’m feeling unmotivated and talentless – because confidence and skill self-esteem are definitely tied to my artistic dry spells – the first thing I try to do is…

1. Draw what’s in front of you.

Yes, this might sound boring. I’ve done more sketches of coffee mugs and pencils than I’d like to admit. But when I’m not feeling creative, I remind myself that drawing from real life is still art. It’s something I can start almost mindlessly, even if internally I’m grumbling about how the subject matter is boring, that there’s nothing interesting in my room or my house or my city. Sometimes though, I’m lucky enough to get caught up in process of creating something. That look of annoyance on my dog’s face. The little Pokemon figurine that brings me nostalgia. The way light and shadow fall on a blanket – how do I best capture that, without worrying that I can’t?

Drawing what’s around me also has the benefit of forcing me to focus on skill. Since there’s nothing compelling about a coffee mug in front of me, I focus on just making it look good. Maybe I try to make it as realistic as possible. Maybe I’m just noticing where the shadows fall today, in this lighting. Maybe I like to imagine that in doing this repetitive exercise, I’m not in a creative block, but just conducting an exploration of light and colors, like Monet and his haystacks.

But if drawing what’s in front of you still seems boring you could…

2. Use new media.

When I’m testing out a new medium, it doesn’t really matter what the subject matter is, I’m just trying to get the feel of for the medium. It can be a good way for me to get lost in art instead of worrying about the quality of what I’m producing. Here’s a quick list of ideas; I’ll go into some of them in more detail.


  • Digital
  • Real pen and ink
  • Scratchboard
  • Paint (watercolor, oil, acrylic, tempura, coffee)
  • Colored pencil
  • Pastels
  • Charcoal
  • Collage


For me, the apex of trying something new would be going digital. I’m way out of my element with digital painting, but it’s fun and easy to do at any time. No special supplies needed. So one day while fiddling around on my phone, I started to paint – you guessed it – a coffee mug. It held my interest because there were so many brushes and a cool color-mixing tool to try out.

Never mind that the sample paintings in the app were like the one on the left, while mine was the one on the right:

Dip (or Nib) Pen and Ink

Nowadays people use cartridge-filled pens; they’re easier, offer more control, and don’t require constantly having to dip a pen into an ink pot. Dip pens can be fickle, sometimes leave blotches, and don’t always create the line you want. But here’s a secret: in the world of fine art, dip pens are seen as more legitimate. I’m not going to argue for or against that point, but there’s something fun about using an old-fashioned dip pen. So why not try it and feel more legit too?

Well, you may or may not feel more legit on your first attempt, but you still might feel instant gratification from trying something cool and new.


Most people aren’t familiar with scratchboard, or they think of that cutesy craft they did as a kid where you scratch away the surface of coated paper to reveal a rainbow or some silliness underneath. Yeah yeah. I guess that’s scratchboard. But there are some seriously amazing professional artists using scratchboard too. Heather Lara, for example, whose detailed work contains an incredible level of realism.Or Keely Dolan, who creates riveting fantasy and mythology-inspired illustrations.

Scratchboard does take a long time, and it’s tricky since you have to think about lighting in reverse, but it’s so much fun. At the very least, it’s a great way to focus on detail and value.

It might be a little harder to find scratchboard or scratchboard paper, but you can also make your own by coating some stiff paper with ink. There are scratch tools intended for scratchboard – they look like dip pens and have a variety of different nibs – but you can also use an exacto knife or experiment with other objects, like paper clips or spare change.


There are so many kinds of paint: watercolor, oil, acrylic, tempera. Even if you’re an artist by trade, I’m willing to bet there’s some type of paint out there that you haven’t mastered. Why not try a new one?

Watercolor is the most accessible, with cheap sets available almost everywhere. The materials are as basic as you can get – just add water. However it’s often been called the most difficult type of paint to master, leaving you plenty of room for improvement.

And what about non-traditional paints?

Coffee seems to be gaining popularity, and for years I’ve been following an artist who creates art O Ka Fee (with coffee).

3. Be messy.

This is where my own biases come into play. My art tends to be very detailed and tightly-controlled. Loose, abstract art is the bane of my existence. Okay not really. I just really struggle creating it. So for me, it helps to try letting loose because it’s so opposite to what I’m usually doing.

Maybe you’re already a loose kind of artist, and in that case, I don’t know if being strict and detailed would be helpful or frustrating…but when you’re stuck, anything’s worth a try.

Another component to being messy though, is to not worry about how your art turns out. Create simply for the purpose of creating (or if you must, practicing). Give yourself space to do art that is private, free from the expectations and judgments of others.

4. Try different times of day.

By accident, I discovered that I really like doing art in the morning. It’s a nice way to start the day before I become sucked into the world of screens and blue light and headaches. But other days, I’ve really gotten sucked into an art piece at night, working for hours without realizing how much time has gone by.

What about you? Maybe you’ve been trying to work in the afternoon, but you find that actually your art brain is really awake in the morning. Or maybe it depends on the day. I’m still experimenting to find that sweet spot.

5. Find other artists.

Human beings are social creatures, and artists, despite popular belief, are the same. Finding other artists around you has a whole host of benefits, from forcing you to feel accountable to providing mutual encouragement and inspiration.

If I were given this tip though, I can easily imagine myself groaning and grumbling. You mean I have to go out and find people? How am I supposed to just find an art community? But the great thing about living in 2016 is that finding a community as simple as logging onto Tumblr. If you engage and put yourself out there, others will respond.

I still think real life interaction is important, but being in touch with other artists from the comfort of your couch is pretty swell too. And at the very least, well, you can browse through plenty of pretty art and get inspired.

Bonus: Don’t be too hard on yourself.

Some of these tips might not work as well for you. I get the feeling that over time what works for me will change and evolve as well. But dry spells will inevitably be part of any creative’s life.

Creating art is an amazing work, but it also involves an amazing amount of hard work. It’s not only about skill. I only heard this idea put into words recently, in a quote from Joan Erikson, quoted in Composing a Life by Mary Catherine Bateson:

“You have to have a certain basic trust that you can do this – you are going to do this. You have to have will, you have to have imagination enough and fancy enough to do it your way, to make it unique. You have to have confidence, identity, and so on.”

Artist, your work takes more than anyone other than you can know. But what I do know is that the world needs your creativity.

Art Abroad 2: Art Block Broken!

So my first year in Korea wasn’t very artistically productive. It was more of an art drought.

But my second year, I resolved, would be different! And generally it was, although my first few months started off not unlike my previous year. I’d recommitted to doing art, but like my first year in Korea, I was at a new school with a new homestay in a new city, and life was distracting.

Mostly, I was concerned about making a good impression on my new coworkers and students. The new city that didn’t cause me any concern though…because I was placed in BUSAN!


This was actually a dream come true. And yes, I know this is supposed to be about art, but you’ll have to bear with me while I rave about Busan first. So…

Dream. Come. True.

I’d wanted to be placed in Busan from the very beginning. Well, that’s not entirely true. At first I arrived in South Korea with no expectations, knowing that I wouldn’t get to choose my placement and it was pointless to set my heart on any particular place. That mindset didn’t last long. My peers had preferences all right, and were determined to get them. The more we talked about their preferences, the more I thought about mine, and the more appealing Busan became to me.

Why Busan?

I chose to teach English in Korea (not Japan or Malaysia or Taiwan) in part to meet my extended family. All of my mom’s family still lives in Korea, but I’d never been able to see them. And most of them lived in Busan, including my grandparents. Why wouldn’t I want to go to Busan? It was also my mom’s hometown and undoubtedly full of memories.

Plus, Busan was pretty popular. It’s the second largest city in Korea,meaning it has nearly all the conveniences of Seoul (Costco, western style restaurants), without the crowds and pollution (I’m biased – can you tell?). Busan is also a coastal city with seven beaches, multiple famous fish markets and general awesomeness.

So this year I was doing a lot of exploring and not a lot of art. But the thing about living in a beautiful place is that you can’t help but get inspired at some point. Remember when I turned down a coworker‘s suggestion to do landscape art? Well, that was before the ocean happened to me.


“I just wanna draw the ocean all day.”

Being from Colorado, I’ve always preferred mountains. This may have been influenced by the fact that I’d only been to the beach once in my life. Busan opened my eyes. Being constantly surrounded by the ocean – really though, my school was on an island – all I wanted to do was sit by the sea. My daily commute took me right along the shore, so I’d rush onto the bus everyday, hoping to get a seat on the right side of the bus, where I’d have a front row view. Sometimes I wished I didn’t have to get off and go to school.

I felt like I could just sit and watch the ocean for hours. I began to think “I just wanna draw the ocean all day.” So much for not doing landscapes.

But it was still hard to find time for art. A new school meant new students, new coworkers and new expectations, both in the office and the classroom. None of it was bad; it just took a lot of energy as I learned what worked and what didn’t. I never felt like going through the effort of pulling out paints and brushes, and then finding a spot where I wouldn’t be disturbed.

No art was created. Yet.


Ta-Da! Technology

I took the bus a lot in Busan which, unlike the subway, involves a lot of wait time. One day, during an especially long wait, I started playing around with a memo app on my phone, just as a way to practice color.

And hey, it was actually kind of fun. Even if my first effort was horrendously ugly.

Lanterns hung for Buddha’s birthday

I did another one of these mini digital paintings of the view from my office, this time not at the mercy of the bus’s arrival. It wasn’t so bad, although when I showed a coworker I made many excuses about how it was rough because I’d been using my finger to draw, but how it still wasn’t too bad right?


(Hint: Showing your artwork to a non-artist is almost always a confidence booster.)

And from that point on, I was addicted. Bam! Code cracked. Art block busted. Doing art was easy and fun again. I didn’t have to gather any supplies – all I needed was my phone, which never left my side anyway.

I feel silly that it took me this long to start making use of technology in my art.


Landscape Takeover

I know what you’re thinking now – or at least, what I was asking myself – didn’t you do any other art? Well yes, yes I did.

Keeping with my anti-landscape theme, I did physical landscape paintings as well. They were really small goodbye gifts to a few people before I left Korea.




And seeing as my family was a big highlight during my time in Korea, they got a few pages in my sketchbook.

Avid Reader, pastel, conte, and pen


Final Project

Of course I once again had to impose some big project on myself before the year ended. In my first year, I gave myself the task of drawing everyone in the Fulbright Korea program plus our directors – 117 faces in all – and finishing it in time to be published in our literary magazine. In my second year, I hoped to exhibit my final project during Fulbright Korea’s Final Dinner – but if you have no idea what this is, I won’t give it away yet! Here’s spoiler though; it involves lots of these:


Art Abroad: The Year of the Art Drought

Okay, so my “I’m back” post was a little premature. I was in still in Korea at the time and once I returned to the US I took my sweet time adjusting. Aka being overwhelmed by grocery store trips, having a crisis about being unemployed, and rereading the Harry Potter series – actually I’m still doing the last two things.

But I’m happy to start blogging regularly again too. Before we delve into my art-during-unemployment adventures, we have a lot of ground to cover. Ground that’s more than 6,000 miles away from here. Ground known as my grant years in SOUTH KOREA!


Reflecting on the start of my grant gets me all excited and smiley again, because that’s exactly how I felt. I woke up every morning hardly able to believe I was living in South Korea, thrilled and more than ready to go to my job each day.

Ahh, the early stages of culture shock.

But as for my art life, well, my thoughts about it could be summed up as:

Artless in Korea


Well, not really. But my first year abroad did feel like an art drought. For the first time, I was teaching my own English classes, living in a new country, trying to navigate daily life in a foreign language, and living with a homestay (and trying to get them to like me). (Don’t worry, later on there was mutual liking.) But I really didn’t touch my sketchbook for the first few months.

My artless months came in part from my stubbornness.


I Don’t Want to Draw Landscapes!

I’d taken a figure drawing class shortly before graduating college and fallen in love with it. So in Korea I really wanted to find figure drawing classes. Preferably using nude models. But how in the world would I find such a class, let alone ask around in a non-creepy way? A coteacher at my school shared my reservations and recommended I paint Korea’s beautiful landscapes instead. My response was “Oh yeah, maybe!” (Nah.) So for a while the only art I did were lesson-relevant doodles on the board to amuse my students.

But then there were two ways I ended my art drought, one intentional, the other set off by current events.


Angry Art


I am no stranger to angry art. Just take a look at some of my pieces. In times of great distress and helplessness, I turn to express my emotions through art. This time what spurred my bout of angry art was the non-indictment in the case of Michael Brown.

While I knew of the case, I’d hadn’t been following closely until a few days before the trial. Keeping up on social media, I was tense on the edge of my seat…and felt my stomach drop as the decision came out, while I was in the office, just before the school day ended. But I’ve written a whole piece just on that decision and my response – no doubt another form of catharsis for me.

Before the writing, however, came the drawing. Given that I’d been following the case on social media, I sought out a medium suitable to post – memes. I grabbed my favorite pen and produced some blatantly angry pieces.



Start-Art Strategy


The other strategy I use to get myself to do art is by seeking out deadlines to impose upon myself. While in college – before I added my art major –  I jumped at opportunities like residence hall art contests and exhibits put on for a cause. In Korea, I found opportunities in the form of Infusion.

Infusion is Fulbright Korea’s literary magazine, where my Michael Brown article was published. If you follow my Korea blog, you’ve probably heard a lot about Infusion, since I wrote about it quite a bit. The magazine also features photos and – somewhat rarely – artwork. So I quenched my art drought by doing art that I hoped to get published. Having a deadline was good for me, but I wasn’t satisfied with most of what I’d done, and it wasn’t accepted either.

But the Gamcheon village drawing to the left was later featured in a “Patterns of Korea” collection online.


To finish the year, I imposed another project on myself, which was accepted and published in the spring issue. But let’s be real, it would’ve been pretty sad to go through the effort of drawing 117 faces and not have it be published.

Next time I’ll write about year two in Korea, with an all-new living situation, lots of public transit wait time, using technology wisely, and more art! Read it here!