Creative block is a thing. We feel confident one day, breezing through our work like it's nothing, and then — bam! We hit a wall. No matter what we do, we can't seem to make anything we're pleased with. We can barely even lift our pencil.
The seasoned creative professional will know, of course, that the only way through creative block is more work. We can't not do something and expect the universe to realign in our favour. We participate in the bigger picture of whatever it is that feeds us our creativity. Being creative is an active mode of existence, not passive. But that's a truism. The real question is: what kind of work should we be doing to get through our creative block? For a more exhaustive list of ideas, you should check out concept artist Xia Tapterra's timeless post on the topic. For me, however, one method has proven to be effective without fail. It's not really fun at first — in fact it's really, really hard — but it works. And that is what we need — not the absence of effort but a real breakthrough so we can actually make things we (and our clients) are happy with!
Though hard to do, it's actually really simple in concept: plant seeds today, harvest tomorrow. In my case that means sketching a lot, possibly not seeing any value in the work today; then, tomorrow, review all the sketches and look for value you were unable to appreciate. Here's an example I'm going through right now: I have to create 12 large and complex illustrations on a relatively short timeline. That alone is enough to invoke creative paralysis. But the client is paying me and relying on me, so, there's no time for feeling scared. I've got to do this.
Day One: Prepare the Soil
I start by researching the topic, doing some initial studies, finding and sketching from reference images — all without any goals of creating real compositions or concepts at this point. Just download the raw materials to work with, to internalize some of the imagery. This will help me create original artwork from my heart instead of needing any reference images later. My faulty memory will serve me well: I will remember a few essential aspects of the subject matter I need to draw, and then later, not having a photographic memory, I will use my creativity to fill in the blanks. This is where style and originality come from. But this is an aside — I haven't even planted seeds yet. This stage is more like preparing the soil. Let's just say we do this on Day One.
(This has accidentally become a gardening analogy. I'm okay with that!)
Day Two: Plant the Seeds
With the soil prepared, it's time to plan the seeds. This is Day Two. Loaded with new data (from my sketch studies on Day One), however spotty, I have enough information to start actually sketching concepts according to the brief. By the way, at this point, I have a well defined list of illustrations from the client — in this case 12 scenes with people doing various things in Vancouver. At this point, I am thinking about the actual composition and content. Professional Woman Pushing Her Young Child To Daycare in a Stroller. Diverse Group of People Lining Up For the Bus Near The Airport. Etcetera. As rapidly as possible, I sketch these concepts, maybe doing 6, 8, 12, or 25 variations, some half finished, others more complete. The point at this stage is to solve the visual problem (how to communicate the most important idea in the most interesting way). I have no preconceived notions of what the solution will be, so I have to just try and try again until something seems to stick. Or, if I do have preconceived notions, I have to test them to see if they work. At this point, I should not be concerned whether the ideas are good. Mostly, I am just making stuff and feeling quite badly about everything, but trying not to let that discourage me from continuing to make more stuff. And when I've done as many iterations as I can possibly stomach (or when I feel like I've solved the problem as best as I can), I stop. I put things away and sleep on it.
Day 3: Reap the Harvest
Now it's Day 3 — harvest day. Refreshed by a good night's sleep and an emotional break from the anxiety of trying to come up with the best ideas possible, I return to the sketches. I open them all up. Almost without fail, I see things in the art that I didn't the day before. I'm more positive about my ideas and less critical about flaws. Or, I am even positive about the flaws and see them now as strengths. Even if I am not satisfied with anything yet, I have a fresh mind and am better able to self-critique. Armed with a deeper understanding of what works and what doesn't, I can return to the drawing board with more confidence. At this point, I can either choose to go with my sketches as they are (if I am happy with them), or I can make the necessary refinements. I load them into my deck and send to the client.
To summarize, I have shown you how I am able to conquer creative block in my own practice. I have outlined my steps for creating ideas, or at least creating the right environment for ideas. First, I gather and sketch reference materials without thinking about concepts. Second (and often on the next day), I sketch as many rough concepts as I can before I feel either satisfied or exhausted. Most importantly, I don't have to like any of them — and chances are I won't. Third (and again, one day later), I review my sketches, discovering value I was unable to see while in the thick of it the day before. With a renewed mind, I am able to choose the best concepts or refine them further before sending to the client.
Creating good ideas is neither instantaneous nor easy. Like gardening, it requires work to create the optimum conditions, and above all, patience. Creative block is a hard thing to go through. It creates real anxiety and can send us into the abyss of despair if we let it. But for those willing to put up a fight, to do the hard work of being creative (someone who creates — does — things), a reward awaits on the other side.