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Ask the Art Professor: Six Ways to Confront Artist's Block

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"How do you face artistic burnout or times of no motivation?"

Two years ago, I went through the worst creative crisis of my career so far. I was starting a new series of face sculptures, the second stage of a long term project called "Falling", which explored my personal experience with depression and anxiety. I was so certain that I wanted to do something with sculpture, but nothing seemed to be working. All I could do was glare at the plaster sculptures I had made so far with the sinking feeling that something was terribly wrong.

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I hated weeks worth of work. The lack of passion I was feeling was troubling and unsettling. I had never experienced such a profound loss of interest in my work before. I desperately wanted so badly to slap myself back into shape, but that desire only heightened my frustration. Alarmed and distraught, everything came to a horrible standstill.

Not wanting to waste any more costly art supplies, I dropped everything and stopped working altogether. This is the kiss of death for an artist. Instead, I just let myself think and write. In the meantime, I reached out to my friends, colleagues, and blog readers. In doing so, I was able to fabricate a series of strategies for how to get myself out of my rut.

1) Reach out to your artist friends and mentors.
This is one of the most effective strategies for staying sane if you're having a rough time. Talk to your friends who are artists, explain to them what's happening with your work. If you have a mentor, call them up and whine your heart out. Your artist friends and mentors will provide the support and encouragement that is so critical to have when things aren't going well. Try not to have a pity party for yourself and wallow in despair on your own. None of that is productive and will only allow you to sink deeper into destructive emotions.

2) Suspend your inner critic.
We are our own toughest critics. We are significantly more demanding of ourselves than anyone else. Throw out your ambition and expectations temporarily, knowing that when you're ready, you will reinstate them.

3) Change your environment.
Taking a short trip can sometimes break up the monotony of your regular environment, and can often times stimulate some sorely needed inspiration. A weekend in New York City almost always works for me. Even spending a whole day in a local museum can be incredibly refreshing and allow you to reset your brain.

4) Change media.

Switching to a different material can provide a different perspective on the same subject. It can keep your hands busy and get you thinking about your work in different ways. For example, if you're working with two-dimensional media, change to three-dimensional media and see how that transforms your outlook.

5) Take a break.
Hit the gym, read a good book, pig out at a good restaurant, whatever works for you. This will provide both the physical and emotional distance and time away from your work that you need. Many of us will hit a creative plateau with our work: we know that we need to change something, but we don't know what because we've been staring at the work for too long. Getting away from the piece will allow you to see the work with fresh eyes when you return.

6) Don't give up.
One of my friends said this to me when I was in complete despair, and it was exactly the kind of straightforward, no-nonsense advice that I needed to hear at the time. Know that as much as it hurts when you're in the thick of it, that this too, shall pass. Ride it out as best as you can and have faith that in the end, you will persevere.

Being an artist is a dramatic roller coaster ride where you can experience everything from moments of complete exaltation to periods of painful failure. Difficult periods are inevitable when you're an artist. If you don't have tough times, it means that you're not pushing yourself creatively.

After a few excruciating weeks of just thinking and talking to my artist friends, I very slowly started to dig myself out. I blogged about the process the whole way through, which helped me to articulate exactly what was going on.

Eventually, I realized that I had been approaching the sculpture from the wrong point of view. Instead, I took the idea of the physical sculpture as the final format and threw that out the window. Taking inspiration from my mentor Anthony Janello's work, I decided to shoot digital photographs of the sculpture. With this approach, I could manipulate elements like lighting, cropping, and point of view in each piece. Once I liberated myself from the confines of the physical sculpture format, a whole new world of options opened up to me. I was back on track.

Ask the Art Professor is a weekly advice column for visual artists. Submit your questions to clara(at)claralieu.com

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