Feeling stuck or burnt out will happen at some point as an artist. There's ways to combat it.
Do you ever feel like your mind just gets heavy with nothing when you think of making art? This feeling that I am talking can feel like a constant heaviness. It often lasts for a few days but could last for months if you over extend your minds rubber band.
You try your usual tricks, make some tea, light a candle, clean your studio, maybe have a hot bath but nothing works. You try forcing yourself to make art anyway. But, no particular colour or tool is calling to you. Your muse seems disinteresting. You think about it over and over. Why is this happening? That probably makes it worse. Do not panic! This is a part of the normal creative process and its flows and its temporary. You know what a sine wave is? It's kinda like that. There are both ups and downs and they are temporary. With a burnout situation, the down time can last slightly longer though.
The first time this happened to me, it took me by surprise. It was an overwhelming feeling of tiredness that creeped up on me, ever so slightly. The Covid-19 pandemic was at its peak. A lot of negative news coverage in the media. There was little to feel hopeful about. I was spending 3 plus hours painting on top of my 8 hour high stress work day on a fairly regular basis. It took me by surprise because I was thinking of my creative activities as a way to de-stress and the opposite was happening. My art was was adding to my anxiety. Well, I learnt that although art making can be a way to release stress, it does use our brains and too much of anything can lead to burnout. Making art can be an intense process. You have to be very present with what is happening all the time. Constant decision-making is involved. A single drip or smear could kill the painting. It can be a mentally tiring activity when done for hours and hours, no matter how much you love the process and the craft.
This still happens to me sometimes after going at it on a big painting or after working on a subject that is intense to me or after a stressful time at work. Social media adds an interesting element to burnout that deserves its own article. Even though I am still learning how to always pull myself out, I've listed 5 things below that work for me. Perhaps they will work for you too! Take a peak and let me know in the comments what you think or if there's anything in particular that you do that works for you.
Take a break
Our minds deserve a break. A break from creating art, from watching movies, listening to music, reading the news or even interacting with people. A break from constantly being ON. That's the kind of break I'm talking about. Things just need to be switched off for a while, while our minds can get back to being receptive.
Most of us are drenched in so much constant and instant information these days. Our minds are always processing something. The other day I realized that I was either listening to music or had some kind of TV show in the background when I'm cooking, cleaning, walking Silo (my doggo), and even having a bath! Why do I constantly need something in the background? And...doesn't that tire me, consuming media all the time? Processing data all the time.
I try to do absolutely nothing when I take a break. No reading a book. No movies. No media. I try to limit my exposure to social media too. No you don't need to reply to every comment right away, not at the cost of your mental health.
Instead, do absolutely nothing for sometime. Do nothing that works your mind intensely. Do something that is muscle memory to you. For me, this is cooking. I don't think too much with cooking. It's a set process that I have to follow. Also, the power of silence underrated. When I am feeling burned out, I like to be alone with my thoughts. Mull over slight things like the sunset hitting my plants just right or observing my dog sleeping. This is something that works for me as an introvert. For extroverts, this could mean having a dinner party, since being with people and thriving in chaos is what comes naturally to them.
Spend time in nature
Whether it's taking my dog Silo out for a walk or going hiking or going for a drive in the middle of nowhere, spending time alone in nature always invigorates me. It's a combination of physical activity and sense of being present amongst nature. I look at how the light filters through the trees, how some trees are shorter and other grew so tall, the textures of the tree bark, the fallen trees, how leaves differ in sizes and shapes, even the different shades of green all around. It's a time for me to look and feel. No data processing happens. I try not to take any pictures. I try to smell the earth and soak in the quiet and feel the humidity in the air or the coolness of the breeze or the feeling of sweat making my clothes stick to my body. I look at bugs on leaves and flowers.
Try a different media or subject
For me this is the "what if" time. By working with a different media or subject, you automatically give yourself the permission to experiment and therein lies the magic. This unsaid permission draws on the curiosity you already possess as an artist. It takes the pressure away from creating the perfect piece of artwork every single time you create something. You are more open to trying new ways. Your mind is more receptive to entertaining the absurd. This is the time to let "what if" go wild.
Create a standard process
I know how this sounds. How can one create a standard process for doing something creative, when creativity is thought of as doing things a "different" way?
However, stay with me.
The goal is not to have a process wherein you decide all elements of your design or process all the time and never veer from it. The goal is to have a basic guideline of what steps you follow, when looking at your process from a 80 feet view so to say. These are things that you already do, but don't know you do them. It helps if you don't have to reinvent the wheel on the days when you feel like you are a bit stagnant. Its a way to cheat your way into flow.
I'll give you an example. My work is abstract and full of blobs, shapes and saturated colours. It also has black ink, which is how I finish my work.
Step 1: I always start a painting by wetting the whole paper with a base layer that has super low saturation. I have found that I can look for these shapes or blobs within my first layer and then build my painting around this. It quickens the process especially when I don't have a particular shape or idea I am trying to represent.
Step 2: There's a middle messy point in the painting where things kinda look dull, but here's when I decide which colour will be dominant.
Step 3: Further emphasizing colour at the end with ink marks.
So, these three steps always happen along with a lot that happens in between, but these three steps keep my feet grounded. Because of these steps, I always know what my next big turning point is going to be for a painting. This example may not work for all types of artwork and media ofcourse, but you can try to identify similar such steps in your process. Like I said, you are probably already doing these things.
Move your body
There is something about moving my body that helps reactivate the neurons in my brain. There is probably a better, more scientific explanation for this somewhere about why this happens.
When I have music on, I dance like no one is looking. I have my mirror in front of me and all I focus on is how my body is moving to the beats. Theres a lot of silly movements. A lot of times the song also becomes immaterial. This movement elevates me. It's freeing and at the same time I have control of my body. There are no thoughts. I am present in the moment and there's only movement. Does that make sense?
For some of you, this could mean going to a gym and sweating it out or yoga or going running or biking. There are a million physical activities to choose from. A physical activity uses our body more than our minds and this allows the brain to rest and rejuvenate. So, when you get back to your painting with that paint brush in hand, your brain will be much more receptive to ideas and thoughts.
Do you do any of these things above? How do these help you? How long does it take for you to get out of a burnout?