Every photographer and artist encounters creative blocks. As frustrating as they might be, they are a healthy and critical part of the creative process. A block is a message from your mind communicating it’s time to step back and re-evaluate an aspect of your process. Taking inventory and developing the ability to analyze your creative process is one of the primary ways you grow as an artist.
While it would be nice if there were always an easy solution to our creative blocks, they are often more complex than getting up for a quick break. Overcoming them requires utilizing different strategies, and which strategy is most effective will be dependent on the individual and the context. As with much of creative work, it's fluid.
Unfortunately, part of overcoming creative blocks is having a degree of tolerance for misery, which if you're an artist, you probably have embraced to a certain degree anyway. Not that I am advocating for fully embracing the tortured artist cliche, but I do believe that every artist needs to learn to accept the full range of emotional states if they want to evolve. That means you'll probably have to accept some mental anguish from time to time to solve your blocks.
Of course, this is a topic that has been studied extensively, and I am sure many of you can recite some remedies without checking Google. So, what’s the point here?
To just pass down conventional wisdom? Well, partly yes, because that’s one of the solutions. It's good to be reminded of the common solutions, and sometimes hearing them from a different voice is what will make them stick.
I have been fortunate the last several years to avoid creative blocks and I think that's primarily because I have implemented a process and strategies that I know will help me avoid them.
If I do run into blocks, it's usually around writing, and specifically this type essay of writing. So, writing down these strategies and thinking through them is partly an effort to help with some of my own writing challenges.
If you have feedback or your own solutions, please feel free to drop me a line: email@example.com
Understand the Seven Mental States of Creative Work
Writer David Kadavy has an excellent book out called 'Mind Management, Not Time Management' that directly addresses productivity and creative work. One of the key concepts that I keep taped near my desk is the 'Seven Mental States of Creative Work.'
- Prioritize: Determine what you should be working on. Get organized.
- Explore: Find inspiration, read, dig into your archives, scroll Instagram.
- Research: The heavy intellectual lifting of reading on a specfic topic around. your projects, or wikipedia reading, whatever.
- Generate: This is where you create. This is the long walk with the camera out making photographs.
- Polish: Editing, reviewing, thinking about what works, and what doesn't.
- Adminstrative: All of the boring stuff that keeps us moving.
- Recharge: Relaxing, hanging out, enjoying yourself and not thinking about art.
Essentially, he argues that if you want to optimize your creative productivity, you should align your mental energy with when you are most receptive to doing one of these seven tasks.
Since learning about these mental states, I have found that if I am stuck on one aspect of a project, I'll ask myself which of these mental states feel appropriate for the moment. Sometimes you just can't write or edit photos, so it's better to read or research. That way you are still working on an aspect of your project, but don't have that feeling of being blocked. Most projects require different types of work to execute.
Optimize Your Walks
Nearly every article you’ll read about creative blocks will recommend you get up and take a walk. Taking a walk is proven to stimulate divergent thinking, and help you recharge.
Since I am obsessed with walking and creativity, I try to take it a step further and optimize my walks. Broadly speaking, I have two major type of walks:
- Productivity walks: These are the daily walks, usually in the morning, around 1-2 miles. They get the blood flowing, and help me prioritize the day, and clean out the mental clutter. Often, I will take an afternoon walk as well, but those are more just for health maintenance. Productivity walks are great for helping prevent creative blocks.
- Creative Walks: These are the long walks, usually around 5-10 miles. They the best for getting into flow state and solving creative problems. These are also my working walks when I am actively making photographs, observing and generating new ideas. I am working on a longer article on how to plan and optimize these type of walks.
Work on Multiple Projects
This one will be conentious, and admittedly, I do think that for many people it's better to focus on one project at a time. We live in an age where distraction has been optimized for profit so adding more distractions might not be a great idea.
However, I also know that many of us are just psychologically wired to follow many different threads, and this tendency will lead to working on multiple projects at the same time.
At this moment, I have 4-5 active projects I am working on, and I find this to be very helpful whenever I get stuck because it's easy to jump over to a different project. Those short burts of novelty help keep my mind stimulated.
I think even if you just have one primary project you're working on, it's good to have a small side project going as well. That side project can give you a place to experiment, and explore new ideas, and through that process you can learn something about your primary project.
With my photography projects, I will often make random photographs or try different things in the field just so I can collect the data and see if I can learn anything from editing later on.
One example is that over the last few years, I have used an Osmo Pro to capture video. I have never done anything with these videos but I have watched them and they have helped me look at scenes in a different way, and down the line I think I could incorporate them into projects.
Start a Journal for Brain Dump Writing
Many photographers hate writing. I am one of them. I would rather be making photographs. We are visual artists. If we wanted to be writers, we'd have studied literature.
But in our world, writing is important, and the good news is that you don't need to be a great writer as my newsletter demonstrates. Now, I have said it before, and I'll say it here again, I think more photographers should start newsletters as I find this method of communicating in our digital age to be the most effective, but that's a different topic, so I won't digress any further.
Let's say you are working on a photo edit. Day after day you review the photographs, you have a solid set of 4 and 5 star photos. But you feel something is missing. You are getting bored looking at these photos day after day, month after month. You start to think you have wasted your time on the project. Something is clearly wrong. You are blocked, you are stuck in your head. You are miserable.
Open up a blank document. Starting writing everything you are thinking about the project. Anything. Nobody will see this document. What do you like about the photos? What do you hate? What is about the subject you a attracted to? What emotions are you trying to evoke? What story are you trying to tell? What do you know about the locations? What memories do they provoke?
Amazing things will happen, trust me. When you externalize what's in your mind, the words and phrases become objects. They are free and out in the world.
From there, you can judge them, and learn from them. You will be surprised what will come out, and from that process, you will often find why you started your project in the first place, and where you can take it further. You will often find your conviction, and discover solutions to what is blocking you.
- Talk it out: this one is somewhat obvious, but if you're blocked it's always good to talk about the creative block with your creative friends, or anyone you can trust. Finding community online is a good option too.
- Take a break: Sometimes you just need to take healthy break, and go do other activities. Take a vacation. Read books. Visit museums. Binge on award winning documentaries. Finding inspiration is a good way to recharge and remove blocks.
Examine Your First Principles
I have bad news. Sometimes nothing works. You can walk and walk, or free write, or start multiple projects or refine your process based on the mental states, but sometimes none of it works and you are still stuck.
You have to go back to the beginning. You have to examine your first princples. These are difficult, existential questions that will help you form the foundation of your thinking.
Do you really want to pursue photography and art? That's the biggest of them all. Maybe there are other ways to utilize your creativity.
Ok, you definitely know you want to make art. It could be that you just don't find photography as fulfilling anymore.
I have personally run into this one. Last year, I felt stuck and was wondering if I really wanted to invest more time into photography. I knew I wanted to still make art but felt I needed something else. So I bought some pens and paper and decided I was going to draw maps.
And it worked wonders for me, and made me realize that I still wanted to pursue photography, but there needed to be another element to it.
It could be that you need to take care of your health, or maybe your day job is making you unhappy. Whatever it maybe, you need to make sure those core, first principles are examined and you are in a good place psychologically before attempting to pursue your art projects.
If These Don't Help, Invent Your Own
These are my solutions. They might work for you, and they might not. Perhaps reading this makes you feel like you can develop your own solutions. That's another option! Leverage your creative thinking skills to find novel solutions and then share them in your own newsletter. I'll probably read it as I am always on the lookout for new solutions to creative blocks as well.
The other day I was feeling frustrated, and blocked while out on a walk, so I yelled at a couple of squawking crows. It didn't clear my creative block, but it made me feel better.
I’m a photographer and consultant from Saint Cloud, Minnesota. This is my newsletter on art, walking, and mindfulness. Each issue, I share new work from my projects and try to make connections between ideas, articles and people that fascinate me. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Instagram & Twitter