Six ways to beat painter’s block

Have you ever had times when you were itching to paint, but you couldn’t think of anything you wanted to have a go at? Those times when you want to do something, but you don’t know what? Then try these sketchbook ideas and overcome your artist’s block.

1. Make a start

The most important thing you can do is just to make a start. Open your sketchbook, grab a pencil and draw whatever is in front of you. You are not aiming at painting a great picture to hang on your wall and the subject matter is not important. Just draw what you see right now, from where you are sitting.

This exercise will break the painter’s block. It doesn’t need to be pretty or perfect; it is just a great way to begin painting again. Once you start, you will find the creativity begins to flow, and you will begin to see other subjects and ideas for paintings all around you. The main thing is to put that pencil to paper. Draw anything; it doesn’t matter what it is. Whatever you see in front of you – draw it.

2. Work in close-up

The world around us is a wonderful source of inspiration, but sometimes we can become overwhelmed by it.

A landscape can be so vast that it seems impossible to capture in paint; an interior can be a jumble of furniture and decorations, and just look too complicated to contemplate.

In our sketchbooks, however, we do not need to capture it all. We can zoom in on one or two objects or a small part of the landscape and sketch those. When we do this, we find that there is a world of wonder within them.

I took a close-up photo of the gravel on the drive outside our house and painted that. It was amazing; there were so many colours, shapes and textures and it was fun to try to paint it all in gouache. I learned so much. It was an opportunity to see what I could do with gouache – working with it thinned down like watercolour, and thick like treacle, sometimes layered on in glazes, at other times dripped in from a loaded brush; scratched, spotted with opaque colour, lifted off with a wet tissue, rewetted to soften edges, and drawn over with a soft pencil. This was a playground of experimentation and it fired me up to paint more.

There are wonderful things to paint all around us so don’t wait for inspiration from something grand. Remember, your sketchbook is a place for you to relax and enjoy the painting process. Don’t always think that you must paint something to sell or show to others.

3. Paint everything

Nothing is too mundane or boring to be painted. A friend of ours often brings us fresh eggs from her hens, and they are all different sizes and colours. What a challenge it was to paint this open box. Again, I learned so much from doing this. Our sketchbooks should be places of learning.

What is in your kitchen cupboard, on the bathroom shelf or in the garage? It is so easy to find a bottle, tube or tool and draw that. The fun thing with sketching like this is that you can paint anything. You are not looking for the perfect composition so you are free to sketch anything and to learn every time you do so. Inspiration is all around when you are free to paint what you like.

4. Look for patterns

Don’t only look for objects to paint, but also study patterns, contrasts of light and shadow, warm and cool colours, or interesting shapes. Look for repeated patterns. Painting is about all these things, but we get caught up in the search for the ideal subject to paint. Learn how to see shapes, patterns, colours and contrasts, and paint those instead of a person, field or vase of flowers. Look at my painting of gravel again. It is about these elements – texture, colour and pattern.

My sketch Birch Trees is more about the pattern than the subject.

5. Use technology

There are many ways of using our computers or mobile phones for inspiration. Here are a few that may help you, but always be aware of copyright laws, if you plan to sell or exhibit your work.

Pinterest and Instagram These are great sources of inspiration when you are stuck. There are vast numbers of paintings out there and new ones appear every day. Sign up on these apps and have fun seeing what other artists are producing. You may well find new styles of painting that you want to try, or new subjects of which you had not thought.

If you don’t like technology, you can use the old-fashioned method of looking back through old issues of an Art Magazine. I have to confess that a few years ago when I was teaching art, I went through my back catalogue of magazines and cut out the paintings and made them into ‘inspiration collections’ for my students.

Google Earth This isn’t always the easiest to use, but you can fly around the world and visit pretty much anywhere you like and get down to street view. In these days, when we cannot travel, this is a way of seeing the world and finding inspiration. I ‘visited’ Granada and found myself in a little street with a doorway that caught my attention.

Television You can pause programmes and freeze the frame then have instant access to a wonderful world of nature, people or places.

6. Try a new medium

This can remove painter’s block in an instant, and you can use your sketchbook to learn how to work with the new medium without wasting time or materials. I recently discovered the joy of working in gouache and am experimenting and playing with it in my sketchbooks to see how it works and discover its potential. After years of working in watercolour, acrylics and oils, I have found a new sense of excitement working in a new medium.


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