The challenge of (re)starting a creative practice

Published by Nela Dunato on in ADHD, Art, Personal, Tips for creatives

It’s no secret that sometimes I don’t do art for months. There are objective reasons, and emotional reasons, and totally silly reasons, but whatever they are—the result is the same: no new art, guilt and shame because I’m not making art, and overall grumpy feeling and lack of enthusiasm because I need my art.

In the interest of documenting my methods for the future when it’s bound to happen again, but also to help others who have the same problem, I’ll talk about what I’ve tried and what helps me start again after a long period of not creating.

The challenge of (re)starting a creative practice

As I was focused on writing and publishing my book, everything else in my life became a lesser priority, including my visual art. After a brief phase of working on my new art series, I focused on the book again and shut out all the distractions.

But even before I got deep into my writing, I had long droughts with little to no drawing and painting, which resulted in a meltdown and a revelation. (Not the first one, and probably not the last.) I lost touch with a part of myself that thinks up new creative project ideas and has fun with her work. 2017 and 2018 were very prolific and successful by objective standards, but they were not as fun. I missed doing things “just because”, and I was focused on my business at all times. The daily creative habit that fed me for a long time had disappeared, and all the good that it brought me had gone with it.

Now that my intense production period is over and I can step back from self-imposed deadlines, my biggest priority is to get back into a creative groove and pick up where I left off on my artistic journey.

I’m attempting to honor the visual artist side of me at all times, and arrange more time for spontaneous creativity that has nothing to do with my business. (As a person who has a habit of turning her hobbies into a profession, that won’t be easy.)

I encountered this challenge many times before.

I had entirely given up art during high school, and came back to it when I was 18. After that, there were months and years when I’d neglect my art because “I just didn’t feel like it”. Other times I was “too busy” balancing a day job, freelance work, and volunteering. Even though I’ve been down this road before, it doesn’t mean that it gets much easier. Every new iteration is a new road with its own traps. Each time, I need to find another trick (or two, or five) that will get me back into my practice.

So here’s the stuff I tried, and my account of how helpful it was.

Journal writing as a method of dealing with creative blocks

Last year, I attempted going through “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron for the first time, after hearing tons of praise about it from fellow creatives who found her advice life-changing. I was left unimpressed. I clearly wasn’t the intended audience for this book, and both the recovery language and God language were annoying, so much so that I barely made myself finish reading the book. Her advice to write 3 full pages every morning did nothing for my creativity, it only took up valuable time that I could’ve spent doing literally anything else.

I tried journaling my way through “art block”* before, and I don’t remember it ever working. When I write, I don’t draw. It’s that simple. When I took a social media sabbatical in December 2015 in an attempt to focus on painting, I wrote a bunch of journal entries and blog articles, but it hasn’t brought me any closer to painting. (All the bright ideas I mentioned in the article? Most of them didn’t happen.)

(* I keep writing “art block” in quotes because it’s not how I actually experience it. My creativity is flowing all the time and pays my bills. I just keep my personal art on the back burner, which is not a problem of “inspiration”, it’s a problem of logistics, energy, and willpower.)

Focusing on writing my way through the “block” always left me frustrated that writing and painting can’t happen at the same time.

Writing sucks up all the creative juice and feeds itself, instead of opening the flow and keeping it flowing for other avenues, which is what many creativity teachers suggest.

Whenever someone offers journal prompts to supposedly get me to create, I want to flip the table. It has never, ever worked for me. I just write and write and write. And then I write about how frustrated I am that I’m not painting. That’s so not the point… So I hereby grant myself, and anyone else who feels they need it, permission to ditch and ignore any journaling questions, prompts, exercises, and other writing tools to supposedly open up creative flow. Not helpful, not what I need and want, and I’m wise enough to choose a better method for myself because I know myself better than any teacher can.

All right, now that we’ve discussed one method that I know for sure doesn’t work for me, let’s explore those that do.

It’s easier to continue than to start over

Momentum is the most powerful way of keeping a creative practice. there’s a number of reasons why it’s easier to keep up with a practice than it is to create a new one:

  • Habits that happen at the same time of day or in the same physical space become automatic. (Time and place become positive triggers for a learned action.)
  • There’s plenty of unfinished work at any given time, so the nagging “open loops” are compelling us to complete them.
  • The activity doesn’t seem hard to do, because doing it is recent in our memory. We see ourselves as the person who just does it.
  • Being immersed in the practice breeds new ideas and inspiration, which calls us to keep creating.
  • Seeing steady improvement in technique over weeks and months of consistent practice motivates us—we can see that it’s paying off.
  • As creating for fun takes up our time, we wean ourselves off of activities that used to drain our time and added little value to our life (like social media, binge watching TV shows, gaming, reading gossip, etc.)

Sure, momentum is great, we already knew that. But I’m not in a state of momentum right now so it doesn’t really help, does it?

It could actually help for my habit to take root sooner if I play my cards right as I’m starting up my practice. If I know the aspects of momentum that make it so powerful, I can plan better.

Let’s examine those aspects one at a time.

1. The container of time and space

I learned a lot about containers from Lisa Sonora’s course that focused heavily on setting up a space and time for a daily journaling session. (The journaling didn’t help as we’ve already established, but the stuff around it did.)

I have a dedicated space in my office, but I wasn’t using it much for my art lately. All of my sketching happened either outside of home, or on the couch. Since the couch is in a living room that’s often noisy and distracting, it didn’t help with my practice. I need to get to drawing by my drawing desk. I just refurbished my office, so it feels nice and inviting, which should help.

Finding the right time can also be an issue. I examined the pros and cons of different times of the day for creative activities, and here’s what I found:

Morning creative practice:

  • I’m (somewhat) rested and relaxed.
  • Starting the day with my highest priority.
  • If it’s a slow work day, I can have a longer painting session.
  • Ideal lighting.
  • Easier to take photos because of better lighting.
  • Con: If I get up late, I miss my drawing window because work needs to get done.

Afternoon creative practice:

  • If I’m done with work for the day (ha ha, I’m never done) I could theoretically have a longer session over the afternoon and evening.
  • Better for larger artworks.
  • Con: My mind is tired from work.
  • Con: Hasn’t happened in years.

Evening creative practice:

  • Done with work.
  • Social media blocked on my phone.
  • Good for idea generating and preparing the surfaces (with gesso, collage, etc.)
  • Con: TV shows are alluring.
  • Con: Feeling exhausted on particularly demanding days.
  • Con: Less than ideal lighting.
  • Con: Limited time to create—if I get in the zone, I stay up too late. (I used to only work late at night in my early years, and I don’t want to do that anymore.)

Based on my experience, mornings are better, as it results in a steadier habit, while my evenings and afternoons are often disrupted by social events. But if I have to leave the house early for a conference or a meeting, there’s no way in hell I’ll get up even earlier to do my creative practice.

If something doesn’t happen close to 100% of the time, then it can’t become a habit. So what can I do to keep up with the habit? Enter: a contingency plan.

Let’s say on a normal day I can draw for about half an hour easily without it affecting my client work, sometimes even more. What would I need to do on the days when I’ll just shower, put on clothes and run out of the house? I can make a mini commitment—5 or 10 minutes of doodling. Instead of checking my phone which takes me just as much time, I can have a sketchbook and pen ready on the table and doodle anything—not for the sake of creating something attention-worthy, but to train my brain to expect art in the morning, in whatever shape it occurs.

I did a couple of art challenges when I was drawing something every day so I know that it can work, and it used to work. I just need to get serious about it.

2020 update

I’m re-reading this after more than half a year of a steady (nearly) everyday creative practice, and I want to correct some of the assumptions I have made earlier, and add some new observations.

  1. I’ve filled so many sketchbook pages while sitting on the couch in front of the TV by now that I no longer feel bad about it. I had a short period of beating myself up for not using my gorgeous new office, and then I finally let go of it and now I’m just glad that art is happening. The how is irrelevant.
  2. If I keep my schedule sane (not working too late in the afternoons/evenings), I’m not too exhausted to draw. It’s not evenings per se that are the problem, is my bad habit of working on my computer until I can barely look straight. Once I started wrapping up my day earlier, I felt more energized in the evenings to draw.
  3. If I want to make larger works, or use acrylic paints or bottled ink and other messy mediums, I still need to do it at my workdesk. In that case the open spaces and having all the tools at my reach feel inviting. I’m most likely to do this on the weekends when I have long stretches of time just for myself.
  4. It is hard to keep this evening routine up if I have social obligations. I’ve missed many days because I’d go have drinks with friends without first completing my sketchbook practice. On some days I will doodle a bit when I get home. On other days I go straight to bed. It’s fine, but I can’t let it turn into a habit. So far it hasn’t, since I’m a big homebody and I cherish my peaceful evenings on the couch.
  5. Traveling throws my whole process out of whack. I’m unable to find a way to keep sketching on the go if I have company. When I travel alone, it’s much easier since I have quiet moments and I seek out opportunities to draw. I’ve been very frustrated by my inability to do any plen air sketching on Malta, or on recent hiking trips with my partner. My desire to sit for a bit in a place with a nice view is at odds with my companions who want to sit where there is good and inexpensive food and drinks to be had. I feel bad about “abandoning” my group and going somewhere alone, so I’m stuck having drinks I didn’t really want and lugging sketching supplies that don’t get used.

2. Closing the loops of unfinished work

I have lots of unfinished work in various stages. There are pencil sketches waiting to be inked, half-painted canvases and watercolor paintings, thumbnails and notes for future projects, stuff I’m not sure I’ll come back to because I don’t like it anymore… and most of it is out of sight so I forget that it exists. When I do remember it exists, I get annoyed. If I get annoyed enough, I pick up the brush and finish it just so I can stop being annoyed by it. True story.

To use this method for my own good, I got out my unfinished canvases from the storage room and put them on the shelves where I can see them every day. I still haven’t picked up the brush to finish them, but it’s a start.

Layers of reality series - paintings in progress
Unfinished paintings from my series “Layers of Reality”. I share more work-in-progress photos in this post.

3. The power of positive self-image

The human mind is one of the most powerful forces in nature. It’s quite incredible what people are able to achieve when they have unwavering focus and trust in their own abilities—both wonderful and horrifying.

The problem with many artists I know is that they (I mean we) don’t have nearly enough trust and self-confidence as is warranted by the quality of our work. We find flaws in it, it never measures up to the vision in our mind, and there’s always some other artist who is sooooo much better and why do I even bother?

On top of that, we may wonder:

  • Am I still an artist if I haven’t created any art in a long time?
  • Is there an expiration date on my artist licence?
  • Do I need to hand over my badge after being inactive for a year?
  • Do I need to appear in front of a panel of True Artists who will judge whether I deserve to call myself an artist?

Destructive thoughts like these do not help—if anything, they create more anxiety and make the “art block” more difficult than it should be.

The creative momentum has this added benefit of causing a positive self-image. You know both on a mental and on an experiental level that you’ve got this—this is what you are made for. Questions like “Can I do this?” and “Am I allowed to do this?” are not plaguing you anymore. You just get an idea, and run with this because this is what you do. This is what we as artists do. That’s our true nature. Anything else is a fake story we told ourselves once, and decided to believe it.

Is there a lifehack to make this happen when there’s still no momentum? I have some ideas.

Celebrating daily and weekly progress—acknowledging that I am making this choice to be who I am made to be, and that it’s just a thing I do. It’s nothing big or scary, and I don’t have to impress anyone. I do it for me, and I don’t need to prove myself to anyone.

Small & easy does it. If I want my habit to stick, I need it to be super simple until it’s solid and stable. This means no huge ambitious “projects” until I had a track record of daily practice. I’ll get to my art series eventually, no need to rush. That’s not the point of this practice.

4. Feeding the brain

When we’re focused on something, whole new layers and options start opening up. Sometimes things seep into our dreams and offer new insights or ideas. The brain keeps working with the raw materials we give it, and zaps us with an epiphany when we least expect it.

If I’m separated from my art for a long time, I don’t get art ideas. When I focus on my art, they keep coming at a faster rate than I can get to them.

But feeding your brain doesn’t have to be limited to your own art. Recently I visited an art show by a local sculptor and performance artist Davor Dundara which was pretty darn amazing. (If you like dark and spooky stuff, check out this video (in Croatian).) Seeing his art and trying to figure out what techniques and raw materials he uses started up the cogs in my brain. I was thinking about my own art, even though I wasn’t yet working on it.

Thinking is work too.

Too often we beat ourselves for not creating artifacts that other people can see frequently enough, but the incubation, thinking, and planning is just as important.

How I can apply this: if I’m too brain-fried to draw and paint in the evening, I can still flip through books, watch art documentaries, or admire other artists on Instagram. What makes it different from procrastinating is that I’m be taking notes in my studio journal on what exactly it is that I love so much about another artist’s work, or what techniques I might try out in my own art.

Flipping through your own sketchbooks is another great way to stay engaged in your art when picking up a pencil feels too hard.

2020 update

I mentioned earlier how I wasn’t able to sketch on my travels or hiking trips, but instead I was taking lots and lots and lots of photos of inspiring views, artifacts, textures, etc. In my mind, this totally counts as creative practice.

I also realized that looking at my old sketchbooks can feel very rewarding on days when I just can’t even. It’s OK to have days when you’re not able to create, for any reason—fatigue, pain, illness, crises… But it doesn’t have to mean being totally detatched from your practice. You can at least admire the work you’ve done before, and let it feed the back of your mind so that inspiration is ripe for you when you feel capable of creating something. And maybe add a bit of embellishment here and there on your old pages, that totally counts too.

5. Progress begets more progress

The most demotivating part of any learning process is not seeing improvement. If there’s no measure of progress, no comparison to how things were weeks or months ago, we’re not likely to continue because it feels like we just suck at this and will never improve.

There is no greater motivator than seeing hard work paying off. That’s why you often see artists post their “draw this again” or “improvement meme” to show to themselves and others how far they’ve come from their early attempts.

Draw this again meme
My “draw this again” challenge for the work “Sing me of better times”

One of the ways we can see progress is to focus on a single technique or a motif over a period of time. I’m a dabbler in many techniques, which makes seeing progress in any one of them difficult. One way I could make this easier for myself is to focus on one medium and compare my later drawings with the ones I did while I was still warming up.

I’m thinking of focusing on comic-style portraits in ink, since I recently bought a couple of new brush pens and fountain pens, and the thrill of getting new art supplies always gets me going.

Female portrait with brush pens in a sketchbook

6. Draining the swamp

Distraction is the enemy of art. Since I have a small computer permanently connected to the entire world’s information database in my pocket the whole time, distractions are abundant.

Once we achieve momentum and flow, we forget about distractions, and our brain forgets about the dopamine hits it used to get every time we refresh the feed, and we slowly wean off. If we just stopped using social media and didn’t replace it with anything else, we’d suffer from withdrawal. But filling the time we used to spend browsing the ol ‘net with creative work does wonders.

If you want to take a dangerous or fragile object from the hands of a baby, you don’t just snatch the thing, because that will make them cry. You replace it with their favorite toy. Babies lack object permanence, and “out of sight, out of mind” works on them. Our instinctive part is not much smarter than a baby. We need to give ourselves a better toy, and we’ll forget about other things.

One method that was extremely helpful in weaning myself off of social media is taking a sabbatical.

I’ve written on this in my several other posts:

Sometimes it did result in more art (my summer vacations are usually prolific), and at other times I was writing a lot, but not drawing or painting.

I believe that taking a break from social media for 10 or more days will light a spark that will grow the momentum, and then if I keep the momentum going, I won’t let it derail my practice so easily as it is derailing it now. It’s easier for me to take a break and gradually come back to a healthier level of social media consumption, than it is to go from full-on social media addict to a healthier level.

That’s what I’ve got for now.

I expect this will be a theme for 2019 that I’ll get back to regularly, and I’ll check in with how well my theories have worked out in real life.

If you’ve experienced starting and stopping a creative practice, feel free to share your own methods and insights in the comments! I’m sure we can learn a lot from each other.

Stay creative,


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5 responses to “The challenge of (re)starting a creative practice”

  1. I totally resonate with everything you say Nela (barring journalling because that works for me – but NOTHING works for everyone!). In fact I have a little post in draft about still being an artist even when we’re not making art, so I’m now motivated to post that! You’re so right that, alongside setting up the habit containers you talk about, self-belief is the other crucial part of this equation. A friend of mine once affirmed to me that I WOULD begin making art again after a dry spell and her belief has sustained me until this day. I’m wretched when I don’t make art but since that point I’ve never gone back to doubting that I WILL get back to it. Let me do the same for you: You’re an artist Nela. You will always make art :)

  2. Good timing of the post for me! Last month I went through the creative block and it was just awful. Sitting and knowing I wanted to create still not doing it! I never done morning pages the way it was recommended in “Artist Way” but I converted this technique to my inner landscapes abstracts in a small art journal- basically throwing paint into the pages, lines with pastels, pens- getting it out. That works for me- even is a day is not creative at all I had that morning moment of “art connection”. Often those chaotic abstracts become a great background for further work:)

  3. @Cherry:
    Thank you for believing in me :) I appreciate that a lot!
    Yes, this fear “what if inspiration doesn’t come back” is so familiar, and it took me many starts and stops to realize that this is just a temporary thing, a phase, not a permanent condition I will never recover from. The anxiety around this just makes it harder to go back to the practice.
    I’m sooo looking forward to your post! I have a draft in progress on that topic too, but still hadn’t finished it… It will be interesting to compare notes :))

    Ah, I’m so sorry to hear that you had this happen recently! I see you posting new things on Instagram, I hope this means you’re doing a lot better now? :)
    I like how you made the practice yours, and yes I can totally see how it gives you that boost every morning. Julia Cameron says morning pages are not an exercise in “creative writing”, they’re just “clearing the pipes” – painting and sketching the way you do it can achieve the same thing for those of us who prefer visual arts to writing…
    My issue is that I expect too much out of the practice. I so want to make something that is pleasing to me, that I rather don’t do anything, than make something that sucks (I’m aware of it and getting better at it though). Perhaps filling up a page with doodles, or like you making abstract backgrounds instead of trying to make a figurative “thing” would work for me too.
    Thanks for sharing that, it’s super helpful :)

  4. I love the things you say so much Nela that I put them in a notebook for whenever I need encouragement with my writing or drawing…thank you for all the help you give us, you are an inspiration xx

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