Overcome Creative Burnout and Art Block, Part One

by Chelsea Lang


What is Burnout, and Why Does it Happen?

After nearly two years of painting in a pandemic, the gradual buildup of isolation has left a lot of us feeling overwhelmed and struggling to stick to our painting routines. Although it may look different for everyone, burnout is something we all go through in some way at some point. How do we get back in touch with what inspires us, and either get out of burnout or help prevent it from happening?


In my experience, feeling burnt out or blocked tends to mimic depression; it’s a mixture of numbness and overwhelm, especially when facing an activity that you love, like painting. You have no drive to work, and the work doesn’t excite you. If you feel blocked, it may be a short-term feeling that happens around a specific project, but if you’re burnt out, you may have trouble feeling any motivation to paint.


Even when we aren’t living through a pandemic, experiencing burnout is a common occurrence. When it comes to portraiture and painting realism, this might look like discovering a gap between your eye and your hand. Your taste has advanced more quickly than your skill has, because skills simply take more time to catch up, so getting better means you actually feel like you’re getting worse. Awful, right?



The graph on the left is what we think learning looks like when we’re trying to become the best painters we can be. The horizontal line above the x-axis represents our taste, or where we want to be, and the line that’s going up at an angle is our skill. This is how we subconsciously think learning works. The first problem is that we don’t learn linearly; we grow on a learning curve versus a learning line. So really our rate of learning looks like the second graph.


But the more we learn, the more nuanced our taste becomes.


So instead, we adjust our expectations and envision something like the third graph. Our taste grows slower than our rate of learning.


But it isn’t really this simple either, because we tend to learn and develop in ebbs and flows. Like when we have a breakthrough, apply it over the course of a bunch of paintings, then plateau until we reach our next breakthrough. Something similar tends to happen with our taste too, so the result looks something like this graph of the art cycle, created by Shattered-Earth (https://www.deviantart.com/shattered-earth/art/Art-Cycle-329593292) as inspired by a graph by Marc Dalessio:



What I love about this graph is that it highlights something I think trips us ALL up: because of the ways these sine waves of growth interact, there are periods in here where we actually think we are getting WORSE at our craft. Instead what’s really happening is that our taste is growing while our skill is plateauing, and we sense that gap increasing and wrongly intuit that we are regressing.


Knowing this may not be able to help you bust out of a creative block, but I’ve found that it’s an important first step in keeping us encouraged and motivated.


However, an important caveat is that focusing on constant growth, efficiency and motivation actually invites us to fall into a trap: if your sole focus all of the time is getting better, you will feel stuck in a place where you are constantly ‘not good enough.’ Sometimes we need to make things that are right at or below our skill level, not just beyond our grasp. We need to make things that are fun to make and fun to look at.


And this isn’t a simple thing either. Just as learning to improve effectively is a skill, learning to sit down and guarantee you’ll have fun painting is a skill too. It’s something I omitted in my own work for a long time, and something I was seeing in my students too, so now we have a culture that’s just as committed to enjoying painting as it is to improving.


What else helps prevent burnout or help you recover? Now that we’ve unpacked several of the reasons burnout can happen, join us next time for Part Two of this topic where I’ll discuss tactics you can use to mitigate burnout.

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