10 Artists on Breaking Out of a Creative Rut

For generations, artists have devised all sorts of techniques for breaking out of creative “ruts.” Salvador Dalí used to sit in an armchair, holding a key between his thumb and forefinger. Prior to sitting down, he’d placed an upside-down plate beneath him on the floor. Then he’d fall asleep.  

As soon as Dalí nodded off, he would inevitably drop the key. When it fell onto the plate, the loud noise would wake him instantly. According to the painter, these “micro-naps” would last less than a quarter of a second. After they were done, he felt invigorated and ready to get back to work.

This anecdote has become part of art history lore, but it’s more than just a funny story; Dalí’s naps, as strange and surreal as his paintings, remind us that all artists have to innovate ways to feel inspired sometimes. Constantly generating new ideas is hard work, and when artists feel “blocked,” they have to find creative solutions .

We asked twelve artists how they find inspiration when they’re stuck staring at a blank page, need to break out of a rut or better realize their potential. They suggested ten techniques that are convenient and easy to implement, nothing as extreme as Dali’s, though they did agree with in one regard: napping made this list, too.

Keep an inspirational library.

Collect things that inspire you, whether they are art books, posters, quotes, or souvenirs from your travels. That way, if you ever get stuck, you’ll have a vast repository of ideas waiting for you.

It doesn’t have to be a physical library, of course. It can be a corner of your studio or a drawer filled with mementos. It can even be a Pinterest board or a folder on your computer.

Sydney-based artist Loribelle Spirovski (@loribellespirovski), for example, keeps both a digital archive and a physical notebook for journaling. “In tandem with this, I also carefully curate who I follow on Instagram, so this is always a wellspring of creative potential,” she says.

Tick off your chores.

Believe it or not, a number of the artists we interviewed recommend doing housework. This serves two purposes. First, familiar and routine tasks don’t require much concentration, so your mind is free to daydream and stumble onto fresh ideas.

And secondly, completing daily chores can give you a sense of accomplishment. When you’re frustrated by work, doing something productive can provide that jolt of motivation. “It's okay not to feel like creating a masterpiece every day,” painter Jenn Ashton (@raveonstudio) says. “Some days, if I clean my table or brushes, I can feel accomplished.”

Exercise.

Pushing yourself physically can prompt your mind to work in new ways. Photographer Matthias Heiderich (@matthiasheiderich) has a regular routine. “I take endless walks, listening to music and podcasts,” he explains. “I can walk really far and for a long time. I walk until I am exhausted. It does something to my brain. My focus shifts from thinking to moving. I go into a meditative state, a trance. My brain is clear, so new ideas form in my subconsciousness, and later, they find their way to the surface.”

Have a nap.

Poet, editor, and 3D artist David Stenbeck (@dovneon) shares a similar view as Dalí, though his naps are decidedly longer. “Take a nap,” he suggests. “It’s like an inner spring rain that’ll leave you energized enough to pick up where you left off. Napping isn’t lazy. Napping is cool.” Even if you don’t dream up your next big idea, you’ll have given yourself space and time to rest and recharge.

Get away.

“When I find myself in a creative rut, I change my environment,” oil painter Kristin Texeira (@kristintexeira) explains. “If it's possible, I take a drastic change. I go somewhere new for a month and interact with new people. I'm always applying to art residencies so that I know I have a new place to look forward to.”

Still, you don’t have to fly halfway around the world in order to benefit from a change of scene. Spend time exploring places you haven’t been before,even if they’re nearby. Research suggests that venturing into a vibrant new neighborhood can be enough to spark creativity.  

Act first, think later.

“I’d say the best approach is to force it,” painter Laura Wood (@laurawood.ca) explains. “Push paint around. Do something--anything--in your creative environment, and the inspiration will come. I almost never start with inspiration. I just start, and then it comes.”

Cast off any preconceptions or judgment, and enjoy the process of creating. You might surprise yourself if you let those inhibitions slip to the wayside.

Remember why you do what you do.

Why did you get into art in the first place? By taking the pressure off yourself and focusing clearly on your values and your passions, you can get back to the basics and generate new ideas.

Adam J. Kurtz (@adamjk) is an illustrator, author, and speaker based in Brooklyn. “It can be helpful to get a renewed sense of self,” he tells us. “My Skillshare course, Personal Brand Manifesto: Who Do You Think You Are?,is basically about this. It’s thirty minutes of art therapy that might seem pretty unusual but can have a really profound impact. There have been some things manifested from that exercise that have really shocked me. It’s helped me stay on track with my emotional and personal goals for my art and creative work.”

Eliminate stress.

“When I find myself in a creative rut, it is important for me to step back and assess why I feel like I’m in that rut,” Nashville-based painter Shane Miller (@shane.artistry) says. “Most times, it is because I’ve lost focus. I try to eliminate unnecessary stresses and things in my life that are zapping my energy. I’m a firm believer that we only have so much headspace, and if we allow it to fill up with unimportant things, it will take away from our creative focus. At those times, I declutter my mind and create a void to allow the creativity to flow once more.”

Get off the internet.

The internet is a great place to find inspiration, especially when you’re trying to build that “inspiration library” we mentioned earlier. But at a certain point, it can also be counterproductive. “The internet is full of beautiful things, but it can also be very distracting,” 3D artist Martin Vokatý (@murryous) confesses. “Spending hours browsing online is not healthy for your creativity. Try to keep your phone at a distance while you’re working.”

Accept the “rut.”

Sometimes, feeling stuck is just another part of the creative process. If all else fails, embrace it. What seems like a “creative rut” on the surface might just be another stop on your artistic journey. Be patient, learn from it, and trust that you’ll come out the other side.


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