My first drought of creative flow was right after I received my BFA. I spent four years churning out piece after piece, striving to put out work on social media to impress employers, my peers, my professors, and outwardly, to sustain an image. I always felt pressured, even growing up, to put on a face of perfectionism with my art. We can face so many obstacles entering a career in art, that it can hurt our pride to admit we experience lapses in motivation. We want to “never work a day in our life” doing what we love. But it is work. And like any work, too much too fast can deplete our energy reserves. It’s even easier to do this as an artist, because our source of energy is not physical. It’s a mindset. It’s hard to tell when the tank is low if you’re not paying close attention to the signs.
But first, what is creative burnout and what does it look like?
“Creative burnout is the feeling that you’ve drained all of your creativity, and there is nothing left. If you’re dreading to start work, feel tired and stressed all the time and suspect you’ll never be able to create something good ever again, you might be experiencing a creative burnout” (MOO).
For me, the process of getting started on a design or visual is a lot like a colorful charcuterie board…
Before you even begin, you’re mulling over flavors, making combinations and tasting them with your brain; thumbnailing until one or more jumps out at you. But if you eat too quickly it can all end up tasting the same, or even make you sick.
It took me a year to get through my first artistic burnout. I’d sit down, sketchbook in hand, and try to draw. Nothing felt good to put on paper like it normally would. I had few ideas. I was just drawing things I’d drawn before and it all looked the same. It made me feel horrible.
According to iPractice, it can take 3 months to a year to fully recover from the burnout cycle.
For many of us, it’s our job; we cannot usually just stop whenever we want to. So what do we do?
The best way to avoid burnout is to take preventative measures, not wait til you’re in the thick of it. These are my tips to avoid creative fatigue, but regardless of what stage you’re in they can help.
1. Give Your Work Process a Revamp
Sometimes a change of pace will make a huge difference and give you a sense of control. Repeating the same process over and over is less than stimulating. It can feel like insanity.
If you’ve ever listened to the same song on repeat, after a while, it can be grating and boring even if you once loved it. Apply that sentiment to our process. If you usually begin with thumbnails, try a mind-map instead, collect reference images, make a color palette…do the heavy lifting before you even put your ideas on paper. Don’t want to sketch thumbnails? Use simple shapes instead to explore composition, value, and visual hierarchy.
Romanticize your creative space, not the struggle. If your mindset isn’t conducive for creating, alter it with accessible tools. Change your lighting, burn a candle, move your furniture, clean your desk or make playlists that tug at the right heartstrings for your project. Make your environment feel new. It’s amazing how a scent or sound can alter your mindset. Sometimes this is all you need to get back into a creative mood.
2. Embrace the Hiatus
Burnout can feel like one of the horsemen of a creative apocalypse. Sometimes we feel like we must fight it off when really the best thing to do is embrace what it’s telling us about ourselves. This is easier said than done when it’s your job to be creating, but even small breaks can make a large impact.
Don’t be afraid to say you need a mental health day. A day to pause can give long-term benefits to protecting your peace. But if you are looking for even smaller ways to take a break, there is still plenty you can do. Take a walk to a coffee shop or restaurant during lunch, find a podcast or show you can zone out to for 10 minutes when you need to shut off. Whenever possible do not draw. At least not for a little while. It might seem counter-intuitive to halt any personal exploration when you feel stuck, but sometimes the key to getting back into your art is finding a different lock. Try a creative hobby that’s as unlike your daily work as possible. For me, this one is the most helpful. Often, it can even end up being a source of inspiration once I’m ready to design again. Bake a cake, pull out the play-doh or grab an instrument. Being a maker, it can be refreshing to make something different.
Suddenly you might get the urge to draw that recipe, turn that sculpture into a character, or make a social post about that instrument and “Eureka!”
3. Beware the Artist’s Doomscroll
Getting on social media when you want to be creative is like getting a shot of imposter syndrome directly into your bloodstream. One of the worst things you can do is compare yourself to other artists, especially when you’re feeling less than your best. It’s easy to excuse it as “looking for inspiration” or new work processes, but all this really does is make you more likely to experience distress or guilt that you aren’t being productive in that moment. In the past I’ve made this mistake. It resulted in me wanting to burn my sketchbooks in a bonfire and never draw again. Every idea I’d try I’d dislike. I had set an impossible standard from what I was seeing others do online. This damages a crucial part of the art and design process. We have to be able to make mistakes and work through the awkward stages of our pieces or we won’t create at all or ever improve.
So how do we find inspiration when we are in a slump? An alternative to the artist’s doomscroll is to create moodboards from reference. Go on Unsplash or another free stock site and collect images that have visual interest for you. If you like fashion, collect fun outfits to draw. If you like food, reference food from life. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, venture outside with your phone or camera and collect your own shots.
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve gotten stuck on a project and the solution turned out to be the simplest idea. We can become too rigid when we are fixating on a problem. Losing formality can open the flood gates again.
There’s a reason our quickest sketches can perform better than our premeditated posts on social media. They possess an ease and authenticity that we cannot orchestrate. So, next time you hit a wall, pull out your watercolors, oil-pastels, finger paints and just make a little mess on paper. Keep it abstract and let go of control. Paint a dream, emotion or memory. We start off creating as children, and that sense of wonder is the best guide for staying rejuvenated. Make the work fun, and if you can’t, make your process fun.
The takeaway: Creative fatigue is nothing to feel bad about, it happens to almost all of us. What is important, is recognizing it as a sign that it’s time for a change and a little self-care.
It can be the most worthwhile thing you can do, to set-up your day to benefit your mindset. Reflect on what you can control to make your creative process better with how it impacts you mentally. Put in place structures that make your day easier, and take them away where they hold you back (iPractice). Long-term, your brain will thank you, your art will be all the more satisfying, and your clientele will be better off. Happy creating!