7 Tips to Shake You Out of Your Artistic Rut

Studio Chair, detail
Oil on Canvas, 60 x 44 in. in.


As an artist, you have to not look back too much.

~ Steve Jobs

Maddening, isn’t it?

You work your butt off, spend a fortune on art books and workshops, and log in more museum hours than the people who work there.

Still, you feel stuck.

Nothing’s more discouraging to an artist than the feeling of going nowhere. Except for the feeling of going backward.

Why is this happening to you, and why is it happening now?

Here’s why:

It’s our hunter-gatherer hangover.

The stubborn conservation of mental energy for important things like survival. Which is beneficial most of the time, but with a downside.

It’s when muscle memory takes over while creativity goes to sleep.

Sometimes, you just need a good jolt.

So here are seven of them that can wake you right up, right now, and get you back in the game:

1. Throw Out Your Old, Unfinished, Unsuccessful Work. You’ll Never Miss it.

I recently drove a large, 20-year-old oil portrait to the local dump.

My heart sank as I tossed it into the pit. A grimy-looking attendant grumbled, “Nice picture”, as we watched it go down. I couldn’t believe what I had done.

The pain lasted exactly five minutes.

I returned to the studio feeling liberated as if I’d buried a load of amateurish weaknesses along with the piece. I never looked back and never thought about it again until now.

Unsuccessful work is unavoidable. It’s a critical part of your journey. And it’s baggage, pure and simple.

Now it’s fine to save a few favorite pieces from different phases of your career. In fact, it’s a great thing to do.

And I agree with Alan Bamberger’s wisdom in not trashing large bodies of work that you’ve suddenly grown tired of. Destroying even a single work of art is an important decision best made over time, not in the moment.

But unless you’re serious about reworking, don’t clutter the studio with your failures (and we all got ’em). Because they’re holding you back in ways you can’t imagine.

We rise, and we sink, to the level of our surroundings. And nothing’s quite as inspiring as an empty studio. You’ll be dying to fill it with new work.

2. Work Bigger

Christopher Gallego Blog: 7 Tips to Jolt You Right Out of Your Artistic Rut-Featured Artist Alia El-Bermani

Double or even triple the scale of your works, even if you prefer working small.

Why? Because it’s tough.

You can’t BS your way through a large-scale or life-size work. All of the forms have to turn. All transitions have to be resolved. Keeping it cohesive is a challenge as well.

You'll have to put more distance between yourself and your canvas, and throw your entire body into it. You'll need big brushes and more paint–lots more paint. Which will make you a great paint-handler.

Working large-scale is exhilarating too. There's this wonderful feeling of athleticism to it.

Do this for a while and every once in a while. You can then go back to your scale of choice, which will seem like a cakewalk by comparison.

3. Work Longer

Double or triple the amount of time you currently spend on your work. For the same reason–it’s tough.

If two weeks on a painting is your max, then spend one, two, or even three months on your next piece. Dig your heels in and commit.

Now let me guess, your teachers taught you to never overwork a painting?

Quit while you’re ahead?

Fine, but here's a little secret…

Oil paintings don't have an expiration date.

You can work them for years, decades even, and still keep them fresh. Provided you know how to keep them fresh.

And the way to learn is to just do, it a thousand times.

Get into the habit of laying fresh paint right over any areas you're not in love with. Then, paint them again.

Put some more heart into it this time. Practice, and you'll become a whiz at achieving a high finish and covering up the struggle. In time you'll be able to make it look easy, even when it's not.

4. Hesitate

Grace Mehan Devito
Cotton, Oil on canvas, 20 x 20 in.

If you take just one tip from this post, let it be this one.

As you paint, hold yourself back a little. Don't react to every thought or observation you have. 

Take a good long look at your subject, hold the brush to the canvas, take a second look to confirm the first one...then put the paint down with confidence.

Start your paint stroke before the brush touches the canvas, then continue the motion after lifting the brush off the canvas. Each stroke should look graceful and elegant, like it came out of nowhere. Wind up and follow through as an athlete would.

Fade in, fade out.

Do this, and 95% of the time you'll catch a mistake before you make it.

5. Lighten Up.

Artists are fascinating creatures. Quirky, independent, driven.

Also a tad intense sometimes.

Maybe it's because our work is a reflection of our inner selves. Or because a few wrong moves can wipe out days of work.

Or maybe it's because much of society thinks of us as overgrown children indulging in playtime, followed by snack-time, then nappie-time. ("Don't forget your blankie"). So we work and stress ourselves sick to counter that feeling.

Usually, it stems from the neurotic assumption that deep down, we really aren't any good. Just lucky sometimes. Otherwise known as The Imposter Syndrome.

If you have any of these phobias, then please, haul them along with your old works to the local dump.

30 years of teaching have taught me that artists who take themselves lightly tend to blow right past the obsessives.

6. Raise Your Prices

Sounds like a fun one, right?

You'd be amazed at how much resistance this suggestion gets.

Most emerging and mid-career artists grossly underprice their work, convincing the subconscious mind, and anyone else paying attention, that their work has no value.

Don’t sabotage yourself this way. Have some common sense as well as some guts when pricing. Respect yourself, and your art.


Cheap Art Gives the Impression of Worthlessness


Only a small percentage of inquiries lead to sales anyway, because most “collectors” are simply kicking the tires.

And while offering your work for cheap will never convert a tepid collector, it will succeed in undermining your confidence, especially when the strategy fails.

It takes just one serious inquiry for a sale to happen. Do a little research; so long as your prices are in line with the competition– your competition–you’ll be fine.

And getting the price you deserve is completely empowering.

7. Give It a Try, Starting Small

I swear by all the tips presented here.

But if you're willing to stick with just a few of them, you'll see results.

You'll see each art project as an opportunity for growth, not just something you have to get right.

You'll stay cool when your canvas is a disaster. And it will be sometimes...so what?

I don't recommend experimenting on anything important. Think of your learning exercises as throwaways from the start; that will take a load of pressure off.

And don't tell any naysayers in your life that you're trying something new. You know, those "well-meaning" folks who love to discourage everything you do?

You can do this. Whatever is interfering with your work can be turned around. All it takes is a little nudge.



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7 thoughts on “7 Tips to Shake You Out of Your Artistic Rut

  1. Very interesting, Chris, thank you. I would also advise any artist to read Charles Hawthorne’s book on painting. It gets you out of the rut too, tells you to be more honest, to be braver and more courageous but still humble and to take yourself less seriously.
    Thank you, I thoroughly enjoy your blogs which I have just discovered. A treat!

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