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7 Tips to Jolt You Right Out of Your Artistic Rut

Christopher Gallego Blog Post: 7 powerful ways to get out of an artistic rut-Featured image: Studio Chair

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

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

~ Steve Jobs

Christopher Gallego  
Updated September 14, 2018

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?

One word:

It's our hunter-gatherer hangover, conserving precious mental energy for important things like survival. Which is fine most of the time, but with a downside.

It's when muscle memory takes over while creativity goes to sleep. Sometimes, you 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 oil portrait from 20 years ago 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, liberated, as if I 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 some 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 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 sink, to the level of our surroundings. And nothing's quite as motivating as an empty studio. You'll be dying to fill it up again.

2. Work Bigger

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

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

Why? Because it’s tough.

You can’t BS your way through a large-scale or life-size work. You have to "turn" all the forms and resolve all transitions. Maintaining cohesiveness is a greater challenge.

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

Working large-scale is exhilarating. 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. Same reason: it’s tough.

If two weeks on a painting is your max, then try a one-monther. Or even a three-monther. Dig your heels in and make a massive commitment.

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 expire.

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

And the way to learn is to do it a thousand times. Develop the habit of laying a mess fresh paint right over any areas you're not in love with. Then, paint them again.

Put some more heart into it this time. With practice, you'll become a whiz at achieving a high finish and covering up the struggle.

Which is the one hallmark of a master in any field. They 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... Don't react to every observation or thought you have. Hold back a little. 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 tad intense sometimes.

Because our work is a reflection of our inner selves. And a few wrong moves can obliterate days of work.

Or because much of society thinks of us as overgrown children indulging in playtime, followed by snack-time, then nappie-time. So we work and stress ourselves sick to counter that feeling:

I'll show you who the workaholic adult is.

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

If you have any of these worries, then please, haul them along with your old works to the dump. 28 years of teaching have taught me that artists with a lighter attitude often blow right past the obsessives.

6. Raise Your Prices

Sounds like a fun one, right?

You wouldn't believe how much resistance this suggestion gets.

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

Please, don’t sabotage yourself this way. Have some sense and some guts when pricing. Respect yourself and your art.

Cheap art
gives the impression
of worthlessness.

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

And while offering your work for cheap will never win over a lukewarm collector, it will succeed in killing your confidence. Especially when the strategy fails.

It takes one serious inquiry to make a sale. Do some research; as long as your prices are in line with your competition you’ll be fine.

And getting the price you deserve is empowering.

7. Give It a Try, Starting Small

I rely on all the tips presented here.

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

You'll see each art project as an opportunity for growth.

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

But 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.

Try to avoid telling the naysayers in your life that you're trying something new. You know, those "well-meaning" folks who love to discourage everything?

You can do this. Whatever's happening with you and your work can be turned around. All it takes is a little nudge.


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6 thoughts on “7 Tips to Jolt You Right 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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