What do to when you’re burning out as an artist

Over on IG, Abby McMurry, who you might know was Yeiou Paper Objects and who makes amazing paper house portraits – asked about what to do when you need to shake things up in the studio, when you’re maybe a little burned out. That’s not exactly what she said, but that’s sort of my mental summary.

I commented “Do something completely different, that’s also fast, fun and satisfying. Event better: build this into your routine.” (Note: I can be concise, especially when typing on my phone.). She said, “That sounds like magic! Do you have a routine like that?”

I do, and the answer is too long to type into my phone, so I’m writing a blog post as answer.

Some of what I’ll share here is in my speech, “Studio Rules!” and I also sneak some of these things into every speech I give to college students, in studio visits, or at the Self-Employment in the Arts Conference. (I want to turn Studio Rules! into a book or zine, but a thing written for one format is a serious challenge to turn into another format.)

Back to Abby’s question! “Do you have a routine like that?”

Yes, I have such a routine. My main art activity that’s fast, fun and satisfying is art journaling/creative sketchbooking. Not the super pretty ones you see videos of online, oh no. Just messy paint and collage that’s just for me. You’ll rarely see photos of it. It’s just for me, and that’s part of the point. I learned about creative sketchbooking from the wonderful teacher Lisa Sonora, check out her website and her books. She’s amazing and she could change your life too.

What else is fast and fun? Making a miniature quilt. Making Gelli Plate prints. It can be anything, the key is that it’s not what you normally do for your “serious” art, that the process and the results are just for you. And no pictures for Instagram! No posting! What do you do with all that process stuff you create? Doesn’t matter. Make collage papers, make greeting cards and send them to friends, make miniature quilts and stick them on your wall. Anything! The key is to please yourself and enjoy the process.

Have you ever made a quilt? It kind of takes forever. Sometimes, while working on a larger quilt top, I’ll pause and make a miniature quilt top (under 5″ x 5″ or thereabouts), because it’s just satisfying to finish something. Abby’s house portrait are insanely, gorgeously detailed, I bet she can relate to processes that take forever!

Routines for Achieving Peak Flow State

It takes 23 minutes to get into peak flow state. Many creatives, whether visual artists, or musicians, have a process, a ritual even, to get started working right away, to get down to the serious work, once in that peak flow state, efficiently.

Creative sketchbooking is my warm up activity. It’s also my “I’m in between big projects, but I’m committed to my studio hours and my butt will be in the chair” activity.

Sustainable creative practice graphic by Elaine Luther.

Sketchbook page by Elaine Luther. It says, “Refilling the creative well.”

Why all this talk about sustainability?

Because in the creative life, there are going to be fallow periods. Awful times, times when you almost give up. Times when you have a day job that’s a bad fit. One of those times for me, I wrote about in this blog post, “I Give Up (sort of)” – I don’t even want to re-read it. Things were bad and they got worse before they got beter. (But they got much better, and I’m really happy I kept going.)

Sometime after I wrote that blog post, as I was coming out of that rough patch, artistically, and in life, I read an article in the New York Times, which I haven’t been able to find again, where someone wrote about these creative lulls as being “fallow times,” times when things are replenishing. (In farming, leaving a field fallow means not farming it, to give it time to recover. I suppose only organic farmers do that now.) I absolutely loved that rebranding of “creative lull,” or “bad patch,” or whatever you want to call it.

Another way to think of it is as refilling your creative well. You need energy and inspiration to draw from, and sometimes that takes longer to refill than others. When in that kind of period of time, keeping up with these small, sustainable art practices are what keep us connected to our art practice. That connection, however thin, is what can keep us going, keep us from giving up, from quitting.

Choose something that makes you happy, build it into your weekly, or even daily routine, and have fun with it!

Bonus points if it’s portable.  Portability is another thing Lisa Sonora teaches.  Here are some pictures of my portable creative sketchbooking set up, in a hotel and at one of those indoor bouncy house places, I think.  I’ve also worked in the car, but no paint in the car, of course.

Another thing I do in my creative sketchbooks is to paint pages gold, roughly every ten pages or so – those are celebration pages! See, I’m expecting to have something to celebrate! And if I don’t, this encourages me to look for something to celebrate. I wrote a blog post on that, it’s here.

I hope this is helpful!  Do you want to know more?  Do you want to see Studio Rules! as a zine?  Please let me know.  (It’s really a terrific speech and has made at least one person cry, in a good way.)