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From Fear to Creativity: How to Overcome Blank Canvas Paralysis

From Fear to Creativity: How to Overcome Blank Canvas Paralysis

What do you do when you see a blank canvas?

Do you freeze up or instantly start working on it?

Many artists find moving from a blank canvas to creating a new work exceptionally intimidating and often need help knowing where to start. It can be one of the most daunting moments in your art career. Because we want the painting to come out right, we fear that the outcome will not match what we envisioned.

If it's also been a while since you painted last, your skills might have become rusty; and you're unsure of what you're capable of, so that to can be so inhibiting. We, artists, see our paintings as an extension of ourselves. As a result, we often feel emotionally invested in things we create and hope they turn out flawlessly.

Still, the reality is that achieving perfection is only occasionally attainable.
It's a moment of excitement and anxiety where the possibilities seem endless, yet the fear of failure looms. This feeling is commonly known as "blank canvas syndrome" or "blank page syndrome," and it's something that most artists will experience at some point in their creative journey.
Blank canvas syndrome is the "feeling of being overwhelmed" or intimidated by a blank canvas or sheet of paper (writers get this also.).
Blank Canvas Syndrome can hit at any time and is often caused by various factors, including a lack of inspiration or direction, fear of making mistakes, or pressure to produce something perfect. But, regardless of the cause, the result is usually the same, the artist, sitting staring at an empty canvas, feeling lost, devoid of ideas and unsure of where to begin.
The syndrome can manifest itself in different ways. Some artists may feel paralysed, unable to make a single mark on the canvas. Others may start a painting or drawing but quickly become overwhelmed, lose their direction or feel frustrated with their progress and abandon the project (I have many canvases in storage that will attest to that!) And some may never even begin, leaving their canvases blank and untouched.
One of the main challenges of blank canvas syndrome is overcoming the fear of making mistakes. So many artists feel that every stroke or mark they make on the canvas must be perfect, and any mistake could ruin the entire piece. This feeling can be a paralysing thought and can prevent an artist from ever getting started.
Another challenge is finding inspiration or a starting point. An artist may feel lost or overwhelmed without a clear idea of what to create. Worse yet, they may also worry that their vision could be more original and exciting, adding to their sense of self-doubt.

So, how can an artist overcome blank canvas syndrome?

There are various methods to overcome blank canvas syndrome; one approach may work better for some artists than others.

Block it in

Starting with a coloured background, like painting in block colours to show areas where the sky, water or trees are. Don't worry about blending or adding clouds, details or other colours at this stage. Once you've broken through the blank surface, you should have broken through the block, and you'll be able to add the detailing and get on with your artwork.

Sketching Straight to the Canvas

Try sketching your ideas directly onto the canvas with a light-coloured watercolour pencil. The watercolour pencil comes off easily and doesn't affect the artwork like a lead or charcoal pencil. I use a colour similar to what I will use with my paint as it will blend in with the medium and disappear much easier. You can even wipe the pencil off with a damp cloth if it's not looking how you want it to.

Mess It Up!

Another popular solution is to mess up the canvas before starting, creating a mess of wild strokes with no purpose or style. Then, once dry, you can paint over it, with everything you do being an improvement. This approach works best if you work with textured styles, and using opaque colours can help hide the lower layers unless you want them to show through.

Plan it First

Another approach is to create a plan or sketch before beginning the painting, providing a clear direction and reducing the fear of making mistakes; this is one of my methods. Having the concept pre-done on a sketchpad in full colour allows me to see what is working and what might not so I can add, change or scrape ideas or colours without spending precious time and resources on a full-sized artwork. Again, having a plan or sketch before beginning the painting provides a clear direction and reduces the fear of making mistakes.

Visual Reminders

And lastly, remember to display your previous artwork around you as it can remind you of your capabilities as an artist, giving you inspiration and courage because you know you have been successful before. Or if other artists inspire you, surround yourself with their work.

It's also essential for artists to remember that making mistakes is a natural part of the creative process. Show me an artist who has never made a mistake; they simply don't exist. Every painting or drawing is created on an individual journey with its own twists and turns. By embracing this process and accepting that not everything will turn out perfectly, artists can overcome the fear of failure and produce their best work.

Main image is titled 'Lens' an abstract by Collette Fergus

Posted: Saturday 20 February 2010


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