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What I do when I feel creatively stuck

I’ve started taking anonymously asked questions and posting responses on my Instagram highlights. Here’s a question I received that merited a longer response á la blog post. The question reads:

“Hey Sophia! Saw your work at the [Affordable] Art Fair and absolutely love them! I also do digital art and [am] just starting out. Do you have any advice or tips in terms of getting galleries to represent you or have your work exhibited? Also, what do you do if you get stuck sometimes with your art?”

I’ll be answering the latter question below, but you can read my response to the former question as well here.

What do you do if you get stuck sometimes with your art?

Art started as a hobby for me. It was something that I turned to when I felt stress or pressure from other parts of life. I never felt stuck because doing art was something that I did not correlate with productivity or external validation. I only did it when I felt like it, meaning I only did it when I didn’t feel obligated or pressured to.

Fast forward to art becoming a large part of my job, and that feeling has changed. Sometimes I have zero motivation to do a commission, or I can’t think of any new ideas. I feel pressure to churn out the next big thing, but nothing comes to mind. Only when I began forcing my art and putting pressure on myself to create it did I begin to feel stuck. So my question to you is, what are the circumstances that lead to you feeling stuck and how can you dismantle them?

If you're "stuck"ness (stickiness?) is also from pressure you're putting on yourself, these are three things I do to nip that feeling in the bud:

1. Do something else.

I don’t do art. I don’t go near my iPad. I don’t work. Obviously, be responsible with this. Don’t shirk your commitments. But if you can safely allow yourself room to stop and percolate, ideas will eventually start coming back; a desire to create will start coming back; that stuck feeling will slink away. It feels counterintuitive, but there’s that old paradox that the things you want only come your way after you’ve stopped wanting them. I’ve found this with productivity. Don't force it.

2. Hold one hobby sacred.

Writing and illustrating used to be hobbies for me. They were activities I turned to after school or work. Once I started commercialising them though, they lost their restorative power to some degree. And that restorative power was necessary to keep me inspired and productive. So, once writing and illustrating became “work”, I decided to keep one hobby just for me. For me, it’s music. I played guitar and tuba as a kid and used to like to write acapella mash-up arrangements. I still do, but I don’t do it for work. (With the exception of Banyan Tree, which was a song I made for charity so maybe doesn’t count). Being able to pick up my guitar or bash out harmonies on my old version of Sibelius makes me so happy. It clears my mind and takes me away from that stuck feeling.

3. Remix something.

Let's say you actually want to tackle the creative block head-on and don't want to distract yourself with non-art activities. Try taking a piece of artwork and making it your own. Literally, when I could not think of new Hong Konger ideas, I would challenge myself with a New Yorker cover and force myself to Hong Kongify it. You don't have to do the New Yorker thing. Take a painting of a landscape from 1653 France. Remix it to make it a cityscape of 2022 Hong Kong. Take a scene of a family sitting down for a Thanksgiving dinner in 1791. Remix it to make it a bunch of popos getting yumcha in 2018 (pre-pandemic vibes). Using existing works to create your own can help you get through a block by letting you start a project halfway through with composition, or style, or tone already decided for you.

Here's my cop-out caveat. My experience with creative blocks is obviously not the be-all-and-end-all, and therefore my solutions may be wholly unhelpful to you. Even if they are helpful, it's easier said than done. Don't be hard on yourself. Pressure is very real, especially when it's physical or financial. Giving yourself time to think sometimes isn't an option. Nothing I say can miraculously jumpstart the idea machine in your noggin, but hopefully these practices stay with you and come in useful at some point. Good luck.

Click here to read my response to the former question, “Do you have any advice or tips in terms of getting galleries to represent you or have your work exhibited?”.


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