Overcoming Art Block: How to get Creative When You are Not  – Part 1

It is officially summer Inside-Outers!  Yet, despite the return of warmer weather and the blooming flowers, you may not be finding yourself feeling creative right now. 

As academics, many of you have likely experienced “writer’s block” in one form or another. Whether it is the discussion of a research paper where you cannot seem to find the right words to convey your thoughts, or a section in a grant proposal that does not sound right to you, and you are not sure how to fix it.  

Well, visual artists experience something similar from time to time – “art block.” Like writer’s block, art block can manifest in different ways. For example, perhaps you are working on a piece, but it is not looking right and you don’t know how to make it better. Or maybe you are at a loss for what to make next and are having trouble finding the motivation to start a new project. The list goes on… 

I know that sounds awful and maybe familiar… but do not despair! Just like there are some tried and true methods for writer’s block (e.g., free writing, brainstorming), there are a variety of methods that can help you break out of art block, and I am here to help walk you through them! In this post I will share with you one strategy I have used in the past to help me regain access to my creativity and hop back into visual art making. 

This will be the first installment of a multi-part series of posts where we explore what art block is and challenge ourselves to create our own unique pieces of visual art. InsideOut will be participating in these art-making challenges with you, so stay tuned! Now, let’s dive into our first strategy.  

Part 1: Imitation is the greatest flattery.  

 Now, we are not suggesting you copy someone else’s work and pass it on as your own. However, sometimes the best way to learn a new technique or explore a fresh style is to imitate one of the greats!  

Let’s say you were feeling particularly inspired by this well-known piece:  


You could start by initially recreating the piece by laying down all the major components:  

It’s not pretty, but it does not need to be. The idea here is to just get the major pieces outlined to serve as guidelines.  

Personally, I have more of an illustrative style so I prefer to use pens, but you could try the next few steps however you would like . You could challenge yourself to work in a material or medium you are not familiar with or do not typically use. You could use pencils, pens, markers, or paint for example! You could even go a bit further outside of the box and use some non-traditional art-making materials such as yarn, or different strips of paper to make your design.  

You could push yourself to explore a new style or render the reference photo in your personal style! For example, the piece I am working with would be considered “post-impressionist”, but perhaps it would be valuable and stimulating to my artistic growth to try and recreate it in a cartoon or surreal style.  

 For an extra challenge, you could even try to combine different mediums and styles! For example, you could try to recreate this piece using a non-traditional canvas (such as cardboard) and go for a more abstract style by gluing different pieces of fabric to represent different elements or textures in the original piece. The main purpose of the next few steps is really to explore, learn, and have fun!  

Once you have your outlines down, look back at the piece you are “imitating.” Notice where the artist laid their lines, highlights, shadows, etc. Texture and line movement is front and center for this reference, so that is where I am choosing to focus.   

Again, not perfect but the main idea here is to imitate the style so I will keep going and see what I end up with! No project looks perfect at the beginning, right? 

Not bad! I decided not to add any color to this and leave it as a pen & ink exercise. Representing motion in a drawing is something that was new to me, and now I can apply this technique to a future piece!


 Now it’s your turn! If you feel inspired to give this exercise a try, follow the steps below to participate in InsideOut’s first challenge: Breaking Free of Art Block : Imitation is the greatest flattery!

  1. Browse through some well-known pieces of visual art in search of some inspiration. 
  2. When you find a piece you are drawn to or would like to try to recreate, follow the steps I have detailed above  
    1. Outline the major points  
    2. Pick a medium, style 
    3. Imitate the piece by putting lines, outlines, etc. where the artist did  
  3. Send in your attempts for us to showcase using the contact form on the website https://insideout.martinos.org/insideoutcontactus or by emailing your submissions directly to me, Holly, hjfreeman@mgh.harvard.edu with the subject “InsideOut Challenge”

Stay tuned for our next installment where we share our attempts at the challenge, and hopefully, some of yours! Looking forward to seeing what you all come up with. In that piece, we will also reveal another strategy for getting unstuck and announce the next Breaking Free of Art Block InsideOut challenge.  

Contributed by: Holly Freeman