How do I get my mojo back?
September 22, 2009 5:23 AM   Subscribe

How do I get artistically unblocked, fast?

I'm about to start the next year of a (sort of) art-photography course and I need to come up with a Big Idea very very soon (like, two weeks soon). I've had a rough few months and have lost of lot of momentum, had to scale back my reading regime dramatically, and effectively done nothing creative since Spring. Now time is running out and my idea-tank is dry. I've been trying to expand on the one or two mini-ideas that I do have, and frankly, they're terrible. I need tips on getting unblocked in a hurry.

Over the last week or so I've been trying (and mostly failing) to do some brainstorming, mind-mapping, and general idea-capturing, and I've also re-read Art and Fear and The War of Art. I've had a copy of The Artist's Way on a shelf for months, but now I don't have time to work through it, so if anyone could recommend the best bits that might help me. I'm hesitant to start reading any new books in the short time I have left, so other book recommendations might not be so helpful.

I have come up with some very vague parameters for the project, and I know which artistic movements I have an affinity for, but beyond that I'm completely stuck.

Thanks everyone.
posted by SebastianKnight to Media & Arts (26 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
When I find I can't come up with a good idea for a writing project, I'll try to think of really BAD ideas and start writing one of those, just to get into the habit of writing something. Since I'm deliberately writing something awful, I don't feel the attachment I would to a "great" idea, and I can have fun coming up with hackneyed dialog, impossible situations, and silly action sequences. That generally frees me up enough that ideas start coming for better projects.
posted by xingcat at 5:31 AM on September 22, 2009 [5 favorites]

Get away from it in a physical way. Go for a long hike, jog, bike ride, what have you. LONG. Several hours, no ipod. Just you, and your mind and your body engaged in something else. Hopefully some cog, some thing in your brain will shift into clarity. If nothing happens, do it again tomorrow.

Also, xingcat's idea is great. Just choose one path or direction and go down it, even with doubts. It will at least get something out there and then you can bash that around. (Basically, do it, and it will start to reveal itself....)

That being said, why am I mefi when I am past due on a deadline?
posted by typewriter at 5:52 AM on September 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Get away from your routine. Get in a car or bus or train or plane and go away. You are in a rut and it is easy to stay there if you don't do something to radically change your routine. Something as basic as leaving for 24 hours can break you out of the day-to-day.
posted by Pollomacho at 5:54 AM on September 22, 2009

I find that I get lots of ideas by sticking on a pair of headphones (ideally the kind that are sound isolating) and taking a walk with ambient music turned up loud. The auditory-visual disconnect may give you new perspectives by allowing you to concentrate on the world around you while maintaining a certain distance at the same time.
posted by ianK at 6:17 AM on September 22, 2009

Sometimes it's helpful to play out your "rut" and your rough few months as it's own thing, just to get it off the table. Maybe doing a project that is completely NOT what you are supposed to be doing - like something about your rut and rough months. Maybe even in a different medium?

I find when I am stuck on something creative I end up doing/finishing a bunch of other things and through this apparent procrastination I end up energized creatively and maybe get some inspirations/insights I wouldn't have otherwise. Even things like cleaning the house exactly when you should be working on the "big project" can help get your mind working.
Whatever you do, don't just sit in front of the empty page trying to force it.

Not that you have time, but this book was a real help to me in Art school - I found it in the library on a desperate afternoon in much the state you describe. If you can find it, it's a quick read. In fact I have bought this book three times as I keep lending it out and then it doesn't get back to me...that reminds me, I don't think I have it anymore. Hmmmm...time to buy it again...

I have years of art-photography schooling (BFA) under my belt if you want to bounce some ideas around - PM me if you want random stranger input.
posted by smartypantz at 6:19 AM on September 22, 2009

Do you have any habits which force you to think? I find going to a café with nothing but paper and a pen is great for forcing myself to think about something creative. Also good, listening to music that 'envelopes' me in some way (death metal or ambient music, usually) helps me think too. Don't worry about what to read (or listen to, for that matter) just go somewhere that's relatively free of entertaining temptations and think.
posted by Kattullus at 6:34 AM on September 22, 2009

Oh, and try to explain what you want to do to someone else. That helps me get a better handle on vague, nebulous ideas. Though that's better when I have a glimmer of an idea, not when I need to come up with one.
posted by Kattullus at 6:36 AM on September 22, 2009

The last time I was writers-blocked and needed to kill it in a hurry, I set myself the goal of sitting down and typing for ten minutes. Didn't matter what I wrote, if it was any good, but ten minutes at the keyboard, no stopping, deleting, anything, and it seemed to shake something loose. (I would up writing a kind of character study/summary, for what it's worth.)

Maybe adapt that by forcing yourself to photograph for, say, five minutes solid. Or go somewhere, anywhere, and give yourself ten seconds to set up a shot, and take it. Now walk a few steps, and do the same. Basically -- give yourself permission to create crap art, and just get used to creating.
posted by kalimac at 6:46 AM on September 22, 2009

Lots of good ideas from the writers, but they may not help you -- you are a visual artist. Here are two thoughts.

Got sketchbooks? Go through them. Somewhere in there will be an idea or an image you have forgotten, something worth following up on. Now may be the time to follow up on it.

Whose work excites you? Ansel Adams? Diane Arbus? You must have a book or two of their work around -- failing that, the internets. Go insearch of some imagery that fires your soul. You'll know what to do.

Stop second-guessing yourself, looking over your own shoulder. (Yes, easier said than done.) Get back to the fun of what you do.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 6:54 AM on September 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I agree with xingcat about going for bad ideas. Give yourself permission to come up with crap for a bit. Or write down twenty of the most fatuous ideas you can think of - tomorrow one might start to look good.

An alternative, if it works for you, is stupid comparisons with another medium. If this picture I like was a story by Dickens, how would Raymond Chandler have done it? If this is Beethoven, what does Stravinsky look like?

Third choice: steal someone else's idea and change it.
posted by Phanx at 7:07 AM on September 22, 2009

Have you ever played with an Oblique Strategies deck?

Deal yourself a fresh card here or here or here. This site even lets you draw from a specific edition. Or you can buy a fifth edition deck direct from Eno for 30 pounds if you prefer the tactile and visual experience.

This may be less of a big idea generator than a tool for moving past various roadblocks, or for refining or transforming a less than satisfactory initial big idea, but the free versions might be worth playing with nonetheless.
posted by maudlin at 7:12 AM on September 22, 2009

Uh oh -- the Eno Shop link broke. Here it is again.
posted by maudlin at 7:13 AM on September 22, 2009

When I get really stuck I go small-thing hunting. No grand ideas allowed. No real goals, aside from sketching stuff and being alone. Just sit and let your brain and hand study whatever catches their attention first, and then stick with it.

I head out to a park or someplace I can sit or wander for a long time without being bothered too much. The goal, for me, is to find that flow-state where you are intensely focused and engaged with your subject, but your mind is completely free to wander at the same time.

Those are the times when my brain is really firing for me, and I'm full of the 'what ifs' that lead to greater things.

It's a tough situation- be kind to yourself. Do whatever you can to relieve the pressure that's right now tied up with your creativity. Good luck to you.
posted by alight at 7:17 AM on September 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was also going to suggest Oblique Strategies. It's also available as an iPhone app now.
posted by snofoam at 7:20 AM on September 22, 2009

You could post your parameters and affinities here and see what the Hive Mind comes up with. That would certainly be fast.

I'm a photographer too and I find that photographic ideas in particular suffer when they're kept at this abstract level. Photo's got this literal component that the other visual arts don't have as strongly. So you'll think to yourself, "ah, that gas station is interesting. No, gas stations have been done." The idea gets killled before it's even taken shape. The main route past this issue is to delve. You've got to shoot. Take any germ of the idea and shoot it. Ideally digitally because of the time crunch. Shoot tons, more frames than you can remember, then load them in a computer and examine them. There'll be some sparkles to delve into further, or clues like, "too bad this shot wasn't more like _____."

If for some reason you can't shoot, try writing, even in your head. A fiction scene you can imagine will have clues you can connect to your themes. If you can't think of your own story, use someone else's. Think about how the imagery mixes with the messages and emotions of the story, why it resonates with you, and how it connects to your own themes.
posted by xo at 7:21 AM on September 22, 2009 [2 favorites]

This may not be up your alley, but in the 60s we used to take doses of perspective orally on blotter paper. Perfect for the visual artist in a hurry!
posted by tapesonthefloor at 7:23 AM on September 22, 2009

You ask about The Artist's Way. Cameron specifically recommends for ALL artists, not just writers, to write three longhand pages in a notebook first thing every morning. It's called Daily Pages, if you want to look it up in your book.

And speaking as someone who struggles with resistance very often, try to get out of your own head a little. I know (I KNOW) that when you get like this it's super tempting to just keep thinking about how much you suck for not having ideas (or whatever) and it turns into this crazy downward spiral. Do whatever you can NOT to get into that mode. Make a list of ideas, even or especially if they're terrible. Go out and take a hundred pictures and don't let yourself review them till you get home. You're trying to throw off your inner editor.

(This advice given to you by someone who was up till 2a last night trying and eventually succeeding to get six pages written. But I made myself miserable on the way.)
posted by sugarfish at 7:24 AM on September 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I like xo's idea of just going out and shooting. Doesn't matter if it's been done before, do it in a different way...go outside your comfort zone and shoot some stuff that would be atypical of your style. I often find that my best photo projects are the result of multiple re-shoots of the same "boring" thing, getting different perspectives and taking something ordinary to the next level by honing in on exactly how I want the shot to look. In my own experience at least, simply brainstorming with my mind and paper never ends up producing anything good...come up with ideas WITH your camera, or at least a little cardboard cutout to "frame" shots.

Or, do another type of crafty project. Getting your mind off of the thing it's stuck on, and focusing on something else entirely may free up your braincogs. I always think of the best ideas when I'm doing something completely unrelated.

Or, do a "fun" photo project - something you may have always wanted to try, but wouldn't normally consider for a project. Even if you don't end up using the shots for anything, it'll remind you that yes, you can be creative again! I personally like photographing smoke. A cigarette and a beam of sunshine is awesome for getting me out of a foul/boring/bored mood.

Lastly, carry around a notebook with you EVERYWHERE to jot down ideas, colors, smells, emotions, whatever. When you jot things down, take note of where you are, what time of day, weather conditions if applicable, so you can return w/ camera.
posted by Gonestarfishing at 7:57 AM on September 22, 2009

Seconding xo. When I get in a photographic rut or when I don't shoot for a while I go out for a walk and shoot a lot.
posted by gregr at 8:40 AM on September 22, 2009

Get back the feeling of no-pressure fun that drew you to the medium in the first place. Look at work that inspires you. You gotta trade the pressure for the joy. Joy = fun. Joy = play. Indulge in these and get your enthusiasm back!
posted by Lou Stuells at 8:53 AM on September 22, 2009

Just focus on technique. Break it down, and identify specific techniques (depth of field, low light, motion, etc) and then develop exercises for each. Take 30 portraits. Take 30 portraits using natural light. Take 30 portraits using artificial lighting.

Take 30 photos of buildings.

If you focus on the basics in a methodical and meditative way, you should find some ideas and inspiration.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:36 AM on September 22, 2009

Expanding on KokuRyu's excellent suggestion, try picking something you need to learn more about. For example, using flash. Take the next three days to learn as much as you can, to run all the possible changes, to do lots of different setups, to use single and multiple flash, to combine it with available light, to try colored filters, etc. The point is to work; if your creative imagination isn't firing, then use the time to study. Maybe what happens is that if you work very hard and methodically, your brain will rebel against so much instruction by having creative ideas. At any rate, stop thinking and start doing.
posted by conrad53 at 11:11 AM on September 22, 2009

I have been on the Artist's Way and Julia Cameron's related works for the last 18 months. I strongly recommend you go to the basics: do the morning pages if you can (it does help you organize and catch stuff), but it sounds like what you really need are the artist's dates - taking a time out to go to a museum, or watch people walk by you in a cafe', etc. I'm not a photographer but I've managed to stack piles of photographs and notes that I'm not working from for my daily projects just from sticking to the program.
posted by medea42 at 11:50 AM on September 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

rip something off! You heard me...find some really obscure good idea and lift it! I know that is not the ideal solution--but it is better than sitting on your hands thinking you are blocked. You aren't really "blocked"--your ego is somehow pestering you to do a perfect job. Look through some successful projects and get inspired. Once you start, using someone else's good idea it will morph into your idea. Seriously. Advertisers lift all the time--it sets the ball in motion. (Just DO NOT copy verbatim. That would cause you no end of trouble).
posted by naplesyellow at 1:20 PM on September 22, 2009

So many good suggestions here.

As a visual artist who's working to meet two different sets of deadlines along with working the day job and looking after the family, I really love Guy_Inamonkeysuit's suggestion of going through old sketchbooks. That has helped me get past more than one block.

I also keep binders of print-outs of a number of photos, scans, etc., that I flip through for inspiration. Things that just got my attention that I wanted to keep. I have a couple really good human anatomy books for the same reason.

The easiest way to stay blocked, in my experience, is to overthink your plate of beans. Many times, I've gotten myself in the loop of being blocked, stressing about being blocked, which only reinforces being blocked, which leads to more stress...

And, as tapesonthefloor mentions, never underestimate the therapeutic use of recreational chemicals.
posted by lilywing13 at 3:45 PM on September 22, 2009

Do you have friends who are interested in photography? Ask them to give you assignments and turn (one or more) of these into your big idea. Even if you think they are totally stupid or lame just pretend it's the most awesome idea ever and go with it for a while.

For example: take a photo at 12 minutes after the hour for a 24 hour period. Take photos of nothing but circles for the next week. Photograph the spines of books in a series of thrift stores. Photograph a place you feel very uncomfortable in (could be a beauty salon, inside a taxi, your mother's house, the back end of a butcher shop). Photograph people dozing on the subway/bus.

I also like KokuRyu's suggestion to shoot based on technique.
posted by Cuke at 5:41 PM on September 22, 2009

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