Can an artist simple 'lose' their ability?
July 8, 2024 2:22 PM   Subscribe

Long time visual artist, working both digitally and traditionally, seems to have completely lost the knack. It's been going on for over 5 years now, so not a blip.

This feels like rather an odd question, but it has been on my mind for some time, possibly years. I am 50 years old (F) and have earned a living as an illustrator for over 25 years, I have also independently sold my work via online stores and via working from home. My degree was in fine art, although I focused mostly on photography and mixed media at that time, and it has, I suppose, become fused with my identity, to a certain extent.
I don't tend to suffer art related anxieties, and have never experienced issues with my work previously. I wasn't exactly Rembrandt, but I had my passion, my natural ability with colour and composition, and worked fruitfully for most of my life.

Since around 5/6 years ago, I have struggled to create anything decent at all. Most of what I attempt, in any media (from digital to acrylic, to pastels or collage) falls flat. For a while I pondered whether my ideas and standards had outpaced my ability, but nothing seems to add up. I also wondered if earning a living from my work caused it to grow stale, since a lot of that output stuck to defined styles and mediums.

As time went on, I began to associate creating with failure. Nothing seems to work. Simple ideas which ought to have been reliable let me down, and I often felt as if my ability and knowledge had 'been removed'. I thought about a physical issue, but having had that checked over, couldn't find a problem there. I began to blame my chose mediums, so switched up, but to no avail. It is as if I have somehow managed to unlearn everything I ever built on. Thanks to this, my output became staggered and my earnings took a hit. It has been a pretty difficult time.

I am not sure what to make of it, although have explored so many angles. My life situation, my desires, etc. It still doesn't make sense. There is a possibility that I have changed as I have grown older, and perhaps need to refocus and do something completely new, that is not visual art. I don't know. I asked myself would I ever bother to do it again if I was suddenly rich, and couldn't answer - however, I do tend to gravitate to working most days, even if they generally result in failure.
I am not trying to create anything impossible or too skilled here, just simple stuff like landscapes, florals and abstracts. Nothing works. I must add here that it feels technical rather than psychological/emotional, but I am happy to consider both.
It is worth mentioning that my problem seems to be technical, I can sit down to draw or begin a painting, and even in the most relaxed frame of mind, everything goes wrong- the lighting is wrong, my table is too small, I chose the wrong colours, I can't come to an idea for composition....I can't seem to do anything, even if I paint from a photo, I manage to make a farce of it. If I cross over to digital, my previous wizardry with colour and line just seems to have disappeared.

I googled 'can a person become bad at art?' but nothing came up, only people who were bad by default, wanting to grow better. It might be an unusual problem, to be good at something then slowly grow terrible at it. I hope someone could shed some light or perhaps share their own experience. A problem shared and all that...
posted by PheasantlySurprised to Media & Arts (23 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I can't play recorder any more, after a couple decades' hiatus due to injury. My hands are up to it again, but I have completely lost the mental mapping between notes-on-the-page and finger configurations on the instrument. I tried to get it back, but hours of effort and no joy. I've stopped trying.
posted by humbug at 2:33 PM on July 8 [1 favorite]

This sounds like a "yips" situation maybe. It's primarily documented in athletes but artists get it too.
posted by potrzebie at 2:39 PM on July 8 [10 favorites]

Best answer: I'm sure you'll get responses from people who have expertise in visual arts, but until they reply, may I offer some thoughts in a broader context?

If you were suffering from arthritis or macular degeneration or something else that literally prevented you from following your art in the usual way, I might have different thoughts, but this feels very much like the kind of thing my organizing and productivity clients experience. I have three ideas covering both cognitive, psychological, and experiential perspectives.

1) As we age and increate our experience in a field, we no longer see with a novice's eye. We gain more and more discernment, so as our skills and talents increase, so too does our ability to judge (perhaps sometimes more harshly) and our discernment can outpace our increase in talents.

I've always written (and though I'm a published author, I don't usually call myself a writer), and when I was young, I was impressed with my own writing talent. The more discerning I became as I learned what defined "good" or "great" writing, the worse I believed myself to be, although I didn't lose any of my talent. My judgement just outpaced my talent, so I began to judge myself harshly even though there'd been no reduction in my skills.

2) We fall into periods in our lives where we are stymied. With athletes, I believe they call it the yips, where phenoms and stars suddenly can't perform basic skills. It's my understanding that a combination of therapy and physical skills classes usually help people out of this sticky situation.

Why not practice the basics? Take a class or get art tutoring on skill sets below your typical level? Sometimes, going "back to basics" is what we all need to refresh and gain our composure and comfort. And perhaps consider that no matter what else is going well in your life, therapy may "unstick" a particular issue you haven't considered?

3) Perhaps you've lost your delight? I find that delight comes from novelty and unexpected experiences. We all seem to have difficulty finding delight these days.

Much of the period you've described coincides with the pandemic years. Every day, clients and friends bemoan that they can't read books, or cook (or even contemplate real cooking) or do any of a myriad of things that they felt passionately about. For some, I expect it's a combination of menopause, 21st-century miseries and politics, and the pandemic/pseudo-post-pandemic years.

We're all off our game these days, it seems. Perhaps you'd find that if you explored vastly disparate activities (painting if you usually draw, Pointilism if you are usually all about bright murals, etc.) Try a bunch of different areas of your artistic field. It's like how, if you eat a lot of one kind of food for a while, your taste buds seem to forget how to crave; consider availing yourself of the equivalent of a buffet of zingy, exotic cuisines and try to approach art from perspectives you've never considered. It's not to change what you do, long-term, but how you feel. You need to feel a buzzy, jazzy newness sometimes to get to a new, different level.

I'm sure you still have the ability to create art, even great art. But a change in focus and activity is likely to help you take your mind off what you're missing and help you refresh both your skills and attitude.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 2:43 PM on July 8 [60 favorites]

This raised some questions for me!

- As your art skills improved, has your own taste gotten more critical? So, could you be in "the gap between skill and taste" that Ira Glass speaks about so vividly?

- Is it possible you've just become more critical or depressed about your own work... maybe the way to get an outside eye would be to consider, what do other people think of your recent art - especially if they compare your older work to your recent work?

- It's definitely possible for artists to lose some joy or pride due to boredom or burnout, but that doesn't necessarily mean their work is actually technically worse. So if you just power through and complete a piece, even if it's not totally up to your personal taste, do others still like it?

- Burnout makes talents feel joyless and even become less skilled. Athletes get it (like Simone Biles) and actors get it (Sarah Polley's memoir has a fascinating section on getting stage fright as a teen AFTER a long career as a child screen actor and quite a few successes as a stage actor), etc. Could it be burnout?

- If your sales have declined, that could be due to a decline in quality OR it could be related to the art market changing. Is the art marketplace where you used to sell, still a busy place to sell art like yours? (If you're not sure, I bet people here will know if you share more info!)

- If your sales have declined, that could be due to buyers' tastes changing. Is art like yours "in style"? (If you're not sure, I bet people here will know if you share more info about your medium, colour palette, subject matter, or you can link to your portfolio in your profile)

- Could you be just bored? Has your art practice evolved so it's still exciting to you?

- Any depression in other areas of your life?
posted by nouvelle-personne at 3:00 PM on July 8 [10 favorites]

When checking possible physical causes, did you have an appointment with an ophthalmologist?
posted by Iris Gambol at 3:27 PM on July 8 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Will try to add a few more details in answer to questions, whilst remaining mindful not to threadsit!

I sell via a few print on demand companies and have for over 15 years, although small companies paid better. I used to get approached to join print websites, online galleries, for book and music covers , and for one off prints that I would create and ship myself. This has all steadily dropped off. My work still fits with the contemporary print aesthetic, and I have a lot of variety in style. This variety got me work with Ikea, Zara, toy companies, garment designers (my pattern work) a few very well known musicians and film makers along the way. This too has dried up.
This covered me well for many years, but I have noticed a drop off in interest in my work since social media grew. For some reason I never experienced success at Instagram, even when I was earning very, very well. This work was mostly digital, and I do not think it sits well on social media. An obsession with 'hand crafted' seemed to grow during the pandemic, and attention and sales steadily decreased. As a result of that, I have shared less, and perhaps become less visible. I also bear in mind that the field is very diluted now, so I may have floated out of people's orbit.

I have shared traditional works over time, although have not had the same financial success from that. It is this area where I have lost my skill, although the issue has now spread to digital too.
When I sit down to create a work on paper in any media, it is like I have some sort of 'dyslexia' for wont of a better word, as if my brain can't map it correctly, every choice I make is the wrong one - but it used to work! I get into a bad loop of predicting failure, and it repeats and repeats.

Perhaps I am bored, or have new desires, and I have definitely been through some stress. But oddly enough stress used to make me work more, it was my haven. Something has either harmed my process and sense of creating (and I agree it may very well be the result of my mind evolving beyond my skill), or I am meant to discover new things and lay it to rest.
Thank you everyone so far. I do hope I get more replies as this has been something I have silently carried for so long, and it feels quite isolating.
posted by PheasantlySurprised at 3:44 PM on July 8 [3 favorites]

This reminds me of the screenwriter William Goldman. Bear with me a moment... In one of his memoirs, he talks about being a script doctor— he could easily find and solve problems in another writer's script. But he could never do that with his own: if he was blocked on a script, he couldn't see or fix the problems.

From your description it's evident you're a very skilled artist. But you're second-guessing yourself, and not in a helpful manner. Getting feedback might help. Or try to go from "nothing works" to looking at what exactly isn't working. Or put pieces aside for a week or two and approach them afresh. Or try things you've never done before so there's less pressure to be perfect.
posted by zompist at 4:02 PM on July 8 [3 favorites]

I've experienced something kind of similar with my writing. I was a professional writer for years, I published articles and novels and all sorts of things. And then, maybe five or six years ago, writing started to become more difficult. It gradually became worse and at this point just writing comments on Metafilter can be a struggle. For me it's a matter of mental focus, and I suspect it may be related to my anti-anxiety medications or possibly undiagnosed sleep apnea. For various reasons I just haven't had the time or energy to seriously explore either possibility, so I've been stuck in this limbo. I can still edit other people's work, strangely enough, but actual creation feels almost impossible. When I'm trying to write I feel kind of headache-y and hung-over, like there's a pressure behind my eyes that makes it hard to think. It's been really weird, depressing and alarming to feel this basic, essential part of myself slip away.

I doubt that what's happened to you is a natural part of aging, or that it's irreversible. If you're taking medications, look at the potential side effects. I'd strongly suggest talking to a therapist, both to look for any mental causes and to help you cope with the problem. I also think you might benefit from trying a whole new approach to your art. Radically switch up your style. Try sculpture. Play games with your art, where you draw upside-down or draw with your non-dominant hand. Do things where it's not about you creating a masterpiece, and any silly thing you produce is OK. It'll get your hand moving again, and might make art fun in a way it hasn't been for a while.

I hadn't drawn for years, and a while back I found some inspiration in Jim Henson's sketchbooks. He wasn't trying to make "good" drawings, he was sketching purely to get his ideas across. He filled pages with things that were somewhere between doodles and scribbles, with lots of written notes to flesh out what he was visualizing. Thinking like that helped me a lot.

I hope you figure out a way past this block. And if you do, I hope you'll let us know what worked!
posted by Ursula Hitler at 4:03 PM on July 8 [2 favorites]

Best answer: On reading your update I'll add another possibility: As demand declined (because you were less effective at the social media game, where success is about algorithm-specific marketing skills - or marketing budget - and not artistic quality) you felt that it was a reflection of your artistic skill, and consciously or subconsciously started to second guess every choice and result. (And on a subconscious level maybe you felt an element of betrayal from your art, which used to be more successful, or from your audience, which seemed to abandon you?)
posted by trig at 4:04 PM on July 8 [15 favorites]

I looked at your previous questions. In addition to, like the rest of us, dealing with a pandemic you've also been ending or have ended a long-term relationship, right? And you are a 50 year old woman, yes? Could impending menopause also be a factor? When I went through that at the same time as ending a marriage and finishing a PhD I went through a couple of years of nothing working in my life. That hormone shit affects us all differently, this may not be part of your problem.

Eventually I found that moving to a new and exceptionally beautiful place helped. Developing skills that were only very tangentially related to anything I'd ever done before helped. Focusing more than before on health and fitness helped. Spending time with supportive friends and family helped. Eventually things got better. I hope they will for you too.
posted by mareli at 4:12 PM on July 8 [3 favorites]

Perhaps I have spent too much time on menopause forums, but is it menopause? Do the words “brain fog” or “executive function disorder” resonate with you? Do you have issues with these in other areas of life? If this seems relevant to you, could be part of a hormone shift.
posted by shock muppet at 4:15 PM on July 8 [2 favorites]

Continuing with the brain fog theme, do you have long covid?
posted by inexorably_forward at 4:29 PM on July 8 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: No, no covid or fog generally, everything else is tickety boo. Eyes ok, am very confident and fine with anything other than visual art. Concentration is great. Last had a period 2 yrs ago, all tests are good and I have experienced a relatively 'easy' meno so far.
These comments have been so very helpful. I do feel that in many ways I am simply done with this part of my life and desire other things so much. I think the financial fears are my most paralysing issue. I would be happy to continue to market my completed works, of which there are many. I just don't know how, but could make more effort off social media, which utterly depresses me, I must quit using it.
posted by PheasantlySurprised at 4:48 PM on July 8 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You've touched on stress, and how previously higher stress levels caused you to work harder. But I would add that stress has lots of well-documented negative effects on physiology and psychology, and there is a possibility that you may have crossed some threshold or tipping point. Related to that, we are living in traumatic times - the murderous governmental response to the pandemic, BREXIT and the resulting austerity, an ongoing genocide - there's a possibility that the symptoms you're describing are a form of (post-)traumatic stress disorder. You don't describe being affected by these events, and that may be because you're not or because you don't recognize that you are. I'm just suggesting it as a possibility you may want to consider looking into.
posted by Pedantzilla at 5:01 PM on July 8 [2 favorites]

+1 Perhaps you've lost your delight?
Longtime guitar player. I intentionally put the guitar down for five years after I lost a sense of 'play' in my practice and performance (+ other shitty life events).

I forgot so much. But ya know, I have a novice's touch and so much is 'new' from rediscovery. It’s really pretty great.

- get the garbage out of your head - do the artist's way morning pages exercise in full.
- go back to basics, for me that's primary exercises on the fretboard.
- find a way to engage with abandon, for me that's put on someone else's playlist and try to musically improv to it. Metaphorically, have a colleague splash a random blob on a canvas, walk away for 10 min, come back and make it something.


(I acknowledge that you are in a different situation with less freedom; it's your profession.)
posted by j_curiouser at 5:39 PM on July 8 [1 favorite]

This may be a goofy idea, but — how are you at teaching art? Would working with beginners put you next to beginners mind? Would ASMR videos or tutorial videos maybe be more your cup of social media?
posted by clew at 5:53 PM on July 8 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have quite a few clients who are artists - and over a long career, most have a fallow period, sometimes several.

For some, the well has run dry, so it's time to find activities to refill the well with new experiences, thoughts, places, whatever.

For some, the results don't match the inspiration - the final product is a poor outcome compared to the initial idea or vision. In that case, using or learning to use new techniques or technology, or different media can overcome the disappointment.

Finally, we discuss that never before has so much imagery been seen and made available. Go on an "image diet" - increase the amount of time NOT looking at created images and stare at everything else, anything else.
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 6:47 PM on July 8 [4 favorites]

You can hire someone to manage your social media for you!
posted by nouvelle-personne at 7:42 PM on July 8 [1 favorite]

I'm going to focus in on the technical aspect, as hinted at in the original post. For better or worse I'm ignoring deeper issues of motivation and engagement.

Why might someone's apparent ability to illustrate vary from day to day? I have personally grappled with this in the past. I look back at older work that I produced that is very variable: occasionally it is similar in quality to my current work but I remember perceiving this huge element of chance hanging over me every time I sat down to produce something.

I found that I was relying excessively on my ability to make this baroque, totally subconscious series of decisions justified by my years of accrued procedural fluency. I found that always sitting down and thinking in terms of explicit self-checking and corrective feedback was hugely positive.

Your goal should be to reduce the degree to which the end result is contingent on your working memory that day. If you're not familiar with cognitive load theory, the take-away is that working memory--the amount of discrete things you can consider and act on cognitively at a time--is ridiculously small. This is true regardless of intelligence. Mastery of skills is the result of chunking and using our executive function to navigate this very small focal spotlight onto where it needs to be.

Concrete example: I like to draw complicated scenes in 3 point or curvilinear perspective. In general, I now force myself to draft a piece in successive stages that roughly map onto a continuum from general-to-specific or approximate-to-concrete . It is always tempting not to do this.

I will draw a perspective grid. I will draw cubes that stand in for buildings. I will draw a wedge shaped polyhedron that stands in for the sloping hill.

Is this necessary? I can and sometimes do choose not to follow the above steps. I sometimes rough-in some windows before I even know where the roof of the building begins. Or draw lush strokes of grass before I'm sure where my vanishing point is. It is liberating to do this at times. But the result is much more variable, much more contingent.

Contingent on what? I would say: the amount of coffee in my bloodstream, my ability to use my executive function to manage finite working memory effectively in a much less structured environment, and happenstance--pure luck.

Another example: I went through a period of dissatisfaction with faces I drew (without reference). Eventually I came to a conclusion: more often than not, I drew a mouth too close to a nose. So, every time I sat down to draw a face, I explicitly directed myself to elongate that space--exaggerate it even.

Suddenly, by reducing the amount of subconscious or rote action, and overriding it with this very explicit, very self-directed imperative idea, I was producing work that mapped to my expectations much better. Faces are interesting because the smallest element being off can throw everything into disarray (which is extremely demotivating. This is why whenever I'm in a rut I will draw cubes and trees for 20 minutes before I go near a face. Success is motivating!).

This kind of explicit proposition in conscious thought--the mouth must be further from the nose--is never going to be the sole or even largest determining factor in art on a moment to moment basis. I do think what we produce is still largely unconscious (like most of cognition). But I would encourage you to examine the ratio of explicit thoughts and self-checking to rote procedural fluency and see if there are some answers to be found there.

Now there is a problem... How does this explain why you previously produced better work without any change in workflow? Potential answers might be:
a) a lot of what I am suggesting you should think about in explicit terms, you were doing implicitly (but consistently) before. Unless we form a concrete proposition in our head, e.g., "I always block-in rough geometric figures and a vanishing point before I commence with details", it is fairly easy to drift from a status-quo of doing that, to a status-quo of.... not (possibly after an absence or life event, or just a kind of mental entropy),
b) previously, your mind's more general capacity to manage cognitive load was higher and has reduced over time, and so before what you could manage wholistically and intuitively requires more scaffolding (rules of thumb, explicit self-directed decision making and self-checking corrective feedback)
posted by bealtrimdernbluik at 8:53 PM on July 8 [6 favorites]

Best answer: At least for me, a lot of the talk about burnout and the like rings true, but the other thing is that the market has changed a ton. It’s flooded with so many people, some super talented, but the bigger threat is the ones that OK but cheap. So looking at sales/commercial uptake in a world that has seriously upended, may be less about you and your work than about the entire market for visual materials.
posted by advicepig at 3:10 AM on July 9 [3 favorites]

I'm not going to touch the artistic side of your situation, since I don't have anything to add, but I do want to address the business side of your business.

Alongside having somebody (you or someone you hire) work on expanding your online presence you would likely benefit in engaging in client development This involves reaching out to past clients to let them know that you're still around and excited to work with them again and making pitches (or at the very least) introducing yourself to new ones. It also means putting the word out to everybody you know that you are growing your operations and taking on new assignments. Fire up your LinkedIn account and get networking. Make sure your website is up to date and your portfolio is accessible to new clients. If you've got people will to give you testimonials, get those up, too.
posted by sardonyx at 6:28 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Oh, I've been in the same place over the past few years! In my case, I can come up with several reasons (hating social media is a huge one and menopause probably is too), but basically my ability to pursue my visual art just plummeted. Other than rare moments, I completely lost the ability to get into a headspace where my skills could flow and be creative. It's been frustrating beyond words.

For me, drastically changing media helped (although I'm not actually good enough at those media to be a professional at the moment). But I do feel like I lost my decades-old artistic identity and it's very hard.

I know you said that changing visual media didn't help you. You may need to change fields entirely for a while. Take a few classes in pottery or writing. See if anything triggers that child-like joy that you once had. I had a friend switch entirely from professional photography to professional pottery making over the course of about a decade.

Unfortunately, I have no advice for the financial side of things. I'm depending a lot on my wife at the moment.

Be kind to yourself. Explore. I wish you a lot of luck.
posted by quiet wanderer at 11:19 AM on July 9

Response by poster: I also think the doom-predictions about AI replacing digital art is a factor.
Many comments above are bang on the nail considering my depression regarding the market. It worked so easily for over 20 years but the manner in which I would have to perform now is tremendously off-putting.
posted by PheasantlySurprised at 4:02 PM on July 9

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