We all slip from our paths from time to time due to different life circumstances. Maybe you had to move to a different country and it’s hard for you to adapt to a new reality. Maybe you’ve just become a parent and finding daily balance is challenging. Perhaps you’re struggling with health or dealing with loss. Then there’s art block, discouragement after many trials, or dreadful burnout, you name it. Once in a while, those are just little slides, easier to manage, and sometimes bigger, major falls after which we need a lot of time to recover.
During this year I’ve experienced the second one and now as I’m getting back on track I thought it would be a good moment to talk about it. In the first part of this post, I’ll share with you my experience and a couple of things that helped me. In the second part, you can read stories from 5 courageous creatives who stepped up to share their own experiences and ways how they deal with them. Perhaps you’re having harder times currently too and you’ll find something helpful in our approaches. My goal is to provide different perspectives and ways to deal with those struggles.
So what happened this year?
For the first time since I started this artistic journey, I’ve experienced some kind of burnout, or at least big discouragement to the point that I couldn’t pick up a pencil for a couple of months. It was a scary feeling. Art was everything I wanted to do since a teenager and I was committed to it daily for over a decade. I’ve never studied anything else, I have no degree and no plan B, so it’s been an awful feeling to not want to do it or not knowing how to go forward.
I’ve been working exclusively for overseas galleries for about 2 years now. I’m quite a slow artist, each bigger graphite piece takes about 2 months to complete, so I put all my focus and effort into there. I neglected my shop, this blog, and turned down commissions. I got tunnel vision, it became something most important as if my career depended on it. That was my first mistake and lesson. If you’ve ever worked with a gallery you know that it’s a gamble. You invest your time and money in framing and shipping and there’s just no guarantee you will sell. So putting it all in one basket was definitely not a good idea. I was not selling, my savings were dissolving but I kept convincing myself that it just needed time, maybe one more, and one more. At some moment I couldn’t afford to ship more pieces.
During that time I haven’t done any personal projects. Of course, the themes of the shows are pretty broad, so I always tried to put part of myself there, and create something I enjoyed and wanted. Many pieces I love now came out of this. But still, there was this little part in my head thinking about what would sell better, or what that particular gallery would like to see. I even had one situation when I went more toward a darker theme, exploring those parts within me. Curator said it was too creepy for the collectors and I should get back to prettier subjects. That blocked me a bit and put more pressure.
Now as I look back, I see that I just took too many shows, not letting any space for myself, for personal projects, or for learning. I set aside oils, something that is calling to me for a long time. I observe that this happens a lot in our artistic community – overwhelming ourselves with work. Sometimes nothing comes up for so long, you put your works out there, take part in different contests, and submit your portfolios to many places… nothing. So when there comes a moment, that finally, you get an opportunity, you feel like you must catch this wave and take it all. So did I. As a newbie in this artistic world, I thought that I must take everything that comes on my way. I convinced myself that I’m in no position to refuse. How could I? I’m just establishing myself out there. Hundreds of artists would like to get those chances. I worked so hard on my craft, my portfolio, and to be noticed. So when it finally happens, I can’t waste it now! So I took all invitations. Even from places where I wasn’t so sure if my art fits. Yet I convinced myself that if those professional curators invited me, they must know better. I didn’t trust my gut.
I don’t want to sound discouraging or ungrateful. there are many positive outcomes of this experience (more on that later) and I know many artists whose works took off and are happy with the gallery system. My works unfortunately were not selling well, so I ended up just exhausted and very discouraged. Critical inner voices activated full-time. “No one likes what you do”, “you’re just disappointing everybody”, “you’ll never live from your art”, or “you’re not good enough”. So I started to question my path and sense of everything. I’ve been drawing nonstop and couldn’t earn anything. That means something I thought. I’ve always been a dreamer but I couldn’t see the bigger vision anymore. My life where I’m fulfilled artist making a good living from what I do. I just couldn’t imagine it anymore. I was stuck, blocked. Yup, I fell into self-pity mode.
What I knew for sure is that I didn’t want to give up and that I must find a way to go out of this rut. I had about 2 months’ break from making art and it helped to calm my inner demons and gain some perspective. I needed to reevaluate my path and make new decisions.
I don’t know about you, but I’m a person who gets easily overwhelmed when things accumulate or when there are too many decisions to make. The mind tends to race to the future and wraps itself in insecurities, or in worrying about all the things there are yet to be done. Where do I start?? I stopped overthinking for a moment and reminded myself about my “one step at a time” philosophy. When something gets hard, overwhelming and the destination seems a thousand miles away… those are words I was telling to myself. Focus on just this one step, you can do it. Forget about all the rest, there will be time for it too, be present in this very moment and do the best you can. In the end, each grand journey starts with the first step, right?
One step at a time came first almost as a mantra when in 2020 I and my dear mom were climbing el Aneto, the highest peak of the Pyrenees (3404m). It was one of those experiences that you never forget. Pushing and crossing your limits. Achieving more than you thought you could.
The higher you go the less oxygen comes into your lungs, climbing pace becomes slower and slower, so you need something to anchor your mind otherwise it can get into panic mode. During the last half hour of the peak ascension I remember just looking at my feet, one after another, one at a time, nothing else existed. When later I asked my mom, what helped her to reach the top, and what was her mindset, she told me something very similar. She focused on her breath instead of steps, one breath at a time. It worked for both of us and that thinking got deeply enrooted in me since then.
Where did I start my first step? Well, from the inside.
Here are 7 things that really helped me get back on track:
1. Movement / Nutrition
I strongly believe that health is the very foundation of all the rest. Without it, it’s hard to reach for our dreams no matter how much we want them. I’ve been there in the past.
I abandoned many good and healthy habits during those intense work times and my body and mind felt it hard. So I started my little steps here – taking care of myself again. That was my one and only goal for now. We often don’t realize how important it is and how it influences all the rest. Lack of energy, blurry mind, sensibility to stress, and depressive states. It all can be caused by a poor lifestyle. First I came back to regular exercising. At the beginning, there was resistance but I knew I will feel better after, I always do. The most difficult is just to start.
*My tip: Start by just showing up, make it your only goal. I like to work out in the gym, so in my case the first week was all about building that habit of going to the gym again. Before sleep, I’d prepare clothes together with shoes right next to my bed, so there’s no excuse, I had to put them on.
Now after a few weeks, I’m slowly gaining this sense of strength again, not only physical but mental too. This is something I love about exercising, my mood and the way I see everything really change. I also notice that very often when I move the most creative and bold ideas come. There are actually some interesting studies regarding the connection between creativity and movement as well as how exercising improves mental health. Some examples of articles Finding creativity through movement or How movement boosts creativity, Mental health benefits of exercise and What happens to the brain without exercise I encourage you to make your own investigations.
I know that not everybody like exercising. Thought of going to the gym makes you sick? Fair enough. Don’t think about it as a workout. It shouldn’t feel like a chore. Look for something that gives you joy, it’s fun, playful, and easy to incorporate into your daily routine. It can be as simple as taking a walk to the nearby park or practicing yoga for 20 min between daily tasks. Find a way to move your body in a way that brings you joy.
Next came healthier eating. I must confess that all this stress awakened the sweet monster in me. I was in a sugar rush that was hard for me to stop. Limiting its intake really helped to unblur my mind and actually feel more stable energy throughout the day, without those crashes.
The funny or maybe the sad thing is that I’ve been always interested in exercise, nutrition, well being in general, so I know how a sedentary lifestyle and sugar affect us. I also know how great you feel when you take care of those things. And Yet. I have a pretty addictive and obsessive personality. I’m aware of that. I can go for months indulging in my weaknesses just ignoring what I know about this topic. Cookie feels better. I figured what helps me to snap out of it is to keep reminding myself what it does to my body plain and straight. Therefore I read, and listen to podcasts until it internalizes. Again. Whatever it takes right? I like this podcast from Huberman Lab. Episodes are super long (like my posts hehe) I warn you but are loaded with great neuroscientific information explained in a way that a regular person would understand
Now, a book I truly recommend with whole my heart is Atomic Habits. It was one of those game-changers for me. I go back to it for reminders every time I struggle with getting back to good habits, want to get rid of harmful ones, or start building a completely new one. Changes that seem small and unimportant at first, can compound into amazing results. The same happens with the accumulation of bad decisions. They seem tiny and unimportant, not affecting at the moment, but when they accumulate… they become a new habit. Those tiny decisions make a difference in who you are and who you could be.
The most impactful concept I took from it is about Identity – who we want to become. Habit sticks when it becomes a part of your identity. So it’s not anymore about “I want to lose fat” but rather “I’m a person who takes care of my body and mind”. At some moment you don’t question anymore do I exercise or not, it’s just what you do, it’s who you are.
You can also find there practical and actionable steps on how to create a system around new habits to make them stick and keep on track.
Those two things, training and eating healthier helped TREMENDOUSLY.
2. Talking with fellow artists
The power of community is something that never will cease to amaze me. We are a bunch of amazing people, aren’t we? I used to be such a hermit, I didn’t know what I was missing. It’s great to talk with loved ones, having that support system from family or partner is something to be very grateful for, I know not everybody has that. But sometimes significant other might not understand what you are going through, especially if it’s more art related and your partner is not an artist. In this case, turning to those who know exactly what are you dealing with can really help. It’s not even about solving the problem but feeling less alone and simply understood. I’ve opened up about this experience and the amount of love and encouragement I got really warmed my heart. I also didn’t expect that so many of us are struggling with similar issues. Over the last months talking and sharing with my art friends really helped to ease this squeeze I felt inside.
What if you don’t have any artist friends? Well, I was there about 4 years ago. Moved to a different city, was new to social media, and just started to show my works… What I did online is simply reach out to people first through comments then private messages. I was very curious about them, and their art and process, so I simply tried to be genuine, asking questions and starting conversations. Many of those early shy attempts turned out to be long-term friendships 🙂 I’m an introvert as are many of us, so actually, those online connections were easier. Locally, I’ve found little atelier which I was attending as resources allowed at the time. I’ve met some like-minded great people there too with whom I can meet for coffee, share and talk. Check your local community if there are some drink&draw events, life drawing sessions, or workshops.
You can tell I’m a nerd because I’m going to recommend another book. Sometimes when we struggle we become very caught up in our own heads, so this external perspective can serve very well. War of Art by Steven Pressfield is another must-have on my bookshelf. It talks about why sometimes we have such resistance to creating and doing what we love in general. It speaks of mechanisms that we often are not aware of that affect our relationship with creating, and showing up. Every time I read it something different connects or clicks in me. This time what really snapped me out of this big discouragement was a little story he shared. It was about the experience of his failure after which he felt terrible about himself, like a loser (as I felt). Then a friend told him “You are where you wanted to be, aren’t you? So you’re taking a few blows. That’s the price for being in the arena and not on the sidelines. Stop complaining and be grateful”. Uff that felt like a slap on my cheek too! It hit me. Am I going to give up or something? The hell no! That was never an option. I am where I wanted to be. On the path. We are here in the long run. We show up every day. All those downs, rejections, and “failures” only mean that we are in the game, we are doing it, things are moving, we create and we have the courage to share with the world.
We tend to see more of the negative and often that hurts us more than good things make us happy. I’m guilty of that. So bringing my awareness back and seeing the other perspective was very helpful. I know it sounds cliche, a gratitude list, but I encourage you to try:) If you were or are going through something difficult, what might be the positive outcomes of that situation? What did you learn? Who did you become? What is changed now?
I’ve made a list of good things that happened thanks to this experience. It’s a long list! I’ve learned so much. I’ve figured out both what I want and don’t want, and I feel super grateful. Ahhh this crazy art journey:)
Here are some of the things from my list:
- Everything around shipping originals: preparing the frame, packaging safely the artwork, hiring a shipping company, preparing documentation for Customs
- Seeing that I can count on other, more experienced artists to help resolve above
- Gallery shows look good on cv 😉
- Might create new opportunities. You never know who sees the work. (Curators started to write to me after seeing previous exhibitions – domino effect)
- Some recognition – building the name
- Advertising, social media promotion
- New connections and contacts with curators, collectors, and artists
- bonus: it made me stop, look inside, reevaluate my path and come to breakthrough conclusions
4. Creating a bigger vision
Sometimes help or solutions come when we least expect them (or maybe when we need them most?). I had an opportunity to take a free workshop “find your edge” with Marc Scheff. I felt stuck and discouraged. I couldn’t see that bigger vision anymore. So when I saw the announcement I gave it a shot. The workshop itself impacted me a lot so I decided to follow up with a one-to-one “breakthrough” call. This act in itself was a huge challenge. I don’t do video calls haha. Making it gave me an extra boost of confidence 🙂
Marc’s guidance and his ability to ask on-point questions helped me to expand beyond my comfort zone and create a vision of my life and career that I resonated deeply with. It made my heart sing instantly. I was able to verbalize what my purpose might be which in turn gave me more clarity on the next steps. Decisions are easier now and I realized I can breathe again. He encouraged different perspectives and points of view which unlocked many ideas and creative solutions to my own objectives. I saw what is possible.
I not only reconnected with my “why” ( I wrote a lot on that topic in last year’s post) but also was able to make it more specific, literally down to two words. I believe that your “why” is the core of everything you do. In the moments of choosing paths, it will serve as a compass representing your beliefs, values, and your mission. In moments of crisis, when you question the sense of everything you do, your core will keep you grounded and give you the purpose to continue against all odds. It’s doing it for me right now.
You can find more about Marc and his coaching here https://www.marcscheffcoaching.com/ First breakthrough call is free, find out for yourself what it can do for you 🙂 For me, it was enough to get unstuck and reconnect with my why and bigger vision. This experience was the last push I needed to move strongly forward.
5. Saying “no” – be selective
Something very valuable that I took out of this experience is what I DON’T want. It’s as much important as what you do want. I understood that I don’t have to and I don’t want to take every single thing that comes on my way. I need to start valuing my time and devote it to the things I enjoy more or that will bring me closer to my goals and dreams. I’ve learned that not every gallery is suitable for my works nor that I want to keep putting everything on one card.
I’ve got some new invitations from galleries lately and… I said “no”. I chose only one that I really wanted to be a part of and I felt my works belong there. And it felt so… liberating. I know it can be hard, to say no. Being wanted and appreciated feels great. There’s also this fear lurking in “what if I won’t get more opportunities?”. I get it, truly. From my own experience, I can simply say it’s just not true. Opportunities come and go as life and circumstances around change. Be patient, stay open and just keep showing up.
What helps me lately to filter those decisions better is an exercise I’ve found in Marie Forleo’s book Everything is Figureoutable. Ask yourself “how does the thought of making this work makes you feel”? Switch off your rational (over)thinking, close your eyes and imagine yourself doing it as detailed as possible… does it make you feel excited? expansive? or the opposite, squeezed inside? Gut feeling tends to be a very good indicator actually, it’s something I’m constantly learning.
6. Personal projects
It’s something that I was missing so much. Doing art just for myself, for no one else to see. Experimenting with different mediums, and techniques, and learning new stuff. I’ve bought a big sketchbook and I just go crazy in there. Character explorations, little stories, studies, and deconstructions of my favorite illustrations and paintings. That’s how I’m spending the last couple of weeks and it feels so refreshing. I remembered why I get into art in the first place. I also came back to keep learning oils and color, answering that call I felt strongly inside. It all really feels so good. From now on I’ll be putting “ME art time” into my monthly schedule as a priority. It’s an investment in sanity and burnout prevention.
Simply put, there is no rush. Sometimes time is the best healer. Calm, peace, reflection, and perspective are all that we need to move forwards.
Remember, it’s not a shame that it happens to you. You are not a less or worse person or artist. It doesn’t mean you are weak or not “enough”. It happens to all of us at different moments of our paths and we need to learn to deal with it, finding ways to get back on track. I hope that some tips from my own experience will help you to do so.
I’d love to hear from you. Don’t hesitate to share your own experiences in the comments.
Next month as promised I’ll share with you inspiring stories from different artists and things that helped them to get back on track.
Meanwhile, take good care of yourself 🙂