Every artist or writer or poet I’ve known (myself included) has at one point struggled with the Dread Blank Canvas. That moment when you sit down to draw, paint or write and the blankness stares back at you. Then nothing, you can’t seem to get started, creative ideas vanish, and the blankness looms larger.
For some it is so overwhelming they give up and walk away, leaving the blank canvas empty and waiting. Worse still, the longer you leave that canvas blank, the more times you walk away the harder it becomes to eventually get started.
So why is the blank canvas so scary?
The short version, we put too much pressure on ourselves. We set unrealistic expectations of what we think we should be doing, instead of focusing on simply doing. We want to paint that masterpiece, create that really awesome 3D model, write that best selling novel, or that truly inspiring poem. But that’s not what we should be doing. We should be simply painting, drawing, modeling, sculpting, and writing.
To quote Nike commercials, just do it.
Instead of trying to paint a masterpiece, just start painting something. Start drawing a doodle, a shape, anything and let yourself go. Start writing down ideas and notes of things you’d like to write about and see where it leads. Make the process of creating one of discovery, make it fun again!
Watch a child drawing or sculpting with clay. They can be very serious about it, intent on creating something; or they may be whimsical, just playing with shapes. But they are busy! They throw themselves into the process of creating, pushing, poking and twisting the clay to see what is possible. They experiment, try new things, get frustrated and start over. Sometimes they just get silly and play with it, and then an idea comes and they’re suddenly serious again. There is a lesson in that for any creative person. We need to rediscover that inner child in each of us and learn to enjoy the creative process again.
When we allow creating to be fun, when we allow ourselves permission to make mistakes, experiment, explore and see what is possible; that blank canvas ceases being scary. Suddenly, when we stop strangling our creativity trying to choke it down to just the “best” ideas, we find that well-spring of just… ideas. They may surprise us, take us in unexpected directions, or add something special to what we set out to do.
Remember, the act of creating is also about exploring.
This past week I took a break from 3D modeling to give myself time to work on other things. I’ve been sketching and writing. I didn’t intend to do any writing, but there were these ideas… just a few at first. So I opened a note file and began writing a few of them down. They were ideas for science fiction of some sort. I wasn’t sure what or what I might use it for but I didn’t worry about that. I just let the ideas be, I let them exist on the page and see where it led. Those few ideas led to more ideas, patterns began to emerge; a fictional place began to take shape (in fact a fictional galaxy). As the ideas flowed I let them guide my choices about what ideas I kept and what I deleted (or just copied and pasted over into a “miscellaneous ideas” file). The ideas themselves began telling me what belonged and what didn’t. Three days later I had nearly 30 pages of typed notes and the ideas were, and are, still flowing.
Its the same with drawing. I began one day with a tutorial on drawing the human head by Stan Prokopenko using the Loomis method. I started with a circle, sliced off the sides and continued as the instructed in the tutorial. But as I drew something else began to happen. I started seeing possibilities. I saw robot heads and aliens and a woman’s face in the shapes I was creating. Draw a line this way and it becomes one thing, draw different lines and instead it becomes something else. All I had to do was set the ideas free and let them take me where they wanted to go. All I needed to do was give myself permission to have fun and explore, instead of rigidly trying to create a “master piece”.
The lesson I learned and I hope I am conveying, is that all of us have far more ideas than we realize. But we sometimes become so focused on trying to find that “great idea” we ignore all those other ideas. Some of those ideas we ignore might turn out to be great ideas if only we’d given them a chance. If only we’d set them free. When we learn to set our ideas free and let them live on the page, we set our creativity and ourselves free. Creating becomes fun again, something we look forward to rather than that Dread Blank Canvas we shrink away from. Maybe you will go through a hundred ideas before you find that one “great idea” that becomes a master piece. But isn’t that better than a blank canvas and no ideas?