Art Hell


Art hell is a state of mind…and a negative one at that.  It is the opposite of ‘brimming over with ideas’.  It is contrary to having the satisfaction of creating what you want and feeling deep contentment.  Rather than being in control, you know you are out of it.

Art hell is my term but it may also be known as artist’s block, writer’s block or creative block.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that there are no new ideas; rather, that you don’t want to do any of them.  When little seedlings of ideas germinate, a big foot (like on Monty Python’s Flying Circus) stamps from above and flattens them.

It is when you can’t trust your artistic judgement.  You finish a new piece and you don’t know if you love it or hate it.  Is it that this drawing has gone beyond your usual boundary and you haven’t caught up?  In other words it could be ‘the shock of the new’ therefore you can’t yet evaluate it.  Or is it simply a picture which failed to thrive all along.  You actually don’t know.  You can’t tell one way or the other.  Probably yes.  Probably no.

You ask yourself ‘what do I feel deeply about right now that I wish to work on next?’  Honest answer – ‘nothing’.  You can have files and files of new material but they don’t elicit any emotion.  Within those photos you took are compositions for new drawings.  You will see them later when the current bout of art hell is over.  But while you are in it, the critic within says NO.

It isn’t depression or anxiety.  It isn’t life threatening or a real crisis.  It is only art hell.  It need not be feared for it is always temporary.  You don’t have to do anything.  You wake up one morning and, just like that, your optimism is back.  Until then, well, you’re in it.

In the meantime you go for walks, garden, clean the house, read, write miserable entries into your journal, see a film, have coffee with friends and whinge to long-suffering husband.

Art hell and I go way back.  I can even remember it from high school; in fact, since ‘art’ was a subject.  It wasn’t a subject in primary school.  So, as far as I can remember, art hell hadn’t really developed then.  It grew enormous at art school but settled back down to just being part of life’s natural cycle since then.

Oh – but for one exceptional day at Karori West Normal School when our teacher decided that our class would have a whole day of art and craft.  He brought in so many materials; driftwood from Makara Beach, shells, paints, papers and cards, string, glue, wire, printing equipment – you name it.  I felt under so much pressure to produce something good that I remember it as one big art hell day.  Maybe my first one?!  I was nine.   Happily, some parents complained.  They didn’t want their children wasting time on art for a whole day.  So it wasn’t repeated.

Certainly writing this down has helped to ease the current bout of art hell.  I think perhaps tomorrow it will be over.  Until then…I wonder what’s on TV?

Related post:  Art Hell 2          Related page:  Failures!

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8 thoughts on “Art Hell

  1. Justine Victoria Sobocan

    When stuck in art hell it’s always a good idea to go for a walk to somewhere you haven’t been or somewhere you haven’t been in a long time. Forests, gardens, or anywhere that it’s quiet and has wildlife is the best. Just let your soul relax and take in the art around you ^^v

  2. Virginia Benker

    Oh my goodness, you just described me exactly! I kept telling myself that I must not really be a very good artist because I could not come up with any ideas of what I wanted to draw. “Art hell” says it all. Hopefully, this too shall pass.

  3. artkleko

    Been there Julie, several times. I have a “step away from the studio” approach and it works. Art can’t be forced, it needs the appropriate inspiration.

  4. anna warren portfolio

    I know how you feel – everything is just blah. Its weird how when I am too busy with ‘real’ work to draw or paint I am bursting with ideas and enthusiasm but when I get that long-awaited clear bit of time the block hits! Something I find helps though is having several different things on the go, all at different stages. Its easier to get to work on something if you have at least some idea of where it is going!

  5. Donna

    Wonderful, wonderful post! I agree with Anna, I have several things on the go in different mediums at different stages of completion. Sometimes it’s just good to sit and sort out pencils or play with them a bit, nothing serious. You’re right, it does come back. Still think it’s a great post.

  6. Sandra

    I am in art hell now!!! I do doubt my abilities but something keeps driving me and I do compare myself to others. I also know my limitations or limitations that I have put on myself. I only get a small space of time to create and when I am not successful I feel like HELL. (wasted day?) I have a very supportive husband who listens to my ravings of despair and criticises my work harshly which sometimes means I don’t like him. But I have to say he pushes me to do better and he is usually right. RATS!!! I see artists who have created a niche for their expression and I am still looking for mine. Does it fall out of thin air? When do you know? Oh well back to the drawing board to create. Thank you for letting me vent.

    1. juliepodstolski Post author

      Thanks for sharing this common state of being here, Sandra. I hope your husband’s criticism isn’t too harsh. I think criticism needs to be empathetic and done with sensitivity.
      Hmmm, that is an interesting question about artists and their niches for expression. I can only speak for myself in saying that it is a lifetime’s quest. Because you can’t just find a niche and then say ‘I’m done’ and stick with it for the rest of your life (because your work would get so boring) you have to keep evolving and finding new challenges. In doing so the frustrations and failures remain part of your artistic life. Without constantly pushing the boundaries for one’s entire artistic career – till death – one’s work becomes formulaic. It’s never easy, Sandra. Hopefully there is a balance between pleasure and pain – so that it isn’t ALL pain. Please feel free to vent some more.


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