Battling Artist’s Block

by Courtney Cerniglia

There’s a painting in my studio that has been staring at me for months. It’s literally staring, too, as it’s a portrait of a cat I’m working on for a friend. Its green eyes look at me every day. I quickly look away and skip past. I know that when I make eye contact with this 2D cat, it’s another reminder that it sits unfinished.

My journey with this commission has been a severe case of artist’s block — not feeling inspired to work on it or feeling anxious about the work that is left on the canvas. I’ve found a million excuses to not work on it, naturally, and now am approaching the final weeks until deadline. 

There’s an excellent book on artist’s block, “The War of Art.” It’s a kick-in-the-pants kind of narrative that demolishes the existence and excuse of artist’s block. Steven Pressfield starts by making a definitive statement. “It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write. What keeps us from sitting down is Resistance.” The Resistance, that’s the glimmer in the cat’s green eye that peers at me from the easel. 

I’m sure many of us have felt the Resistance in different ways. Whether we’re artists, writers, athletes, or even caregivers, we all come to points in life where we’d just rather not. The scariest part, however, is when it keeps us from putting our art out into the world and living as our best self. If we give into it, sit with it for months and months, we miss out on what it feels like to be on the other side.

I know it will be fun to deliver this commissioned piece to its future owner. It will feel great to have another piece out in the world for others to enjoy. The other side of my resistance is satisfaction, a sale, and a satisfied art lover. If you experience artist’s block, what are you missing out on as a result?

A way I’ve found to combat the block is to do something similar to the activity as a warmup. For example, Lauren Graham shared in her book “Talking As Fast As I Can,” that in order to get through the marathon of writing her book she had a simple practice. She blocked off hours for writing each day, within which she could only do two things: she could write her book, or she could write in her journal. It was perfectly fine to spend the whole time writing in her journal, so long as she showed up and wrote. Chances were that she’d end up writing even a bit more of her book in each session.

Next to my unfinished cat portrait sits a few more canvases of “practice work.” They’re opposite in style, with big swatches of orange and black. I work on those first, and when I am more relaxed, I start working on the cat. What matters is that I started. I set up my easel, squeezed out the paints, had the water dish ready. After that, the painting is easy. 

Pressefield sums it up best. “Creative work is not a selfish act or a bid for attention on the part of the actor. It’s a gift to the world and every being in it. Don’t cheat us of your contribution. Give us what you’ve got.” 

Even if it’s a green-eyed cat painting.