The Artist’s Life: Just Show Up

After spending a season away from the studio I wake each morning dreaming of eagerly returning to the place where my creativity is fostered and my visions are nurtured into something solid. I anticipate the hours I will spend there, thinking of the materials and tools, and the room that is available to me. It has been far too long since I have been able to sit down at my worktable and create just for the sake of being creative. But when I am finally there and my schedule has been cleared of any distractions, I find that I have no idea what to do next. My excitement and anticipation give way to doubts and uncertainty. Have I been away too long? Have I completely lost my creative drive and abilities? Where do I even begin?

Whether full-time artists or weekend enthusiasts, most of us tend to lead busy lives. We have periods of creative inactivity for any number of reasons: working overtime at the day job; an unexpected illness; or family life events, like a wedding or a vacation. Whatever the reason, interruptions to a regular studio practice can send our creative soul into hiding, and we are hard pressed to force it to return.

"It Just Takes Time" by Crystal Neubauer
“It Just Takes Time” by Crystal Neubauer

What do you do when you hit that roadblock and are unable to come up with a single idea once you finally have time to make art? With a pile of supplies at my disposal and a seemingly limitless span of time and possibilities, I anticipate my return to the worktable, but the inspiration doesn’t come. I find myself procrastinating and avoid going to the studio, distracting myself with mindless tasks. Suddenly that long put-off chore simply cannot wait another minute. My plants need watering (and I don’t own any plants!). Today is the day I will finally try out my new yoga mat. Wait, I didn’t buy the yoga mat—I must run back to the store! Anything to avoid the pain of sitting in front of that blank canvas, with no idea what to do with it.

No doubt about it, the creative voice can be elusive. It wakes you up in the middle of the night when you are finally able to get a good night’s sleep, and it hides on the day you have set aside all other responsibilities just to nurture it. Like an engine that has not turned over in a very long time, I never know how long it will take to spark my creativity back to life. But there is one thing I have found to be consistently true—it’s not going to happen if I don’t show up. Here’s how I’ve learned to tackle this issue.

"Joy in the Morning" by Crystal Neubauer
“Joy in the Morning” by Crystal Neubauer

Stay planted: Sometimes we are actually busy and sometimes we are simply avoiding the discomfort of showing up uninspired, not knowing what the outcome will be. Painter Chuck Close said, “Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.” Maybe this is contrary to the picture of an artist being at the mercy of her muse, but I can guarantee 100 percent of the time that if I don’t get to the studio, nothing gets created. Sometimes I need to make myself sit down in my chair and stay planted until creativity starts to flow.

Have a routine: Like a good bedtime routine that signals the brain that it’s time to settle down and go to sleep, a good studio routine can be the catalyst needed to get the creative wheels turning again. I enter my studio and put on my apron, open the windows, and turn on my fan. I put a fresh covering of paper on the table in symbolic show of a fresh start and a new day. I grab a container to fill with water and set out the basic supplies. By the time I have done all of this, I often know what direction I want to take, and the routine leads me to begin again without even thinking about it.

"Utterings of Joy" series of Artist Trading Cards by Crystal Neubauer
“Utterings of Joy” series of ATCs by Crystal Neubauer

Let go of expectations: When I first began working in collage, I developed an exercise to help me let go of my fears and expectations and just create without overthinking: the five-minute collage. Like automatic drawing, where marks are made intuitively, the five-minute collage is about letting go of a plan and trusting my primal response to the materials I have brought to the table. Perusing my supplies, I pick up a tray and begin adding things with no particular plan in mind. I simply open myself to the whispering of my internal artist telling me what it wants to play with that day. Back at the table I lean in to these same prompts and begin gluing the pieces as they catch my eye. I don’t lay them out or develop a composition first, I simply let my eye choose the next piece to glue and decide automatically where to place it. You can find a more detailed explanation of this exercise in my book The Art of Expressive Collage: Techniques for Creating with Paper and Glue.

Tackle bite-sized tasks: When I was working outside of the home full time, I would run home on my lunch break and have exactly 15 minutes in the studio to work on collage. By the end of each week, I was always surprised at how much could be achieved in those short bursts of time. While long uninterrupted hours are supposed to be the artist’s ideal, when I don’t have a plan that stretch can be daunting. To get that spark back, sometimes all it takes is setting a timer for 15 minutes and assigning myself bite-sized tasks, releasing the notion that something major needs to get done. After day of working on bite-sized tasks and a week of workdays in a row, I can see the makings of a new body of work beginning to take shape.

No matter the approach, there is something to be said for finding a way to help creativity begin to flow. A long dry spell can become a self-defeating cycle when I avoid entering the studio, but once I hit that magical place, I find the opposite dynamic to be true. Creativity begets more creativity. The more I work, the stronger it flows. Each time I get there I thank the heavens above that I had the wherewithal and determination to just show up.

In each blog I share the work of one artist whose work inspires me and challenges me to grow.

Collage works by Lee McKenna
Collage works by Lee McKenna

This month I would like to introduce you to an Australian artist who works in the art of collage: Lee McKenna. I love the simple neutral materials Lee works with, very much the type of material that I gravitate toward in my own work. Her aesthetics in her compositions create a sense of serenity and calm that surpasses the familiarity of the materials she gravitates to. Check out more of Lee’s beautiful work on her Tumblr site:

About Crystal Neubauer

Crystal Neubauer

From obtaining gallery representation to writing the book The Art of Expressive Collage: Techniques for Creating with Paper and Glue (North Light Books) to teaching workshops nationwide and opening my studio, learning to tune in to the voice within has led me on a journey of learning “I can.” Join me for an “I can” experience of your own as you learn to tune in to the creative flow while identifying the negative messages and fears that stop you. Find my work on my website, and more about the process, techniques, and my life on the blog.


Crystal Neubauer

About Crystal Neubauer

Gallery represented artist. Author of The Art Of Expressive Collage; Techniques With Paper and Glue. Blogger. National workshop instructor.

2 thoughts on “The Artist’s Life: Just Show Up

  1. Crystal -Thank you for posting “The artist’s life just show up” what you said is so true – and so helpful to hear what you do to overcome the dilemma. I too am so good at avoidance tactics and am always finding something else to do- maybe i will print out your words and make myself go through that ritual- thanks again for your inspirational words.
    Heather (AKA Nero) because i am always fiddling with art stuff!

  2. Thank you, Crystal, for writing this quite timely blog post. Now that my son will be heading back to school next week, I will finally have uninterrupted time to get back in my studio. I’ve been wondering if I still have that voice, that spark, within me that can create. When I write, I set timers, yet I haven’t extended that to my art making. It’s such a simple cross-over but I hadn’t pieced it together until I read your post. Also, I’ve been wanting to try collage but my perfectionist streak is so strong. The five-minute collage is a good kickstart.

    Thanks again!



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