Break Through Creative Blocks with this Unconventional Drawing Technique

Desk with pencils, sharpener and eraser

Clarity of thought, creative breakthroughs and inner peace whilst having a vacation from your overactive mind?

Sound good?

You need to sharpen your pencils.

An all-too-familiar creative roadblock

If you’ve ever had a tight deadline for a project or been trying to finish that latest article that seems to never end, you’ll appreciate the desperation that can start to creep into your thinking.

You’ve been working for what seems like days, thinking and re-thinking, writing and rewriting, trying to unleash that one idea, that one genius brushstroke to finish the piece. But it keeps eluding you and you start to feel… slightly hysterical!

Logically you know there must be a simple solution, but if the answer doesn’t come easy, avoidance tactics creep in and you ask yourself a couple of dangerous questions:

Would checking my email help?

Would Google know the answer?

It can become increasingly difficult to break the cycle of the same idea milling around in your head. What we need is a fast track to creative clarity.

Creative clarity

When you are working through a problem logically, your left brain fires up to try and find a logical solution. When you keep on coming up short it can be increasingly difficult to fight the urge to search for more information, or distract yourself with Twitter or Facebook.

But deep down, you know you don’t need more information. You just need time to think clearly and do the work.

But how can you do that with so many other distractions fighting for your time?

How do you stimulate your creative thinking without resorting to Google?

You learn to draw.

Hand sketching with pencil and paper

The three stages of the creative process

To break out of ‘grasping at straws’ thinking, a new environment, or a new perspective, is crucial.

However, sometimes you don’t have the energy for gym or enough time to go for an extended stroll that allows your subconscious to wander.

For these stress-bound situations, drawing can provide a simple solution.

It’s very cheap to start, you can practise it anywhere and it can give you a new perspective on your current issues, both directly and indirectly.

Creativity is often associated with different stages of development. In brief, the first three stages were developed by German physiologist Herman Helmholtz:

  1. Saturation
  2. Incubation
  3. Illumination

(Two other stages, First Insight and Verification, are also sometimes added.)

What we are going to focus on is the incubation stage or to put it another way, giving yourself a creative breathing space by learning how to draw.

This is the stage when we’re subconsciously thinking of a problem and a solution seems to appear from nowhere. Taking a shower, going for a walk, meditating. These can all help the incubation stage. It’s like trying to create an oasis of calm amongst so many daily distractions to get that much-needed breakthrough.

The very process of learning how to draw can help you to develop your powers of creative thought, even though you are engaged in a physical activity. Here’s how.

Making the creative switch

You need to create space for your creative process to thrive rather than expect it to operate in the cracks of your frenetic schedule.

(The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry)

How can drawing help?

Studies have shown that the brain will be unable to solve insight puzzles if it tries solely with its left hemisphere. You need to make a cognitive switch, to engage the right hemisphere of your brain.

This enables more disconnected lateral thinking with a big picture approach to problem solving – helping to release your mental block.

A thinking vacation

Pencil drawing of shady street

Drawing also helps to give your left brain some downtime.

It sends you into a state of deep relaxation, of tuning out from the Pavlovian ding of a new email and putting your mind in a state primed for a creative breakthrough. To draw something accurately you have to learn to disassociate from the logical, to see objects abstractly. This process can help you create more breakthrough, ‘aha’ moments.

A technique for drawing on your creativity

So next time you hit a creative block what should you do?

Close down the laptop and grab a pencil – are you ready for a little lesson in Contour Drawing?

What you need

  • Pencil or fibre-tip pen
  • Paper
  • Timer
  • 5 minutes free time

Objectives

To train the eye to observe and draw what it really sees – rather than what it thinks it sees – and to encourage the brain’s language mode to drop out as you draw.

Photo of Will facing away from the paper and towards his hand as he draws

What to do

  1. Grab a piece of paper and lay it flat on a desk or sketchbook.
  2. Set the timer for 5 minutes.
  3. Position yourself at a table, with the pencil in the middle of the page, to begin drawing.
  4. Now, here’s the strange bit. Turn around in your seat so you are facing in the exact opposite position. Your hand will still be planted on the table with your pencil tip ready to draw, you just won’t be able to see it!
  5. Now begin to gaze at the palm of your hand, crinkling it a bit so you see every line and wrinkle. This is going to be your subject.
  6. You don’t want a drawing of your whole hand, far from it, all you are after is a series of lines and marks observed from your hand.
  7. Draw, without lifting the pencil from the page, for the full 5 minutes. This is harder to do than it sounds.

The temptation to turn around and sneak a peek will be huge. But if you can resist for 5 minutes something magical can happen…

Results

So what are the results from your drawing? An abstract tangle of lines! You’ll probably laugh at the results. Here’s one of mine.

Drawing of tangled lines

Doesn’t look like much right?

Perfect.

We are not trying to draw an accurate representation, but get used to practising full engagement with visual tasks. Because we are habitually so keen on being productive and producing a recognizable, nameable object, this exercise can seem a bit pointless at first.

But as Betty Edwards, author of ‘Drawing on the artist within’ states:

Pure Contour drawing is the most effective way I know of preparing the brain for visual tasks.

“But what if I can’t draw?”

Before and after images by drawing studentYou simply need to learn.

As we’ve just seen, the drawing doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, far from it. It’s just a tool to let your mind refresh and the pleasure comes from the process.

And if you want to improve your drawing skills, it’s possible to make progress in a surprisingly short time. Here are ‘before’ and ‘after’ drawings from one of my recent students, David.

This changed happened within a one hour lesson.

The thing I love most about drawing? The freedom it allows me to reflect on my creative work, see it from a new perspective and allow those insights to come to the surface.

So next time you find yourself at a block in your creativity, give drawing a try and give your mind some much-needed downtime.

Vacations at your desk can become addictive!

Over to you

Where do you find your flashes of inspiration come from?

Has drawing ever worked for you to solve a problem?

What do you do for a creative recharge?

About the Author: Will Kemp can teach you how to draw, and is an ice-cream addict who has just released an instant access version of his Absolute Beginners Drawing Course.

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Comments

  1. Drawing IS the basis of my work so yes, it helps me coming up with solutions regularly 🙂

  2. Great post! Many years ago I followed the most inspiring drawing course ever:’ Learning to see and draw’ by Betty Edwards and her son Brian, who had come over to Holland for a few days. The course lasted only three days, but had a lifelong impact. I still use her techniques for switching to the rIght side of the brain- it works

    • Hey Jet, hope you’re well. What an opportunity to practice with Betty!, sounds like a great experience, pleased to hear you enjoyed the post.

      Thanks,
      Will

  3. I’ve been studiously avoiding the exercises in “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” for almost a decade. Fie, Resistance! A pox on thee!

    Most mornings I take a 2-mile walk by the lake our town is named for. During that time, I’m watching out for savage attack geese, not stepping in front of bicyclists, and wondering if I can sneak one more crabapple off that bush without anyone noticing.

    When I get home and shower, I’ve had two sequential but very different blank spaces for my left brain. And I am slammed with ideas, solutions, energy.

    I haven’t experimented much with walk, then shower later, or shower-without-walk, so I’m not sure which is more powerful. But for now, this works.

    I’ve finally gotten back to playing music after months of neglecting my instruments. Mid-afternoon I practice, and playing old familiar songs also frees up my mind, especially since music is a whole-brain activity.

    But I’m excited to try drawing as well. Every tool I can get my hands on, eh?

  4. Thank you for “Break Through Creative Blocks with this Unconventional Drawing Technique”. It’s a great reminder for me to continue to “cross-pollinate” the high school courses that I teach: English Language & Literature and Visual Art.
    Your suggestion is a “keeper”. Best regards, Deborah.

    • Hey Deb, glad you enjoyed the article, I think the combination between the visual and language is such an important one and it can really help to give a fresh approach to creative work.

      Thanks,
      Will

  5. This is an excellent post. It reminds me of The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation by Frederick Franck. Very helpful. (The post as well as the book!)

    • Hey GK, thanks for the comment, pleased to near you enjoyed the post. And thanks for the book suggestion, sounds spot on!
      Will

  6. Great post, Will. Enjoyed trying out your hand exercise. I’ve become a five-minute cartoonist – doing quick illustrations for ‘therapy’. While simple cartooning has developed into another service I offer clients, I try to keep up the exercise purely for creative fluidity. Have checked out your site – love the free videos and the idea of learning to draw via your videos. Nice one!