Art journal blog

What to create when you don’t know what to create

Get Messy is an online art journaling school that teaches you to cultivate your creativity. Without perfection.

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Creativity ebbs and flows. There are ebbs where you have more ideas than time, there are flows where you have more time than ideas, and there are the bits where you have neither time nor ideas. It’s all part of being a creative human.

Sometimes, even though you have a million ideas that have come to you in the shower, on a walk, while your toddler is protesting against putting on his pants… sometimes when you carve out time to create, those ideas just don’t come out. You sit in front of your journal and suddenly you’re a cartoon mummy coughing out dust…

You’re stuck.

For those mummy times, here is a list of ideas to turn you back into the artist you know and love. A grand list of things to create when you don’t know what to create:

Have someone tell you what to create

Pull on the resources of someone else’s brain. Follow a list of prompts. You can find a ton of these on Pinterest, as Instagram challenges (it’s currently March Meet the Maker), in journaling books (including the Get Messy Art book), or in communities (like Get Messy). Prompts are questions, starting points, and sparks to get your fire going.

Here are few of my favourite prompts:

  • today…
  • she… (or he… they… I…)
  • more/less

Learn something completely new

Taking on the beginner’s mindset is endlessly helpful for quieting the inner critic. Knowing that we’re probably going to suck at something is a fantastic antidote to your perfectionist brain (the ultimate creativity blocker). Removing all expectations means that you can approach your art with curiosity rather than judgement, and freedom rather than restraint.

And anyways, we’re always a beginner anyway. Every page is a new beginning, and we’re continuously coming back to ourselves.

To really be new at something, take a class that feels out of your zone of expertise, or follow an online tutorial on one of your new supplies from YouTube or a blog.

Here are some ideas from our blog:

Create with constraints

Having less choice means that there is more action going on. Two great ways of constraining yourself are supplies and time.

Time constraints

Parkinson’s law states that ”work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. Things will take as long as the amount of time you give them. You absolutely can finish an art journal page in 5 minutes. Set a timer.

Need a low-pressure accountability buddy? Watch a timed video from me: 20 Minutes / 30 Minutes.

Supplies constraints

Travel journaling is great because you’re forced to use only what you brought with you. But limiting supplies isn’t limited to leaving your city. I like to create a “travel kit” for around the house. Or I take a small kit with me to a cafe.

Speaking of,

Create in a new location

The cafe is a great way to bust out of a creative block. It’s focused, dedicated time in your journal. Keep things loose with blind contour drawings, or loose writing.

You don’t need to leave the house, though. Simply moving from your desk to your bed, or your dining table to your couch, sparks something new within you.

I love Hay boxes for carrying supplies around, and old cigar boxes for scraps of paper. I also love taking my journal on long walks with my dog.

Follow a Messy Recipe

A Messy Recipe works just like a regular recipe in that you’re given a list of ingredients and steps. At the end you have an art journal page rather than cake. It stops overthinking, which frees your energy to simply make.

I’m sharing a Messy Recipe on Thursday in a workshop with Sketchbook Revival. If you haven’t yet registered, you can here, or you can download the free PDF below:

Steal like an artist

Austin Kleon coined this term for turning inspiration into art. Just don’t forget to follow the kind human way of doing this. Allow another artist to inspire you, make it your own, and say thank you.

I made this “enough” page with inspiration from Claudette Hasenjager, who then turned that into a page herself. And so the inspiration/stealing loop continues…

Steal your own work

Feel like you’ve never created anything decent in your life? We can sometimes be really good at lying to ourselves.

Going back and reminding myself of all the times I DID create is a practice I have been doing for the past 5 years. Whenever I’m feeling unnecessarily hard on myself, I’ll look for evidence of making.

After my son was born, I felt as though I had lost my creative self and wasn’t creating anything. I decided to find proof that I actually had created, that I WAS still an artist. I went through my camera roll and was honestly surprised to see how MUCH I had made. I saw physical, tangible evidence that even when I felt like I wasn’t creating, I was. The number was more than zero.

Ever since I’ve been keeping a folder in Lightroom for each year for each thing I make. I just put all photos snapped while creating into that folder. It serves as a wonderful antidote to the inner critic of mine that likes to tell me I never take action.

Want more ideas?

  • Follow a theme
  • Keep an idea book to prevent a creative desert
  • Heartstorm a list of what to create
  • Finish projects
  • Join a community
  • Make art a habit
  • Follow a challenge
  • Use a Pinterest board as a to-do list
  • write your own list of what to create when you don’t know what to create

Caylee Grey

Caylee Grey is a South African artist who fills her journals with loads of mediocre art. Imperfect, heart-led, gloriously mediocre art. Caylee's the Fairy Artmother of Get Messy Art, the kindest art journaling community on the internet, and author of the book by the same name.