Break on Through to the Artist Side

Breakthrough © Kiki Nelson

Breakthrough © Kiki Nelson

 From the Mind of: Kiki Nelson


The word implies that there exists within you a barrier or wall that impedes your progress.  As an artist, there are always points in making your work where you hit the wall and are stopped dead in your tracks.  Sometimes for me, this presents as boredom or a lack of connection with my work.  Sometimes it’s more technical than that:  I just can’t get that print to come out right; there’s something not working within the composition; or a piece just does not fit within a series.  I’ve learned to almost look forward to that blocked or stuck feeling, because I know that it’s the catalyst for the dramatic leap my work will take once I break through. Making your work is like creative yoga.  It is a marriage of workflow and process that brings across the final vision.  The entire journey consists of challenges to solve that ultimately influence the final product.  It’s so easy to get distracted and bogged down with the obstacles and walls that we face as artists.  However, you can always find comfort in knowing that the best part of hitting those walls is that a breakthrough is waiting just on the other side. Screen Shot 2014-07-02 at 9.04.30 AM The easy part is recognizing the wall.  You viscerally feel stuck.  Nothing gels or comes together as a cohesive idea.  You can’t get final products to look the way they do in your wonderful creative brain.  If you’re anything like me, the brain monkeys scream distractions at you.  Other ideas for work, or other enticements of how to spend your time start to seep into the cracks of your time management because you just can’t seem to focus on the task at hand. But, you don’t have to run away from the blocks and walls that impede the process of making your work!  You can roll up your sleeves and get gritty with some tried and true methods to push back on that wall.  Eventually you – and I – bust through that wall to the light of true progress.  Here are some ideas that have worked for me.


I had a wonderful photography professor that actually received his BA in English Lit before going on to his MFA.  In his photography class, I wrote more than I had in most of my academic classes.  He would do daily brain yoga exercises, assigning us an idea or word and have us write about it.  We would start by looking up the definition.  Then, we would find words that had a similar meaning and write those down as well.  After some contemplating, we would write for 20 minutes about whatever those feelings and words evoked in our brains.  Finally, after all of that thought and energy was invested, we would go out and photograph and make our work.  It was like priming the well pump of our creative intelligence in order to really flood our thinking with new vision and fresh perspective.
Write and/or sketch your ideas to help you breakthrough

Write and/or sketch your ideas to help you breakthrough

Many artists use an artist’s journal to keep track of sketches, ideas and writing about their work.  I make a new one for each series or body of work that is my focus, but mostly that’s because I’m really addicted to new journals.  Each one has a totally different feel and they serve as an excellent memory documentation of where you were in your life and how you made that particular work.


It’s often surprising to me just how much of my physical body is needed to make good art.  Sometimes, the physical body is an anxiety-filled impediment, and moving helps free that up.  I am a big fan of taking long walks.  Short walks are a nice work break that give you wonderful benefits like fresh air and sunlight, but a long walk is a commitment to yourself to be alone and in that moment with your inner workings.
Go for a walk. Move your body.

Go for a walk. Move your body.

I draw a lot of inspiration from the changing scene of the natural world around me.  I love finding new places to walk that contrast each other and the work I’m doing.  The bustle of a farmer’s market has a totally different feeling than the quiet of the country road.  I find other ways to move my body, too.  I dance.  I garden.  I haul water to sun-drenched plants.  And as I use these muscles, so much of the restlessness within is released.  The mind quiets and the work has a place to live again.


Julia Cameron’s sage advice in her book The Artist’s Way was to take myself out on “Artist dates.”   Make it a point to do things by yourself that stir the senses and stoke the fires of creativity.  Go to museums and take in gallery shows.  Go to concerts and festivals.  Go to gardens.  Eat amazing food.  Go do anything that makes you feel alive and in the moment of living.  Find new things to experience that awaken you to the richness that life has to give.

Awaken inspiration by taking yourself out on an “Artist Date”

These experiences really serve in breaking through those limitations we place upon ourselves.  Sometimes that space is really what is needed in order to recharge your battery and fuel the fight.


As well as being a photographer, I’m also a printmaker.  One of the reasons I do printmaking is to remind myself how much easier photography is for me!  Even though my work is in Alternative Process and I can spend hours or days making a print, printmaking is so much more time consuming.  I also use a lot of my photography in my printmaking.  This allows me a chance to see my ideas in another form, exploring it from another angle and aesthetic.  Another method I picked up from a design class was to sketch from my photographs.  I’ll take one of my images, print it out, place a grid pattern over it and then sketch it onto paper with a corresponding grid pattern.  Getting the work into my hands allows me a different way to connect with and ultimately experience the work.  The artist journal is an excellent place to do this kind of activity.


Community is one of the best resources that we share as artists.  We draw inspiration from each other’s unique ideas and information about new processes and products that might fold in nicely with our own.  Community is for sharing ideas – bouncing solutions off of people that truly understand the ebb and flow of creative energy.  If you have any tried and true tips or stories about encouraging a breakthrough when you’ve been stuck in your work, I invite you to share them with everyone in the comments below.    

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply