Category Archives: Approaching the Blank Page

Approaching the Blank Page- Working on a Previously Started Piece

Sometimes it is easier to start working on something you already started at another time.

This also means that it is helpful to leave off working on projects abruptly rather than trying to necessarily finish them in one sitting or get to a stopping point.

Sometimes I find it helpful to set a count down timer and just work for a set amount of time and then just stop when the timer rings. Some people work for 25 minutes and take a break for 5 minutes. Other people find the optimal time for working is 52 minutes and the optimal break time is 17 minutes. Some people prefer to work in 90 minute intervals. When I do the 90 minute work time, I don’t set a clock for the break time.

This brings up the idea that people work better when they take their breaks.

Just setting apart time for working by being on the clock is helpful.

This idea of running down a clock for short periods of work and break time may work better when working alone.

Approaching the Blank Page- Underpaint Some Canvasses

Underpaint some Canvasses

Since it is often better to start a painting on a solid color or a pattern rather than the plain white of a readymade or gessoed canvas, one thing to do when you want to start painting but don’t know what to do is to take some canvasses that are blank and put a layer of solid color or a simple pattern of a few colors down. Then, when you go to start a new painting, you can select an underpainted canvas and have something to work off of.

Browns are often used for an underpainting, although I have found that two or three colors randomly dotted on or in a loose pattern works as well.

It’s not necessary to let the underpainting dry when working in oil, you can just start right in. If the paint is thinned enough with turpentine, it will not affect the new colors all that much.

Drawing grounds could be prepared in the same way- you could cut paper to various sizes, gesso the paper for later painting with oil or acrylic, or maybe prepare a piece of paper with graphite or charcoal so there’s something to work off of next time with eraser as well as pencil or charcoal.

You might start in on one of the canvasses or pieces of paper you’re preparing.

Approaching the Blank Page- Random Start

Making a Random Start

One way to start a drawing, painting, or model for an artwork is to just start putting dots or lines on a piece of paper or canvas, or to just start moving around and manipulating three dimensional building materials. Eventually, something might start to suggest itself out of the built up lines, or you might get some idea of what to draw or paint or make.


This method of starting can seem risky because you don’t know what is going to show up. Also, usually in the creative process, you are resolving tension between what you want and the state of the work before you. And starting in without knowing what you are going to draw runs a little counter to that. However, it’s possible that your subconscious mind would start to work on what to do as you get your hands moving.


The things that show up with this method of starting a drawing are a little like the eidetic imagery we sometimes see as we are drifting off to sleep or if we just close our eyes for a while.


I sometimes use this method working in a sketchbook when there is no view to draw, or when starting a piece and I want to make something to draw. Simple things like faces are the first things to appear in the drawings, but sometimes if I stay with it further, a more complex scene can emerge.


This is an example of a watercolor I did starting with random ball-point pen marks:201-360dpi-6x4on7x5

Approaching the Blank Page- Sidling In

Sidling Into Work

One way to begin working on a creative project is to start to do something considerably easier and similar in some way to the work you need to do. If you’re about to write, you could start with lists on index cards or pieces of paper, and then start your writing project. This is sort of like starting a car and putting it into first gear first, driving a little while, and then putting it into second.


Three or more stage sidling might be possible. When playing the guitar, I sometimes start with scales, then move to guitar lesson material, then start to play and sing songs. A fourth stage might be working on writing new songs. Coming up with new songs does seem to take a little more effort and attention than playing other people’s songs. It might make sense to sidle into it.


There might be a risk of running out of stamina if you spent too much time in the sidling stage and not enough time actually doing the hard work. But a little easy work before more difficult work can be welcome.

Ways of Approaching the Blank Page- Fussing in Your Workspace

Start Rearranging,  Cleaning, Ordering, or Fussing Around With Materials In Your Working Space


Whether your work space is at home or elsewhere, one way to start working on your projects is to just go into your space and start fussing around with things in the space. Organizing materials, ordering things, cleaning out the area, preparing materials: all these things can lead to you getting started with your work.


If you just start fussing with stuff- cleaning and organizing objects, taking stock of what materials you have on hand, you might just find yourself shifting from fussing around to getting to work.


Sometimes I prepare for work by cutting paper to various sizes, saving scraps of paper and writing what type of paper it is on the back, by arranging things like bags of plastic bags in order by size, or laying out tubes of paint by spectrum order.


Sometimes it helps to leave your workspace and come back. Maybe you need some supply to start working. Or you could just psychologically need to leave and return in order to work.


Other times you just need to get into your set-aside workspace and start doing something to prepare for getting to work before actually starting.


Sometimes it helps to get out and work somewhere other than your set aside workspace: somewhere where other people are also working on projects, or some inspiring place like a location to paint. This applies in that situation as well even though there’s fewer materials to fuss around with. Setting up the easel or sharpening a pencil helps to get into the frame of mind to work.


So, if it’s time to work and you don’t quite know what to do yet, just go into the workspace and start fussing around. You might find yourself starting the work.


Ways of Approaching the Blank Page- Showing Up

Showing Up

My Own Experience of Not Starting Enough

I find days go by sometimes where I have opportunities to show up and get to work but I let time go by. Then when I do start, I wonder why I was putting it off. The stress involved in working can be less than the state of not working.

Problems or Distractions Interfering with Starting

Sometimes, I’m distracted by some problem in my life. Sometimes, I’m able to start work and get enough into it to forget the problems in the first place. It can even help problems to get your mind off of them for a while. The subconscious mind works better sometimes on things after you’ve forgotten them for a while.

Levels of the Working Trance

Sometimes you might be able to go deep into the working trance and sometimes you still are distracted to some extent. But if you just work, something comes through, however deep you end up going into the working trance.

Waiting for Inspiration

Many of us wait for inspiration. That can prevent starting.

Setting Deadlines

Sometimes having a deadline gets you showing up, but most people’s tendency is to procrastinate and work more as the deadline approaches, and then we feel like we could have done a little better after the deadline passes if we’d just worked more evenly the whole time we knew about the project and its due date.

Separate Space to Work

It can help to have a dedicated working space. Some people work better with a separate space they have to physically travel to, and some people work better in a live/work space where they can just drop everything and get to work immediately.

The Flow State

If you can get into a state of flow when you work, you end up being more complex and capable after that. At the other extreme, if you wallow too much in boredom or anxiety, psychic entropy sets in and you can start to become simpler and less capable.

FlowChannelDiagram(From Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work)


Sometimes you can take advantage of momentum by continuing to work of the same project or type of work you were working on the night before or the last session.


Professional artists tend to work whether they feel inspired or not. Amateurs’ level of inspiration might often be higher than professionals’. But most people find there’s inspiration enough once you start working. There is an extreme, when an artist finds something that sells and just starts making almost the same piece of art over again. This is know as being a Johnny one note. Most of us don’t have to worry about that so much, being at the opposite extreme of not knowing what would sell or for many if not most artists, not caring too much about whether the work sells, doing it being a need of the soul. Some people do bread and butter or tourist art and then work they do for themselves, and pretty much present the bread and butter art as a body of work recognizable as their own.

Scheduling Time for Working and Stopping

Sometimes if you schedule time to work, when it’s time to work you start. Sometimes I start a count-down timer. Or set a timer to ring when to start and another one at a stopping time, say two or four hours later.

Mistakes in Work Instead of in Life

If you work enough, you make less mistakes in your life. So that’s something to remind yourself when you’re on the verge of starting to work- if you do work you make some of your mistakes in your work instead of all in your life.

Coffee and Tea When Working

Caffeine has you trading creativity for productivity. Not only that, but there’s a window of opportunity where there’s a little pressure to work, and then the crash after which it’s harder to work. There’s a temptation to think that it’s going to help with the work in a way that it might not. Van Gogh recommended painting while drinking coffee and eating bread. A little bit can help for a while, as long you keep in mind the tradeoff.

Having Something Preliminary To Do First

Sometimes there’s something you have to do first before you start working and that can get in the way. Changing into painting clothes, travelling to a working space, even more so needing to buy or find some material you need to do your work.

Adding an Activity to Other Activities

One way to show up is to add showing up for your work at the end of an activity you do regularly. If there’s something you do every day, and you want to add some new activity, you can sort of sneak it into your schedule by telling yourself you’ll do it right after that oftentimes habitual activity.

Once You Start

I notice I feel better after a few minutes of working. It’s actually a little stress to want to work and not be starting, more so than the stress you project into the future imagining yourself working. So if you want to start working, choose to show up and get that start.

Ways of Approaching the Blank Page

I’m starting a new project: To answer the question of what do you do when it’s time to work and you are confronted with a blank page. Where do you start? What approach do you use? I put together some of the approaches I use.

Some of these approaches might be effective for visual art more than for other types of creative endeavors because that’s where most of my training and study in this has been, and most of my experience of working within a field. However, some may apply just as well to writing a story, poem, or song. Or even to something outside of the context of a creative project within a career.

Here’s some approaches I’m aware of to start work with a blank page:

1. Showing up

2. Start rearranging, cleaning, ordering or fussing around with materials in your working space

3. Sidling into work

4. Random start

5. Underpaint some canvases

6. Start working on a previously started piece

7. Build a model

8. Arrange things in a subworld

9. Set up a still life

10. Hunt for a view

11. Meditation

12. Trance

13. Automatic drawing and writing

14. Frottage

15. Scrying

16. Collage

17. Trial and error

18. Work between 2-D and 3-D

19. Repurpose content

20. Paint or draw your own work, rewrite your own song, write your draft over again

21. Work up from a small, indefinite maquette to a larger, more complex and resolved piece

22. Warm up on large sheets of paper

23. Be prompted by a cue

24. Answer a piece

25. Dream up a start

26. Go limited palette

27. Build momentum

28. Work in series

29. Keep a sketchbook or journal

30. Use a model of the creative process

Some of these I use extensively and some I just know of and might try to work with more in the future.

Do you use some of these? Which ones are most effective? Am I missing some important approaches?

Let me know what you think.

-Troy Blum