Help… I’m Stuck (One Artist's Idea About Why Creative Block Happens)

Like other professionals, working artists are subject to deadlines.  We have timelines for show entries, ad-copy submissions, delivery of product, (blog posts, ahem…) and so forth.   

But deadlines (you know… those hard number, time-related atrocities?) and “flow” (you know… that anomalous, free-flowing, un-pin-downable phenomenon that is at the absolute heart of all good creativity?) are not necessarily good bedfellows.

Creativity is a funny thing.  When it’s flowing, look out—it’ll blow everything else out of the water in terms of taking up my time and attention. But when it isn’t flowing, it’s really, really obvious.  Here’s what creative block under a looming deadline looks like at Casa de Hurst:

-       no energy

-       irritability (sorry, babe)

-       watching too much television

-       pacing while staring at a blank canvas

-       spending absurd amounts of time on inane household projects

-       did I mention irritability?

While I don’t by any means claim to have all of the answers, one recent bout of creative block gave me a clue as to the cause of at least some of my artistic slogginess… and it was pretty funny when I realized what it was—because it’s something I actually take a little bit of pride in:  my competitiveness.


I had a show deadline approaching not that long ago—a show about which I felt fairly intimidated.  I had committed to submitting at least two paintings, and I had a couple of weeks to get them both done.  Ordinarily, this schedule isn’t a problem. But when you add in the fact that I was going to be competing against people painting similar subject matter… and I’m still a relatively new fine artist… and I felt like I was going to get the pants painted off of me by these better painters by comparison… BOOM.  Down came the creative block.

ME:  Excuse me, please—but I have a deadline.

MY CREATIVE BLOCK (CB):  I’m sorry, what?

ME:  A deadline.  A deadline!!!  It’s slipping away!  There is so much work to do! 

CB:  Did you say something?
ME (panic rising):  I’m not kidding!!  There’s a HARD DEADLINE!  I made a commitment!!!

CB:  Too bad you’re not a better/faster/more proficient painter, huh?

Ugh.  Again.

Suffice it say that I did, JUST BARELY, manage to complete my paintings and send them into the show.  But it wasn’t at all a joyful, flow-filled process.  The whole thing was buried under a fear of being not good enough—but feeling like I had to produce anyway.  Ever have that feeling?  No?  Just me?

Gee, I can’t imagine why I wasn’t doing my best work…

I know for a fact that this is what happened, because the second the paintings were on the back of the FedEx truck I felt a HUGE WAVE of creativity:  total, unblocked flow—in spite of the fact that I was at that very minute under another deadline for an ad submission.   

Why did the flow return? Because I was back to doing exactly what I loved:  designing and creating whatever the hell I felt like without a fear of having to compete (from an unfavorable position) against other painters.  I went into my studio and created a painting that felt like a holiday at sea in comparison to those two other paintings.

The moral of this story, of course, is that absolutely nothing was different about the two deadlines save for the fact that under the first one I was laboring under the concept of competition (A concept that I myself created, adopted, and implemented as my own special torture device). 

We don’t live in a shiny, happy world where everyone gets a medal for participating.  Nope—art shows are about sales.  It’s valid to feel as though one should be able to compete, to produce a product worthy of entry.  But the catch-22 for me is that if I feel that I have to perform up to some perceived standard beyond my own actual ability, I usually actually perform way below my own actual ability (and suffer while doing it).  It’s only when I’m rooted in the knowledge that whatever I produce is the best I can in the moment, and I understand that there will always be someone better, that I can relax, get into that flow, and produce a far superior (and certainly more enjoyable to paint) painting.

Let’s see if I can remember that next time!








How Long Did It Take You to Paint That?

This is a frequent question for painters.  And it’s an understandable one.  Particularly when talking about the high-end art market where people want to have some quantifiable rationale for paying a lot of money for a particular piece.

But it really isn’t that simple.

It is literally impossible for me to tell you how long it took for me to paint any particular painting… because said painting wouldn’t be able to exist without my having had thousands of hours of previous life and art experience.  I’m not kidding.  And I’m not being dramatic.

The longer I’ve been an artist, the more experience that I’ve had making art, the more actual art hours went into being able to create that particular painting.  And that isn’t even counting my life experience outside of art and how that makes me the person I am who sees things the way that I see them.  How can I possible calculate that?

I’m working on a small squirrel painting this week—it’s a commission for a client who formed a bond with the same squirrel who came to visit her day after day for years (he was identifiable by a peculiar scar on his face). I will probably spend about 5 hours to complete this painting (from conception to finish).  As I’m working on it I can clearly see the 15 years I owned a mural painting business:  my understanding of color and design, my ability to compose an interesting composition, my ability to make modifications to the squirrel himself so that the overall feel of the painting is more pleasing, my ability to execute the actual brushstrokes… and on and on.  None of those things were learned or mastered in five hours.

It’s sort of like when you go and visit your doctor.  Typically, you might sit in front of her discussing your issue for about 20 minutes.  Then you dutifully pay for your visit and you leave.  Whatever you paid for that visit, you weren’t actually paying her for those 20 minutes.  You were paying her for all the years she spent in medical school, all of her experience since then, all of her talent, all of her instincts, and all of her work ethic/commitment to helping you be well.  The 20 minutes was merely the vehicle through which you had access to all of those far more important things.

And so it is with painting.  I’ve spent years painting that squirrel.  I really hope she loves it.  :)

Do You Have to Be Talented to Make Art?

I grew up in a family of prolific and talented artists—the best known of whom is my father, Oleg Stavrowsky. He’s world famous for his western artwork (look him up on Google Images—he’s an insanely brilliant painter). This landscape of talent had its obvious benefits, but it had its disadvantages too.  

My father is part of the Greatest Generation. These people didn’t half-ass anything. They worked hard for everything they had and they did whatever it took to accomplish whatever needed to get done. They had no time for or interest in anything less than excellence. This was an amazing example with which to be raised. And, it sometimes left me feeling inadequate by comparison. (Please, don’t fret for me… no boo-hoos here.  I’m not complaining—I’m merely stating my experience).  

This drive for excellence in my parents was applied intensely to art. Mercilessly, in fact. Because all art that my family saw was torn apart and critically evaluated, it felt to me as though art had to be VERY GOOD in order to have the right to exist… and that artists had to be amazing and preternaturally talented in order to have the right to make art. And believe me—in the eyes of my hypercritical tribe, most art fell short.  

I tried to paint a couple of paintings in my early 20s. My dad was less than impressed. (*smile). I didn’t have the experience or the confidence or the strength of character back then to decide that I could paint in spite of his disapproval of my skills. I didn’t know that, even though my first efforts weren’t good, I had the right to paint anyway. I didn’t know that, even if in fact I might never, ever be good, I had the right to make art. Just to make art. Just because I wanted to. Just because it gave me joy.

So I quit. I stopped after two paintings. No fine art in my future, thanks.

Fast-forward 30 years later. I’m 50 now. This, too, has its benefits.

I’m not so worried anymore about looking bad.  I’m not so afraid to be judged as inadequate, or to frankly suck at things I try. I don’t have nearly the same level of concern about whether other people find me (or my interests) acceptable. Rip into me if you must. I’m going to fade it pretty well. And, I’m going to make art. I don’t need my family to approve of my artwork anymore. I don’t need anyone to approve of it in order to feel as though I have a right to make it. I make it because I want to—because it seems to want to be made.   

I’m not some enlightened sage who lives in an emotional vacuum and doesn’t need the affection of approval of any other human being. I still enjoy it immensely when something I’ve painted moves some other person. It’s pure joy for me. But, I no longer subscribe to the idea that anyone who wants to create should edit themselves in any way just because other people might not like their expression. Who cares? Do it! Make the art! Create! Have fun! The absolute worst thing that could happen is that what you create might not live up to some set of academic standards. Again, who cares? If you’re trying to improve your skill set, then criticism is highly useful. But please, don’t stop just because you’re not a master. Make the mistakes. Make the bad art. Make a mess. It’s fun, and painful, and frustrating, and exhilarating—and worth it, I promise.

As a final note, an interesting thing happened when I finally started to paint fine art at 50. My father saw my very first few attempts and he said, “You’re really talented. Why did wait so long to start painting? You could’ve been doing this all these years.”  

Good question indeed.

Say Hello to My Little Friends

Pet portraits are not something I set out to do… I started out painting wildlife.  I still love painting wildlife, but a lot of folks starting asking me to paint their “faminals” (which is Travis’ and my term for family animals… because our own animals feel like family to us).  One thing led to another, and it’s become a big part of what I do. 

It started with Cane—the beautiful white German Shepherd puppy that my friends Gary and & Lucy rescued from a neighbor of mine who was neglecting him.  I take a ton of joy in how happy Cane is now that he lives with them (!), so I was excited to try to paint him for them.  I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to capture his spirit… and that’s the most important thing to anyone who loves their pet:  that the animal in my painting feel like THEIR animal.  Luckily, I found that I was able to accurately represent the adoring way Cane looks at Gary—and so my pet portrait painting began.

Since then I’ve been very fortunate to be commissioned to paint many “faminals.”  It’s a privilege to be able to give folks a portrait that they can keep forever—a representation that reminds them of the love that they have with their furry (or feathered, or scaled) companions.  Love is love—and anyone who loves their animal knows that it’s just as real whether they’re human or not.  :)

I paint cats, birds, fish, reptiles... pretty much any animal you can think of.  I’ve even recently been commissioned to paint a squirrel someone loved for years. There’s so much joy in our relationships with animals. I’m glad to be a part of that.  To contact me about a portrait of your own animals please reach out to me at 512-422-2176. 

I'm Not The One Painting My Paintings

I’m not painting my paintings.  Really.  I know that sounds odd… and it is.  But it seems to be the case.  Let me try to explain.

I’ve been painting fine art for about seven months now.  As was the case in July when I first tried to paint an animal (my penguin painting, “Joe”), I often sit in front of a canvas with a painting in mind and think, “How in the heck am I going to DO this?”  It’s not a rhetorical question… I don’t have the education or the experience to rely on techniques.  I have a background in design and a lot of experience with color and decorative painting (Italian plasters and ornamental design murals, etc.), but I don’t have any real experience with figurative painting.  I usually have zero idea how I’m going to get what is in my head to come through my hands and onto the canvas.  I’m not kidding.

Take my elephant painting (“The Color of Elephants”), for example.  I had no freaking idea how I was going to paint it to look realistic - but also painterly.  Elephants have wrinkly skin… which requires a lot of detail work… but I also didn’t want to just paint photorealism; I wanted there to be brushstrokes and interpretation as well.

So how did I paint it?  Good question!  I don’t think I’m some kind of wunderkind painter (I know a lot of AMAZING painters… I have a LOT to learn…) – but I recognize that I’m able to paint animals way above my “pay grade.”  And as much as I don’t want to sound like a weirdo… it really does feel like the paintings come through me.  I buy the paints and canvases and brushes and I design the paintings… but when it comes to painting them, it’s almost like there’s a dark curtain in my brain and I don’t have access to that information. 

It can be really stressful, actually. I feel this pressure to get a painting done, but I feel completely unprepared to do it.   No, really – I feel COMPLETELY UNPREPARED to do it.  Luckily, so far, every time I go into the studio and start a painting, something else takes over and I figure out how to do what I need to do to end up with the painting I want.  Hopefully, this will continue over time and my repertoire of skills will continue to build until I have a skill set of my own that gives me a sense of confidence.  Hopefully! 

Until then, I’d like to give a big shout out to whatever, or whoever, is painting my animals!  I’m seriously grateful for them! I’m learning a ton - and immersing myself in painting gives me a bunch of joy.  So here’s to more fun, less stress, and a whole ton of gratitude.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go figure out how to paint a squirrel…



A Tale of Two Paintings

I usually begin a painting with a very specific idea in mind.  That was the case with these blue and gold macaws.  I love their bright colors and I wanted to showcase them against something much more muted and non-specific.  Since I have a longtime crush on Italian Fresco artwork I decided to go that direction with the background.  Specifically, I wanted to pay homage to a famous garden fresco originally located in the dining room of the Villa de Livia outside of Rome.  The colors worked perfectly with my macaws, and it invoked a feeling that I liked.  The result:  “Macaws on Fresco,” painting #1.  (You can see this version in my prints page - I photographed it before repainting it in the event that anyone preferred a print of this original version)

Once the painting was done I stared at it for a day.  It stared back.  It was pretty – I liked it.  It captured the mood I was going for.  But it wouldn’t leave me alone.  I kept looking at it as I walked by the kitchen where I’d set it on the counter by the window.  It was nice.  But yet… those birds kept poking at me.  (Macaws have a lot of personality… so I might’ve been projecting that onto the painting - *smile – but they did seem to trying to tell me something…)  “Hey, Rachel (they squawked) – do something wilder with us.  We’re super bright – we can handle it!  Go modern, baby…” 

I listened.  I painted out the background and created “Mid-Century Macaws,” painting #2.  The mood is ENTIRELY different from the fresco style painting.  I don’t necessarily think it’s better technically than the first one… but ultimately, it was the painting that was meant to be.  The birds are still squawking at me, but now they’re making those satisfied sounds that macaw people know so well.  J

Horse Dreams: How a Painting Goes From Idea to Reality

This painting is called “Horse Dreams.”  

I’ve discovered that people sometimes believe that the process of creating art must be mysterious and fanciful.  This seems especially true if your painting style is a little bit unusual, like mine. (I don’t paint the traditional animal scene.) As a result, I’ve had several folks ask me how I come up with the idea for a painting like this one. I thought this post could be a way to give you a peek into the process. It’s not so much “mysterious” as it is meandering and happenstance.  :)

I was going through Facebook one day (as I am want to do) and I came across a post one of my friends had made about riding her horse, Carly. My friend, Linda, is a horsewoman and since riding Carly is one of her favorite things to do, she had gone for a ride first thing on the morning of her birthday. She posted a photo from her birthday ride, sitting atop her horse. (For horsepeople, this view from on top of their horses is one of the best ways to view the world).   

It’s not the typical representation of a horse, so it interested me and it got me thinking about painting a horse from this angle. But I also realized that if you’re not a horseperson it might not be as interesting to you (most people like to see an animal’s face). So, the question for me as an artist was how to create a composition that was interesting to look at using this different view of a horse.  

As is usually the case, I was thinking about this while also thinking about 4 or 5 other paintings, so it got placed on the back burner of my brain for a day or two. Then one evening I fell asleep and had a dream about Carly. My dreams are WEIRD. *laugh* They usually don’t make sense, and they almost always have that ethereal quality to them. I woke up thinking about tooling leather and the patterns that are carved into belts and boots, etc. And then I started thinking about the calico patterns that woman used to make dresses in the American West. The two ideas came together and… there you have it. I came up with a pattern that has a vague reference to the West, and that also compliments the horse and her coloring.  

Ultimately, the concept is equally important to the design and composition of the painting. It all has to come together to create something that is pleasing to look at.

I’m proud to announce that this painting was accepted into a juried show during Western Art Week this March:  The Montana Miniatures show in the Lewis and Clark Room in Great Falls, Montana on March 20-23rd. This is a wonderful opportunity for me, as Western Art Week is attended by art buyers from all over the world. I’m really excited!

The original of “Horse Dreams” is tied up in the show, but if you’re interested in buying a high quality giclée print of this painting they are available on the prints page of this website.

Thanks for all of the love and support!

How I Stopped Adulting and Did I What I Love

I’m a 50-year old woman. That’s cool. I’ve lived half a century. And now that I’m not quite as young and cute as I maybe once was, I’m relieved to report that I’m actually feeling a lot happier than when I had things more traditionally “in order.”  It’s been a long time coming, and I’m glad it’s here.  And, oh – if you’re not quite as old as I am yet and you think you’ll have your life all figured out by 50, you might be a little bit surprised when you get here. :)

I’ve always been entrepreneurial in nature.  I wasn’t happy working a traditional job where I reported to a specific place every day; it felt like I was trying to force myself into clothes that were all the wrong size.  So in my early 30s I finally started an art business working for myself.  I’d just been divorced after 12 years of marriage and I had that, “To hell with it, my world is upside down anyway so I’m just going to go for it” attitude. (Sometimes pain can be the very best motivator.)

Although I was flying by the seat of my pants, I had a lot of success with my fledgling business.  I showed up, made mistakes, did a lot of things well, and for the next 14 years I spent my days painting Italian ornamental murals in high-end homes.  I eventually had a crew of about 5 people who worked with me.  It was demanding, and delightful too.  I learned an enormous amount about business and art, and I lived the experiential knowledge that you can, in fact, make your living as an artist.  (There’s a myth in our culture that you aren’t allowed to do that:  have fun, do something creative, and still be able to afford to live.)

As time progressed, things changed a bit.  Many of the murals I did were on ceilings, so I essentially spent 14 years climbing up and down scaffolding.  Over time, my knees and back suffered from the exertion, and I began to be burned out on the work as well.  I am a person who completely commits to her work and works very long hours to produce a product that I’m proud of.  Those hours took their toll mentally and physically, so in my mid-40s I decided to join my husband working in our real estate business. I love houses and love remodeling, so this didn’t feel like a huge sacrifice – just a change.  I found other ways to channel my creativity and I was convinced that my days as a professional artist were behind me.  That’s what I get for thinking.

Fast-forward six years to this past summer.  My sister, Lesa, spent a few months staying with us.  Lesa is a very successful and talented painter (see her website here).  She kept pestering me to come out to the workshop and paint with her.  I said no.  Again, and again, and again, I said no.  But she was persistent!  One day I finally caved to the pressure and followed her out there.  And BOOM! All of my love of painting came rushing back to the surface. 

In May of last year I wasn’t even remotely considering selling my artwork again, but by December I was once again a full-fledged working artist.  This time I’m painting figures – mostly animals.  And I’m painting on a much smaller scale – framed paintings.  But I’ve once more fully embraced that ever-present drive to create art.  And much to my delight, I’ve found an audience for my new style of artwork.

Yesterday I received an incredibly flattering and exciting invitation to hang my painting “Hey Bear!” in Yosemite Renaissance 34 – a very competitive, yearlong art exhibit in California in 2019.  It feels like a bit of a “Hey there, kiddo - you’re going in the right direction” nod from the Universe. It just goes to show you:  you never know what is just around the corner in your life.  You never know where you’ll be or what you’ll be doing even just a few months from now.  And, if my experience means anything, you better not assume that you know what you’ll be when you grow up, because life can throw you a curve ball.  That’s why you’re reading this blog and that’s why I’m writing it. Life can be wonderful, eh?