Get out of your creativity rut in five easy steps

In the same way there never seems to be an ideal time to start having children, the same can also go for making art.

If you are waiting for the “perfect moment” to start because you need more time, space, money, supplies, or Jupiter to be lined up with Uranus (you get the idea), then you are going to continue waiting and never make a dang thing!

I have been happy making illustrations and digital paintings for clients over the past few years but I also really wanted to start making something completely “mine” that is not for or dictated by clients.

Also, after 8-9 hours of working in front of a computer each day, I wanted to also re-explore creating art away from a glowing screen. My eyes were starting to hurt and if and when the electricity goes out (which it does in Malawi quite often!) I wanted to still have something to show for my efforts.

Illustration by Kristen Palana
One of my digital illustrations made for UNFPA Malawi to be used on a fleet of mobile health clinics for Malawi’s government.

What Happened?

Once upon a time when I was in my twenties, I was a dedicated “old school” painter. I was working for art galleries, showing my paintings in group shows, and living a happy but scrappy starving artist’s life.

However as as bills needed to be paid and I began nervously eyeballing the $11 dollars and zero cents left in my checking account, I decided to also explore going digital as a means of creating more job options and opportunities for myself.

I packed up my oil paints, applied to several art schools in New York City, took out massive student loans, got my MFA in Digital Media at Pratt Institute, and (thankfully) soon got busy with academic responsibilities as a full-time Assistant Professor of Digital Media at William Paterson University who miraculously hired me right after graduation. The artwork I made next took the form of multimedia animations created on the computer.

I then moved continents after a few years to teach in the Communications Department at The American University of Rome in Italy. A few years after that, I also later became a parent. There’s nothing like becoming a mom to shake up one’s priorities, schedule, and artistic mojo!

Back when my sons were still babies, I started jotting down notes to make this animation on a napkin during a rare moment of “free time.” It took three years to make a few minutes of animation, but by taking 30-60 minutes per day to draw… it made me feel slightly more human.

How To Get My Artsy Groove Back?

These days I have a series of paintings/drawings in mind that are colorful images of totems and manifestations for things like health, joy, love, abundance, etc. that use animals that have cross-cultural significance.

I have a love of colorful patterns and textiles from Asia and Africa where I have lived as well as the look of more Western stained-glass windows. These are all areas I want to explore.

But how?

I had been telling myself that I was too busy! How could I possibly find time to paint or draw when I had so much going on at work and in my life each day?

Kristen Palana drawings
Drawings from my sketchbook

A list of my other lame excuses included:

I don’t have a proper space to work in. My office cannot get all full of paint as I am just renting this house. What if I cause damage?

I don’t have the “right” materials. I live in Malawi and that is thousands of miles away from my nearest favorite art supply store.

I have no privacy. If it’s not my kids always hanging around, it’s my husband also working from home during the pandemic, or a never ending stream of repair people stopping by all the time to fix the disaster de jour.

My former painting professors would not approve. How dare I consider not painting with the finest of oil paints on canvas stretched myself? (Well, the hot climate for one would not work for those materials first of all.) They might also say, “You want to make cutesy little animals and pretty patterns inspired by untrained craft makers? How… pedestrian. How…amateurish. How folksy.

Enough! Time to Smash Those Nasty Voices and Get to Work (And Make It Fun!)

I started to think about how I acquired other good habits that I also used to be “too busy” for like meditating and getting daily exercise.

I can do this. I just have to act like I am coaching one of my students instead of trying to endlessly convince myself to no avail.

I decided to pretend I had a student who is stuck like I have been and to then make them (me) an action plan for getting unstuck.

So, my inner coach has made this plan for myself and I have been following it over the past few weeks with very happy results.

I thought it could also be useful for someone else so please feel free to use my personal plan as a template and change according to your own situation, time-frame, goals, etc.


5-Step Plan for Starting a Daily Art/Creative Practice (Becoming Unstuck):

  • Week 1: 
    Just gather samples or write down visuals that I love. Example: chitengi patterns, guinea fowl, rabbits, golden landscapes, stained glass windows, work by other artists, etc.

    Do not put pressure on self to make anything. Just gather and consider printing out so they can be hung up in studio.
A few of my favorite things: glass from Murano, Italy and chitengi patterns from Malawi.
  • Week 2: 
    Think about layout of studio, indoors and outdoors. My digital area (where my desk and computer live) is already set up. What might I change for a painting/drawing area?

    Create wall of inspirations to hang up near computer and easel. Make it OK to have areas that can get messy. Put down plastic tarp over guest bed if necessary and use as needed. If feeling inspired, can move on to Week 3 when ready.
Left brain/right brain going on in the office/studio
  • Week 3:
    Start making drawings and digital images of “Manifestations” series or anything else that comes to mind. Perhaps start with abundance and rabbits or continue Burmese owls (protection).

    Consider: Making 7-9AM designated studio time for my own work. Then client work and everything else can be after 9AM. Weekends, only if I feel like it but rest is also important especially after crazy UN client deadlines during the week. Important not to over pressure myself.
The start of a drawing of Burmese owls
  • Week 4:
    Don’t put pressure on self but just make a little something each day for at least 30 minutes if possible. Do I feel like drawing on paper? Hopping on the computer to paint digitally? Maybe take a drawing and digitize and paint on the computer? Maybe take a digital artwork and experiment with recreating as an actual painting.

    Maybe try acrylic before oil. Remember process is even more important than a destination. Enjoy. Get into flow. Play music.
The start of an onion
  • Week 5:
    Have we started a new good habit yet? Continue. Make this time and space my own each day (*As often as possible. Don’t worry if I miss a day here and there if life gets in the way. Just continue and try to make it a daily or almost daily habit.)
My first time painting away from a computer in years. Protection (Burmese Owls Variation)

Later (In a few months or so):
Look at what I have made. Are there physical objects I could display in some fashion? Digital art? Which do I show on social media? Do I put in a Print on Demand site/store to sell as prints or make these only one of a kind? (If so, do I keep Red Bubble/Society 6 or close those and make something better/more professional?) Maybe a combo of both digital and one-of-a-kind pieces like some artists do? Research calls for art, juried shows, awards, fellowships, residencies. All of this should be separate from the actual art process and only if I feel like it.

Benefits of the final products are separate from the daily process and should not become the focus!

A Job Well Begun Is a Job Half Done

Well, there you have it. I gave myself some good advice and actually took it. I’m enjoying not only spending a little bit of time making something away from the computer each day, but also just having a little place or studio/corner I designed to call my own.

I hope you find this template helpful as you start your own daily creative practice (-making art, writing, cooking, making music, etc.) It doesn’t really matter what form it takes!

Do you have some great tips or tricks for getting unstuck creatively? If so, please put them in the comments below.

Also, why not come join our supportive private creativity group over on Facebook?

The idea behind this group is to share something new daily (or more realistically every few days if need be!)

It can be artwork you made, a photo you took, a quote you stumbled across, a blog post, some writing, a creative list, or any idea you may have.

Research backs up that the more you create, the better and better your ideas and projects become simply by increasing the quantity of what you make. I hope you will join us and share the good, bad, and the ugly daily or weekly.

See you there!

Join today and get your creativity on.

I’m also attempting to post more regularly on Instagram. Come on over, follow, and say hi to see what I am working on in my studio today as well as share what you are up to.


Cheers! 🙂