Blank Canvas Syndrome

Something I’ve noticed over the years is that being creative isn’t necessarily difficult for me, but starting a creative project is. It’s the hardest part. There’s nothing more intimidating while creating than viewing a blank page or canvas. (My experience has mainly been with pixels and not paint, so my exposure to “blank canvas syndrome” has been on a computer). Whether writing the first draft of a document, or staring at a blank Photoshop canvas, it’s sometimes paralyzing for me. I’ll procrastinate to prevent making the first mark on that beautiful, blemish-free white rectangle. My mind starts to wander… what if I do it wrong? What if I start off on the wrong foot? What if I use the wrong color? What will other people think? What if I’m not in the right mood?

A blank photoshop canvas—this is how I start each day

Sometimes I start telling myself that I need to get some inspiration first. So I look at examples of what others have done in the past. If I’m creating a poster, I’ll look at examples of a poster. If I’m working on a new website, I’ll look at the latest trends in the web design world. But that can actually work against me and really make me miserable. Staring at someone else’s work won’t make me a more creative person, and sometimes it just makes me more critical of the work I have done in the past. Then I’ll start to ask myself why I even started creating in the first place. Ugh. It’s vicious cycle.

Last week, I had an opportunity to try my hand at painting for the first time ever. I went to a neat little place in town called Splash: a sort of art gallery with painting classes where you follow along with a teacher, while drinking a glass of wine. Everybody paints the same painting, and it’s designed for people like me who are afraid of painting. It’s a brilliant idea. Or that’s what I thought until I was there, sitting on a bar stool with a real blank canvas in front of me. No matter how many times the teacher reassured everyone that it didn’t matter that we’d never painted before, I was deciding if I had the guts to go through with it.

A *real* blank canvas!

For me, this hesitance to start something manifests itself in many ways, not just with a canvas. For example, I have several different books laying around my house with two or three pages filled out. Many, many times, I’ve “decided” to start keeping a journal of my life, and I’ll go out and buy a nice, clean, expensive (even leather-bound) book just for that purpose, but once I have the book and a pen in my hands, I don’t know what to say… or how to start. Do I start with a question? A statement? A deep thought, or a quick observation? Should I use blue ink? Red ink? A pencil? What if I start in blue ink, then can’t find another blue ink pen the next time—will that ruin it? What if I make a mistake and can’t erase it? Should I date every entry? Should I journal every day? Once a week? Only once a month? What if I start out writing every day, then get too busy and only journal every month? Will I hate myself for it?

My palette—where do I start?

At Splash, right after we started, I copied the teacher. We were all told to make six thick grey lines just like he did. Ok, that’s easy. I can do that. But then it was time to add some color. Now what? He chose yellow and red, but said we could use other colors if we wanted. Should I? Should I just copy his painting exactly, or go rogue and create something entirely my own?


Me and my (unfinshed) painting


I hated my painting at first. I didn’t like how dark it was. It didn’t match the one the teacher made. That made me frustrated. His looked like a red door on a cozy house; mine looked like a red door that was randomly hovering in a weird, cloudy thunderstorm. His looked warm and colorful; mine looked cold and lifeless. I had taken my wife with me, so I had a hard time not comparing mine to hers as well. She had a great attitude and thought it was fun. But I hated my painting.  “This looks like crap,” I told myself. I wanted to throw it away.

A masterpiece? Or just a piece?

But during the process, at one point it no longer looked like a work in progress, or like a copycat version of what everyone else was doing. It started to feel like an original. After it was all said and done, I put my paintbrushes down and looked at it. I blew on it a little, (to help it dry I suppose). I took a walk around the room to look at the other paintings. You know what I saw? They were all different. I thought some of them looked great, while some looked pretty bad. Some paintings didn’t look anything like the teachers’ at all. Some were deliberately different, with a different number of windows, or a different background. But overall, they all had one thing in common: they didn’t look like mine. I walked back to my little oil painting—the first I’ve ever made. I kinda liked it after all. I saw a few things that needed some tweaks, so I got my smallest paintbrush out and made some touch ups (while wife teased me about how I can never leave things alone). I touched up the white in a few different places, then stood back. I smiled.

It’s mine. And that’s what matters the most. And though I may not be a painter, I decided that it was worth it, and had a good time after all. Hopefully, I’ll remember this the next time I’m having writers block and can’t decide where to start. I’ve been told the joy is in the journey, and that’s hard to remember. But what I can take comfort in, is that I can always try again. Which is good. …probably someday I will try this painting again. And I’ll eventually have fifty oil paintings of the same little red door. But someday, I’ll get it just right.

1 thought on “Blank Canvas Syndrome”

  1. I feel the exact same thing in web design – I pretty much know what I want to make but actually putting down some code that creates the structure is the hardest thing in the world.


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