How I got over the biggest creative block of my life by Sketching in Kuching and Cambodia

How I got over the biggest creative block of my life by Sketching in Kuching and Cambodia

street scene in Kuching 2017

It’s been a while since I have written here and there is a reason for that. You see, I was stalled. In the past I have had phases of being stalled but not like this one. This was a full scale creative block I had, of course, heard of things like creative block or writers block but I had not realised these periods of time could last so long.

Bear with me while I give you some background – make a cuppa, I will tell you the story and while also sharing some sketching eye candy with you. (Click on any of the images for a larger version.)  I will describe what I think may have caused my block, what happened, how I attempted to shake myself out of it and move forward, and finally what kicked me out of my creative blues.

A while ago, I did a soft re-launch of this site after I finished writing my book The Visual Guide to Crazy Quilting Design. Jerry had just retired – which is a huge change in our life.  Then I caught a seriously bad flu just before I went to Europe to walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain. The flu hung around for 2 months but that is another story.

The camino is a pilgrimage walk of  500 miles (800 Kilometres) from St Jean Pied-de-Port in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. This amazing experience has been described as ‘epic’ and it is. It took us about 6 weeks to walk, carrying our packs. Jerry wrote about our trek.  You can find an index of his posts here. Needless to say you can’t walk 800 kilometres, carrying a pack, sleeping in dorms and generally traveling pretty rough, without thinking at least a little about your life. Before I left, I knew I was heading fast to burn out stage and one of the reasons I walked the camino is that I knew I needed to take some time out and regroup. It worked a treat but re-grouping phase just took a bit longer than I anticipated!

collage in a travel journal using local ephemera
Collage in my travel journal created while on location using local ephemera. Collage elements were pasted down then I found a location that would ‘match’ them. I then sketched over the top of the collage. Sketched in Kuching 2017 in a Stillman and Birn Beta series A5 sketchbook 270 gsm Natural white paper using local ephemera and Faber Castell Pitt pens

When we returned home I kept up my sketching and I wrote in my journal daily, but it all felt very flat and dull and I knew I just did not have the energy to do things as well as I would have liked. But I did keep at it. I knew I needed time just to faff about and not worry about digging out online resources that people would find useful, researching techniques or artists etc or sharing publicly my own stuff. So I just slowed everything down. I did keep sketching and writing but the whole process was hard for me. I was back to observing the world and only that. I took some time offline and just focussed on unplugged activities. In other words, I simply sketched for sketching’s sake and just wrote about my day in a notebook.

We went to the monthly Urban Sketchers meet up regularly and every month at the throw down (where urban sketchers lay their sketchbooks out so everyone can see what they have done) I was always interested in what other people did but inevitably hated what I had done. I learnt that the hard thing about creative blocks is that often you have to go through a phase of producing blah stuff that just makes you feel even more blah! Anyway, I went along month after month feeling rubbish about work and with little energy but this point is key: I enjoyed the company of my fellow sketchers.

Collage crated while on location
Collage created while on location using local found materials I had the map of the river pasted into my book BEFORE I went out sketching then I took myself for walk looking for something that would match it.  I found a view of the riverside and I echoed the colour of the river on the map in the trees. Done in a in Kuching 2017 done in a Stillman and Birn Beta series A5 sketchbook 270 gsm Natural white paper using local ephemera watercolours and Faber Castell Pitt pens

When the 2017 Urban Sketchers Asia Link Sketchwalk was announced – I saw it would be in Kuching in East Malaysia on the island of Borneo,  we decided to go. We also thought it would be fun to go on to Cambodia afterwards, as neither of us had seen the amazing temples at Angkor Wat in Siem Reap Province. To my delight, a number of fellow Aussie sketchers were thinking along the same lines.  It proved to be the best thing I could do – and a turning point for me.

Sketch of a stature at the Angkor National museum
Sketch in my travel journal of a statue at the Angkor National Museum Siem Reap Cambodia 2017, using graphite pencil, in a Stillman and Birn Beta series A5 sketchbook 270 gsm Natural white paper

The first few days in Kuching were very shaky. I had, what had become my usual reaction to my work of wanting to throw it away. In other words, a negative pattern of thought had developed. At one point, I really did wonder why I had come, what I was doing, who did I think I was etc. That was the crisis point. I looked at the way I was thinking about my sketching and decided I was not going to let my own thought processes undermine me. You see, what has started out a stall point many months previously, had now become an issue in my mind and I was the compounding the problem.

collage in travel journal
Collage in my travel journal using local ephemera. Sketched in Siem Reap Cambodia 2017 in a Stillman and Birn Beta series A5 sketchbook 270 gsm Natural white paper using local ephemera watercolours and Faber Castell Pitt pens

My turning point was when I started to tell myself “just draw – don’t let other pointless babble interfere” so just like a mindfulness meditation practice, I set out to draw and if I noticed that my mind was wandering towards negative thoughts I brought it back to the process of observation and recording what I saw. I focused on just doing what I came to Kuching to do and that was draw and spend time with other people who also loved to sketch.

Sketch of the Bayon Temple
Travel journal sketch using graphite pencil. Sketched at the Bayon Temple in Siem Reap Cambodia 2017 in a Stillman and Birn Beta series A5 sketchbook 270 gsm Natural white paper

Now I am not saying that you have to sit down with a gin and tonic in the heart of Borneo to get past a creative block but my point is that I did a few things to break out of a creative dip. I learnt a few lessons I thought I would share them.

  1. I prioritised what was of importance to me. In other words I took a break from my online routine.
  2. I kept at it. Even though I did not like what I was producing I kept drawing at least once a week and I wrote daily.
  3. I broke a negative pattern by doing something different (Okay, visiting Borneo and Cambodia could be seen to be doing something radically different) but the main thing is that I got out of my usual space to get a fresh perspective.
  4. I made sure I had people around me who supported me and fed my creativity.
pencil sketch of Temple statue
Travel journal sketch using graphite pencil. Sketched outside the “Ladies temple” Banteay Srei in Siem Reap Cambodia 2017 in a Stillman and Birn Beta series A5 sketchbook 270 gsm Natural white paper

I am not saying my sketches are particularly good or anything great. They are not meant to be Art with a capital A but they did record my trip and that is what I wanted to achieve.  Most importantly the pleasure I have in sketching or writing about my day has returned. After a thinking about it I think I am ready to start writing about sketching and journaling again.

Sketch of a Angkor Wat carved stone wall decoration
Travel journal sketch of a carved stone wall decoration using graphite pencil. Sketched at Angkor Wat Temple in Siem Reap Cambodia 2017 in a Stillman and Birn Beta series A5 sketchbook 270 gsm Natural white paper

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  1. Sharon thank you for sharing this. I appreciate you opening up—–I know I struggle with some of the same issues. Sadly I could not get the sketchbook pages to enlarge. When I clicked on them it said “not available”. I am using Microsoft edge.

    Susan S
  2. Thank you for your vulnerability in sharing your creative challenges and for articulating so well how you worked through it to a point where you are excited to write and share again. I am particularly interested in your point about having people around you that feed your creativity. I have a tendency to shut down and become a hermit when I am blocked creatively….I will remember this for next time I am in the funk that inevitably strikes!

    1. Michelle I know what you mean about withdrawing – as if I am not careful I have the same tendency but I have found it is really important to have people around that like me for no other reason than I am who I am and they don’t judge my work – so the work and me are separate. I think I need to tease the idea out further as one of the reasons I get blocked is when the work and me are tangled in my head. People around me separate the two which is what I need! Hope that makes sense!

      Sharon B
  3. Sharon, I think all of these sketches are just lovely! I especially like the collaged pieces using whatever’s on hand at the time to enhance the sketch. Why are we always our own worst critics? As a daily exercise, I think sketching crosses over to enhance all my other creative work. Many times, I look back at what I drew and find it laughable, or worse. But I’ve recently discovered that if I just can’t stand a drawing, I will rip it into various pieces and use them to collage a new picture. It always produces something much more interesting and feels like I’ve salvaged my previous effort. The new iteration serves as a “record” of my efforts & reminds me that the point is not perfection but to appreciate the experience (a gift, really) of making something, anything, yourself. Thanks for sharing your journey. I’m sure we can all relate to the periods of stubborn resistance and feeling uninspired.

  4. I love the sketches both with and without the collage – I have some fun photos of our cambodia trip a few years ago and laughed when I saw your Budda sketch – I have a photo of me next to it that is one of my favorites. (I tried to imbed it here, but it doesn’t work. oh well) thanks for sharing your efforts.

  5. Sharon, thanks so much for sharing your journey through the dreaded block and your insight and suggestions, which I’ll be noting and using as reminders! When things are going well and we are producing work we’re happy with, it’s easy to forget that we need to regularly stimulate and feed our creativity.

    In the past this is a path I’ve easily slipped onto, and then the block hits hard. I’ve recently begun to plan in regular ‘development sessions,’ doing new things, going to new places, etc , and it’s definitely making an improvement!

  6. You have inspired me since the first day we’ve met! You were hiking the Camino with sketchbooks, and a whole lot of colouring supplies on your backs! The conversations we’ve had on the Camino encouraged me to sketch without fearing the result. Thank you for inspiring again in this article, and thank you for sharing your journeys with us 😉

  7. Sharon, Thank you so much for sharing this part of your creative journey with us. You inspires us, even when you don’t realize it. You teach us that we must start, and we must keep on. Your own bio shows how amazingly far such thought has taken you. Honor those accomplishments and bask in them! You have contributed much, and that mind is still brewing! May your next step lead you even farther toward more enrichment. Thank you for posting and sharing your wonderful, and sometimes challenging, journey with us. We will always cheer you on and are grateful beyond words!

  8. Aw Trish, thanks for being brave and sharing your experiences. I too had a creative block a few years back and stopped making altogether, something I had never done in my life, I have been crafting since a young child. Disappointment that my work was admired by others, yet refused to sell, feeling like you did burnt out, I decided to take time off, think about what is important to me, left my stressful job and decided that whilst I could not keep howrding the things I made I would put my energy in to passing my skills on to others and started a very successful Beginners Patchwork group. I love it, they love learning and it motivates me to keep sewing and developing new skilss. It is really hard to pick yourself up again, but you and I have got there. Your work is amazing, don’t throw your talent away, we all go through it at some stage. Your vacation did you good. Keep at it.

    Jennifer Crossland
  9. You describe exactly what I feel – negative thoughts, not good enough, my own biggest critic. I am very
    fortunate to have a really supportive husband who understands what I feel and is proud of my work. Great article – a lot of people will empathise!

  10. Sharon
    I admire you for being brave enough to share this painful journey. I am not an artist, sadly, but slow stitching has become my own go to place when I need time. TAST has become part of that process. Some weeks are better than others but keeping going is the promise I have made to myself this year! Thank you. Xx

  11. Thanks Sharon for good advices in your post. I was reading with interest. And you know that I love your sketches. I was eagerly following you and Jerry on your camino trip and also when you were in Malaysia and Cambodia. Love!

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