How to Access Your Creative Joy—Even Under Stress

Katie Carey | October 11, 2018

Artist Nadine Johnson during a photoshoot with Artist Collective #33. 

Since artists do not live in a vacuum, the stress of the outside world can often seep into our studio practice. 

How do we keep creating when the world feels heavy? 

As artists, our job is to capture experiences, evoke emotion, document events and to start conversations in our communities. 

Making art allows us to process our experiences— it helps us to express and to understand the world around us. It also helps those around us to do the same. 

It’s probably safe to say that you started down a creative career path because making something with your hands gave you satisfaction and joy. But the reality is that creative joy can be stifled as the years go on and the stresses of everyday life seep into your making life.

You can begin to associate your artwork with money, stress, production, timelines, and more. Or, it might feel hard to get into a creative flow with current events weighing on your mind. 

So how do you get back to creating from a place of joy, even when you are feeling the stress of an art career or of the outside world?

Here are seven things we do when we are looking to push our practice into a more joyful arena.

Artist Chelsea Hart working in her studio with her assistant. You can see more of Chelsea's work here

Put less expectation on the outcome of your artwork.

You might have heard the common advice that “expectations are disappointments waiting to happen."

When we put too much pressure on the output of our creative pursuits, we put ourselves in a place of fear of our expected output. When your artwork was a hobby and something you enjoyed in your off time for relaxation, you were able to embrace being a beginner—even being bad. There were fewer expectations from yourself and from others about what your final artwork should look like.

When we put expectations on our current creative projects (that they will get us into the next gallery, win Juror’s Choice, or even garner more likes or followers on social media) our ideas of how we create can be too demanding and create anxieties around our creativity—which in turn only limits our abilities to be fully present and flow through our creative states.

This leads up to the next point ...


Work through your worst ideas.

Take the pressure off trying to make the best possible object, painting, or next masterpiece.

Think of some truly terrible ideas.

Then, jot those down in your notebook. Sketch them out and maybe even model them out.

Take away your inner dialogue of “you better not mess this up.” After working through a half dozen or so of these ideations, you will see that it isn’t so scary to not be perfect. In fact, you might even spark an idea through the open and playful nature of trying to be “bad.”

This can also be especially useful if you have a hard time getting started or have a perfectionist streak. Working through what you perceive as worthy for a trash bin will open creative gates for you to access only more and more creative ideas.


Make art with someone in particular in mind.

Think about a time you gave someone an object you made and it made them deeply happy. Take a minute to remember how their joy made you feel. Accessing this feeling not only improves your own joy, but it also can help you navigate creating more joy in your practice.

When you are working on your next project, think of that time when you made that specific person happy with the gift of your creativity. This helps cultivate a feeling of joy in your process.

You can also think of someone specific of whom you might be creating the work for in mind.

What are they experiencing right now in their life? What would you like to say to them that words can't quite say? What is something they are fighting for? What is a story they would want to tell or hear? What would comfort them? Answering these questions helps to narrow your focus, take pressure off your own creativity, and onto what brings the other person joy or meaning. 

It can be simple. Do they love horses, pizza, or the color blue? Or, it can be more complex. Do they have a unique experience or story that should be captured? Let the things they love or that shape them be a roadmap to your creativity. Oftentimes a set of rules or boundaries push us to be our most creative, especially when we are feeling decision overload.

A portrait of the Cat Rigdon in the studio. You can see more of Cat's work here

Turn your phone on do not disturb mode while you are in the studio.

Not only does screen time steal our attention away and make it more difficult to stay present in our practice, but it also provides an easy path to a million different comparisons.

Access to other creatives on platforms like Instagram and Pinterest can be a source of inspiration and provide solidarity in our pursuits. It can also welcome an unhealthy amount of comparison.

You can easily slide from inspired to defeated in a matter of a few scrolls. Embrace the "Joy of Missing Out" by turning your phone on airplane mode or off for your time in the studio. Manage others’ expectations of your phone communication by letting them know that this is a practice of yours.

Setting digital boundaries will allow you to not always be on call for your friends, family, co-workers, and social media acquaintances. This freedom allows you to stay more present and listen to your own, innate creativity, without the outside digital buzz interfering.


Manage your self-care, especially during stressful events. 

One great side effect of not being tethered to your phone 24 hours a day is that you are better able to pay attention to your self-care. You are better able to listen to your inner dialogue. If you are feeling that your work isn’t good enough or that your next painting is going to be a flop, you can really dig into where that feeling is coming from instead of turning to a distraction on your phone.

You can work through how you feel about your painting, and your relationship to outside events—and how those two things work together without outside noise. 

When you have a feeling of fear, disappointment, stress, or anxiety, you can pause. Take a break. Take a few minutes to recognize and understand any patterns that occur when you think these things. If you don't, they will just continue. And they will continue to get in the way of your creative flow and joy. 

Know that when you feel these things creeping in, it means it is time to take a break, make some tea, go for a walk, talk to a friend or family member or just take some time to check where they are coming from.


Say yes to new challenges and ideas—and know when to say no. 

Bring joy back into your art practice by saying yes to new challenges and opportunities that present themselves—and make it a habit of doing this monthly. Be open to different experiences, people, and ideas, and widen your comfort zone for experiencing joy.

Accept someone’s offer to collaborate with you on an unknown project, jump in on that group exhibition, and say yes to a creative retreat or residency. The more experiences you have, the more capacity you have for experiencing joy through your artwork. Shake it up and get out of your habits that weren’t working.

On the flip side, if your yes attitude has started to take away from your self-care and create more stress than positivity, know that it is ok and healthy to say no. You have no requirement to say yes or to be busy. Leave room for the opportunities that give back to you and give you joy and ditch the rest that isn’t serving your creative needs at the moment.


A close-up of artist Kristine Overacre making the piece Love Story.

Notice the small joys in your creative process.

If you are looking to create from a place of joy, start by tuning in to the small moments in your process that already bring you this feeling. It’s much harder to just jump in full force and start drastically creating your work in a different manner. Change takes time.

One way to get this is to focus on the things that already bring you joy and noticing when that happens.

What part of your creative process brings a lightness to your making? It could be the initial sketches, wedging clay, sharpening a pencil, laying down your first mask of paint … anything that sparks a smile or feeling of ease. Then, do more of whatever that is. Forget all of your outside obligations for a few hours if you can spare it and just focus on the small part of the process that fills your soul. 

When you first start, look for a few moments during the last session when you felt at ease or that made your process exciting. Noticing small moments of joy creates more joy. It is like a ripple effect and it only grows with practice and intention.


We need the arts in difficult times.

Art gives us immeasurable personal and social benefits. We rely on the arts to help us through difficult times.

Art reminds us that we are not alone and that we share complex experiences across geographic boundaries. Through art, we feel deep emotions together and are able to process experiences, find connections, and create impact.

As artists, it can be stressful to keep creating in difficult times. But, it is necessary. 

Art helps us to record and process more than just individual experiences. Making art documents the world around us and allows us to work through how we are a part of it. Art making is half of it—we also need to photograph, share, and record these creations so that they will live on throughout history. Documenting your artwork is easier than ever with online inventorying and management platforms like Artwork Archive. Together, we can expand the art world “archive” with more representative voices and experiences and contribute to our historical narrative through the arts. 

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