In a Creative Funk? Just Make a Mark!

We all know that coloring is therapeutic, but when our stress levels rise into the red zone and our minds, as well as our bodies, slip into I-can't-even-ville, even something as soothing, satisfying, and simple as coloring can feel like impossible work. This past calendar year (and counting) has been rough on our creativity, and therefore also our willingness to color as a means of self care. Every human being on the planet has experienced an enormous increase in their stress and anxiety levels since March of last year, so it makes absolute sense that more and more folks are reaching out to me lamenting that they are "not feeling inspired to color and create" as we near the anniversary of living a full year of the social-distancing/lockdown life. And, as I've been listening to these quite reasonable complaints, I can hear a secret fear in their voices and typed words: they are worried that their creative spirit may in fact be one of the many casualties of this pandemic, and even worse, they are deeply uncertain whether or not they will ever get it back.

Wide rule notebook paper with colorful colored pencil lines drawn across it in between the blue printed guidelines.
I expected to hate adding marks to wide ruled notebook
paper (I'm not a fan of this paper - I prefer college ruled), 
but surprisingly, adding colored pencil to this grade school
 staple was a really satisfying experience! 
I highly recommend using this type of 
paper for your mark making creative therapy, even
if you're marking it up with messier tools than I did.

But, here's the thing: every person on this planet is infinitely creative, every one. We can't run out of creativity in just the same way that we can't run out of our hunger for food or our need to sleep. Sure, we can get sick to our stomachs and that nausea gets in the way of wanting to eat, and there are a myriad of reasons why sleep can be harder to slip into than we'd like, but our experience of hunger and our need for rest is infinite because we are human. And, our brains and bodies have the exact same relationship with creativity! When our desire to create seems lost, it isn't because we've run out of a welled up resource. This heavy unwillingness to pick up colored pencils, markers, or paint comes from a temporary blockage to that vulnerable, open place in our hearts and minds where our creativity infinitely flows.

It is absolutely 100% okay to not want to color (or cross stitch, or dance, or paint, or write, or garden, or cook, etc.) every now and again, but unless the activity you are doing to help yourself relax and recuperate instead of coloring is taking yourself for a walk (the brain and body love a good walk), allowing yourself rest in the "I just don't feel inspired" zone for too long is only going to compound your feelings of creative fatigue, and then (if you're anything like me) lead to feelings of guilt and self-loathing, two wickedly effective creativity blockers.

Desperate times call for desperate measures (and, yes, hearing folks consistently say they just don't have it inside themselves to color at all is a desperate situation in my book), so I'm going to suggest that we go back to basics, like waaaaaay back. When the urge to color or create feels non-existent to you but the deep need for the emotional rejuvenation and metal relaxation coloring and creativity used to provide you with is overwhelming, stop fixating on all the activities you don't have "the oomph" to do and just make a markYep, this is ME, Michelle M. Johnson, the coloring book, card, and bookmark illustrator, telling YOU, the coloring enthusiast, to set aside all your coloring pages and creative projects and go find a blank piece of paper (any paper, any size) and a mark making utensil (pens, pencils, crayons, markers, paint, highlighters, ink pads, charcoal, puffy paint - anything), and allow/force yourself make that paper messy, willy nilly. 

Why? 

Because your heart, your art, your creativity is that important! Like I said earlier, it is 100% okay to let that "not in the mood" feeling about coloring and creating keep you from doing what you love every now and then. But, like any blockage left untended, a barrier to the flow of your creative spirit is something that must be looked at eventually or, following my metaphor, you will experience an eruption from the backed up pressure. What that explosion looks like differs from person to person, but suffice it to say, these types of ruptures are not good. That you allow yourself a little creative time most days (and on really bad days, gently force yourself to create) is incredibly important for your overall well-being, and waaay more important than whether or not I'm ever able to sell another coloring book!

While this remedy may sound ridiculously simple to you, remember that when you are feeling so creatively discouraged that even coloring feels "too much like work," any therapeutic act will feel pointless, so we've got to keep it simple. When these feelings loom over us (and, I think they do hit all of us now and again), ignore the nasty voice that says mark making is a silly exercise in futility, pull out some blank paper and writing utensils, and just see what happens. Trust me, making marks on blank paper is like eating potato chips: no one can eat just one chip, and no one can make just one mark on a piece of blank paper! Your first mark will make you feel like making another one (a single mark looks like a lonely "waste of supplies"), and those two marks will pull you to make yet another mark, and soon another has to follow that one, until, boom - 20 minutes has passed, your breathing has become slow and deep, your heart rate has relaxed, and your experience of your world and your creativity's place in it has gotten a little easier to think about. 

There are no rules to this style of mark-making creative therapy save one: don't stop making marks until your paper is full. I'm not going to tell you what full means or looks like because I have faith in y'all - you'll know it when you get there. Still, I know how soul crushingly difficult it can be to return to a coloring and creativity habit once you've experienced a thick blockage, so I filmed myself making paper messy in as many way as I had time for this week so that y'all could have some brief examples to visit before giving your own mark making therapy a try. Blank paper can actually be quite scary to face, especially when you feel distant from your creative spirit, but hopefully these peeks at how my brain made paper messy on four different days with four different sets of art supplies will help calm any fears you may experience about your own mark making.

My week in mark making


Session 1: Leftover gouache watercolor paint and a loooong forgotten 4x6 watercolor journal.

I have so many splotchy paint-filled palettes around my studio that I have been meaning to use (the paint is still good, so I'm not gonna wash my palettes off until all that's left on them is a useless muddy mess), so creating an example of mark making with these leftovers was my way of spotting two birds with one set of binoculars! If this style of mark making appeals to you, but you don't have a weird collection of dried watercolor paint hanging around your home like I do, a cheap watercolor set (you know, the Crayola kind) will work just as well!

My brush marks are clumsy, my layering is haphazard, but that was NOT the point of this exercise. The point was to fill up the page (I did) and to let my mind shut off while I got paint all over this paper (it did). I've been looking at this flock of flowers for over a week now, and honestly I'm feeling called to come back and make some more marks on it (I told you the first mark leads to more), so this "useless" (that's what my raised-on-capitalism brain rudely tells me when I let my creativity flow wildly like this) collection of brush strokes may actually end up the front of a greeting card or a postcard to a friend!

Session 2: Black ink pens and a super large, very basic sketchbook.


This bit of mark making is actually a peek into my illustration process I captured during the final inking stages of my upcoming book, Feminism Is For Everyone: A Coloring Book. Inking any pencil drawing stresses me out, so to warm up and get my creative jitters out, I have started taking my own damn-good advice, and I now begin my inking sessions by making paper messy until I feel ready to get to work. This sketchbook is HUGE, so I allowed the "fill the whole page" rule to slip a bit, especially since my mark making tool was a fine liner ink pen. It would take HOURS to fill up a page this size with an ink pen, not wholly a bad thing, but something that, in my particular case, becomes more an exercise in creative procrastination rather than creative unblocking.

Session 3: Ancient watercolor crayons and the same small watercolor journal from session 1.

For this mark making moment I allowed myself to also finish a library audio book that was going to expire that evening. So while I did fill up this page (and wildly, I might add - I took photos of it from all four angles because I couldn't decide which orientation was actually "up"), my mind was not emotionally shut off as it was listening to a really fascinating, important book called Hood Feminism by Mikki Kendall (I highly recommend it). I love doing simple creative tasks while listening to audio books because it helps my conscious self stop evaluating my art process; my brain is so intrigued by the words and ideas that it's listening to, it forgets to get all judge-y and distracted!

Some of these old watercolor crayons I used in this video were super sticky with age, so I am very curious about how this little geometric doodle will look after applying some water to it. It could turn into a muddy mess, or it could turn out to be something amazing - the only way for me to find out is to just give adding some water a go the next time I need some gentle creative therapy!

Session 4: Colored pencils and grade school notebook paper.


When I said earlier that we were going back to basics with this just-make-a-mark stuff, I really meant it! Your paper doesn't have to be art paper (and honestly, doesn't have to be paper at all - try out this exercise on a piece of pavement with sidewalk chalk, or better yet, make marks with a cup of water, a well used paint brush, and whatever exterior surface the water will make a mark on), you just need whatever it is you're working on to be able to accept marks. 

Of the four bits of mark making I did for this post, I think this one here with colored pencils on regular old wide ruled notebook paper is my favorite! I was so surprise by how joyful and bright a piece of grade school writing paper looked once I added some lines and rectangles. I'm thinking about writing a letter to a pen pal on this bit of artsy notebook paper soon because it looks too fun and bright not to share with a friend!


Feel free to use these mark making examples as you see fit. Use them as springboards for your own making-paper-messy sessions, or "copy" them outright using the exact same materials I played with (if you, too, have super old watercolor crayons, reach out to me - I would love to know if I've got a creative doppelganger out there!). All that matters to me is that you do make some crazy marks (or tidy, organized marks, if you prefer) when those "my heart's just not in it" moments sneak up on you. And, remember, these kinds of foggy, blocked feelings about our creativity, our art happen to everyone; not feeling inspired to color (or crochet, or paint, or write a poem, etc.) doesn't make you special, I'm happy to say. What does set you apart from the crowd, though, is how you handle that emotion when it hits you. And, the next time it does (trust me - there's always a next time), I hope you will allow/force yourself to just make some marks!

And, if you're feeling inspired to share your mark making adventures with the universe, be sure to tag me! I would LOVE to see how y'all make paper messy!! On Instagram, tag @havecolor_willtravel, on Facebook tag Have Color Will Travel, and on Twitter tag @mj-flowergirl. There are also no worries if social media isn't your scene; I love getting surprise emails from folks about their coloring & creative journeys, so email me your photos of mark making awesomeness, please!!

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