ILLUSTRATION FEATURE Filling the Creative Well

What to do when creativity runs dry or burnout slows us down? Sarah Horne offers some thoughts and suggestions. 


I have worked in publishing as an illustrator for twenty years and at times have found myself extraordinarily busy, finishing one project and then picking up the next. I'm in a very fortunate position of always being busy, which is not something I take for granted. But one of the biggest lessons I have learned (due to being on the brink of creative burn-out some years ago) has been how to re-fill the proverbial creative well.

An article primarily on how to fill the creative well is entirely subjective as we are all different people, but it is important in creative practice to regularly and intentionally root out the things that inspire, find the things that fill us up, the things that excite and propel us forward.

I’d like to suggest that regularly filling the creative well is valuable for two reasons: 

1. Avoiding creative burnout, and 

2. Propelling ourselves forward creatively and getting excited again. 

I want to focus on the latter points here. You see, we never really stop moving things forward creatively (or at least we shouldn’t) and if we have stopped, then quite likely it is because life has happened, and our well has run dry.  

It’s almost always a mistake to say of one’s work in a creative field ‘I have arrived’ and sit back, resting on our lovely laurels sipping a G&T, because soon enough times change, the situations and the needs of our industries change, and we’ve forgotten to develop things. It’s become clear to me that as creatives, we need to have agility and continuous ability to invent and adapt, and also a strong, authentic voice to stay in the game long-term.

Like many illustrators, I work freelance and I often find myself looking at the long-view due to publishing schedules. I ask myself (and my agent) questions… I ask how I could do things better, and what’s next?  How do I push the envelope in what I am doing? Where should my focus be right now? I ask these questions not out of an imposter mentality, nor is it fishing for compliments, it’s more that excellence, invention and imagination really do speak volumes, and it’s so important to go after these things.

Take the principle of wells, cisterns, freshwater lakes, the Dead Sea and other water-holding places… with the exception of the Dead Sea, there is an inflow and outflow. One would hope that the inflow balances the outflow. But take the inflow out of the equation and you have a body of water that very quickly stagnates. Cultivating the in/out balance in our professional practice is the key. For example, if I am giving out creatively all the time, the well of inspiration (and my joy) will run dry pretty quickly. I heard it said once that ‘We run out of heart, long before we run out of energy or time.’ and if our heart is not in it, something of that spark will be missing. Therefore, filling the well is essentially refuelling our inner resources, getting excited about what we do, and preparing to pour out again into the next creative thing.

In writing this, I asked a few of my friends and colleagues how they fill their own creative wells, and also reflected on how I do it.  I never forgot an art college friend saying once (with wisdom beyond her years) ‘If you get stuck, do something that is the complete the polar-opposite… So, if you work in charcoal, break out the oil paints… If you draw in pencil, try drawing with a stick and some ink’. (Thanks Lou.) Some colleagues said they try to learn a new language if they get stuck, or they take a walk, or they play a musical instrument or go for an outdoor swim. They take a long train trip, they pore over illustrated classic books, or they get lost in a perfect music track. 

For me, iron sharpens iron, and artistic community always helps me refill the well. I have always loved a long walk, especially in bad weather… the more horizontal the rain the better! or a slice of carrot cake, or both. I read some time ago about the connection between feet and brain, how a walk and the rhythm of a walk helps the oxygen circulate the body, and ideas begin to germinate.  I also paint on large canvas regularly, again, something in the movement of painting a thick red line of paint across canvas breaks me out of any kind of hum-drum emptiness I was stuck in. I also love looking at a full night sky, there is nothing better for gaining perspective than staring at a billion stars light-years away and contemplating how big space is, and how old that light really is when it finally arrives at our eyes.

I’ll end with one of my all-time favourite quotes on creativity, written by music professor Harrold Best. I hope this inspires you as much as it does me.

‘Be interested in as many things outside of the arts as possible. Fill your day and your mind and your surroundings with curiosity. Find out how a steam engine works; find out why some buildings fall and others stand; find out why aeroplanes fly and Kierkegaard was able to write the way he did; find out how a plough works and how the same law allows an airline to fly and a boat to sail into the wind; find out why chaos theory is so theologically elegant; find out what Chomsky meant when he said that children are born bringing sentence with them; we just give the words. Love a horse and talk to plumber. Ask questions of everybody, and don’t hide your ignorance, for ignorance is simply the unlit side of curiosity and the outside of the door to wisdom and knowledge. Be a limitless person to others and maybe you will stretch them more than your art does. Let’s hope.’
- extract from Harrold Best. 'Scribbling in the Sand' by Michael Card, Intervarsity Press.

To sum up, I really recommend setting aside a couple of hours a week, every week, to fill the creative well in a way that is meaningful to you. Do something you love. Do the opposite of what you’ve been working on. If you plan to go somewhere don’t take your kids/spouse/or any hangers-on with you. Just you. Intentional playtime will not only break us out of the humdrum, it’ll reawaken our creativity, remind us why we do what we do, and it’ll propel us forward.

 So, what’s next? I’m already excited. 


Sarah's latest book is Panda at the Door (Chicken House Books)

 All images © Sarah Horne


Sarah Horne is a widely published illustrator, and was recently an SCBWI  Featured Illustrator

Her latest book Panda At The Door is published by Chicken House.


Follow Sarah on Twitter and Instagram

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