Professional Practice

7 Ways to Overcome a Blank Canvas

painting with cardboard

You don’t know where it came from, but you’re suddenly inspired to create. You’re not sure what and you don’t have a specific idea, but you know you want to get your hands dirty and make something, anything. You know this moment of inspiration could escape at any minute, and you’re committed to seeing it through. So, you grab your supplies, get all set up, and then your excitement turns to disappointment because you don’t even know where to start. You make a few marks without intention triggering a hopeless feeling, and you know the effort is doomed.

blue paint tube with painting and cardboard

Having a few simple go-to strategies to getting started can help cure the blank-canvas blues.

1. Paint, water, and go!

Start by grabbing the biggest brush you’re comfortable with, and then go one size bigger. Use water and paint to apply a series of washes to the canvas, including the edges, as a quick way to get rid of the intimidating whiteness. Then, continue to build the layers of washes and try experimenting with different tools to create marks that resonate with you. Remember to allow proper drying time in-between layers if you don’t want the colors to mix directly. The beauty of washes is that nothing is permanent, and everything can be painted over with ease. Work carefree, and enjoy!

2. Reuse and repurpose.

book page graph paper and cardboard with brush

If you don’t want to start with a blank white canvas, use an existing object to get a headstart. Maps, book pages, and other items can create unique backgrounds. It’s a double bonus if the content relates to your piece, but not a requirement. Keep an eye out for engaging items, and build a collection that’s readily available when you’re ready to create.

3. Break up space.

Start by doing a series of quick gesture drawings of the space around you. Then, grab a viewfinder, or create one with paper, to find a unique composition you can transfer to the canvas to break up space. While you could start by drawing on the canvas, sometimes that can feel forced. Using a viewfinder allows you to weigh options and edit, so you start with a composition that excites you.

4. Build a stock.

Being inspired to create doesn’t always need to result in a finished piece. Sometimes the time allotted or circumstances don’t even make that possible. But this doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from your creative motivation. Spread out a series of canvases and focus on creating backgrounds you can use at a later date. Creating multiple pieces at once can decrease anxiety because odds are, you’ll finish with at least one canvas to use in the future.

5. Pick a color.

Laying down colors on a white canvas can have a different impact than the same colors on a black canvas. Starting a painting by completely covering the canvas with any other color can have positive impacts on the end result. If you’re not sure where to start, just pick a color and paint.

6. Just say it.

book text with painted over

Starting with text can sometimes be more approachable than imagery. Transferring letters, stencils, and printing on transparencies can create unique effects. But don’t lose your momentum if those aren’t readily available. Stay engaged and practice a freewriting technique. Writing continuously without regard to spelling or grammar can create a strong background of line and shape. Not to mention, it can add an element of context to the meaning of the piece.

7. Underpaint a rough draft.

If you have your subject matter in mind but are anxious about starting, doing an underpainting as a rough draft is a safe approach. Going monochromatic takes the pressure off mixing colors and allows you to focus on the composition and value changes.

No doubt about it – the struggle of creative block is real. Working authentically and spontaneously is hard work, but it is often the first step that requires the biggest leap.  When art educators like ourselves experience a lack of inspiration, it can help us better empathize with our students when they say, “I don’t know what to do.” Hopefully, these seven ideas can help springboard you or your students into that next masterpiece.

There’s more! Check out:

Art Ed PRO’s Creativity Exercises For Every Level.

The Everyday Art Room Podcast: Rekindling Your Creativity (Ep. 021) 4 Ways To Re-Spark Your Creativity.

Enroll in The Art Of Education University’s course, Creativity In Crisis.

What other quick and accessible approaches do you use to start an art piece? 

How can we teach students to push past a creative block and focus on making? 

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.


Nick Gehl

Nick Gehl is a department chair of fine arts and a former AOEU Writer. He enjoys working with art teachers to improve the student experience in the studio and foster more leaders in the arts.

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