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April 01, 2021 11:26 AM | Dan Nelson

Having a hard time figuring out what to paint next? 

Believe it or not, “Painting whatever you want” might be hurting your creativity. 

Most people work best within some kind of boundary. Doing “whatever you want” sounds good . . . but it can easily lead to the paralysis of “Where in the world do I start?” Believe it or not, having something to push against usually makes us more creative, not less. 

The “12-bar blues” always follow the exact same basic chord pattern:  1  1  1  1,  4  4  1  1,  5  4  1  1.  In classical music, the Symphony, the Sonata, the Rondo and Concerto all follow a carefully subscribed form . . . And no one would say such music lacks creativity.

A lot of poetry is the same way— Haiku poetry all has the same pattern . . . or it’s not Haiku. A Shakespearian sonnet always has the rhyming pattern: ABBA, ABBA, CDC, DEE. 

Coming down a few notches, everybody recognizes a limerick; the rhyming pattern is always AABBA—

There once were two cats of Kilkenny,

Each thought there was one cat too many,

So they fought and they fit,

And they scratched and they bit,

Til Instead of two cats, there weren’t any.

(There ya go! Not a day made that aint better with a little limerick in it!)

All these “rules”— rather than stifling creativity— actually help engender it. When we are forced to work within some kind of restriction, our creativity actually increases. I experienced this many times during my years as an illustrator. The ad agency would tell me WHAT to paint. I never squawked “Hey! you’re squelching my creativity!” Their assignments actually caused me to dig deep and come up with something better than they expected.

Want a good start to your next painting? Give yourself some restrictions. 

Some of us in FALC did this near the beginning of the lockdown— The call went out: “Paint something in your kitchen.” or “Paint something you can see from your window.” Most people would think that kind of thing limits our creativity— quite the opposite is true; pushing against a barrier opens us up to new possibilities. “Paint something in the world” is usually not very helpful.

There are many other categories of restriction for painters, of course— Try using a “Limited Palette.” A classic version of is this from Anders Zorn, about a hundred years ago: Cad Red Light, Ivory Black, Titanium White and Yellow Ochre. (Here’s a pretty good article on that: https://givemezorn.wordpress.com/2018/02/06/color-mixing-with-the-zorn-palette/)

Try limiting yourself to paintings no larger than 4 x 5-inches for a month . . .  or do nothing but a palette knife for a couple weeks, or paint nothing but old socks! You get the idea— limitations spark creativity.

If you can’t find any others, I’ll give you one right now: STOP wherever you are right now. Force yourself to do a sketch of something within 6 feet of your body. Do that once a day for a week. Then take one of your sketches, and develop it into a painting. 

Let us know know it goes!

So what ideas do you have to “limit” your art and spark creativity? 

Happy painting.


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