Yesterday I did something quite far out of my comfort zone: I went with a group of girls to a painting studio where we were each presented with a blank canvas, and told to unleash our creativity on it.
Now although I’m a creative person, I’m not a visual creative. I can’t draw for toffee and my painting is even worse. I can make up elaborate images in my mind but the only way I have ever been able to make them become a reality is by describing them.
The result of two and a half hours in the studio is a distinctly average painting, but it was a really interesting learning experience as far as creativity goes. It can be so easy to stop seeing the obvious when working with something familiar, stepping out into a different kind of creation can be a really good way to get yourself back to the basics.
The first thing that became obvious right from the start is that creativity needs constraints. That’s often the opposite of what we expect, or are told about creativity. You know, that cliche of the muse running free, running wild. Constraints are often seen as stifling art. In fact, being faced with the limitless possibilities of a blank canvas is a little overwhelming. It’s a bit like facing a blank page, or an empty blog, without any sort of a plan. Having some form of constraint, allows you to be free within that space, and most importantly, it gives you a basis to start with. If I tell you to “write something”, you’ll most likely draw up a blank. If I tell you to write about a vivid childhood memory (real or imaginative), then the ideas are much more forthcoming.
I found myself wishing the organisers would impose some sort of theme on us, the vastness of “unleash your creativity” was too big for me. In the end I decided to do something quite modern, a bit like this painting from Riopelle (needless to say my finished product looked NOTHING like this):
Interestingly, it also reminded me that the fastest I ever wrote a short, and the time where I felt the most inspired was working on a piece of flash fiction where the constraint was to make use of certain unusual words. Making up a story that featured foxglove and acid (and orphan and topaz and corset) was really quite constraining. And yet I found it far easier than any other short piece I’ve written. Granted that was just a first draft, there are a TON of things that I now see need changing / improving, but the point was that by working within strict constraints, it was far easier to unleash said creativity.
The second point was that perseverance is key. Everything looks pretty crap at the start, unless you know what you’re doing. In my case, it started off looking dreadful, it didn’t work at all. The only way to make it
good less bad, was to persevere with the initial output of crap. Creating crap is quick, it’s easy. Creating good stuff is hard, it takes time and it takes more than one attempt (as my painting demonstrated, because although by the end it was better than at the beginning, it would still take me a few more goes before I created anything half decent).
It’s also not something that can be rushed, rushing doesn’t get you anywhere good. Starting anything new is at first a string of lessons on what not do to (such as in my case, wait for the paint to dry before painting over it). Mistakes are good, mistakes are learning. Let’s be honest now, no one created anything worthwhile without messing up spectacularly along the way.
The third thing that became painfully obvious towards the end, is that the hardest thing is to know when to stop. In French, we have a fantastic expression for this: “Better is the enemy of Good”. It’s easy to keep “improving” on and on, until what was good is thoroughly ruined. One of the girls in the group was doing her version of the book cover of Animal Farm (SUCH a clever idea, I wish I had thought of doing a book cover. This goes back to constraints being a good thing. If the constraint was to only paint a book cover, I would have been beset with ideas, instead of frozen with indecision in front of my canvas, for the best part of a 15minutes). It was actually really good at first. She kept adding here and there, until at the end she realised that she should have left it alone a while ago. Don’t get me wrong, it was still good at the end. But I agreed with her, it was better prior to the improvements. As Leonardo da Vinci said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned”. They key is to know when to abandon it, before it is ruined by well meaning intentions.
There is also something to be said about holding your creation in your hands. It’s satisfying, even if it’s really bad. And more importantly, it’s the only way to improve. If I was dead set on being able to paint the image I now have in my mind, I’d have to start again today, go through the same process, and again, and again, making a new, slightly better painting each time. Finishing that first painting was like making a first stepping stone in the right direction (albeit not a direction I want to continue in). It’s much easier to go somewhere far (like making a good painting, writing a good book, having a successful blog) by climbing up one stepping stone at a time, than trying to jump it all in one go. Unless you are part grasshopper, that is.
Finally, like with all things creative, there is no point if you’re not enjoying it. I’m not going to lie, I didn’t enjoy myself that much at first. Mainly because everything was going wrong. I started enjoying myself about half way through, when it occurred to me that it really didn’t matter that my painting was going to suck. I was doing it for me, for the fun of it, who cares if it was rubbish? The same goes for writing the first draft of a book – who cares if it’s rubbish, no one’s going to read it. Might as well enjoy it. Once I started to enjoy myself, the painting improved….oh let’s say marginally. But it did improve a little.
Do you want to see the painting that inspired all this? Here it is – I added a quote on top of the photo that felt appropriate to the background… I know – eat your heart out Jackson Pollock.
And here we all are with our masterpieces!