Sunday, August 31, 2014

Nurturing creativity...or killing it

Last time I explored some of the things (and they are many) that encourage creativity.  Things that delight me, light that spark, make me want to grab the nearest pencil or pen.  

Or yes, try a new Moroccan dish, design a tunic, make some Japanese tsukemono (kraut), solve a prickly problem or try a new approach to writing.  (Thank you Andy Couturier for your book and your class!)

The old Marrakech Cafe is what got me started on the Moroccan-food kick!   Now I make my own...

And for me (and for many of us), what can kill creativity--and the desire to create--are several. 

Like my very personal discipline of making a list on what nurtures creativity,  I find it helpful to write down those things that do not.  It fixes them in my mind and reminds me to run like a rabbit, for my own sanity and peace.  Sometimes that list is noticably shorther than the one that inspires creativity, and for that I am grateful.

But somehow this "list" got a bit wordier and a good deal less "listy"! Here goes...

Rules, with a capital R, for one.  You must NOT use this or that tool, you must NOT erase, you MUSTN'T use opaque paint with watercolor--or that feeling that you MUST do something every day, hence creating pressure to produce over being inspired or responding to something you care about. 

We are not factories. We are creative souls. 
The idea that you must use this medium or that, and you mustn't use the other one...for me, whatever works to express what I NEED to is what I use. If I want to use a pencil, I use it. If I want to go all ink, I do. If I jump right in with watercolor with no guidelines at all, then that's what the piece asked me to do. If I feel like giving myself guidelines--or making the underlying drawing the work itself, embellished with watercolor, then go to! If the piece calls for a touch of contrast where I've forgotten to leave one, a bright sparkle, I bring out the gouache or the white Sharpie!  

But uniformity in rules or requirements? Not for me, thanks.  Freedom to fly is what I need.

(Though actually, yes--I'll admit to a certain childish rebellion when faced with Rules--perhaps they DO encourage creativity, in a kind of reverse psychological way, for me!  "Oh, yeah??  Who sez?  Watch this!" Yes, I am a stubborn brat, why do you ask? )

Assignments--whether freelance, for pay, or casual prompts are not for me. Not any more.  If it hasn't come from within, it doesn't satisfy my creative urge.  (And mind you, many others find challenges and prompts extremely inspiring, making them their own.  Perhaps it's all my years as a freelance artist, stomach in knots until the client responds, that makes me dislike these things so thoroughly!)

I suspect copying someone else's work can compromise creativity, as well.  It's all right for learning a technique or understanding how the artist did what they did--after all, that's how artists learned, as apprentices, for generations.  But creative?   

Do you give a flying fig about "the Color of the Year?"  I don't.

Creativity is our OWN response--to a subject, a mood, a color, a quality of light.  A loved one.  Something we care about! 

Working from a photo is borderline, for me.  I'm not into photorealism, at all--a camera can do a much better job than I can, and truthfully I don't have the patience for such exacting work.  

And often, photos flatten the scene and obscure detail--especially on a sunny day with deep shadows.  The main challenge of translating the wonderful 3D world to the flat 2D surface has already been solved in a photo.  And we are often tempted to render it exactly as it appears, with little personal response, really.  No tweaking, creative editing, or immediate gut-level response.

Have I worked from photos?  Of course I have.  I take hundreds, and sometimes I can't wait to render them in watercolor--or interpret them in watercolor, perhaps I should say!  

Sometimes, back when I did much more freelance work than I do now--and thanks be to God I don't have to take every assignment that comes through the door, any more!--I frequently had to work from photos.  

When I did hundreds of illustrations for The Walker's Companion, a Nature Company guide (long out of print, and Nature Company is long out of business), they did NOT send me all over the US to do the field sketches!  What a dream assignment that would have been...

Often illustrators are asked to work far out of season, as well, in advance of the season for various wildflowers or other photos are our only recourse.  Most of my Country Living Magazine illustrations fit that profile, as well.  Baby bunnies are not born in January, but that may have been when I did this illustration.

I've done dozens of in-person demos with absolutely no opportunity to work in any other way...and of course, some of my favorite paintings have come from that necessity.  But I did interpret, not attempt to reproduce the photo, as you can probably tell, below.

This was a demo at Old English Garden Shoppe, in Missouri...a long way from Maine!

...and it was not winter when I painted this demo, also at the shop/gallery.  It's nearby, and I HAVE painted on that road, many times--but this was a demo in the evening, not a sunny winter afternoon.

Other things that can inhibit creativity?

  • The Inner Critic*
  • Pretty much any criticism (not the constructive kind, which, in fact, I am also not fond of!)
  • Active discouragement (parents, teachers, siblings or spouses can say the most deadening things...)
  • Lack of encouragement or understanding
  • Expectations--our own or others' (let it happen, let it flow.  Try being in the moment and see what develops.)
  • Too many suggestions or requests (for me this includes "why don't you do this or that, why don't you make a video on X, or would you teach on color theory/portraits/oil painting," etc.)
  • Lack of time
  • Lack of confidence
  • Comparing to others' work or skill
  • Not taking the creative urge seriously
  • Not giving ourselves permission to create
  • Not giving ourselves permission to explore
  • Waiting to find the perfect tool (brush, pen, pencil, paper, journal, whatever)
  • Exhaustion
  • Discomfort
  • Overscheduling
  • Overstimulation (too MUCH information, too many options, too many choices!)
  • Impatience with yourself
  • Expecting to improve without practice (some people think they either "have it or they don't."  Could you play the Canon in D the first time you sat at a piano?)

And alas, sometimes the clunky nature of sharing can suck the joy out of it. Photographing and tweaking, scanning and tweaking, uploading, may take more time than creating! So I give myself a break and just don't, unless I'm in the mood.

I know you can probably add to that list--I could, if I set my mind to it, but enough wallowing in the negative! 

We need to do more than add to a list.  We need to weed out those things that can be weeded, and find ways to deal with the negatives--creatively. 

Simplify, give ourselves permission to create, to play, to "waste" paper or pigment (it is never a waste, trust me.)  Set aside time, eat well, get more rest, turn off the TV, take a walk, breathe, use what we have rather than search for that special tool (the "special tool" is ourselves, our hands and minds and hearts.) 

And enjoy that moment...


*How do I suggest dealing with that Inner Critic?  Let ourselves greet that fearful, negative, or angry voice with kindness, gratitude and respect--it's only trying to keep us from failure, embarrassment or disappointment, after all.  Then suggest it take a nice long walk, have a cup of tea or a cookie, we're doing what we need to!  

What we were born to, really...


  1. "that you MUST do something every day, hence creating pressure to produce over being inspired or responding to something you care about. " Oh gads yes. So many people dropped out of the 75-day sketch challenge because they missed a day or two. I missed several, and did several drawings on a Sunday when I was off . . . SUE ME rule-makers (cackle!) I do what I want! I took the challenge for a specific purpose and won't do it again, as it is having the effect I wanted, to wean me off the pencil (I use it when I want now.)

    Art-teachers who say this color does not go with that color. That palettes are a thing. I have talked so many creativity students out of listening to TEACHERS -- while standing at a board. (Really works well with 5th graders.)

    From your list, two things that I am just coming to again, and one of the two I am solving. Switching from very large canvases and moving to watercolor, I decided to cut many years of experimentation (which is how I did my acrylics) and take classes/learn from others. I also bought about 50 tubes of paint, not knowing that each company apparently calls the same color something different (gads what do they think they are, computers?) I realize I am on overwhelm with all that, and need far fewer options. I separated my palette into real transparencies and the companies I love best. DONE, fewer options is actually better in this area. . . tho I do love Primateks!

    The other I have not figured out yet. I have always painted from something within, exploring color, etc. I am not a realist in any sense of the word, though I have been doing this AS IF to learn some techniques. Now I am having trouble finding my voice/spirit again, and am also quite bored with "urban sketchers" and so forth. Some of my sketches lately have been more playful, and this is what i am working on now. NO more classes, back to me-me-me (said in a 4-year-old bratty voice.)

    I wish you lived down the lane. We'd be lane friends. A cuppa joe in the woods.

    1. I do think it's a shame to turn creativity into just another job--we all have enough of that! And to feel guilty because you don't do something every day or keep up with a challenge (or to be MADE to feel guilty) is just madness, to me. It's a killer for sure.

      I love your simplification. That's what I'm doing and have been for quite some time. It just feels right, doesn't it?

      I like what urban sketchers produce, but when North Light wanted me to do a book on the subject it was very easy to say no. Too limiting, for me. It's a pretty broad field, but having been on the board and discussed what is and what isn't so many times, I found myself arguing too often to not have to police it quite so much. Yes, keep a focus, but...

      And oh yes, I definitely think that classes and workshops can be confusing and can inhibit our own voice. I am not surprised that people feel overwhelmed. When I taught 3 day in person workshops I even saw it there! We have to listen to ourselves.

      And a cuppa joe would be great!

  2. Thank you Cathy for such a wonderful post ! We have to many rules and obligations in our life... Create must be fun
    So important to have the freedom to fly ;-)

    1. Absolutely, Martine. There are rules we HAVE to obey...stop signs are there for a reason, and one must pay one's taxes...but when it comes to creating? Not so.

  3. I have to laugh about the color of the year. :-)

    1. It's a good list, and worth thinking about,especially in a culture that is so often driven by competition, imitation, and mass production.

    2. Exactly. I hate getting reminders from Etsy that the big holiday season is coming up, for instance. So? People can either buy my work or not, fine. I'm not going to paint Santas for Pete's sake--or even pressure myself to put new stuff in the shop that might appeal. I'm not a retailer, either, I'm an artist.

  4. "That special tool is ourselves..." A very insightful thought! Thanks for spelling out the negatives...there are far too many. For me, mainly lack of time, but for many years the inner critic was up there on my list. So, ONWARD! Here's to creating!

  5. Oh thank you thank you thank you...Your insights have gotten my creative juices flowing. So here's to playing, learning and creating! Let 'er rip!

  6. Good morning, Kate! I love these thought-provoking posts of yours! My creativity has been inhibited by almost everything on your list at one time or another. The only thing I would add to my list at the moment is an unbalance life. I tend to be an all-or-nothing person, especially when I feel passionate about something and that ends up being all I want to do. Which leads to many of the problems you mentioned--expectations, lack of time, exhaustion, over scheduling, overstimulation, impatience. I need to be mindful that the things that nurture my creativity the most don't often have anything to do with the actual act of creating, like spending time with my husband or loving on our dogs or taking a walk. I need to practice balance.

    1. Oh my, I do understand that focusing on one thing problem. I get just a wee tad obsessive in one creative direction or another, I'm afraid. Hence my major Discardia need, since I have books on miniatures, pottery, even probably some old weaving books. I've gotten rid of a lot of stuff but I still have a lot of polymer clay and jewelry-making supplies.

      Balance is definitely key, and I AM getting better at it. Had to! And sounds as if you are, too...congratulations!

  7. Oooh, goosebumps, you could be viewing the world through my eyes. No wonder I always find your posts and classes so inspiring.

    1. Thank you, Margo...I believe many of us deal with similar challenges!

  8. Had not thought about discomfort as a deterrent but it sure can turn what should be pleasure into work...

    1. It can, Karen--sometimes I let it, sometimes I don't. It depends on the kind of discomfort, it seems! If it's hot and humid and my arms are sticking to my paper, I tend to bag it for the day. Mosquitoes drive me mad. Oddly, pain doesn't usually stop me.

    2. Happily our summers in Oregon are dry and more or less free of mosquitos. My main textile work is labor intensive and pain can get in my way but happily painting does not hurt my body and it is a happy release.

  9. I am currently doing a sketch book course and it is just what I need. I've been away from art for too long and have many fears built in now that block my creativity. I was unable to re-start by myself. Mostly the fears come from myself but I had some of those things on your list happen too. I agree about criticism of any kind. I just shrink back if anyone has anything to say about my work. I do have an assignment on my course though - which is to go away, stop looking at other people's work for inspiration and to find what inspires me in my own life, to find my own 'muse' to bring out my own creativity- if it pleases me to do so. So I have, I've trotted off to the places I love, I've played with my materials in a way that pleases me and I'm starting to enjoy myself. I've even been able to share it and that is new to me as unless it was 'good' then I would keep it to myself. It is what it is, and I enjoyed doing it and that is now what counts. Art is to be enjoyed.

    I dislike photorealism too, and am despondent that so much seems to be about that these days. Advice is to trace from a photo and then fill it in. Or use a grid to transfer. There seems to be little in the way of joy or individuality about the process. There is much expectation about every little part of a drawing which has to be perfect. A sea of gray tone doesn't do much for me either. I was looking at some artists highlighted by a major gallery where I live and I was struck by the lightness of hand. Drawings were not overworked, but had movement and texture, and they stopped at the right point.

    Juxtaposed with this method is the fantasy aspect. I read all about how proportion is so important in the human figure and we must get it right, only to be told to use an 'idealistic' measurement to work out proportions as that is what people like - i.e. the Barbie figure. I find a lot of this perfectionist stuff highly uncreative.

    I like prompts, if I like them, if I do then they are fun, otherwise I ignore them.

  10. Sara, good for you! And thanks for your thoughtful comments...

  11. I just came across your site a few days ago and this post just today. I've left the tab open to your site hoping to explore more. What a great list of the wet blankets to creativity! Most is what we do to ourselves.

    My journey as an artist has been long. Wanting to work for the Disney company and go to Cal Arts back in 1989 to no avail. A marriage, divorce, two boys and then I acquired a graphic and web design degree in 2007. Freelanced, worked in a print shop for 5 years, and a few other inbetweeners to my current state: thyroid cancer. Had the whole thing removed in Oct '16 and now on medication for the rest of my life. Maybe trying to make it back is going about it all wrong, maybe its about doing something new. Recovery has been slow, and I have an ankle surgery and radiation coming up. Unemployed and depressed, I stare at my art stuff and wonder how in the world I'll ever make it back. Maybe trying to make it back is going about it all wrong, maybe its about doing something new.

    Your list is getting printed out and hung up next to my recovery sofa to remind me when I'm tired and feeling low. I'll do what I can when the mood and energy strikes. To nurture and not kill creativity by my self-imposed pressure. Mostly I think it comes from trying to compensate for my illness/weakness.

    1. I hope you will be kind and gentl to yourself, and just do a bit at a time as you feel like it. I do find, sometimes, that if I just START, whether I feel like it or not, just do something with no expectation other than to explore I find myself into it, even enjoying it. It can take my mind off worries, too...

      My best to IS difficult to feel up to creating when we're not well. If you get a chance, check out Michael Nobbs' work--he has serious health problems but tries to do something creative just 20 minutes a day. It's been wonderful for him...and for those of us who follow him.

    2. Thanks Kate! I will check out Michael's work too. I am working acrylic inks at the moment in a 4x6 sketchbook. Thanks for the encouragement.

    3. That's [art of why we're all here, Clara Mae. Michael's a sweetie, you'll enjoy it I think.


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