Creative Something

Articles tagged “art”

Creativity from the ugly foundation


The process behind creating something beautiful is often ugly itself.

As a creative worker, you can’t let that notion prevent you from working on the things that matter, though it will sometimes make it hard to do so.

Imagine an amateur artist sitting in her studio, as an example. She arranges her easel and brushes and starts out on an endeavor to turn the images in her mind into a tangible work of art.

After two or three hours of work, the canvas is a wreck. There are odd shapes scattered across the white background. Ugly colors blend and drip and droop all over the place. Lines aren’t where they were supposed to be.

Two or three more hours of work and the canvas doesn’t look any better, in-fact, it appears to be in arguably worse shape.

At this point, the artist has two decisions to make. With each decision, the first option is always rational, the second more irrational but worthwhile.

First decision: to scrap the painting or not. To throw away what’s been made and simply start over with a fresh set of brushes and a spotlessly clean canvas. Or to keep painting, repeatedly, over the marks that currently sit on the canvas, using them as a guiding foundation for what strokes to paint next.

The second decision the artist has to make is whether to scrap the idea itself or not. If the canvas isn’t turning out how it was envisioned to be in the first place, maybe it’s a poor idea after-all, right? Or keep playing with the idea, seeing if there’s a way to make it work.

Whether you’re an artist or not, you have to make these same decisions any time you start a new project. You’ve made these decisions one way or the other many times in your career already (whether you’re a student, amateur, or expert). Can you think of a time when you did?

Throw away the work and start over. Or keep the work and build from it, improve it and see what it can become.

Throw away the idea and wait for a new one. Or keep playing with this one, discover what it was meant to be all-along.

To get the most value from our ideas and our work as creatives, I’d argue that the later decision is always the best one. Without building from what you’ve got in front of you now (and without holding onto an idea until you can at least see its true potential), you’ll never know what you’re fully capable of.

If you look at any creative work near the beginning, it’s ugly. But come back to the work when it’s truly complete (or, at least, closer to being complete), and you’ll see something worthwhile.

In a 1974 interview, Ray Bradbury articulates the importance of building on the founding, ugly work in order to build something worthwhile. He did so by pointing to the artistic process of famed painter Henri Matisse. Bradbury shared in the interview:

“Matisse does a drawing, then he recopies it. He recopies it five times, ten times, each time with cleaner lines. He is persuaded that the last one, the most spare, is the best, the purest, the definitive one; and yet, usually it’s the first. When it comes to drawing, nothing is better than the first sketch.”

In 2010, MoMA curators set out to uncover Matisse’s process by taking an x-ray scanner to one of his most prominent works: 'Bathers by a River'.

What the curators discovered was line after line of work that Matisse had drawn, painted, then covered up with other lines or paint. To Matisse, the original work was ugly enough to be covered but important enough to be used as a foundation (both literally and figuratively) for the final product.

For Matisse, this process took eight years, from 1909 to 1917.

If you had looked at that first work in 1909 you would have wondered why Matisse even bothered to paint it. Compared to the 1917 work, though, you can see clearly the importance of those first, ugly strokes.

When you first set out to work on a project, know that the process will be ugly at first. You may not like what you see, or hear, or feel.

But take the time to build from the first iteration, to tinker and explore what’s possible with the idea itself, and you’ll find that you not only grow as a creative, but that the work itself grows.

The work grows into exactly what it needs to be.


A note on creating something imperfect

Your decisiveness and ability to create

Picasso on Intuition, How Creativity Works, and Where Ideas Come From

Illustration work by Troy Wandzel.

The creative warm up


Have you ever seen an artist warm up before painting? Or a writer warm up before sitting down to write?

Me neither.

Athletes warm up before a game by stretching or performing systematic motions repetitively, almost in slow motion. A batter swings a weighted bat on the side of the field before stepping to the plate. Basketball players shoot hoops while running back and forth along the court before the game starts.

Warm ups are low level activities that do precisely what they imply: warm up the body for an activity.

For creative workers, both the body and the mind are what need to be warmed up.

The likes of dancers and musicians must provide their body with some type of warm up, particularly stretching. But what about the artist or painter? What should their warm up consist of?

Again, the purpose of a warm up is to energize the parts of the body or mind that will be active during the actual work or performance. For a writer, the warm up should activate the fingers and wrists as well as the imagination and focus abilities of the mind.

Putting your keys over the keyboard and typing gibberish can be an effective warm up for writing. For example, I often use free writing for a good 10 minutes before I sit down to write anything actually worthwhile.

Those few minutes of writing get my brain into a mode of thinking that is hard to get out of once I get going. No longer am I worrying about what to write or where to write, the warm up gets me in a mood where I know exactly what my purpose is in that moment: to write.

What’s your warm up? I think we so often worry about the work that needs to get done or the task at hand that we fail to realize we even have a warm up (or desperately need one).

You probably have one you regularly perform without even realizing it. To improve your work, take notice of what you do before you do creative work. There might be something there you can improve or need to change that you didn’t realize before.

What matters is that you have a warm up, that you realize you do, and that you embrace it and tweak it every time you sit down to work.

What’s your creative warm up?

Photo via Flickr.

“If something is popular, there’s no point in trying to join in. When you do that, you’ll always be behind, following in the footsteps of others. The only thing you can do as an artist is make your own work and, if you’re lucky, eventually the interest will swing around to you.”

Solid advice from Ted Allen by way of artist Jon Burgerman

Posted at 9:41 am

“No amount of fame feeds this thing. It has to come from the inside….Never give in. Never surrender. What I have to add to that is, it will be worth it. Early on, we have a vision of the way the world should work—don’t let go of that because it gets co-opted.”

Excellent advice from the always great James Victore via The Great Discontent

Posted at 1:24 pm

Stepping back from creativity to move forward with it


Stress hinders creativity by using available brain energy for non-creative tasks, like worrying or uncontrollably eating a pint of ice cream.

Because it signals to the brain that there’s danger nearby, stress restricts our focus by releasing tense-inducing biochemicals and reverting processes from one are to another (think: fight or flight, not fight and flight).

Focused on the things causing us stress, we lose our ability to produce creative output. Occasionally the stress can provide a much-needed break from the work, but more often than not stress makes it hard to be creative.

An article in The New York Times explains what happens in the brains of rats who fall victim to stress, and how it damages their ability to problem solve:

On the one hand, regions of the brain associated with executive decision-making and goal-directed behaviors had shriveled, while, conversely, brain sectors linked to habit formation had bloomed…Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist who studies stress at Stanford University School of Medicine, said, ‘This is a great model for understanding why we end up in a rut, and then dig ourselves deeper and deeper into that rut.’

Scientific studies on humans have also confirmed this, stress kills creativity.

Unfortunately studies have also shown that common stress-relieving techniques (like meditation, imagining positive scenarios, or yoga) don’t boost creativity.

To get back in a creative state then requires a more controlled approach: we have to limit, reduce, and remove stress from our lives.

The best way to break away from stress? According to research: take a break.

A prolonged vacation – either physical or simply away from a project – can be the much-needed boost our brains need to stretch themselves back into a more flexible, open, and ultimately creative mind.

For creative individuals, it’s vitally important that we learn when to take a break and when not to; finding the balance in our thinking.

Not stepping away from the work can ultimately hurt us more than pausing and coming back to our craft later.

Photo by R. Nial Bradshaw.

“Because that’s where the quality is. It’s in the practice, the process, the struggle and repetition. It’s in the hours of contemplation at work, in the park, the shower and the Mexican restaurant around the corner. Creativity is not to be rudely shoved into being–”

James Victore talks in this video about speed versus quality

Posted at 12:54 pm