How constraints can build creative inspiration

In the 1920s a vibrant Dutch painter set out his tools in front of him.

Because he was a painter, his tools were limited to canvases, paint, brushes, and a few various painting items. His constraints – these painting tools – were the same constraints that other painters of the time had to deal with. There were, of course, ways to create different types of artwork at the time, but those methods took away from the original purpose of painting.

To be creative, the painter would have to do something completely different. But how?

This painters name was Piet Mondrian, and his work has become widely popular since the early 1920s. How did Piet use creativity to improve his paintings and set a place in history for himself? He gave himself even more constraints.

Constraints are often viewed as negative aspects of problem solving. When you are placed into boundaries the first instinct is to kick and scream and say “how can I be creative if I can’t explore outside the rules?”

Interestingly, constraints can help spur creativity by forcing you to work on just a single focus, a solid goal. When you pile on constraints in exploration, you block out anything else that may take away from your focus. You allow yourself to really focus your area of inspiration, often discovering insights in the small crevices of your work that you otherwise wouldn’t have looked.

Piet Mondrian did just that with painting. He looked at his constraints – canvases and paints – and gave himself even more: only working with straight lines, 90-degree angles, and primary colors. The result: Piet helped to spur on a modernist approach to art and fuel the creation of Neo-Plasticism. His paintings are recognized around the world, even today.

If you’re feeling creatively stuck, try giving yourself more constraints. Limit yourself to only using verbs, draw out your ideas using only basic shapes, restrict yourself to painting only on a sliver of canvas, do anything that forces you to focus on the creation.

Constraints can feel overpowering, but it’s in the small area of space you have to work with that new insights can form.