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Break Your Paintbrush

Why Limitations Are Helpful

You want to create, and you’ve been doing it your whole life. As a child, you drew pictures without worrying what others thought of them. You told stories with toys.

As adults, however, our desire to create becomes complicated. The joy of simply doing is lost, and replaced with a host of anxieties and frustrations, as our imagination becomes better than our skill or ability to execute a project.

After learning the basics of an art form—whether it’s writing, painting, or knitting—we sit, staring at the raw materials that we can use to create our first truly expressive piece. We’ve all felt similar doubts: 

  • What if I show my work to another person, and they don’t like it?
  • Worse, what if they don’t understand it?
  • Should I put it on social media?
  • What if it only receives affirmation from my mother?

To create is to usually face materials and tools that are unfeeling, and to try and create something valuable. Perhaps this is why the most difficult part of art-making is getting started.

In this article, I would like to argue that when difficulties with creating arrive, you must break your paintbrush, and consciously limit yourself.

What are Limitations?

I was once told a story about a small primary school surrounded by bushland. The school wasn’t able to afford a proper fence yet, so they used construction fencing: concrete blocks and wire-link fences, to keep the students in. During lunchtime, many students would congregate and play near the fence. Many would climb the tall fences, look out at the bushland surrounding the school, and then jump down.

“This is terrible!” someone important exclaimed. “The students feel like they are trapped at school. Look at how they gather at the fenceline. See how they long for release!”

So they decided to pull the fences down for a few weeks, and see what happened. The next morning, the students ran out into the playground, and froze when they saw that the fence wasn’t there.

I’m not sure what the school expected would happen. Perhaps they thought the students would frolic through the bush, befriending woodland creatures. Instead, the students chose to sit just outside the classroom door, and refused to go out and play where they usually did. A few of them tried to articulate that they felt anxious.

So the school put the fences back up, and the students went back to climbing the fence, and playing on the outskirts of the playground.

Why did this happen?

Picture of a fence with a padlock

To answer that question, we must ask what the purpose of a fence is. Sometimes, unfortunately, fences or walls have been built to oppress and confine people. That’s what the adults thought was happening.

For these young students, however, the fence represented safety. Psychologically, if someone jumps onto a fence, they might be trying to climb it, or they might be checking that the fence is strong.

When the fences were removed, there was no more delineation of safe versus dangerous. The students could choose to wander anywhere, and that was frightening. So instead, they hugged the school buildings.

I think I understand what those students felt. They were paralysed by choice.

However, if you set firm artistic boundaries of what you will explore, and how you will create, then you are suddenly free to begin creating within those constraints.

How to Break Your Paintbrush

Dr Seuss wrote Green Eggs and Ham, a book that only uses 50 different words, after his editor bet him that he couldn’t write a book that used less unique words than The Cat in a Hat.

Perhaps more impressively, two separate authors have written entire novels that don’t contain the letter ‘e’.

Several artists have built entire careers by using tools or instruments that others find particularly obtuse or difficult to use. A great example of this is Teenage Engineering’s OP-1, which is a synthesiser that is both prohibitively expensive, and fails to obey most of the standards set by the rest of the digital music industry.

There is, of course, a hard ceiling to this sort of creativity. (My new short story that doesn’t contain any vowels is struggling to get off the ground). However, by controlling the tools and materials that an artist has access to, the artist can create something truly memorable.

A personal example: I ended up needing to create the cover of my next book by myself. For a long time, I made little progress, until I began to place restrictions on myself, to force myself to use the materials and style that I knew I could create.

Pictured: me being forced

My idea for the book cover, originally, was to have an extreme angle looking up at a girl smoking, and sitting on a car bonnet. Behind here, there would be mountains and forest, with the moon creeping over the mountain.

Well, I can’t create any of that. After being frustrated for a few weeks, I began placing restrictions in place. No extreme perspective, just a flat image. I then started trying to play around with realistic colours and landscapes, but it looked terrible. More frustration. So, I limited myself to simple shapes, as well as orange, black, white, and grey. This forced the idea that was in my head to move into a new direction.

Drawing the girl was the most difficult, because she needed to be rendered more realistically than the bear and the ghost. Initially, I tried to draw every clump of hair that came out of the head of my reference model. That ended up looking a bit like this:

The doll cynthia from rugrats. Her hair is falling out, and the hair that she does have is sticking out at every angle

Cynthia from Rugrats (By Sean Hunter)

After trying to draw realistic hair for five or more hours, I decided to make my design simpler again, to something I could accomplish. No more bold lines allowed for her hair. That meant I had to get creative, and make it look like she had hair by just using shape and colour.

I settled with the surreal and wavy effect you can see on the cover, with her hair spilling out everywhere, which led to me creating a landscape using the colours and shapes from all three characters. At that point, the piece came together like dominoes.

I’m not advocating that we avoid learning new skills, techniques, or artforms, and simply side-step them. Nor am I arguing that hitting your head against a technical problem isn’t beneficial. However, after weeks of frustration, I knew I needed to create. By limiting myself down a single avenue, I was able to make a cover that I was happy with.

However

I studied writing at university. In one class, the tutor went around the room and asked us “who has influenced your writing the most?” It was going well, until the proverbial microphone reached a gentleman in the middle, who stood up and shook his head with slow, concentrated disgust. From memory, he spoke like Severus Snape.

“I don’t read anything, except my own writing,” he proclaimed to the class. I’m fairly certain he stretched languidly mid-sentence, and lit a cigar at his desk.

“I want my work to be original,” he continued, blowing blue smoke into the professor’s face, “so I can’t afford to be influenced.”

A man in a cape, looking arrogant

A pretty close approximation of this guy’s energy

I agree to an extent, that there is some value in limiting your artistic influences when working on a project, because it lets you attempt to emulate a few things well, instead of many things poorly.

For my first novel, Lessons from the Wreckage, I tried to draw on influence from the Star Wars X-Wing series.

However, if I wrote a book where I tried to bring influence from every single fantasy and science fiction story I liked, it would be a complete mess. At some point, we must subtract away from all the possibilities and influences, and say “yes, I’ll do it like this,” and “no, I won’t do it like that,” even if both approaches could work.

As you might imagine, the problem with being so completely original, is that you have to go somewhere previously uncharted, which means many people won’t find your work, because it doesn’t fit into any known categories. Even if you do manage to find an audience for something completely original, you may be “before your time,” just like I was with my puff-pastry origami.

Mary Shelley more-or-less invented science fiction at the age of eighteen with her novel Frankenstein. I am not Mary Shelley. There is no shame in imitation. Sure, today you might just be a simple chef, learning how to create and communicate. But as you expand your limits, bit by bit, and force yourself to explore new territory, you might eventually create a new cuisine that is a cross between pasta and military history.

To break your paintbrush is to limit your goals to something that you can accomplish. Only by setting boundaries, are we able to study and improve upon the work of the two or three artists that we are emulating with a particular project.

By limiting my influences, I was able to combine the things that I think is successful from my work, and discard the ideas, themes, and elements from others’ work that don’t inspire me.

I was able to start creating, and you can do the same.

Extra-credit homework

If you are struggling with the motivation to create, or you’ve left a passion behind long ago and want to pick it up again, I strongly recommend reading Art & Fear by David Bayles & Ted Orland.

Look at it. Yes, I know. The cover is terrible.

However, the book is inexpensive, short, and a fabulous love-letter to art, packed with deep wisdom on how to overcome challenges with any type of creative endeavour.


I also recommend The Keys to Prolific Creativity, by David Stewart, who is one of the most hard-working indie writers I’m aware of.

He is releasing this book piece-by-piece as a free audiobook on Youtube, that you can find here.

 

 

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