Monday, 27 April 2009

On creativity

This article was first published in my newsletter "Notes From My French Easel" – March 2008. Follow the link to subscribe to the newsletter .

Creativity is a vast topic and I am only going to scratch the surface here. As an artist, I am interested in creativity in practical terms. It is a fascinating subject as well as one surrounded by myth. The most persistent one is the image of the creative genius who would have sparks of creativity coming out of nowhere. Names like Picasso, Einstein and Leonardo da Vinci immediately spring to our mind. The truth is that all of them were hard workers who dedicated their life to their pursuit and produced a lot along the way.

Having these icons can be both empowering and curtailing. They will inspire you if you see in them an illustration of the quasi-unlimited power of human imagination. They will bring you down if you think that they were born geniuses and you were not.

What is creativity? To me, creativity is a state of mind. You won’t be creative unless you believe you can be creative. Creativity is hard wired in our human brain and the question is whether or not we cultivate this gift, nurture it and use it. Children are really good at creating because no one told them they couldn’t.

Creativity is about coming-up with new connections and combining unrelated ideas. It goes across many fields: art, business, science… You should not confine it to your art studio because creativity has a place in everything we do.

A critical aspect of creativity is in the “doing”. You need to get all these ideas out of your head and bring into the tangible world. The more you do that and the easier it becomes. The bonus is that ideas generate new ideas and keep your creative wheel spinning.

In order to explore new territories, you must be willing to take risks; you must be willing to fail. The good news is that you don’t have to take risk in public, at least not all the time. You can paint in your studio or write in the secret of your home and it is up to you to show the results of your experimentations to the rest of the world.

According to Richard Florida (in “The rise of the creative class”), researchers identified four phases in the creative process: preparation, incubation, illumination and verification or revision.

  • Getting prepared in the literal sense means having your painting gears always ready, scheduling time in your studio and showing-up even if you don’t feel inspired. It also means creating an environment where unusual connections are more likely to happen. Expose yourself to the work of other artists in and outside your field, explore music, architecture, design, literature… Read a magazine you never read before. As Michael Michalko explains in his book “Thinkertoys”: “One of the paradoxes of creativity is that in order to think originally, we must first familiarize ourselves with the ideas of others.”

  • The incubation period is really important, but it is also important to capture ideas as they come because ideas are fragile and evanescent. For some paintings, I have a gap of several months and sometimes several years between the initial idea for the painting and its realisation. Over time, the idea was refined and morphed into something different. It grew from idea seedlings planted a long time ago in one of my notebooks.

  • The illumination comes on occasion. It would be dangerous to aim only at producing “illumination moments” because good ideas often emerge from not so good ones. You must suspend your judgement when you generate ideas and aim at quantity rather than quality.

  • Revision is producing a series of sketches to find the right composition; coming back to your canvas days after days; making a series of painting on the same theme to explore it in new ways; trying out a new medium to refresh an old theme.

Related articles and resources

Creativity under constraint

The creative habit by Twyla Tharp

Fire-up your imagination

Jackdawing for ideas

Recommended books

The Rise of the Creative Class: And How it's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life

Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative-Thinking Techniques

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