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  • Writer's pictureHazel Manley

Constraints and Creativity

Too Much Choice?


A recent conversation has had me thinking about the role of constraints in creativity. Constraint means a limitation or restriction. It's the opposite of infinite choice. It would seem logical to conclude that any constraint would have a negative effect on creativity, but often the opposite is true. One theory is that too much choice causes an almost paralysing overload.

Chosen, imposed, temporary or permanent?

Constraints can be chosen, imposed, temporary or permanent and take a variety of forms. Whilst most creative people seem to be creative in multiple ways, most choose to limit themselves by concentrating on a few specific mediums. For example some sculptors will only use biodegradable, organic materials whilst others use discarded plastic to create art. Some work in glass, others in clay.


Even when it comes to 2D art, there are so many mediums, surfaces and tools each with its own variations that it would be possible to try a different one every day for weeks! The obvious problem with this, apart from the effects on your bank balance, is that it would be impossible to devote enough time to develop real skill in any of them and artists who continually dabble in a bit of everything rarely seem to develop a recognisable style.

There are also choices about size – miniatures or a whole wall and subjects – portraits, landscapes, wildflowers, abstracts, pets... the list is infinite!

If just reading about the choices makes you feel dazed, imagine how hard it would be if every time you sat down to create art, you had to decide which combination of materials, subject and methods you were going to use!

Perhaps, this is why some constraints can be helpful.

Narrowing the options

Factors such as the available space, heating, lighting, storage space, water etc often narrow the options, because they make some options impractical.

Dreams and reality

I dream of a large (warm) studio space with good light, a sink for washing brushes with plenty of room for works in progress and to store finished works, and suitable to invite you all to drop by and look at paintings or attend a class.

What I have available ticks none of those boxes! It’s a small carpeted box room with the family office crammed into one corner, the sink is on the floor below and the light...well it was hard to be charitable about the light so I bought a large photographers’ soft box!

I realised that I could struggle against the room or I could work around it! It meant giving up on super-sized acrylics on canvas and focusing on the oil pastels I’d bought, but barely used, as this avoids running up and downstairs with filthy brushes. Lack of storage persuaded me to explore working on paper rather than canvas.

Once started, I decided that as Sennelier oil pastels have fairly unique properties, I would limit myself to that brand and develop my own ways of getting the most out of them.

Although, I like painting most natural subjects, I generally have a series on the go and I store potential ideas in my scrapbook. At present, I’m working on British wildflowers and absolutely love taking tiny flowers and enlarging them in large paintings to draw attention to their otherwise hidden beauty. A series helps make the: "What shall I paint next?" question easier to answer as I usually have something ready to work on stored in my scrapbook. It also allows me to deepen my skills in the particular series subject.

I’m not saying, I’ve stopped dreaming of my ideal studio, but have to admit that without the constraints, I might still be doing a bit of this and a bit of that and not really digging deeply into any of them. When I eventually get the kind of space and facilities I long for, I will take into it the things I’ve learned from being in my tiny, unsuitable box room!

Artists excelling within constraints

If you would like to read more about artists whose art has been influenced by constraints, you might find these links interesting:

Paul Smith’s limited motor skills led to him using a typewriter to create unique pictures. Whilst artists in an article by the independent worked around sight problems.

Some artists deliberately limit the number of colours they use as their basic palette, or even to work using only black and white.

I’d love to hear about your constraints and how they affect your creativity. You can find me on Facebook and Instagram.


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