“Think outside the box.” The most uttered phrase when people want you to be creative.
For me, it’s an anxiety-inducing curse heaped with a generous serving of self-doubt. Forget the problem, drawing my attention to the box causes me to focus on the box. Never mind the fact that no one bothered to tell me what the box actually is in the first place.
This phrase is not a helpful hint or encouragement—it’s a demand to be or think a certain way and to live up to someone else’s expectations. I don’t even know what they expect of me. I can’t be or think a way I don’t understand, just like I can’t imagine in five dimensions.
Being creative is the box
People often talk about creativity in ways that make it seem out of reach when it’s actually a definable and learnable process. By looking at what it means to be creative, you’ll find out that it’s not so scary or unachievable after all.
Some pressure—constraints, problems, and deadlines—spurs creativity in the unlikeliest of places, while anxiety and fear of failure will paralyze your endeavors. Even in the most desperate of situations, maintaining an optimistic approach to creativity is necessary.
To think creatively, you have to allow yourself to think freely and be open to trying new things. It’s okay to think of dumb or outrageous ideas. Some of them might turn out to be great after all!
Second-guessing yourself and being worried about finding the right answer is counterproductive—since there’s usually no right answer in the first place.
That’s one reason why art is an effective way to learn to think creatively. When you make art, there’s no one way of doing it. You’re allowed to explore multiple avenues and find out what works best in your creation.
Create to be creative
Anyone can make art. I also happen to believe that everyone should. Art is a wonderful way to learn about ourselves and the world around us. When we make art, we have to slow down and consider, leading to worthwhile introspection. Plus, it’s so versatile and explorative in nature, that there’s something out there for everyone.
Unfortunately, many people think art isn’t for them. A common excuse I hear is, “I’m not a creative person.”
This statement always frustrates me. For one, having—or not having—creativity is not necessary for making art. Another reason is that many people don’t understand what creativity actually is—it’s often mixed up with imagination.
You don’t need to be creative to make art because making art teaches you how to be creative. So first step in being creative is to start creating, and I think art is a great place to start.
Art is a skill
A lot of what goes into making art is technical. It’s learning skills through repetition and trial and error.
Being able to draw, which is relatively straightforward in terms of making art, doesn’t require creativity. It requires a pencil, paper, and dedication. Even more intricate forms of art, like sculpting or glasswork, are less about innate creativity and more about just doing it. A lot of it.
The best part is, the more you make art, the more you understand it, and the easier it is to approach art creatively. You don’t just start with the creative part. After all, it’s hard to have a creative approach to something you don’t even understand. It’s like playing chess without knowing the rules.
Art is about creating, so you’re free to create whatever you’d like to see in the world! It’s not about being good or bad or doing the craziest thing. To create means to make something that wasn’t there before—anyone can do. Creating is a reward in itself.
It’s much easier to understand the difference between creating and creativity by example. Since creativity in the arts can be ambiguous at times, we’ll avoid an art-based scenario.
In this case, you have a husky. You decide on getting a doghouse because you want a shelter for your dog when she’s outside in the heat. Of course, the easiest option is buying a plastic doghouse.
After looking at your options, you don’t like the ones available and decide to build a doghouse instead. Luckily, there’s a doghouse kit that looks good, so you order it.
When it arrives, you follow the directions and put it together. By doing this, you are creating. You’re building a doghouse.
The act of creation—in and of itself—is valuable. It’s an emotional investment. You’d probably feel a bit proud of a doghouse you built, even if it wasn’t that hard. Creating makes us feel good.
So what, then, is creativity?
It’s when you solve a problem by taking a novel approach. Let’s go back to our example.
In this version, you think all the doghouses on the market are passé and won’t actually keep your husky cool in the summer, so you design your own. The result: a UFO-style doghouse equipped with AC, automatic sliding doors, and programable LED lights.
Now your dog will not only be comfortable, but there’s nothing else like this out there.
As you can see, creativity differs from creation in a fundamental way.
Key identifiers of creativity
- There’s a problem: Your dog needs shelter from the heat and other elements.
- There’re limitations: The doghouses on the market don’t fit your needs.
- There’s a new, unique solution: You design and build a UFO doghouse.
- There’s value: Your husky is a happy puppy.
If you keep this in mind, I’m sure you’ll find that there are many areas of your life where you use creativity!
Artists are Creative People
Well, yes and no. Many famous artists are extremely creative people—no one’s going to argue with that. They were also dedicated to making art. But anyone can make art and—in doing so—become more creative. To make art, you just have to do it and learn the right skills.
If you look at painting, there are many technical aspects involved: fine motor skills, understanding how pigments and solvents interact, the relationship between light and shadows, measuring proportions, rendering perspectives, and color theory, to name a few.
Much of learning how to paint is not related to creativity. Just like learning to play the piano begins by learning notes, rhythm, hand positions, key signatures, and other aspects of music theory. When learning an art, you start with simple projects to learn technical skills rather than with complicated masterpieces.
The learning process
When learning how to make art, start small, and focus on building a foundation. You can’t skip this.
Research the media and learn the basic techniques to help you succeed. And it’s always good to try something new if you don’t like what you’re doing. Drawing and painting aren’t for everyone, but there are many different kinds of art to try!
The beginning can be a painful and embarrassing process, but it’s an important stage of learning. Many people quit making art in the beginning phase, though. This causes people to think art isn’t for them. It’s like riding a bike, you have to practice, and it’s kinda awkward and painful, but eventually, you’ll figure it out.
There is, of course, a varying level of formality in everyone’s learning process. Teachers and classes are helpful, but not always practical. Not everything can be taught anyways, so there is a certain level of analytical discovery involved in figuring out technicalities regardless. You’re going to have to experiment to get better!
The basics are called basics because that’s what they are. They’re not fun or creative; they’re building blocks. They’re important pieces from which great works can be built. Like Legos, they can be stuck together to make impressive creations.
Artists are people who started learning how to make art and kept trying. Reading books or watching tutorials are helpful so you don’t have to figure out all the basics on your own: oil paint and water don’t mix, firing clay with air bubbles explodes.
No amount of creativity is going to change the fundamentals. But by understanding how and why things happen, you could one day use this knowledge in your own art. In fact, one of my favorite artists, Vance Kirkland, made magnificent paintings by mixing oil paint and water—that’s creativity
The Stick Figure Argument
When someone says, “I can only draw stick figures,” what they mean is they lack the technical knowledge of how drawing works. Many aspects of drawing are tricks—translating 3D objects onto a 2D surface. Sometimes, our brain’s wiring gets in the way.
One example of this is Shape consistency. This is when we perceive an object as the same shape when we look at it from a different angle. Doors are generally rectangular. If you’re looking at a door straight on, maybe it is rectangular. But as we move around the room, or if the door opens, the shape morphs into a trapezoid. Even though this is what our eye sees, it’s not what our brain sees.
Being able to recognize an object as that object, even if our perspective changes, is incredibly helpful for everyday life. Think about how much harder life would be if you couldn’t find the door until you’re standing right in front of it. It would be a headache just to leave the room!
This is why people often draw skyscrapers as rectangles. We have a general understanding of how buildings are constructed: the walls go up at 90-degree angles from the ground. We “see” them having rectangular sides, even when that’s not what we’d actually see. Factors like how close we are, where the sun is, and where we’re standing end up affecting how the skyscrapers appear. A lot of times, drawings look weird because our idea of the object and how we see the object doesn’t match.
Making art teaches You creative thinking
When portraying 3D objects, artists have to trick the mind. By making 1-point and 2-point perspective drawings, it’s easy to grasp the idea that what we see and how we think we see are quite different.
Art tricks can be learned and taught to every stick-figure artist. “I can only” is really “I only know how.” Observing the world and paying attention to what’s going on around us is a vital skill for artists. Many people confuse artistic knowledge with artistic talent because they don’t realize how something as fundamental as their perception of the world limits their artistic abilities.
By appreciating these obstacles, we learn to look at the world in a new way. This changes how we think about and interact with the world at large. Being able to step away from one lens and reframe the world in another helps us think more creatively.
Creativity is learned, and art is a great place to learn how to think creatively. Art, as a visual medium, helps us realize that what and how we see are not accurate representations. Making art encourages us to try different approaches to get the results we want. When you make art, you’re entering a safe space: one where creating, exploring, and trying new things are allowed.
It’s not that some people are creative and some people aren’t. Creativity is just like drawing stick figures. Some people have learned how to be creative while others have not.
In fact, expecting crazy, over-the-top results is only going to lead to disappointment. You have to start with doing something you’re capable of while at the same time dreaming of amazing results. You need both dedication and motivation because it takes a while to get there.
Luckily, it’s an enriching experience no matter how long it takes.