I picked up this lovely little yellow book the other day – Brief Lessons in Creativity by Frances Ambler. And it is quite the gem, helping to inspire and nudge me deeper down a path that has been on my mind on-and-off for years now.
See, I work in the creative industry. I genuinely create something almost every single day whether it is content, or client work, whatever. I am always making something. However, it can become quite mechanical. You have your set of tools, your set of trusty techniques and ways of doing things. You can competently create on demand. But it is also very easy to stagnate and get stuck doing the same things over and over again.
It is difficult to grow and break ruts, to grow new skills and ways of looking at the world, and yet we must. To keep fresh, to honour the muse, to have longevity in the game. It is important to keep exercising the muscle of creativity and stretching it to new places.
I’ve always wanted to live a more artistic existence, and I suppose this has always been an underlying reasoning behind my life path. Working for yourself gives you control of your time. It then becomes up to you to optimise that time and be able to spend it how you want to. But it is very easy to get stuck in the day to day business of commerce, and not having enough time or energy to explore the possibilities.
Yet, if you want it, if you want to become better, to experience a new level, to maybe even become great, then somehow the price must be paid. We must incorporate practices and rituals, spaces and times to nurture the soil of creativity, to improve how we see, how we process, and the techniques of creation. To become better creators and artists.
Here are some ideas inspired by Frances’ book.
Just start/Begin anywhere
The blank canvas can be very intimidating, especially if we have not created in a long time. We might hold some romantic notion of how we ought to be as creatives, of how good the artwork has to be, or of how good we should be. We should throw all of those concerns away and just begin from anywhere. Just start. Take a piece of paper and make a scribble. Write a few random words in a notepad. Record a couple random melodies. Make a mess. Do something.
Doing this will shake out the cobwebs so to speak, limber up those stiff limbs and get you back in the groove of creating.
Follow your curiosity
What interests you? Put some time aside and do a real deep dive into it. What ever piques your curiosity. Maybe you always wondered about UFOs, or medieval weaponry, or knitting. Whether it is something mundane or something outlandish, allow yourself the space and time to dig into it. Do some research, go down an internet rabbit hole, visit sites, connect with people. Follow your curiosity, you will find new things, good, bad, boring, interesting, and it will fill your tank with new ideas and new references.
I have blogged at length about the need to create and protect creative space. To be able to cultivate and nurture your creativity, you need to have the space and time to devote to it. You need a place to make your art, whatever that is. This space needs to stimulate or support you as needed. It has to be sacred and set apart. This is an important time of enquiry, of experimentation, of worship.
Collect stuff. In your travels, in your movements around the world, you will come across things – signs, images, discarded objects, places. Bring something back with you, take a picture, make a film. Build and curate a storehouse of inspiration, of little odds and ends that you can come back to, study in more detail or tap into for ideas and direction. You are only as good as your references.
Try different things. Start your process from the opposite end, or start from the middle. Create in a different medium or work with a different technique. Try creating with your less dominant hand, or in a different environment. Keep pushing the boundaries of what you create and how you create it. Shake things up to unleash new skills, new perspective and fresh takes.
Move around, it could be as close as a walk around the neighbourhood, or as far as moving across continents. But exposure to new places breaks up monotony and allows us to see things with fresh eyes. And it brings us in contact with new people, ways of living, and ideas.
We could all gain wonderfully from cultivating an artist’s eye and mind. Beyond the boons to creativity, the work of creating pushes one into a deeper state of being. A space where one must be still, and observe, really look, or really dig in and think and draw from the depths to birth something new. It is in these spaces that we learn about ourselves, that we tap into our powers, that we create something tangible, something truly us. It is here we meditate and connect to the sublime. It is here that we discover, that we learn, that we break through.
It is through the way of the artist, that we can become even more ourselves.
Personally, I’m a lazy artist. I want the biggest bang for my buck. I want to do the absolute minimum and still make an impact. That’s why I love Jean Michel Basquiat. His work is proof that you can paint with the proficiency of a 5-year old, and still make a statement worth listening to. Also, doesn’t he look like what would emerge if Kid Cudi and The Weeknd did the fusion dance?
Basquiat was an incredibly gifted artist, cut short in his prime (he died at 27) and namechecked by rappers ever since. His work was distinctive, full of childlike youthful energy, irreverent, and seemingly nonsensical, but also revealing a profound knowledge and respect of art, its history and social commentary. In 1980s New York, an electric nexus of time and space, Basquiat emerged as an unlikely artistic force, rising as a black man, from the grimy streets, to global stardom.
He is the quintessential example of the artist who throws himself with reckless abandon into his work. Moving out of home for good as a teen, he spent most of his young adult life basically being a bum, surviving off money picked up in the streets, and immersing himself in the culture and the scene of the time, bouncing from place to place and party to party. His early creative efforts included cryptic haikus scribbled in graffiti under the moniker Samo scattered all over the city, as well as experimental live music with his band (none of them could actually play an instrument, but that was part of the appeal).
He is charming, talented with a keen air of innocence, and he befriends and eventually moves in with his sort-of-girlfriend, Suzan. At this point he had progressed from graffiti to full on painting at the insistence of another friend. Suzan worked and paid the bills, while he spent his time painting. And it is this one anecdote about his life that really earned my respect. Basquiat was too broke to afford canvasses, so he would salvage broken doors, windows, fridges, scraps of paper, tins, anything with a surface he could paint on. He didn’t wait to get proper canvases, or the right kind of paint or tools. He worked with whatever he could find.
If you really want to create, if you really want to do something. You just do it.
That is the crux of true creativity, its raw essence. The true artist doesn’t allow a lack of resources to become an insurmountable obstacle. In fact, we are drawn to such art-forms, pieces made with the scrappiest, bare essentials, because through all the limitations, and perhaps, even because of then, we can see the passion shine through, we can see the potential. We see a brave artist battling against his restrictions, turning his obstacles into stepping stones that pave his way. Basquiat has nowhere to paint, so he turns an abandoned fridge into a priceless work of art.
This same energy you have to bring to your life and to your work. If you have ambition, a burning desire to create something that resonates, that has impact, if you want to devote your life to the mastery of a skill or an artform, or a career, you start where you are, you work with what you have.
Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can
The biggest companies on the planet right now all started small. The origins of the slick phone you’re reading this on now can be found in a dinky garage decades ago with a bunch of nerds, hippies, and a couple pieces of hand-assembled circuit boards. Facebook the almost omnipresent behemoth it is now, started in a dorm room. The colossus that is Amazon started in a garage with doors as its first desks, Jeff Bezos packing books with his team to fulfil customer orders. The first Star Wars movie was produced with a shoe string budget and a lot of DIY.
Our problem too often is that we want perfection right out the gate, before we have earned it, and we want to do it with the absolute best tools. We think we need the light ring and DSLR camera before we start the youtube channel, the best mic and mixers before we start the podcast. So we don’t start.
Or we are insecure in our creative ability, and so hide behind our lack of tools. Sure, the right tools do help, but it is the artist that precedes the tools. A writer who knows what he is doing will do a lot more damage with an ordinary pen than a talentless hack with a Mont Blanc. You cannot hide your lack of skill behind expensive tools, but you can use the lack of tools as an excuse to procrastinate. You just have to begin. If you are really good, the world will respond, and better tools will present themselves to you.
Every master was once a disaster.
T Harv Eker
We all have to start from somewhere.
If you waited till everything was perfect and you had all the resources, you will be waiting forever. And even if you did get it – the perfect studio, the perfect lab, the right writing chair, you wouldn’t know what to do with it. At most, you would churn out works of stunning mediocrity. The tools don’t make the artist, the work makes the artist. The lack of tools is a gift. You get to work with the scrap, failing, prototyping, learning, crashing, rising up, drafting and tearing up, you need the grind, you need the work, because that is where you hone your skill. That is where you work around the obstacles, that is where you distil and learn the principles of your craft.
I started my design journey on dinky little Toshiba laptop (that was everything to me then by the way), a pirated copy of photoshop, and a design magazine. Now, I type this to you from a MacBook Pro. But it was all the work I designed on that first Toshiba, and then a PC, and then this sexy huge white Dell I had, that allowed me to finally get my first MacBook and then another one, and now, all the bells and whistles I need to create.
The obstacle is the way.
Creativity is just as much about limitations as it is about infinite exploration. The searching and playing around is an important part of the process. It is necessary to go far and wide in ideation. But it is the limitations – the brief, the deadline, the boundaries that really focus us and unleash the creative power to combine ideas, materials, colours to create something inventive, something remarkable.
With inventiveness and creativity, you can make the limitations you face a distinguishing feature in your work. Don’t have enough money for different colours? Limit your palette. Can’t make the special effects you really want? Hack it and let it have a DIY vibe to it. Whatever the obstacle is, use it to your advantage.
You don’t have to be fancy. You just have to begin. Even Basquiat started by painting on abandoned doors.
This phrase ‘ART is WAR’ has been milling around in my head for the past week. For those of you familiar with the work of Steven Pressfield, there is a book he wrote called ‘The War of Art’. This post runs alongside the central theme of that great book. So I’m not saying that art is violent or anything. What i am saying is that Art is War.
The Creative Pursuit is thrilling, fulfilling and wonderful, but oh, so hard. It takes time, it takes effort. It is a battle. I experience this warfare in my design process. When I sit down to design a poster for instance, which usually takes an average 0f 2 – 3 hours to complete (The longest time I’ve spent on a Poster was 24 straight hours with a 3hr nap break, I was designing the 2008 Strictly Hiphop: Backdown Poster). The first hour, everything I design is crap. Its like watching an inept, bumbling novice struggle across the Adobe interface desperately seeking something that works. That first hour is hard, in fact excruciating, especially if i’m unsure of what direction I’m gonna take. However it gets easier, a dozen false starts later, I stumble upon an interesting solution and slowly, the work begins to take shape. By the 2nd hour, I’m in the state of ‘flow’, and the genius begins. But getting to that point takes a lot of work, it demands reading, scanning, sketching, thinking, researching, trying…it’s work.
I have ideas, like everyone else. I have some really interesting ones too, like concept books, a streetwear line, posterArts and so on. And they are pretty exciting, with potential to become remarkable projects and connect with thousands of people. But none of them would happen, if I don’t sit down, for hours, for days…and work, and struggle with this obstinate mistress called design, cajoling, pleading, seducing, ignoring her until she yields me her fruits, the reward of my search.
So the idea that ‘ART is WAR’ helps me steel my nerves every morning, and go into the battlefield of my workstation, go HARD, unrelenting untill I return hours later, days later, weeks, months, years later…with the spoils of war, a remarkable product, an excellent design, head turning ART.
Earlier on this year, a good friend of mine asked me what creativity is. I can’t remember what I told her, but I remember thinking then, that this would actually make an interesting blog post if I ever did get around to setting up my blog. Well, now I have a blog…and here is that post:
Creativity? What is it? Is it the forte of the artsy types? Something reserved for those blessed with the mystical genius of music, sculpture, architecture, fine arts, dance, etc? Well yes…and no. Creativity broken down to its essence really is expression, because, creativity speaks of creating, i.e of expression, because all creation is a form of expression.
Creativity is also more widely understood as the application of thought processes and expressive techniques to generate new, innovative and novel ideas, products and works. To be creative is to bend the rules, to reconsider, to turn the world upside down and rediscover it anew. And contrary to popular opinion, It is more akin to a process of discovering than begetting. Scientists are just as creative as Artists. It is the same basic process, with various forms of manifestations. The Scientist explores ideas, physical laws, nature, theories and makes new associations, pushing the boundaries, deconstructing models, reconstructing new ones, birthing new ideas, theories, new inventions. The Artist explores ideas, concepts, thoughts, nature, people and makes new associations, deconstructing other works, reconstructing new ones, birthing new ideas, pieces, transmitting dreams, emotions and paradigms.
Creativity is noble business. We are after all hardwired to procreate and continue our species. So if we are so ‘creative’ in our primal natures, how much so in our higher faculties. And in everyone, is that aching deep desire to create something, to pen that story, sing that song, invent the new chair, create a new business, paint a new masterpiece, and so on. It’s just that sadly, we silence that inner voice, stifle that desire. But creation is part and parcel of life and necessary for the human existence. We must reawaken that voice, reignite that fire and begin to express our gifts and truly live.
In other words, be creative.
But how? You ask. Maybe you are a ‘creative’ type…a musician, a visual artist, actor, whatever. You just want to know how to tap into more and more of your creative juices. Or maybe you never thought of yourself as creative. But now you understand that you create, in your job, in your business, in raising a family. You want to know how to be more creative in all that, maybe even cross over to the artsy side. These are some ideas.
Make friends with your genius
You are a genius. Yes, you reading right now. You are a genius. Or strictly speaking, you have a genius. There is an area of life and existence you have a natural knack for. You may not be able to sing or dance or act to save your life. But perhaps you instinctively understand relationships and how to deal with people, or maybe you are a brilliant communicator. We are repeatedly told that only a select few are geniuses, they are the elite, the hyper creative, the ones with IQs on the other side of 150. But the truth is, there is something out there we can do naturally well. Maybe not as good as the best, but when you are here, it is the most natural thing ever. You are in your state of ‘flow’. This is your genius. This is your box of crayons. Find your genius, your own box of crayons. Leave other people’s boxes alone. Okay? You creativity will be best with your own crayons. Do you!
There is ABSOLUTELY no creativity without precedent. You need a frame of reference. I’m talking to the ‘artsy’ ones right now especially. You want to grow in your craft? You must explore. Embrace the world, look, listen, touch, feel to stuff…a LOT of stuff, as much as you possibly can. Observe, listen, dissect, analyse. In one word…EXPLORE. In your field, outside your field. Inspiration (ah..the gift of the gods) comes from anywhere and everywhere. Fill up your mental libraries with as many ideas and precedents as possible and your creativity will sky rocket. If creativity is the arrangement of known units in new configurations, then the more units there are, the more possible configurations (the more creativity).
Put the hours in
There is no going around this one gents. You will not be Picasso over night. You need to put the hours in. Want to be really good at something? Malcom Gladwell places the time-price for mastery at 10, 000 hours. That’s quite a while. You will need to invest the time and toil on your craft. In fact, talent only gives you a head start. You must hone your skill and practise to become great at what you do. The more time you spend on a thing, the better you become, the more creative you become at it.
Stare into the abyss
In the animated movie Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths. Batman says to his double from the parallel universe Owlman, ‘There is a difference between you and me…we both looked into the abyss…but when it looked back at us…you blinked’ (Such a Kick-ass Line!!!..Whoop Whoop!). Now I don’t know if this is absolutely universal, but it seems to me like anyone who has every attempted anything worth doing (i.e. create something) has signed up for a lot of torture and angst. Yes, a lot of the time it is all fun and games and an such amazing experience and privilege to create and birth these wonderful things in our minds. But in that process is a lot of lows, a lot of self-doubt and depression. You will question your talent, your relevance. You will wonder why you even tried. People will diss your work and You will want to die. Why? When we create, we give of ourselves, our very essence. Now that’s vulnerability. Yes you will come to hang over the cliff, and stare into the inky blackness of the abyss. But even when the euphoric sun is gone and all that’s left is the dead quiet of your creative night. You will still hear the whisperings of your creative dream, the unrelenting grip of your ideas over your heart. Never let them go. Don’t blink.
Alright, enough of the gloom and doom. If you going to create…do me a favour, have fun. Go bonkers, crazy with it. Doodle, freestyle, play nonsense, run around do whatever. Creativity is noble and serious work. Have fun with it J
No one can be you better than you. Being creative, and I mean creating from the core of who you are is scary business. And if you are actually DOING IT, kudos to you. People will talk, some will push you forward and encourage you. Thank them, embrace them. Some will try to tear you down. Ignore them…keep creating. Remember, no one really knows you as well as you know you..except God. So dust off the haters and keep walking. And don’t be scared to switch the script when you feel its time to. Create from your gut, be honest to your voice.
*Post note: In 2006, I read a great piece by Hugh Macleod titled ‘How to be Creative’. Amazing stuff, a must read for anyone trying to be creative or increase creativity. Find it here
Hi, I am Otoabasi Bassey, a brand strategist, designer and entrepreneur exploring ideas around personal growth, design, branding, business, strategy and technology.