Are We Getting Less Creative?

Scores on tests of creativity (e.g. the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking) have been declining since the 1990’s, says Michael Easter, author of the ‘Comfort Crisis.’ Skills measured by the test include curiosity, open-mindedness, imagination, and problem-solving, all abilities necessary for success in life and art. Studies have shown that children with higher creativity scores on the Torrance Test become more accomplished adults. 

DISSATISFACTION.

Scientists believe that several factors affect creativity scores. One factor is the cultural Puritan work ethic – the expectation that to be a success, a person must hustle and be industrious. As adults, we often believe we should be more productive with our time, get more done, and be more efficient. To-do lists get longer and longer. Yet, try as we might, we are unable to get everything done that we think we should. We look hopefully to productivity experts for hacks to improve our time management. Busyness may at times seem like the only path to success. 

Related to our feelings of busyness are the many interruptions and distractions from screens – the average American devotes about 10 hours and 39 minutes each day to consuming media, approximately 65% of waking hours, according to a 2016 Nielson report – on their phone, T.V., computer. Further, many people are interrupted repeatedly throughout the day by numerous notifications from their digital media. 

Wachusett Reservoir Watercolor Painting.

DECLINING CREATIVITY.

It’s no wonder many complain of feeling overworked, dissatisfied, missing out on the beauty in life, feeling time is passing too quickly, having no time to relax, always rushing. Scientists suggest that our hurried, stressful, over scheduled lives and large amounts of time spent on digital devices contribute to declining creativity.

DIGITAL MEDIA CAN BE ADDICTIVE.

Social media, in fact, has been designed to grab our attention, to encourage addiction! Metrics, algorithms, and optimization tools are sensitive to POPULARITY (what gets clicked on), not necessarily to the TRUTH. You’ve heard of click-bait – sensational rumors, salacious images, outrage-driven rants that get shared, a lot. The more you pay attention to your devices, the more you encourage ads and clips (that the algorithms deem to be of interest to you) to be shown to you. Too many interruptions, and the result can be uncertainty, disorientation, upset, cynicism, even a short-circuit in your ability to think rationally.

REDUCE DISTRACTIONS TO IMPROVE CREATIVITY.

With so much rushing and increasing use of digital media, there is seldom time for relaxing, daydreaming, unfocused thought — all things necessary for creativity. It’s not very realistic to think you can rush to squeeze a productive painting session into a free 15 minutes between other demands. Despite all the recommendations to use your time more productively and get more done, perhaps we should be doing FEWER things! Do less, and do it better. 

Swamp Watercolor Painting.

We may be TOO BUSY for creativity to blossom. Is it even possible to be productive AND creative? Childhood used to be a time of unsupervised puttering and exploring, and lots of imaginary play (NOT organized sports, tutoring, educational T.V. or computer games). Kids and adults need time to daydream, ponder, and be creative. We all need time to “moodle,” as Brenda Ueland says in ‘If You Want To Write.’ By moodling she means “long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling and puttering” in the present, as opposed to desperately rushing, worrying about the future, striving to accomplish more, “always briskly doing something.”

GET BORED TO BECOME MORE CREATIVE.

To increase creativity, we need calm and unscheduled time. Perhaps we even need to be BORED. By automatically grabbing your phone to check texts or watch an entertaining YouTube video when you have a free moment, you may rush right past an important observation or a creative thought of your own. Try something new. Pause and let your mind wander. Rest and reset. We don’t always have to be productive.

Sam’s Hill Watercolor Painting.

Science has shown that boredom, unscheduled down time, and daydreaming increase creativity by allowing our brain the space to think freely and come up with new ideas. In contrast, constant busyness inadvertently reduces creativity. 

Many successful people have shared their high opinions of boredom. Austin Kleon refers to the following people in his blog (https://austinkleon.com/2015/12/17/the-benefits-of-boredom/). Author Neil Gaiman believes “The best way to come up with new ideas is to get really bored.” Steve Jobs maintained “I’m a big believer in boredom. Boredom allows one to indulge in curiosity, and out of curiosity comes everything.” Peter Bregman, CEO of Bregman Partners, says “Being bored is a precious thing, a state of mind we should pursue. Once boredom sets in, our minds begin to wander, looking for something exciting, something interesting to land on. And that’s where creativity arises… My best ideas come to me when I am unproductive.” Writer Scott Adams admits  “I’ve noticed that my best ideas always bubble up when the outside world fails in its primary job of frightening, wounding or entertaining me.” Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky thinks  “Boredom is your window… Once this window opens, don’t try to shut it; on the contrary, throw it wide open.” And Albert Einstein concluded “Creativity is the residue of time wasted.”

RETRAIN YOUR BRAIN AND NURTURE CREATIVITY.

So, how can you retrain your brain to allow for more creativity and inventiveness? 

First, get in the habit of scheduling FREE TIME and allowing yourself to daydream. Constant busyness actually makes you exhausted and prevents you from working at maximum efficiency. 

Second, put in a concentrated effort to RESIST your cell phone (you can disable notifications, shut it off for awhile, or put it in another room) so you will not be interrupted. You DON’T have to respond to every text or email immediately since being ‘busy’ all the time does NOT make you more productive. 

Third, VARY your routine – doing the same thing, at the same time, in the same place everyday can be a creativity killer. Instead, take a different route to your destination, check out a new location, hang out with different people. Be more spontaneous. 

Fourth, take a WALK. Walking energizes your brain. You don’t have to devote much conscious effort to the act of walking, so your attention is free to wander, invent, think, observe. ‘Eureka’ moments tend to come to us not when we’re intensely focused on a problem but when we’re idly thinking about something else, allowing our subconscious mind to contemplate the issue in the background. (A hot shower may work in a similar way.)

MAKE YOUR CHOICE.

It does seem that “You have to CHOOSE between endless distractions and innovative ideas.” as author Jessica Stillman says.

If you’re interested in reading more on creativity, see my related blog posts, titled “Creativity Can Be Learned”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/01/08/creativity-can-be-learned/, published January 8, 2019, and “Fostering Creativity.”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/09/24/fostering-creativity/, uploaded September 24, 2019.

Shelburne Vermont Field Watercolor Painting.

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Why Is Creating So Hard?

It may seem that the outside world is preventing us from taking part in our creative art or hobbies. At times, it’s hard to find any time for our interests because of our many day-to-day responsibilities. But it also seems that when we find some time, it’s hard to even get started. We hope to find some time daily but often struggle with feelings of avoidance or resistance in our effort to pursue our interests. We might feel that if we get our chores out of the way or check a couple more things off the to-do list, then we’ll deserve to do something creative. But we seldom seem to get our break. We may have a stretch of a couple of free hours for ourselves one day, then have difficulty returning to continue or to finish our projects. We may be procrastinating, unable to begin or continue, for a variety of reasons.

First of all, yes, there are too many other things to do – we’ll never get them all done! Like many ‘responsible’ people, we may spend so much time taking care of everyone else that we don’t make time for ourselves. ‘Life happens’ and interferes, right? 

Well, actually, the difficulty might not be having so many things to do. Our struggles may be more INTERNAL, relating to our thoughts, our attitude, the way we look at the situation. WE are the ones who don’t decide to MAKE THE TIME, don’t make art a PRIORITY, and become discouraged, doubt ourselves, even self-sabotage our dreams. We all do it to some degree. We all deal with what author Steven Pressfield calls ‘resistance’, a tendency to sabotage ourselves when we attempt to improve our life (for example, through doing art, beginning a diet or an exercise program, writing a book, making New Year’s resolutions, etc.). Most people tend to pursue creative work only “ as a sideline”, when nothing else is pressing.

Summer Tomatoes Watercolor.

PROCRASTINATION may be the most common example of resistance to creative work. “I’ll begin that project tomorrow”, we tell ourselves. Unfortunately, when tomorrow arrives, there may be another obstacle, so we repeat, “I’ll get to it tomorrow.” Putting our creative dreams on hold can become a habit as we come up with one excuse after another! We become stuck, afraid to act on our creative passion. 

RATIONALIZATION and PERFECTIONISM may set in, making the situation worse. “My work probably won’t be good enough anyway. I don’t want to embarrass myself.” More excuses! So what if what you begin isn’t wonderful and perfect? What you’re attempting never even existed before you tried to bring it forth. You may have success, you may not.

Barn Interior Watercolor.

What to do with this FEAR? How can we move beyond those fears and judgements enough to let ourselves create and to accept ourselves and our art? Give yourself a break! Be kind to yourself. Focus on the process of doing, not on the quality of the end product. We all doubt ourselves and fear that our work won’t be good enough. Accept your doubts and fears; don’t deny them, but take some ACTION in spite of your fears. 

Take action BEFORE you think you’re ready. (You may never feel ready!) DO it anyway. As Steven Pressfield suggests, “The more resistance you experience, the more important your unmanifested art/project/enterprise is to you – and the more gratification you will feel when you finally do it.”

Howard’s Trumpet Watercolor.

So, make the decision to practice your creativity REGULARLY if you want to make progress. Begin. Start small, with what you have now (the space, time, money, equipment). Be determined to create the HABIT, build MOMENTUM. Some of your work may be terrific, some may be awful. So what! Sooner or later, with persistence, things start to happen. And you’ll feel all the better for doing it! It’s a practice, and it takes practice… Just don’t give up!

You might enjoy these other blog posts that relate to creativity: “Fostering Creativity.”, (9/24/2019), https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/09/24/fostering-creativity/, and “Creativity Can Be Learned!”, (1/8/2019), https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/01/08/creativity-can-be-learned/.

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How Can I Become My Own Watercolor Teacher?

Wouldn’t it be terrific if we could each find our perfect watercolor painting teacher (if watercolor is our chosen medium)? But they are hard to find! And a great artist doesn’t necessarily make a great teacher. How many good teachers are there? And how easy are they to find? I looked for years for a local watercolor teacher before running into my mentor by chance. You may be limited by where you live and the desire to take in-person classes. You will have more teachers to choose from if you are willing to take a workshop or even an online course. But after the workshop ends, then what? Even if you could find a good local teacher, would classes cost a lot of money? And each teacher you are able to locate will provide instruction in their own way, in their own style. Will they teach what you need to know? 

What if, in addition to any painting instructor or classes you find, you could also become your own teacher, able to learn about and explore all the things you need and want to know? You can, with the proper attitude and mindset. First you must make a strong commitment to improve your painting. To become your own teacher, consider what you’d hope for in any good teacher, then strive to cultivate those same characteristics in yourself. 

Forsythia In Vases Watercolor.

Are you able to cultivate the awareness and OBJECTIVITY necessary to evaluate your paintings with some detachment? In other words, can you get some distance on your work? To be a good teacher to yourself, you must be able to step back and view your work as though someone else painted it (during the painting process, as well as after the painting is complete).

CLOSELY OBSERVE details in your work and the scene you are painting. Does what you’re doing in your picture work? What is going wrong? If something is not quite right, pause during painting to evaluate the situation. You’ll need to figure out the problem if something looks odd, before rushing in to try this or maybe that. While pausing, ask yourself what you might change to correct the problem. For instance, are my values (lights/darks) correct? Am I using the colors and color temperature I need to create an effective image? Are edges soft or crisp enough where they need to be? Am I using too much (or too little) wetness? Am I emphasizing my center of interest appropriately, or has another section of my painting taken over center stage? Have I lost important highlights? Through such an assessment, you can become aware of the picture’s difficulties and create a plan to resolve any problem. With possible solutions in mind, you can then resume painting.

Red Flowers Watercolor.

You will need to have PATIENCE with yourself. Learning to paint takes perseverance and time. While we all strive for quick progress, often it seems like we take two steps forward only to take one step back. Yet, that is how we all learn – we need to take action and learn from our mistakes.

Be KIND to yourself. You deserve respect and understanding. A good teacher is warm, caring, supportive, and has empathy – encouraging painting strengths as well as pinpointing places to make improvements. 

Don’t give up! A good teacher is positive and reassuring. It’s okay to step away from a painting for a breather if you need it, but remember to be ENCOURAGING and give yourself a pep talk, in spite of any frustrations.  For more insight on self-assessment of painting problems, you might like to read ‘A Positive, Problem-Solving Attitude To Overcome Frustration’, (1/9/2020), https://leemuirhaman.com/2020/01/09/become-a-problem-solver-to-overcome-that-awkward-stage/.

Crocus Watercolor.

Let’s be HONEST. Give yourself honest feedback (but not harsh criticism). Painting is NOT a matter only of talent – painting skills can be learned. Improvement comes from lots of practice and repetition.You know learning to paint can be difficult, and sometimes frustrating and discouraging, but don’t forget it can be fun and worth all the hard work!

Take RESPONSIBILITY for improving yourself. Search out and study when you want to learn more (through books, YouTube videos, ‘googling’ a question you might have, signing up for a workshop, joining art Facebook groups that interest you, taking online classes with teachers you admire and joining their online support groups). Try not to blame mistakes or poor painting on outside circumstances (poor quality paper, humid weather, lack of time, confusing template image, cheap paints). Blaming takes responsibility out of your hands and will make it difficult for you to see what YOU can do to take charge and resolve any difficulties.

Apple Blossoms Watercolor.

Do not settle for half-hearted effort from yourself. Strive to do your best! A good teacher has high expectations, and will MOTIVATE and CHALLENGE a student. Encourage yourself to do the hard, consistent work necessary to improve.

Finally, don’t take yourself TOO SERIOUSLY. Yes, you need to work hard, but keep in mind that everyone makes mistakes. No worries! Strive to enjoy the process of painting. Remember a good teacher is fun, full of joy, playful, perhaps even high-spirited. My favorite watercolor teacher told jokes and stories throughout every single class.

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Know Your Edges!

Edge quality in a painting is important! Proper use of edges helps to direct the viewer’s eye toward your chosen center of interest. An edge is the border between shapes, the transition from one shape to another, where contrast occurs between shapes. By adjusting the degree of contrast along the edges of shapes in a painting (in addition to the contrasts of value and color), an artist can control eye movement and focus. Edges also suggest the mood or atmosphere of a subject. A hazy, humid picture might have many soft, fuzzy edges, and generate a mellow feel. Or a painting of a cold, crisp winter day might have numerous numerous hard edges.

Soft, Hard, Lost Edges – ‘Flowing Forward’ Watercolor

When we talk about an edge in painting we mean how it appears to the eye. Keep in mind that an edge in a painting may NOT be just an actual physical edge (like the side of a tree trunk, building, or rock). An edge can also be the transition between sunlight and shadow, between wet sand and dry sand, between a ripple and calm water. 

Types Of Edges And How To Paint Them.

There are, in fact, several types of edges. A good artist tries to incorporate, in each painting, as many of the types as possible to create variation and interest. A HARD edge forms a clear, crisp, abrupt transition between shapes. The contrast of a hard edge will attract the viewer’s eye; perfect to use at the focal point or between light and dark areas. Some hard edges are good in a painting, but using only hard edges will result in a flat image without depth (e.g. as in a woodcut). Hard edges are painted on DRY watercolor paper.

Hard, Soft, Lost Edges – ‘Red Bumpers’ Watercolor

In contrast, an infinite variety of SOFT edges exist. Softer, less-defined edges are used to de-emphasize, and are useful in the background or distance, within a shadow, or when you want a shape to recede further toward the background. Soft edges are gentle and a bit blurred; perfect when painting fog, haze, or mist.

The relative wetness of PAPER and brush will determine finished softness of the edge and the extent of the spread of the watercolor pigment. Try to learn to judge the wetness of your paper by observing the amount of sheen. More shine means more wetness, less suggests a damp or drying paper. It is also good to test the result you want to achieve on a test sheet/practice paper (made of the SAME kind of paper you’re actually painting on to approximate similar results). 

Soft and Hard Edges – ‘Swamp View’ Watercolor

Keep in mind that controlling edge quality has as much to do with the dryness of the BRUSH as with how wet the paper is. A brush overloaded with paint will lessen your control and may flood an area in your painting, whereas a brush with too little wetness will not allow the paint to move easily. Further, when the brush becomes wetter than the paper (from added water or wet paint) you will be in danger of creating an uncontrollable ‘cauliflower’, ‘run back’ or ‘blossom’ in your painting.

A LOST AND FOUND edge is a broken or interrupted edge that will tie the shapes to the background or other objects in the painting. It will connect shapes, allowing them to partially flow into one another.

Varied Edges – ‘Barn Interior’ Watercolor

A LOST edge is an edge that has disappeared. One shape has merged into another, as in a dark shadow. When the values of touching shapes are the same, the edge between them tends to vanish, whether soft or hard, even when there is a color change. Lost edges force the viewer to invent any missing information, and can be quite interesting. By creating shapes of equal values, you will be able to merge edges. In other words, nearby shapes of similar value tend to have less obvious edges. But adjacent shapes with more value contrast will have edges that are well defined.

Lost, Hard, Soft Edges – ‘Red Geranium’ Watercolor

When To Use Different Edges.

Sometimes the subject matter of a painting will tell you whether edges should be hard or soft, but no rules apply. Think about placing hard edges at your center of interest, where you want the viewer to look, then de-emphasize other less important areas with softer edges. Soft edges describe a subject in more general terms, while hard edges provide more detailed and specific information. It might be appropriate to paint a soft object, like a teddy bear, with soft edges. A cut glass crystal bowl, however, will have numerous hard edges. Distant objects often are painted with softer edges, while closer components could have harder edges.  Make choices about your desired mood for the painting, deciding what types of edges are appropriate in the same way you choose your values and colors. For instance, an evening painting might be low key, painted with mostly cool colors but some contrasting warm colors, and a lot of soft or lost and found edges along with a few hard edges for emphasis.

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What Does It Mean To Simplify A Painting?

Most artists have heard that they need to ’simplify’ when painting. We’re told that simplifying is  good! But why, what is it, and how do you go about ‘simplification’? A beginning artist, unsure exactly what simplification means, may often just go ahead and struggle to copy what they see, details and all, exactly as it is.

Why simplify?

With more experience, however, we come to understand that it’s possible and sensible to IMPROVE a painting by changing some of the components of an image. We want to share a story in our own way about what we see. Perhaps we want to emphasize parts of our picture and encourage the viewer to understand what is important to us. We don’t want to include confusing or extraneous information in our image. Sometimes a painting becomes more effective and stronger if some parts are left out completely. We want to make less be more! That is why we simplify.

What is Simplification?

The essence of simplifying is making something less complex and complicated. In painting, simplifying can mean making your painting and your message clearer, easier to understand.  Complex forms with lots of detail are REDUCED or EDITED to become fundamental shapes and including only the most important details. Copying is not simplifying, whereas painting an impression or suggestion of a scene is. 

Crocus simplified.

How to simplify? First, Establish Major Shapes.

Begin by thinking about shapes – the MAJOR SHAPES of the scene you hope to paint. (Don’t begin by focusing on details.) Look for the largest shapes, the big overall pattern. Imagine the least number of shapes necessary to make your design. In a landscape painting, the fewest number of shapes could be two – sky and land, or sky and ocean. But your image could have as many as 5-7 large shapes. A row of trees with their shadows (their shapes combined to form one) could be a shape. Or a mountain range can be a major shape. Keep in mind that ‘shapes’ are not necessarily single objects or subjects. A single barn could include several shapes – one side of the barn sunlit, the other shaded (see below).

Some of the major shapes include sunlit front of barn, shaded end of barn.

Only after noting major shapes (which form the backbone of your painting), should you consider smaller shapes, then details.

Second, Reduce The Range of Values.

Shapes in a painting can often be related to VALUE (lights and darks). Strive for simplified value contrasts and limit yourself to light, middle, and dark values as you plan your picture. Rather than trying to capture a lot of little shapes and an infinite range of values, design your painting with strong and simple shapes and a limited range of values. You will avoid confusing clutter that distracts viewers from your intended message.

Third, Use Fewer Colors.

Another way to simplify your image and create a stronger painting is to use a LIMITED PALETTE of colors. Too many colors can complicate a picture, making it appear garish, as well as make mixing of color burdensome. Fewer colors, on the other hand, can increase color harmony and balance.

Limited palette of colors used.

Fourth, Limit details.

Better artists are able to look at the vast amount of information around us and screen out extraneous details. To do that yourself, stop and ask yourself what it is about your subject that you liked. Once you have identified what interests you about the scene, think about what details are important to your message (that you might want to emphasize) and which details do not contribute (which you might be able to make less important or completely filter out of the picture). It’s sometimes a good idea to even crop out/eliminate an area that does not add value. 

You may want more detail around your center of interest to encourage a viewer to focus on this area of your painting. Soften and eliminate some details elsewhere in the picture (perhaps blurring details in the distance and shadows). 

In this barn painting, I cropped away some of the edges, simplified a bit of the fencing and barn board, and got rid of the trough in the foreground completely.

Details limited in painting.

Original Reference Photo.

Thumbnails To Help You Simplify.

Use several THUMBNAIL sketches to structure the best possible composition for a painting. Thumbnails are not finished drawings, but quick, small, simplified sketches, 2X3 inches (or perhaps 4X5 inches) that help you explore where your painting might go.  Try to keep your thumbnail sketch proportions similar to what you plan for the finished work.  Experiment with the arrangement of shapes and values. Your first thumbnail is often not the best arrangement you can come up with, so draw several thumbnails, with pencil, before choosing a final composition.

Fourth and Final Quick Thumbnail for Field Painting.
Watercolor Painting of Field

Sketching out a few thumbnails is like brainstorming, investigating options or variations on possible picture arrangements. It need only take 3 to 5 minutes. By working small, there is no room to fuss with detail. It is one of the best ways to organize and simplify a composition, and to focus on important information, while eliminating the unnecessary.

In Summary.

As an artist, strive to simplify, interpret a scene, and make it your own. Be bold. Simplifying your composition improves its focus, clarity, and power. To simplify may seem difficult at first, but less can really be more!

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