Creativity Requires Limits

Posted on by Larry

creativityIt was a phrase in an Adonit press release that caught my attention: “Users can create and work without boundaries.” The press release announced the new Adonit Pixel, a stylus for iPads. But it was the phrase “work without boundaries” that stopped me.

Why? Because I believe that creativity works best when it has something to push against; a deadline, a budget, a physical limit, a technical limit, or an intractable subject.

Consider Michelangelo painting the Sistine chapel; one of the finest examples of creative art ever produced. The process involved slapping wet plaster on the ceiling over his head, then painting it before the plaster dried. By candlelight, standing on a wooden scaffold, creating images that fit within all the curves and angles of the ceiling, all while fighting continuously with his client, the pope.

Or, more recently, Andy Warhol redefined fine art in 1962 with the first showing of his 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans. He decided to use a very primitive form of silk-screening, where the images were created from a drawing which was transferred onto silk covered with glue. One screen for each color. The glue was then carefully removed from the sections where the paint would be squeezed through to the canvas. These silk screens were created before photographs were used to simplify the image creation process. It was a very painstaking process.

The definition of any creative work is that we can always make it better. As Leonardo da Vinci once said: “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” (George Lucas brought this into the modern day with: “A movie is never finished, only abandoned.”)

If an artist were given unlimited time or unlimited resources, I don’t think they would release another work; they would become trapped in the endless cycle of making it “better.” Millions of home movies attest to this – they are never finished editing because there are no deadlines with constant opportunities to tweak.

Jan Fedorenko, the senior media manager for WLS-TV in Chicago, captured this best in a quote from my 2011 Editing Truths contest: “It’s better than good, its done.”

The Holy Grail for creative artists isn’t “creativity without boundaries,” but discovering where the boundaries are and pushing against them. The creative friction between our ideas and reality is what creates art.

Whether we are fighting a deadline, a small budget, inadequate tools, or bad management, limitations ignite our creativity. Rather than trying to find ways to remove limits, it may be better for artists to seek them out. No limits too often turns into endless revisions without completion.

Creativity without boundaries has no value, because it accomplishes nothing. Art lies in the conflict between the idea, the tools and the reality surrounding any creative endeavor; though it can be hard to be grateful for this challenge when you are staring at a blank screen with the deadline an hour away.

On the other hand, sometimes the best art happens just as time runs out.

7 Responses to Creativity Requires Limits

  1. Allynn says:

    Larry I agree with you 100% Having unlimited time, resources and equipment doesn’t make anyone “more” creative. The creative process is about testing, experimenting and sometimes failing.

    The Parable of the Wise Pottery Teacher
    A wise pottery teacher split his class into two groups. The first half of the class he called the “artistes”. They were told they had the entire semester to make one pot and it was to be the best and most beautiful pot they could make. The second half of the class he called the “technicians”. Their job was to make as many pots of whatever size and quality they could during the semester. At the end of the semester students from each group were asked to put their best pot on display. The first group, of course, had only one pot to choose from. But each student in the second group had dozens and dozens of pots; some big, some small, some downright ugly! Which group do you think had the best pots overall?

  2. I would have liked to have even one project that had “adequate resources and/or budget” in my long, semi-illustrious career, much less “unlimited time and resources.” Especially when handed material that I hadn’t directly sourced, the words “polishing a T$#@” often come to mind, and that requires all different kinds of “creativity” approaches and levels.

    • Larry Jordan says:


      (smile…) I hear you. Just because limits are essential to creativity does not mean no assets are the ideal. Most projects can use a bit larger budget, a bit more time and a bit more input from “the powers that be.” Not to mention shots that are in focus, talent that can act and enough coverage that we can actually tell a story.

      Well, we can dream.

      That being said, however, my point was that creativity flourishes best when it is challenged. And marketers who think that the best thing to give an artist is “unlimited creativity” are missing the mark.


  3. I never work on a problem until I have to do it or something bad will happen. Like I won’t have any money. When I was younger I would work on projects for myself but these days in my later years not so much. What you are saying is a variation on “necessity is the mother of invention.” Most people don’t just sit around and dream up solutions to problems they themselves don’t face. Be they artistic or otherwise.

  4. gandalf224 says:

    Well said! 🙂

    One of the challenges a creative person (at least me and a bunch I’ve talked to) is the letdown after the completion of project.

    The product NEVER matches the image in our heads. 🙂

    But then there is often the client’s reaction. . . “Wow! That’s far better than I had hoped!”

    Reconciling the two is a process of growth and maturity. And, learning to take the compliment with grace is the sign you’re there.

    Thanks so much for all youdo, Larry, and congrats on landing on your feet in a time of astonishing change.

  5. Greg Shaw says:

    Best art instructor I ever had was all about limitations in his assignments. “You are limited to one color.” “Pick an object from your kitchen and show motion”. His classes regularly generated student-competition award-winning work.
    His mantra was that artists drown in a sea of choices.

  6. Philip Snyder says:

    As Robert Frost said,
    “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.”

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