A BULLETPROOF CREATIVITY SYSTEM

I have a friend who’s an artist, and he produces incredible amounts of work. He has new work to show me every time I visit him. After spending some time in his studio, I have come to understand that there is a link between his impressive output and the way in which he shapes his environment to encourage productivity and creativity. 

It’s actually quite simple. What my friend understands very well is that in order to make a lot of art you have to

MAKE ART EASY TO MAKE

His studio might seem like a mess at first, but it’s not. It’s a creative incubator. There isn’t a surface in there that is devoid of his artistic touch. Everything is covered in sketches, old and new, finished and abandoned. All tables have tools scattered upon them. Drills, paints, markers, rulers, chisels… everything he might need in the moment of creative drive. And they aren’t hidden away in pretty boxes and tucked away. No no, they are exposed, connected, and ready to go. One could, without the risk of sounding cliche, state that my friend’s room is the extension of his creative mind. It is a medium through which he connects his ideas to reality. 

It becomes clear upon this observation then, that in order to make art easy to make we need to establish some sort of portal through which the ideas in our head can materialize in the physical realm. That means that we need to surround ourselves with the materials through which we “speak”, and we need to make sure that those materials are as easily accessible as possible.

For example, anybody whose guitar sits on a couch is more likely to be a good guitarist than the guy whose guitar is in a case behind a door. When that guitar is on your couch, you put it in your lap when watching YouTube and before you know it you’ve come up with a fun bass riff. Your fingers are running up and down the neck. You are practicing. All because of a simple tweak in the way you arrange your space.

With some forethought we can insert practice into our daily routines without even making too much extra effort. Say you are trying to learn how to design cool bass sounds. Why not put a small battery powered synth on your kitchen table that turns on with a flip of a switch? I guarantee you that when making sounds is that easy you’ll be playing with that synth every morning while drinking your breakfast beverage of choice. I also guarantee that you will be late for work because of the darn thing on more than one occasion, but the upside is that you’ll have bass lines running through your head while you’re running through the metro. In just a couple of minutes you got your creative wheels turning. And that’s pretty awesome.

I found in my creative process, that if I keep all my equipment always plugged in and ready to go I am 90% (!) more likely to sit down at the computer and make some music. If everything is routed and all I have to do is hit the record button, then it’s easy. If the tools are out of reach, or if I have to find and plug in some cables, oftentimes laziness wins and I create nothing, or I work with the tools that are available at the moment. It sounds stupid (like, just plug it in for god’s sake!), but we are all lazy and if we can design a system that helps us bypass our laziness then we should definitely do so. 

KEEP YOUR TOOLS SIMPLE

Nothing is more frustrating than having a great idea and not being able to make it come alive just because the tools that were meant to help you do so get in your way instead. It’s your fault for not knowing your tools, but it might also be because you’ve chosen unnecessarily complicated tools. They need not be. In fact, the simplest tools are usually the most effective. The iPhone is the most popular camera because it makes photography much more likely to happen on a whim than a bulky DSLR that is always left at home. 

When the tools are simple and readily available, it’s hard to resist the creative impulse. For instance, whenever somebody visits my above-mentioned friend’s studio they inevitably leave behind a sketch or a scribble, because if they sit down at the table to knock back a couple of beers they have paper and markers sitting in front of them begging for doodles. If there is no paper there is a receipt or a pizza box or something. Everybody leaves a mark. It’s really cool.

But there is more to a well-designed environment than just a boost in productivity and experimentation. It also provides

INSPIRATION ON DEMAND

Back at my friend’s studio, if we examine the works scattered all over his tables more closely, we will notice an interesting detail - there is a lot of history there. If we move some sketches around and dig past the surface we will discover the artist’s earlier works that provide a thrilling journey into his creative past. There’s everything there, from drunken two-minute scribbles all the way to elaborate and extremely detailed pieces worthy of being displayed had the artist decided so. They are all various historical reference points showing where the artist has been, what he has learned, how he is improving, and what the larger body of his work is becoming. It is a portrait of his tendencies, style, creative instincts and thoughts — very interesting for us to look at, but invaluable for the artist himself. It’s his roadmap that tells him exactly where he is and where he needs to go next.

And going forward is no longer a mystery, because it is hard to be stuck for ideas when so many of them have been transferred from the abstract space of your memory to the concrete space on shreds of paper. It’s kind of like a cork board that lets you shuffle things around and build connections between concepts without having to rely on the poorly organized mess in your head. You might be just stretching after sitting down for a while when you notice that that figure over there that you drew a month ago could actually be incorporated into your current piece. Or perhaps that color there would be perfect for the logo that you are working on. 

As a bonus, when so many of your ideas are already started on those pieces of paper strewn around the room, suddenly you might find that they are easier to continue. You might pick up a sketch off the floor and develop it into a full project. Who knows, it might become your best one yet.

ARTISTIC CONFIDENCE AND ARTIST IDENTITY

In addition to the benefits listed above, having a large chunk of your work visible, while not always convenient, is very beneficial. It helps to prevent the feeling of insecurity that plagues many amateur creators. This insecurity comes when we feel like we aren’t real artists, or that our work isn’t very good, or that perhaps we aren’t doing enough. But when a large chuck of your work is before your eyes, you no longer feel like you are faking it. You are steeped in your art and you indeed begin to feel like a true artist. When you see the progress you’ve made, you get this pleasant confidence that makes you feel good about your art, and makes you be braver about your art, makes you more likely to experiment with your art, and that is, obviously, extremely important. 

Next time you're feeling down, get a bunch of old projects together and lay them out on the floor and let them sit there for a week. It might just get you unstuck. Meanwhile

GET EXCITED ABOUT MAKING ART

One way to do this is to surround yourself by work made by others that you absolutely love. In the case of my artist friend, he surrounds himself with creations made by his peers as well as the artists he looks up to. From colorful folk art he’d brought from abroad to the music that fills the room with a steady beat - his space is full of interesting things that will make anyone who lives for expression want to create something big. This is like an energy drink for creativity. And it also helps the artist see the larger picture and to see how he and his work fit into it. It’s a great way to get excited about making art and to jump start the creative cycle.

SHAPE THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATCH IT SHAPE YOU

It is worth mentioning that just like we can shape our environment, our environment in turn has an important influence on what kind of work we make. Compare my friend’s studio to my environment at the time, and you will see just how different my creative output was as a result.

Being on a constant move, I didn’t have a space of my own. My tools would often be in cases or somewhere in one of the many bags, so even when I did have creative urges they’d often be dulled down or altogether suppressed by the extra steps that setting up the tools would require. But as an artist I needed my creative outlet, so very soon I too figured out how to use my environment to support my work. 

If you look back at that period of my life you will see a dramatic drop in studio photography and a huge spike in street photography and writing. I only realized in retrospect that that could be explained by the fact that I didn’t have a comfortable space to call my own, so I took the camera to the streets. It’s like my environment pushed me outside. So I’d wander the streets taking photos of strangers, or I’d take my notebook to a coffee shop and write for hours.

Our environment shouldn’t be underestimated when it comes to art making. It will largely determine what kind of things we make and how we make them.

LET YOUR ARTISTIC SPACE BREATHE

There’s one very important thing to remember: when you design your space, don’t try to copy, even in the slightest, the spaces of others. No need. You should try to find what works for you on your own. This will result in the most effective creative environment for you.

In fact, don’t limit yourself to one environment or overthink this whole environment thing in general. You might need different environments for different mediums that you work in. When I write for example, I create better in isolation, without distractions except for maybe a good cup of tea. I like to have my notebook next to me from which I transfer my ideas into the computer. I like to have a clean desk, so that nothing pulls me out of my thought process. But sometimes it’s nice to go to another room and work there. Or play some music. When you are in an unfamiliar space you might get random ideas and make random connections between objects, concepts, etc. 

Also don’t think that your environment needs to be set in stone. In fact you should let it breathe and change shapes, and morph just like you would let your artistic vision do. Art making is never still and the environment should reflect that. Let it live and evolve naturally. And, most importantly, know that

CREATIVITY HAS NO PREREQUISITES

Having a well-designed space is great for increasing productivity, but when it comes to art it is equally as important to be spontaneous. Sometimes you have to ditch everything that is comfortable and familiar and create with what seem to be the wrong tools, in what seems to be the wrong place, and in an unfamiliar, awkward kind of way. Often it is those moments of spontaneous drive that produce the most interesting art and allow us to grow the most as artists. Don’t limit yourself.