Semi-abstract Seascape Study (Cropped)

Creativity in Art is Risky Business

“Creativity is a phenomenon whereby something new and somehow valuable is formed.” Wikipedia

Creativity & Commerce

I feel lucky to live my life in two worlds: technology and fine art. This intersection has given me insight into the risky nature of the creative process.

Risk-taking is tied to commerce, otherwise, making (and keeping) money would be easy.  As a 40-year veteran of the tech world, I can say without doubt techies are risk takers. They can appreciate the past and present world but remain focused on what comes next, what hasn’t been created.

Name the risk-takers in art.  Vincent Van Gogh, David Park, Francis Bacon, Pablo Picasso come to mind as my favorites.  They challenged the aesthetics of their time to chart a new path, and at the same time placed commercial success secondary. Prioritizing artistic creativity over commerce can be difficult–even impossible–for many artists today to achieve. It’s a real challenge: how do we move our art forward without taking risks, especially if our livelihood depends on it?  And that’s the real issue: attempting to be financially successful while at the same time taking a commercial risk by pushing creativity in directions that the art market may not be ready for or appreciate.

How Art History Impairs Creativity

Art history has too much influence on contemporary artists as too many art buyers are only comfortable buying what they’ve seen before (as “validated”), and too many artists don’t have the confidence to create a completely new path that risks their livelihood.  These artists repeat a playbook that ensures sales, but at the expense of moving their creativity forward.  As a community, I think we have to accept that and support both artistic paths, as divergent as they are.

Here’s a test: If you were to see the Mona Lisa today in a gallery among these other contemporary works without historical context, which would you prefer?  Yes, da Vinci was an incredibly creative genius who formed new paths for his time, but new paths continued throughout history by risk takers much like him.  My concern is that we don’t have enough risk takers today (me among them).

Mona Lisa
“Mona Lisa” 1503
by Leonardo da Vinci

“Jane”, 1964 by Peter Greenham
“Jane”, 1964
by Peter Greenham

“Peter with Striped Kimono”, 2015 by Anne Gale
“Peter with Striped Kimono”, 2015
by Anne Gale

“Mother II”, 1972, By Lucian Freud
“Mother II”, 1972,
By Lucian Freud

I’d buy any of these works over the Mona Lisa.  I can hear the shouts of sacrilege now! I appreciate the significance of the Mona Lisa in the context of the time it was created, but if artists after Leonardo didn’t seek divergent paths, where would we be now?

Another Way: Become Divergent Thinkers

To be creative requires divergent thinking (generating many unique ideas) and then convergent thinking (combining those ideas into the best result (short video here).  Research shows there needs to be a balance between these two types of thinking, but that divergent thinking declines as we age—not through biology but societal influences and teaching methods that favor convergent thinking.

To support my theory that art history as a form of convergent thinking harms creativity, consider this NASA research and the stunning decline over time of our ability to be creative from childhood to adulthood (see chart below).  A 5 year old is almost 3 times more creative than a 10 year old, and the decline continues to adulthood (at 2%). The conclusion of the research is that children are taught to eliminate divergent thinking in order to improve on their convergent thinking abilities pushed by our education system, harming creativity in the process. Art history reinforces the wrong kind of thinking.

Creativity Scores
Source: “Breakpoint and Beyond: Mastering the Future Today (2000)” by George Land and Beth Jarman

Rebuilding Divergent Thinking to Create

“When you’re being creative, nothing is wrong”, John Cleese

We’re so lucky to have as a guide to divergent thinking: children.  Have you ever watched a child draw or paint?  No rules, nothing is wrong!  Negligible self-doubt or judgement.  Just experimentation. Experiment. Discover.  Oh, what would it be like to draw for the first time!  Children have strong divergent thinking skills, that is, they find their own path through intuition. In divergent thinking, their subconscious mind is primary.

Here’s an impractical idea: rather than start art education with art history–which sets up expectations for what art is “good”—perhaps we end with art history, and instead start with a “blank sheet” that forces creativity and divergent thinking.

After the basics of paint/materials handling, what if the art professor put out art materials at your desk, while in front of you stood a beautiful human being. “Make art from this” is the only instruction you’d get.  What would happen?  Without art history as context, what would students create?  I’d love to see this, but it’s impractical for a 19-year-old college freshman previously exposed to art history or what society holds up as “art.”

Building Creativity through Divergent Thinking

Through our traditional education system, convergent thinking has been ingrained in us, but it’s never too late to recover creativity by building divergent thinking skills. Some exercises to try (courtesy of Natalie Shoemaker and Saga Briggs):

  • Take a Walk. One researcher found that walking indoors on a treadmill or outdoors didn’t affect divergent thinking capability, but walkers outscored sedimentary non-walkers. Physical exercise has yet another unexpected benefit. “Part of why walking, I think, is important is it can be boring. It’s that very aspect that causes your mind to go back and revisit, even subconsciously, on what you’ve been analyzing and learning,” said Barbara Oakley, an engineering professor at Oakland University.
  • Be bored. With smartphones a constant distraction, too many people today don’t have the mental space for new ideas to grow (for more, see this article). Try reading the phonebook or take a walk to help trigger boredom. Let your mind wander in boredom.
  • Brainstorm when tired. Ron Friedman, author of The Best Place to Work, explains our fatigued brains are less capable of filtering out all the weird stuff, like we are during the day. He suggests finding that time when you’re tired and less focused to box off that time for creative brainstorming.
  • Fast, frequent failures. Trying multiple failing paths quickly leads to a successful path sooner. Spending 2 hours creating 10 quick studies builds divergent thinking much faster than spending the same amount of time on a single artwork.
  • Paint like a Millionaire. Art supplies can be expensive, which too often means we “play it safe.” Lately, I’ve been painting on carton (cardboard, basically) or paper treated for oil painting because it’s 1/10 the price I normally pay forcanvas panels. I feel much less invested in making a piece work and am fine with failure. Painting on a iPad is another idea. Bits are free.
  • Defer Judgement. This has been a huge hurdle for me: I’m constantly judging an artwork in progress. I find it best to—at a certain point before I think a piece is done—set it aside a few days. When I return to a piece, I see and appreciate things I didn’t see before.
  • Set aside “Play Time”. You may be balancing your time between commissions and work for your next show, but be diligent about setting aside solid blocks of time to experiment and build intuitive thinking.

I hope this post helps you think differently, and balance art and commerce. As always, I appreciate reader feedback in the comments section. I have a feeling this will generate some discussion.

11 thoughts on “Creativity in Art is Risky Business”

  1. I’m with you! I would definitely purchase a work by Freud over a de Vinci. Love Ann Gale’s work unfortunately not familiar with Greenham but thanks for turning me on to his work. It’s been over 20 years of an art practice that I feel is finally paying off. Enjoyed your article Ed.

  2. Great article! Thanks for this! I will be sharing with other creatives. And I’m tempted to try some of these ideas with my private students.

  3. Thank you for this. I learn from every one of my attempts. More risks taken equals more learning. I will be implementing your creative excersise suggestions.

  4. Brainstorm when tired because you’re less likely to filter … this struck me. Tired is when I’m least likely to ‘plan’ and ‘think hard’ because it feels like too much effort but it would mean that filters are down and so perversely it’ll take less effort to get to outlying thoughts.

  5. Great article Ed !
    If history teaches us anything about great artists, the ones who seem to be most outstanding dared to keep evolving.
    Nothing is more disappointing than seeing an artist locked down by their own perfected style. When art becomes product it has become formulaic and boring ( even if technically excellent ).
    The primal energy of a childlike mind with the limitations of paper and crayon are far more exciting than the artist who has perfected a painting technique.
    I have my students draw and paint with their “uncomfortable hand”
    Without exception they create images that are far more interesting and honest.

    1. Good idea (drawing with the non dominant hand. I know too many artists that have become illustrators of their own work. Almost like an actor that has become a caricature, and doesn’t leave that lane. It’s a bit sad, but most artists need to make a living, so here we are.

  6. Thank you for these thoughts and ideas. I paint a familiar place with my own colorful style but at times find myself bending to a more popular Plein air style. Listening to my muse gets me back on track and out come the colors again. I love expressive colors in the land of gray granite domes and I tell folks that I’m painting my feelings about this place more than what I see. It’s been an interesting ride, this painting life! Thanks again!

  7. This is really an excellent article Ed! I do value creativity highly. I also value acquiring skills. Artists can often favor one over the other. My goal is to play and work on both as much as I can. Not usually at the same time, unless I get lucky! These issues are also evident in climbing. I always favor figuring the route out by myself, in my own way. But, having the skills to keep me safe are important too. Your ideas about freeing to play and be creative up are really good! BTW: I didn’t know I could share this, but, I will try! Thanks for bringing these important issues up!

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