Revisiting Constraint and Freedom

I wrote this article in April of last year but reposting it here because this article summaries my best advice on making a creative project interesting and achievable. These guidelines are for any kind of creative endeavor. My examples are from my experience but the core concepts of setting up a project apply to anything, like learning how to cook creatively, sketching, beading, embroidery, learning how to whittle, etc. So it may be easy to say this does not apply to me, but keep an open mind.

Constraint and Freedom

What makes a good long-term project idea? I've written a little bit about this before. However, I decided I would dedicate an article to this topic since it will be helpful for people interested in starting the 100 Day Project or a similar type of challenge project of your own design. 

Homage to Emily Kame Kngwarreye, Days 176-200, 2015. 30 inches by 30 inches.

The two words I will leave you with are Constraint and Freedom. You need some limits to reduce decision fatigue but you need some freedom to explore. This tug and pull of artistic freedom within self-imposed limits is what I create for myself every 25 days with each new series I create. If I looked at the realm of possibilities without reigning in some of my wild ideas, I would get nothing done. Guaranteed. 

The main parameters for a project are the size or scope, materials, colors, design, and a framework. 

If you set a size for the daily project that is too big, it is too easy to quit. Seriously, think about what can I do in 15 to 30 minutes a day. I have seen people in the 100 day project who were so ambitious with the daily project that they just could not keep up. The purpose of the long term projects are to get you to create more on a consistent basis, not to beat yourself up as a failure. This first decision on size and scope can make or break your project. Choice wisely.

Materials.  Find something that you love to engage with. Something that you're very curious about. It should be a little bit challenging and a little bit comfortable both at the same time. 100 days is a long time so make sure you can travel with an abbreviated version of your project.  I hand sew my 6 inch square when I am on the road. Need inspiration? Walk around the nonfiction library shelves. What did you like to do when you were 10 years old before anyone told you that you couldn’t do it?

Colors. What colors do you like and what colors will make you expand your boundaries a little bit? Neutrals, cool or warm colors and combinations between them. Many projects can be color based such as only black and white photos or only warm colors like in my piece Homage to Emily Kame Kngwarreye where I used colors Emily used from her homeland in central Australia.

Designs. For each 25 day series, I like the design to be process based with simple guidelines and lots of opportunities for variation. I have found this parameter to be the most challenging to balance constraint and freedom. Design guidelines that are too specific are stifling. So I just use general guidelines. Some examples I've used are alternating lines or wedges of ivory and warm colors like in my Homage to Emily Kame Kngwarreye. The variables were the height and angle of the lines which made the entire piece full of movement.

Fire. Days 101-125, 2016. Cotton fabric. 30 inches by 30 inches.

I test my design guidelines and think about the amount of variables I can explore. If it's too simple, I will get bored. I won't have enough freedom. The freedom and excitement of the possibilities is what makes you want to go back to the studio every day. This Fire series has given me the perfect balance of constraints with warm colors and blue for a contrast and the freedom of design guidelines that allow me to experiment with the variations while still staying within the design guidelines.  The only design parameters I had was to include three lines starting from the bottom of each small daily square.


Framework. It helps to think about how all these pieces will work together at the end of the project. In my case, I sew 25 days of daily squares together into a large square of fabric art within the same series. You end up with a cohesive body of work at the end of the project. Consider how you would want to share it. Look for an exhibit space. A local coffee shop or park district. Self publish your writings. Open up an Etsy store to sell your work. Publish all the photos in a photo book. Give them away to friends and family.

Lastly, if you've selected a project idea that is not working, change it up in midstream. Why not? The goal is to make more art. Everything else serves that purpose. 

In what ways do you already set self-imposed limits or constraints and how do you balance that with artistic freedom? It is like a creative cook only making dinner with what is in the fridge. Or a illustrator who is only drawing birds. Or a painter who only a paints abstracts. Or a photographer who takes photos of what she sees each day that inspires her. Or setting up a time to be creative every day and do whatever you feel like in that time. 

This is why constraint and freedom are so helpful. You limit yourself just slightly enough to know how to proceed but you are still excited about all the different ways you can approach your art.

If you want to be more creative, I encourage you to start even a week long project just to get you creating. Once you start, you may not want to stop.