As a child, at least as early as I can remember, I believed ideas were absorbed from the universe, that our brains were receivers, picking up on the tangible experiences and events of real beings who lived beyond our solar system or in another dimension. What it meant, basically, was that somewhere in the universe there were elves, gnomes and dragons, but also vampires, werewolves and trolls. In my mind Middle Earth was a real place, which Tolkien had the honour of viewing remotely and the genius of portraying in exquisite detail. I don’t know where this notion came from or how I developed it, but I was so confident with this idea I never questioned it; I always had a conveyor belt of ideas rumbling through my mind and I couldn’t comprehend how my small mind could create it all. As an adult I now realise the hypothesis was quite ingenuous. It couldn’t work. Consider all the half-baked or silly ideas any of us has ever had – the universe would be a mess, with half-baked beings and silly scenaros.
I’m still fascinated with where ideas and innovation originate, but I’m now further away from understanding it than I ever was as a child. I want to understand, but do I need to in order to continue “receiving” ideas?. In my wanderings around the internet, trying to gather information on theories of the origin of ideas, I came across the wonderful Ted Talk by Eat, Pray, Love author, Elizabeth Gilbert. I read Eat, Pray, Love when it came out and enjoyed it, and I recall seeing this talk ten years ago. It resonated with me then and it still does today. In the talk, Gilbert discusses the almost “paranormal” feeling of the creativity process and so it seems appropriate the talk here.
If Elizabeth Gilbert is right, and we “just need to show up”, then I’ll keep showing up for however long I can.
Do not grow old, no matter how long you live. Never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born.
The sense of wonder is a theme that comes up often when I read about creativity or biographies and memoirs of creative thinkers. Awe and curiosity drove Albert Einstein’s scientific and philosophical thought and led to some of the most inspired insights in our understanding of the world. He understood the importance of a sense of wonder and advocated it often. Leonardo Da Vinci definitely possessed a developed sense of wonder. His skill in artistic rendering were matched by his enthusiasm for observation and note-taking, which themselves inspire a sense of wonder in modern readers.
A sense of wonder is not only the feeling of being amazed at something, it is a whole body reaction, which can bring on goosebumps and shudders, leave you breathless or speechless and lead to feelings of reverence and even a sensation there is a magical quality to the experience. D.H. Lawrence described the sense of wonder as the sixth sense, “the natural religious sense”. There is little doubt humans have been experiencing the sense of wonder for many thousands of years, at least. We can see it in prehistoric rock and cave art, in the architecture of the ancients and in their writings. It is why we still cherish those ancient places, ruined though many of them are. Consider the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; this list has been around since antiquity, despite the fact that only one is still standing – the Great Pyramid of Giza. Modern lists of wonders of the world include both human-made structures and natural wonders, but they have much in common with those of antiquity: they awaken in observers to a sense of curiosity, awareness and delight. The feeling is magnetic and in this we are still very much like our ancestors who lived millennia ago.
Many years ago I visited Newgrange, and was quite enchanted by the place. However, not everyone felt so enamoured. Some visitors complained the site lacked authenticity and that it had been ruined by modern interpretations and aesthetics. I had a degree in archaeology and palaeoanthropology and had read up on megalithic sites in Europe, but even I wasn’t sure what an authentic Newgrange was supposed to feel like, after all, we were all 21st century tourists, with sensitivities and expectations specific to our time and world views. I had suspended my expectations before arriving at Newgrange, but I began to feel as if I was being naive, romanticising the experience. Yet as I wandered around and through the monument, a sense of wonder and curiosity kicked in and I began to enjoy the experience without micromanaging it. While others questioned the guide on the ugliness of the facade, I gave in to reverie. I understand that some people felt no connection to the monument, or indeed the surrounding area, but does that mean connection is impossible for others? Newgrange, like many ancient monuments, is a commemorative place, but it doesn’t mark a single moment in time or represent a single person. It is a place with special meaning for people in the past, and though we might not agree on the nature of the meaning, we are predisposed to honour it. It’s human nature. The fact that Newgrange has been part of the Boyne River valley landscape for over 5,000 years is enough for my unpretentious sense of wonder. For me it’s about continuity, and a confirmation that we are part of something greater than ourselves. The sense of wonder is an intuition that engages the mind, but it’s also an affirmation that there are still mysteries in the world. A great many things would not be possible without it. The sense of wonder begets creativity.
On the summit of the precipice, and in the heart of the green woods . . . there was an intelligence in the winds of the hills, and in the solemn stillness of the buried foliage, that could not be mistaken. It entered into my heard and I could have wept, not that I could not see, but that I could not portray all that I felt.
James Holman From A Sense of Wonder: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler, by Jason Roberts
The reality is more complex than either/or. Imagination and inventiveness aren’t only for artists, film-makers and writers; creativity is innate to all humans, even those who think they don’t have a creative bone in their bodies. We all use our creative muscles every day in problem-solving, in humour, coming up with meal plans, writing essays and so on. But if you want to get good at a specific creative endeavour, like drawing or painting, writing or film-making, it requires the honing of skills through effort and practice. Few people, if any, pick up a video camera and make an award-winning cinematic experience without first studying the craft. Likewise no one can pick up pencil and know immediately how to draw a realistic portrait of a tree. Artists need developed observation skills, curiosity and determination as much as the ability to create a collection of nice looking lines. But creativity also needs fuel.
My (almost) 10 year old daughter has a bedazzling imagination and can create full and magical scenes on paper without breaking a sweat. Her imagination is one of her superpowers. But I don’t think she is more “naturally gifted” than any of her friends. For starters she comes from a creative family – my grandmother wrote poetry, my aunty is an artist, my mother is skilled with knitting needles, crochet hooks and macrame and is always pottering with some project, and my sister is a master of many things, including being innovative, with an eye for pleasing designs. We are all, always creating; it’s like breathing. I write, draw, paint and invent worlds and my husband is a really good bedtime story-teller, inventing them on the fly when our daughter can’t sleep. This creative universe is all my daughter has ever known – it’s her fuel. She lives in a house with too many pencils and markers, overflowing with paper and sketchbooks and encouragement. It probably helps having parents who were thrilled when she drew murals of spirals and spiders on the wall under the dining room table, which we only discovered once we’d moved the table away from the wall. She was two and we were so proud we kept them. At two my husband and I enrolled her in a ballet class to see if she’d like to dance. I had no agenda other than to help her explore the possibilities and maybe have a bit of fun. Much to the chagrin of the ballet teacher, my little one only wanted to frolic and dance to her own song. After a month of this the teacher took me aside and told me my spirited little one would be “better suited to something less . . . disciplined”. My little one “has got something”, they said, but it’s not this. Let her frolic, they said. Far from being offended, I was thrilled. That gave me so much insight in to who this little person was. At four years old, and not for the last time, her teacher wanted me to know how amazing her paintings were and that I really need to encourage this, because “she’s got something”. That something they struggled to define isn’t talent or genius, it’s just the imaginative mind of a kid that wants to frolic. So we let her frolic. She writes stories all the time and has since filled several sketchbooks of her own with sketches and illustrated stories. She knows her way around the iPad drawing app, Procreate, writes her own music on the flute and likes to teach other people how to draw. She is skilled and talented because she’s an explorer, she works hard, she practices, she’s curious and she has a desire to be an artist, and apparently a “youtuber” (don’t they all).
Creativity is innate and we’re all explorers. We just need someone to believe in us and the space to frolic and develop.
If you’re looking for a book that is all about visual and creative thinking, but you feel like going on a tour of the unexpected, look no further than Alan Fletcher’s, The Art of Looking Sideways. Unless you’ve already heard of it (it’s been around for almost 20 years) and have one or two copies of your own, in which case I urge you to remove it from its pedestal and appreciate it again. The book is a treasury of artistic expression, a compilation of images, facts, anecdotes, quotes, typology and weirdness, all in one weighty tome. This monster codex should really come with its own lectern and a comfortable chair from which to enjoy it. Its spine is an impressive 6.35 centimetres (2.5 inches) thick, and it contains 72 chapters over 1064 pages. Subjects include everything from creativity to handedness and space-time, and everything in between and besides.
Don’t expect to read it cover to cover over a few days. Expect to spend many sittings, over years, flipping and flicking, reading and pondering, enjoying the fodder that Fletcher gathered for us. These are the kinds of books I love – the catch-all desk companions that require numerous and repeated readings and whose contents renew that sense of wonder for the world, but especially the creative mind. I’ve had my copy for years, yet I still don’t feel as if I’ve finished it.
I love it so much, yet find it hard to describe. Maybe Alan Fletcher can help . . .
On second thought, if you can find a copy, do yourself a favour and grab it. To me, the book is not only a manual for design, but an homage to curiosity, creativity and the pursuit of personal enlightenment.
It’s been awhile since I created a large piece because when I do it takes up most of my creative headspace and time. This means I don’t spend much time in my sketchbook. I’ve decided to share my process instead.
The piece I’m working on is a large leaf lime or linden tree (Tilia platyphyllos). I don’t like to copy reference photos when I ink trees, but I still use reference photos to inform the drawing and create a representative tree, a sort of ambassador for its species. Every tree is unique, even within a species, but every tree species has features which are characteristic of its kind. These are the things I look for when studying the tree. This means I end up studying at least hundred different photos, watch videos and read descriptions to get a feel for a tree. Visiting trees in person would be best, but given that I live in the subtropics, there aren’t too many linden’s around. This inspiration stage of the artistic process can take a couple of days before I even pick up a pencil.
The next phase is to sketch some trees in Procreate on an iPad or using a computer and drawing tablet. I like to do this digitally because it saves paper and I make many many adjustments to the drawing. I start by sketching actual specimens to get a feel for the species form, the way the trunk splits and the boughs twist, how it branches, how leaves clump and so on. These sketches don’t look like much and I never spend too much time on any of them. I create at least five sketches of individual trees.
Next I create a draft in procreate and tweak it to the shape that pleases me. This is where I allow myself to erase, redraw and generally fuss with the drawing. It still doesn’t end up looking like much, but once I’m happy with the draft I’m ready to transfer it on to watercolour paper.
Creating the pencil underdrawing can be achieved either by printing the above image on to an A3 sheet of paper, or in this case, drawing directly on to the watercolour paper using a very basic grid as a guide. I prefer this method as it allows me to adjust the picture as I go. The pencil drawing is very light and only serves as a guide.
Inking: putting the pen to the paper is by far the most nerve-wracking phase of any piece for me. There’s so much potential, but anything can go wrong. Once the first mark goes down I’m committed to the painting until it’s done. Inking is a slow process and it can take many hours. To me it feels like the first few hours is the worst, because I’m unsure of how to read the map, I’m constantly referring to reference photos, constantly worrying about the placement of every line. This is the ugly phase that all my ink drawings go through, but I’ve done enough now to know to persevere. And if it doesn’t work, it’s only ink and paper (and time).
With any luck there will be a lot more to show tomorrow . . .
Yesterday I tentatively diagnosed myself with the unhappy affliction that affects many creative people: creative block. But here’s the thing: I don’t think it’s a big deal, but it got me thinking about what it really means and if it’s even a thing. Spoiler: it isif you say it is.
Critics of creative block, or writer’s block, say it’s all in you’re head, you invented it as an excuse to avoid work, you’re inexperienced, fearful or you’re just being lazy. All those things might be true, but they can still create barriers to creativity and inspiration, thus we call it creative block. It’s just a term to describe an experience, and in most cases it is not an actual medical condition (such as those caused by head trauma or stroke). The reality is most creatives can relate to experiencing a lack of inspiration, motivation or just plain burnout at least once in their creative lives. What we do about it depends on the reason we’re stuck.
For me it is a four phase process. If all three phases are met we have all the ingredients for creative block.
Phase one: Honeymooning with my Imagination
A common source of creative block for me is the too-many-ideas syndrome. I’m a daydreamer, honeymooning with my imagination. New ideas are fun and easy; they require very little commitment. But they’re just thoughts, not action; action requires a lot more energy. Ideas need fleshing out, which requires much more time and effort. Sometimes it’s a habit that has served me well, but it’s a habit, nonetheless, and it’s a hard one to break. It becomes an issue when it’s time to expand an idea, to put it in to practice and create something with it. Instead of using the idea I can end up obsessing over it for days, sometimes weeks until the concept no longer resembles the original idea. Overthinking the idea is my second bane and can lead to the idea morphing in to a monster I can’t control. I end up hating it. Sometimes I manage to scale it back to the shape of the original idea. When that doesn’t work I put it on my growing “on hold” pile, which is really is just a monument to failed experiments.
This, for me at least, is an early symptom of creative block and it happened with a piece I’m working on at the moment. I took an idea I loved and tried to make it better.
Phase two: Gretel Gets Her Way
So I had an idea, I overthought it, but wrestled it back in to something that resembles the original idea. I still like it very much, but then I started questioning whether or not I actually have the skill to complete the task. This one is often much harder to overcome and a too familiar feeling for many creatives: self-criticism. Most of the time it’s a normal step in the creative process to ask yourself if you have what it takes to complete the task, to critique your own skill set. Sometimes, though, your judgemental, inner critic will tell you you’re “not good enough” and it will be loud enough that you down tools and walk away. I call my inner critic Gretel (for strange reasons only Laurie Anderson fans will understand). Gretel is unfair, unkind, but not always no good. Most of the time Gretel is a whisper in the back of my mind and I use her snarky comments as ballast, for creative stability. Because sometimes Gretel is right. Every now and then, though, she wails and shrieks, overriding all other influences. This usually means Gretel has appointed herself the President of the Enterprise and likes herself a little too much. When it does get to this point it can be hard to talk myself out of it. Fortunately, I know myself (and Gretel) well enough to understand it’s only a temporary state of mind. If I rest the project I can usually return to it fresh and begin anew. But that is all provided there is no phase 3, in which case, Gretel gets her way.
Phase three: Even Louder than Gretel
Living a creative life is essential to a maintaining a healthy mind, at least for myself. Ninety-nine percent of the time it is gratifying and has many more benefits than it has disadvantages. Really the only disadvantage I can think of is the expense of all those lovely art supplies. But sometimes, life gets in the way and I find myself overwhelmed by external forces. For me that external force was the announcement by the state government of the re-closing of the Queensland border, where I live, to residents of New South Wales. This is due to outbreaks of Covid in that state and the first new cases of Covid in mine since May. This came as a bit of a blow as I have family in New South Wales, some only three hours away by car. I’ve only seen my mother once in eight months on account of Covid, despite her living relatively close. As much as I know the closure is necessary and temporary – we will be with them again – it means I can’t be with my sister on her birthday next week, for which we were planning a family reunion and celebration, and they can’t be with us for my daughter’s tenth birthday celebrations coming up in September. My daughter was understandably gutted and visibly crumpled when I told her. That broke my heart. I was already feeling the burden of self-doubt. Now, feeling helpless and overwhelmed, I couldn’t find the inspiration or motivation to paint anything. No idea has roused in me any enthusiasm for painting or writing (with exception to this post). I haven’t done any drawing for five days. Not long in the grand scheme of things, but long enough for someone who paints, draws and writes almost all day everyday. This phase for me is the most difficult to shake off, because it has engaged my heart and heart has a louder voice than mind. Even louder than Gretel.
Phase Four: Listen to Gretel
It’s important to understand, had any of these things happened in isolation I might have weathered any part of it. But that’s the thing about creative block, it never is about just one thing. It’s almost always an accumulation of things, at least for me – although I suspect this is true for many creatives. At any other time being creative might have helped me deal with the blow of not being able to see my family, but I was already feeling a little burnt out. I should have listened to Gretel. That inner noise has always been an accurate barometer of when to step back.
Stepping back doesn’t mean stopping, especially since I don’t know how to not be creative. It just means changing the focus a little, better yet, giving it all less gravity. It doesn’t always have to be the magnum opus, after all.
I have done many of these creative blocks in my time as a writer and artist, so I know a few things about it:
Interlude – creative block is rarely permanent. It’s a transitional phase, so treat it like an ellipsis rather than a full stop.
Ruminate. If ideas are still coming, let them. You don’t have to act on them, but do record them. Let your mind wander.
Recognise – you already have the tools you need to conquer it yourself. Still, it can help to read up on the experiences of other creative people.
Absorb – Reading fiction is a great way of escaping and relaxing the mind and can give the creative machine a much needed oiling.
Hidden, not gone – your mind is still creating even if you’re not conscious of it. It never stopped.
Gather – use the time to gather some creative fodder, whatever form that takes.
Poise – be patient with yourself. You will get back your mojo.
So that’s where I’m at. I have no sketchbook update or prompt to offer, just some thoughts on creative block. I’m interested to hear what you think and what sorts of things you do to ease out of creative block. Or indeed if you’re one the few who haven’t experienced it.
Sometimes I need to paint something that doesn’t require much investment of time or effort. I do this to avoid the habit of fussing with a painting, if I want to practice techniques or I’m working out a scene for a specific project. A good way I’ve found is to do postcard sized paintings of imaginary places. These are places with untold stories, which I used as an art prompt to create the three paintings below. It turns out it’s a lot of fun and they’re great for exercising creativity, especially if I’m feeling stuck or lazy. If it doesn’t work it’s not really a big deal because I’ve used minimal paper and paint. The only rule is to avoid spending too much time on each piece. I succeeded with the first two paintings, but ended up spending too much time fussing with the third, which is also larger than a postcard. Still, it was fun and I can see I still need to practice loosening up.
In Australia, if we want to avoid being swooped by mobs of magpies in breeding season, we make friends with them. One way to do this is to feed them. While I don’t think they actually see us as friends, they do remember humans who are kind to them. As such no one in my house has been swooped by magpies, not even my dogs. And this seems to extend for quite a large area around my house.
Not everyone agrees that feeding them is a good idea, as there is a concern it could change their natural behaviour, make them dependent on humans, or risk their health with inappropriate food. Personally, I think the ship has sailed for the “natural behaviour” argument. Humans have so changed natural habitats that it would be naive to expect their behaviour won’t change too. As for their diet isse, we don’t feed them anything they wouldn’t normally forage for themselves and they still spend 90% of their time foraging naturally. Magpies know how to be magpies after all.
Magpies are successful in Australia precisely because of their ability to form cooperative relationships and to adapt to new situations. They’ve weathered some hard times and will again. Being such clever birds, I don’t think Maggie’s are in any danger of losing their ability to forage any time soon. Since Magpies live in the same territory for their whole lives, some of the birds that visit my home have been here at least long as I have (14 years) and see me as part as their landscape. They’ve seen the same shrinking of habitats and increase in the number of humans, cats and dogs and road traffic as I have during the past decade especially. But they didn’t complain. They changed their behaviour and they are resilient. I’m happy to be a magpie enabler.
So in honour of maggie’s, today’s prompt is resilience. Here’s my entry: