TRANSCRIPT Ep. 260: Creativity Loves Constraints


Miriam Schulman: When you don’t limit what you can do, that’s when your mind wanders and the creative process does become scattered. And that’s why I mentioned so many of my clients struggle with this. So in order to increase your creativity and increase your focus, you need to add constraints. So the limitations imposed by constraints, like I said, they can help narrow the focus. It’ll let you concentrate on very specific aspects of your creative challenge.

Speaker 2: It’s the Inspiration Place podcast with artist Miriam Schulman. Welcome to the Inspiration Place Podcast, an Art World Insider podcast for artists by an artist where each week we go behind the scenes to uncover the perspiration and inspiration behind the art. And now your host, Miriam Schulman.

Miriam Schulman: Well, hey there Artpreneur! Welcome to the Inspiration place. This is Miriam Schulman, your curator of inspiration. You’re listening to episode number 260, and I am so grateful that you’re here with me today. We’re talking all about how you can increase your creativity by adding constraints. This is something that I’ve always said that creativity loves constraints. I experienced this myself most recently when I was having trouble, even with the help of HarperCollins, finding a bookstore who would host my book launch party. Because in January of 2023, we were all very sensitive to COVID still. A lot of the bookstores didn’t even have event planners anymore. They had let them go. So I was having a lot of trouble. And luckily I know a lot of people in the art world, of course, and one of my new friends, Kristin Thomas, volunteered to let me use her gallery space for the book event, which ended up being such a win-win. I loved having my book launch party inside a gallery, and it also helped the gallery get additional exposure. So that’s just one example of many ways that having constraints increases your creativity and actually leads you to a result that’s better. You know, for example, like this, it would be it’s better than if I just did it at a Barnes and Noble and it didn’t hurt my book sales either. We did have the Strand come.

They were selling books there and I think we sold almost 40 books that night. And they said that was way more than they usually sell when it is an event inside the bookstore. So yeah, I fully believe in constraints for creativity and something that I help my clients do. I help them come up with schedules and deadlines because a lot of them struggle. So if this is you don’t feel bad. A lot of artists I work with struggle with this. They’re used to having a job where somebody tells them what to do and gives them a deadline. And when they have too much loosey-goosey, unstructured time, they find it very difficult to focus and know when their project is done. And time is just one of the many ways that you can put a constraint on.
So here’s what we’re going to talk about today. First, I’m going to share with you the four ways that adding constraints increases your creativity. And then I’m going to share with you six different ways that you can add a constraint to your creativity. And I’ve also given you tons and tons of inspiring examples of other artists that have done this in all kinds of industries. So I say industries, all kinds of different genres. So from film to dance to graphic design to painting and music, lots of different kinds of creativity that flourished because of the constraints. Okay, so let’s get started.

All right. Four ways that adding constraints increases your creativity. Number one. Focuses the mind. So constraints force the mind to focus on the essential components of a problem or a task, and that can lead to innovative solutions. I love commissions, and the reason why I love commissions is for this reason the constraints that are added. I have the constraint of a deadline for a client. I have the constraint of I have to perhaps if it’s a portrait, paint certain people, I need to do it in a certain size that I’ve agreed on. So all these different constraints, they always help me. When you don’t limit what you can do, that’s when your mind wanders and the creative process does become scattered. And that’s why I mentioned so many of my clients struggle with this. So in order to increase your creativity and increase your focus, you need to add constraints. So the limitations imposed by constraints, like I said, they can help narrow the focus. It’ll let you concentrate on very specific aspects of your creative challenge. Let me give you an example. The writer Ernest Hemingway, who I love, is known for his very direct writing style, and he used short, simple sentences. He avoided flowery language or excessive description. And one of the constraints he imposed on himself was to limit his use of adjectives and adverbs. I know a lot of artists.

They think they have to use flowery language to describe your artwork, and you really don’t. So because how many ways? A great example by focusing on the essential elements of the scene or character and avoiding these unnecessary descriptions, Hemingway was able to create a powerful and memorable narrative style that was unlike anything that had done before him. And lots of people then, of course, copied it. Since that time, this constraint helped him focus his mind on the most important aspects of his writing and to eliminate anything that was extraneous or distracting. By stripping away the excess, he was able to create a lean and powerful prose style that’s still admired and emulated by writers today. And notice that I said that this helped his writing. That doesn’t mean that everyone should strip away extra words. It’s just showing you how this approach, this approach, where there are constraints, helped him focus his mind and really captured a style that became uniquely his own. Reason number two. Facilitates originality. Now, constraints can inspire originality because they require you to think outside the box. When you’re limited in some way, you must find alternative ways to get to the end result to get to your goal. And this can lead to creative solutions that might not have been considered otherwise. Here are some examples. Graphic designers often face the constraint of working within a specific brand identity or a style guide.

That was something I discussed with Lori Siebert, and she is both a graphic designer and a licensed artist. We will link to her episode in the show notes. This is episode 260, so you can hop over there and find a link to that to Lori’s conversation. But I wanted to give you a different example. So some designers take the constraint as an opportunity to push the boundaries and take risks with their designs. Now, here is a really great example. I hopefully I’m pronouncing it right. I want you to Google this design firm Sagmeister and Walsh. Amazing. That design firm is known for their bold and experimental approach to design, often using unconventional materials and techniques to create eye catching and memorable designs. I love it, love it, love it. Love it. Go. Definitely hit the Googles and check that out. Reason number two, encourage risk-taking. All right. Constraints can definitely encourage risk-taking. We kind of hinted at that before because they provide a safety net for experimentation. So when you know what the limits are, you can explore different possibilities without the fear of failure. This encourages you to take risks and try new things that you might not have otherwise. Here’s a great example. Prince. So I’m a girl of the 80s I love the musician, Prince. He was definitely known for his willingness to take risks and push the boundaries of the genre and style.

He incorporated unexpected elements into his music, such as rock guitar riffs in his funk songs or electronic beats in his ballad. So, for example, the song Kiss definitely features a distinctive guitar riff that combines elements of rock, funk and pop and that helped make Kiss one of Prince’s most iconic and memorable songs. On the other hand, his ballad When Doves Cry. That one is from 1984 from the album Purple Rain. This song features a distinctive drum machine rhythm in the ballad that underpins its sparse and haunting melody, creating a very unique and memorable sound. So that was some risks that Prince used in his art and how that kind of constraint and pushing the boundaries really helped him become a better musician and a better artist. Reason number four increases resourcefulness. Constraints can increase resourcefulness because they force you to make the most of what you have. When your resources are limited, you must find ways to make them stretch further, which can lead to innovative solutions. So those are the four ways on how constraints encourage creativity. When we come back, I’m going to share the six different ways you can impose constraints, a lot of them having to do with your resources, not just time, not just materials. I have a bunch of examples, so I’m going to share with you six different ways you can impose constraints to increase your creativity as well as more examples.


**Artpreneur Review**


Miriam Schulman: Welcome back. Okay. So we were talking about the four different ways that adding constraints increases your creativity. And now we’re going to talk about the different kinds of constraints that can be imposed on the creative process. So here is the first example, number one. Time. Setting a time limit can be a very effective constraint. It forces you to work efficiently. It helps you focus the mind on the most important aspects of what you’re doing. I do this all the time, especially with this podcast. Like today. I knew I only had an hour to write my script for the podcast and record the podcast because at 2:00 I have back to back Zoom calls all the way until six this is and I’m recording this on a Thursday, and on Friday my husband and I like to go to the country and I really don’t like recording in the country because I don’t like my microphone there. So setting a time limit really helps you. And that’s why when you’re in business for yourself, you really need to create deadlines for yourself for when things get done as well as time. Block And designate what happens in that time. Block The time block should never say work. The time block should be something like record podcast or rewrite the about page or edit photos for the website. It needs to be very specific. And as I’ve said in other episodes, make that commitment to yourself. If something comes up and you can’t make that appointment you have with yourself. Treat it as you would a dentist appointment. Reschedule that appointment with yourself because doing what you say you’re going to do, that’s what’s going to increase your self-trust, which will ultimately increase your confidence.

But setting a time limit not only will help you with the confidence pieces that we’ve been talking about, but it also will increase your creativity. So we talked about deadlines on the calendar. Another thing is a Pomodoro technique. So you set a timer for 20 minutes. Sometimes the hardest thing is really just getting started. So some things that help me get started sometimes setting a timer. I like the focus that will app on my phone or on my computer. It has a bell that starts before you, plays the music and has the bell at the end. And sometimes I say to myself, I’m just going to get started. And usually when the bell goes off at the end, I’m then in the flow. I’m in the flow of creativity and I can keep on going. Know that starting is always going to be the hardest aspect of doing anything. And that’s why most of the fuel is used in the takeoff of a rocket ship or the takeoff of an airplane. Most of the fuel is used in getting started. So know that even with yourself as a human, most of your energy is just getting started. Once you get started, a lot of us can find ourselves in the flow. Constraint number two. Materials. Limiting the materials that you use can also be a very useful restraint. For example, if you’re a painter, you might want to limit yourself to the type of paint or canvas that’s kind of obvious.

A less obvious example would be the challenge of limiting your color palette, maybe only using two colors. That’s why I love some of those Instagram challenges. They’ll say use pumpkin orange plus champagne pink to do the whole painting. So using color constraints. But some of my most favorite examples actually come from Project Runway. So it’s I forgot what they call it. I think it’s the alternative materials challenge. It’s something like that. So, for example, they might be brought to a hardware store and they have to create a high fashion look using only materials found in the hardware store or a different episode. They may be taken to a flower store or a party supply shop. So this forces the designers to be very creative with the materials and use things they might not normally use, resulting in some truly innovative designs. One of my favorite looks from the show, I forget if this was from a party supply store or something different, but the designer used plastic drinking straws and made an entire dress out of it and then sprayed it. Silver It was absolutely stunning. Absolutely stunning. So some really creative and beautiful designs have come out of that. Alternative materials. More examples that also come from fashion is upcycling. So many fashion designers use upcycling as a way to create both a sustainable and a unique piece, and this involves taking existing materials, repurposing them into something new and stylish. For example, the designer Christopher Raeburn, creates clothing and accessories using decommissioned military parachutes. An other artists use sustainable materials like Stella McCartney.


So she limits herself, sometimes only using sustainable materials such as organic cotton, bamboo, recycled plastic. Actually, she’s known for her commitment to sustainability, and she uses only vegetarian materials in her designs. Other designers take on the challenge of zero waste. Some designers using a zero waste approach include designer Daniels Silverstein. He’s known for his zero waste designs, which are not only sustainable, but they are incredibly creative. Another creativity constraint could be your budget. And sometimes this is not by design or by choice, but you just don’t have that much to spend. Limiting the budget is an effective constraint. It forces you to be resourceful. Find creative ways to work within your financial limitations. Here’s an example I love of that. So this is acclaimed filmmaker Robert Rodriguez. He made his first feature film, El Mariachi, with a budget of just $7,000. This was a 1992 Spanish-language neo-western action film. And the first part of the saga can be known as part of his Mexico trilogy. It marked the feature-length debut of Rodriguez as a writer and a director to make the film within his budget. He had to be extremely resourceful and creative. He used nonprofessional actors shot in real locations rather than sets and used practical effects rather than expensive CGI. So one of the famous examples is that he used a tortoise shell as a dolly for the camera. So rather than spending money on a traditional camera dolly, he strapped his camera to a tortoise shell, allowing him to achieve smooth tracking shots. The constraints of a limited budget forced Rodriguez to think creatively and find new and innovative solutions to the challenges of making the film.

Now, like I said before, it was shot mainly with an amateur cast, and it was shot at the northern Mexico border town just across from Texas, which was the hometown of the leading actor. He used Carlos. I think you say Gallardo. I’m butchering it. So sorry. I really wish I had a better facility of languages, including the English language. I don’t know if you noticed listening to my show, I butcher a lot of words. So anyway, that actor was eventually replaced in future films with Antonio Banderas. But let me tell you this, okay? This low budget film was originally intended just for the Mexico home video market, so he didn’t have big aspirations for it. But the executives at Columbia Pictures liked the film so much they bought the American distribution rights, and Columbia eventually spent $200,000 to transfer the print to film, to remix the sound and add some other post-production work. And then it did spend millions more on the marketing and distribution. But this went on to be recognized by the Guinness World Records as the lowest-budget film ever to gross $1 million at the box office. And like I said, there were two other sequels, so this is part of a trilogy. So here’s just a really beautiful example of how limiting the budget really helped Rodriguez step into a very creative film style. Isn’t that amazing? All right. When we come back, I’m going to share three more constraints that encourages creativity. But first, this.


**Artpreneur Review**


Miriam Schulman: Okay. Welcome back. Constraint number four: Space. Limiting the space you have to work on can actually be a useful constraint, especially for artists or designers. This can force you to think more creatively about how you can use the space that you have. But not just visual artists. Contemporary modern dance company Pilobolus is known for its innovative and acrobatic approach to dance. I first became aware of them because they were founded by a group of Dartmouth College students. It was founded way before I got there, by the way. It was founded in 1971. I was not at Dartmouth until 1986. I graduated, in case you’re curious. In 1990. But one of their most famous choreography pieces was Shadowland. The dancers use shadows and silhouettes to create a very unique visual experience to create this piece. Pilobolus had to work within the constraints of limited stage space.

They couldn’t rely in traditional set design or props, so they had to find creative ways to use their bodies and the available lighting to create a sense of depth and dimension. The result was a visually stunning performance that uses the dancers bodies to create a variety of shapes and illusions. They use their arms, their legs, their torsos to create silhouettes that appear to be everything from a car to a train to a giant bird. So this is just one more example about how constraints can really lead to truly tremendous creativity. And this piece is still performed today. So like I said, this their group was started in the 1970s, but I do remember seeing this piece being performed in the 1990s.

Constraint number five: Audience. Designing for a specific audience or demographic can be a constraint. Now, this is something I’ve been familiar with my own art. It forces you to think about the needs or the preferences of the audience and to create something that will resonate with them. This is not about people pleasing, by the way. So here’s the example I want to give from my own art. So I’m a watercolor artist and through most of my career I was known for doing portraits. So one of my most successful venues and you may have heard me mention this in the past, I think I talk about it in my book is My Kid’s music School, which was Hoff Barthelson music school shoutouts. And what I did to prepare for the show was I painted a lot of musicians, so I’m still working in my own style. I’m still working in my preferred medium, I’m still working in my preferred size. But I was bringing paintings of Yo-Yo Ma. I was bringing paintings of Hilary Hahn. I was bringing paintings of other well known musicians, and that really drew in my audience. And of course, it wasn’t always original. I had prints of this as well, and these musical figures actually are some of my best selling prints. Now. I have a storefront on Imagekind and the Yo-Yo Ma is definitely one of my most popular prints on there. Okay, we’re down to constraint number six. Technology. So we’re in a world where there’s lots of technology that you can use, but limiting it can actually lead to more creativity.

It forces you to be more creative with the tools you already have. So an example I want to share with you is Dan Witz. He’s a Brooklyn based street artist and realist painter. I think he’s still with us. He was born in 1957, so that puts him in his early 70s. He grew up in Chicago. He graduated from Cooper Union and he was working in New York City’s Lower East Side. He was very active since the 1970s, and he is one of the pioneers of the street art movement. He’s known for his hyper realistic paintings and installations that often feature surreal or unexpected elements. One of his most famous series, Mosh Pits, he painted detailed portraits of people in the midst of a chaotic mosh pit at a rock concert. But here is what’s interesting. He deliberately limited his use of technology. Rather than relying on digital tools or photography, he painted every portrait from life. Attending dozens of rock concerts and getting into the thick of the action to capture the energy and movement of the mosh pit. By limiting technology which was forced to rely on his own observations and skills to create the paintings, he had to study the movements of the crowds, the way bodies collided and intertwined, and the energy of the music itself. The result? A series of paintings that are incredibly detailed and realistic that did capture the chaos and excitement of a mosh pit in a way that no photograph ever could.

All right, my friend. Let’s wrap up now. We talked about the way to use constraints to focus the mind, facilitate originality, encourage risk taking and increase resourcefulness. These constraints can help you break old habits, create new ways of thinking, and ultimately lead to more innovative and effective solutions. Any kind of limitation or constraint can be a useful and ool for promoting creativity. One of the easiest ones, though, that I shared with you is time, materials, budget. But also audience, technology space. I think I hit all six of them. Yeah. So we have time, materials, budget, space, audience and technology. So try one of them. I would love to hear from you either.

Comment below the podcast on my website. You can hop on over to You can send me a DM on Instagram. I’m at @SchulmanArt, or send me an email. I would love to hear from you anyway. You want to talk to me? DM, comment under the Instagram post. Whatever you want to do. I would love to hear ways that you’ve used constraints to increase your creativity. Do you like commissions? Do you feel that you’re more creative with them? I know that I am. I would love to hear from you. All right, my friend. I will see you same place, same time next week. Make sure you hit the follow subscribe in your podcast app so you don’t miss a thing. Until then, stay inspired.

Speaker 2: Thank you for listening to The Inspiration Place podcast. Connect with us on Facebook at on Instagram @schulmanart and of course, on


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