The Use of Limitation for Creative Growth

Austin Kleon

Austin Kleon

            When we think of art and creativity, we think of painters, musicians, poets, writers, and artists of all sorts.  We think of how great these masters’ products are.  Something that frequently comes to mind is the idea that these people were born with a natural talent that others may not posses.  When it comes to creative work, it is easy to romanticize the overdramatic thought of an artist trudging through turmoil only to be able to express through their artwork; or an artist feeling an intense emotion that can only be expressed through their art.  One may feel overwhelmed by the thought of never meeting what those masters have done when it comes to creating art yet, all of our favorite artists are doing the same thing that we should be doing – building walls.

            By creating walls and limitations during the creative process, the artist is now channeling her focus to a more specific subject.  By doing this, one's creative muscles are able flourish in the room that they have to fill and the artist isn't in a rut of trying to decide what to create or what to do.  As Orson Welles stated, “the absence of limitations is the enemy of art”.    

            I’m rambling here, but think of this…  I hand you a blank sheet of paper and crayons and tell you to draw something.  What do you draw?  The options are endless and more times than not, you may find yourself staring at the blank sheet of paper in despair.  However, if I were to hand you a blank sheet of paper and crayons and tell you to draw a flower, what do you do?  You draw a flower.  The decision time in the creative process is immediately cut down.  Also, everyone’s flower will be different, which expresses one’s personality and character.  So in this, we have created a wall – the wall or limitation of only drawing a flower.  Now, how can we take this to the next level?  Create another wall.  One wall would be only drawing a flower; another wall would be only drawing a flower using two colored crayons.  Or, a different approach could be only drawing a flower and only being able to place the crayon to the paper once, so you’d have to draw a flower with one continuous line.   



            Limitation through art is all around us, whether we see it or not.  The late, great Dr. Seuss used limitation to an incredible extent.  The book, “Green Eggs and Ham”, was written on a bet that Dr. Seuss couldn’t write a book using fifty words or less.  This bet was made for $50 after he had written, “The Cat in the Hat”, which only uses 236 different words.  BOOM!  Limitation.

            I am lucky enough to find myself surrounded by incredibly talented creatives.  I fondly recall an evening at the Arthouse in downtown Billings, MT for a intimate singer-songwriter showcase featuring Grant Jones and Ryan Kabeary.  They were playing songs back and forth and were talking about each one and the process they went through in creating their work.  Ryan presented this beautiful tune called, “This Feeling of Being Alive”.  He stated that he wanted to challenge himself in the songwriting process and only write a song using four chords the entire time, which would require the lyrical content to be the main focus of the song; a truly incredible song and it came to fruition because of this use of restriction and limitation.

Barb Ross

Barb Ross

Another person I have been grateful to meet is the artist, Barb Ross.  On the homepage of her website, she writes:

Working on larger canvasses, with large brushes and finger painting allows for surprises that guide me through a painting. My use of color is premeditated; I want my paintings to have color impact and lots of movement. My work is mostly abstract but extracting from nature I incorporate forms that are recognizable. My canvasses are prepared with texture and often collage. When all these processes come together and actually work I’m intoxicated with excitement.

Already, it is apparent that limitations are present in her work.  The piece on the right is one of hers titled, "Roots", which is a charcoal piece.  The application of only using charcoal immediately changes and influences the final product.  You can view more of her work here.

            This use of creative limitation and building walls for creative growth is all over music as well.  For instance, the main groove in the song, "Sing, Sing, Sing", is primarily played on the floor tom.  Gene Krupa plays an incredible drum solo as well, all on the tom.  Genius!  The great Bob Dylan cover of, "I Shall Be Released", by The Band features Levon Helm strumming his finger on the guts of the snare for the groove of the tune.  These are all restrictions that are used to enhance the final product.

            Another beautiful example of limitation in music is in the song, "Vanishing Act", by Lou Reed.  This song is only two stanzas of lyrics that are repeated three times throughout.  On top of a lyrical restriction in content, there is a restriction on arrangement as well.  Lou is only accompanied by piano throughout the entire piece until just after the last chorus when a chamber orchestra comes in for the final minute.  The use of restriction in this case creates a beautifully haunting melody, which in turn makes the simple tune stand out on its own.


            An artist who had to embrace limitation, is Phil Hansen.  Phil developed a shake in his hand while in school that became worse and worse.  Through this, he ended up quitting art until he learned how to work with his disadvantage, which led him to produce some of the most interesting and inspiring pieces I have seen today.  Also, not only did he have to learn how to work with his own limitations, but he took limitation to the next level.  In this Ted Talks, Phil speaks of his physical disadvantage that he developed and how he persevered through it.

            It is clear to see that building walls for oneself opens up a whole plethora of options for creative growth.  In a daily practice, you may not always be pleased with your product but the practice and application of restriction will help to create something.  Sometimes getting up and placing the brush to the canvas, the fingers to the piano, the pen to the paper, is the hardest part; so why not challenge yourself before you've even started creating?  You may be surprised at what you have up your sleeve.


Thanks for reading and please feel free to comment below, share other forms of creative limitation, and please try some of this on your own!