Give yourself some rules before making art

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Not sure where to start making art? Get a piece of paper, a pen, decide on some constraints and make some marks. Gather evidence about what you liked and didn’t like and repeat the process. By giving yourself constraints or rules, it frees you from paralysis of choice and the never ending question of what should I do next? When you can make anything, the magnitude of choice is too overwhelming.

Austin Kleon in a Hurry Slowly podcast interview, says “I think every practising artist figures out pretty quickly that when you can do anything, you do nothing because you’re paralysed. And so one of the first things to do if you want to make work is to give yourself some rules, give yourself some constraints… I think that when you have too many possibilities it can be impossible to know what to do next.”

Constraint could look like putting ideas in a jar and pulling them out to determine what you draw. Set a timer and write down whatever words pops in your head for 2 minutes without stopping. Don’t overthink it — simple words like blue, cat, tree, laugh, boat etc. are great. Then cut up the words and put them in the idea jar. Start simple, take action, collect data and repeat. Anything that gets you away from overthinking all the possibilities, to actually making art is a huge step.

The gap in your art-making ability

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Scott Berkun in The Dance With The Possible explains how a skill gap is the distance between your current skills and the actual skills you need to bring your idea to life. “Many talented people never develop their skills because they hate the feeling of this distance. They’re embarrassed and tortured by it. They expect to improve at a pace born only from wishful thinking, and when they fail to meet it they despair. They lack the commitment required to find out, through practice, exactly how much skill they might be capable of. Instead they want an easy and guaranteed path despite the fact that none of the heroes they compare themselves against ever had one.”

Seth Godin asks if our gap is fuelling us to grow or is keeping us stranded: “There’s a gap between where you are and where you want to be. Many gaps, in fact, but imagine just one of them. That gap–is it fuel? Are you using it like a vacuum, to pull you along, to inspire you to find new methods, to dance with the fear? Or is it more like a moat, a forbidding space between you and the future?”

Austin Kleon says that success for him is “closing the gap between what your days look like and what you want your days to look like.”

Ira Glass famously talked about the disappointing gap between your taste and where you want to get skill-wise: “Nobody tells this to people who are beginners… But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.” He said most people quit before narrowing that gap but “It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.” He stresses this process takes time and that’s normal.

This gap in your ability can only be narrowed by consistently repeated practice. If you can lower your expectations of leaping from beginner to master quickly, the feeling of disappointment about your not-so-great art won’t be as strong. Instead aim for small incremental steps of growth over a period of time and focus on the ways you have improved. The bottom line is there is no shortcut to improvement and quitting before you’ve given yourself a chance to grow is a real shame.

Copying art as a process to gain inspiration

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

With so many possibilities of things to make, the dilemma of where to start can be overwhelming. A way to leap right into making and overcome the paralysis of choice is to pick something that already exists and copy it. This is how you learn how to make the thing, gain insight into the making process and clarity around your likes and dislikes. Austin Kleon in Steal Like an Artist is an advocate for stealing art and using other artists work as inspiration: “taking the things you’ve stolen and making them into your own thing… combine it with your own ideas and thoughts, transform it into something completely new.”

Once you’ve practiced copying someone else’s work, you can begin to expand and grow your own ideas. By repeating this process with a variety of different artists work, you begin to create a web of knowledge around what you are visually drawn to. So what started as a sort of counterfeit practice becomes a rich source to draw from to create your own work.

The director Damien Chazelle explains how he stole ideas from old musicals to create the film La La Land (2016): “I’ve been a movie obsessed person my whole life so there’s no shortage of films, filmmakers that I love to steal from any chance I can get. When it comes to Musicals, Stanley Donen and Vincente Minnelli y’know, are some of the obvious iconic figures of the musical and especially how I’d say Vincente Minnelli used colour and how Stanley Donen used camera movement.”

Get curious about what the style, subjects, mood, shapes, themes or colours you’re drawn to and use the process of copying to help you practice and create your own art.

How to collage typography

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection
Finished rearrangement of the original below

If a white piece of paper blinds you with too many possibilities, starting with another piece of art and editing that can get you straight into the art-making process. Creating instant restrictions creates less resistance to getting started because there’s less choice on offer. Austin Kleon in The Steal Like An Artist Journal encourages us “If we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it.” By mixing up existing art into something new, you’re creating your own art and experimenting with what you like visually.

You will need: Text (or images) to cut up. Pencil and ruler if you want to be really accurate. Scissors or scalpel to cut. Glue if you want to fix permanently in place.

  1. Divide your chosen text into squares of equal sizes and cut out
  2. Optional: Use pencil and ruler on the back if you don’t want to do it by eye
  3. Rearrange the squares into a new arrangement
  4. Optional: fix in place with glue
The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection
Left: original printed typography found in a magazine. Right: image cut into equal squares, ready for rearrangement

Why not try cutting different size shapes and then fit things together like an abstract jigsaw puzzle. Play around creating more irregular shapes and arrangements that aren’t so neat and square. Cecil Touchon uses a similar process to create his Typography Abstraction art and so ‘frees the letters from their burden of being bearers of meaning.’

Seeing something arranged differently and changing your perspective will feed back into other areas of your life in a positive way. In Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Creativity, he says “Good scientists, like good artists, must let their minds roam playfully or they will not discover new facts, new patterns, new relationships.” By allowing yourself to playfully create new patterns using what exists around, you opens yourself up to other unknown possibilities.

Look what’s already laying around your home that you can cut up and rearrange and go have a play.

 “…nothing is completely original. All creative work builds on what came before.  Every new idea is just a remix or a mashup of one or two previous ideas.”Austin Kleon, Steal Like An Artist

How to make cutout poems

Using a newspaper article, adding a layer of coloured paper with cut out spaces to reveal the words

Facing a blank piece of paper before you’ve started making art can feel very intimidating because where do you even start? An exercise to dive straight into art-making is to use an existing piece of art and edit that instead. Cutout poems are an easy way to make new art because the basic material you can find so easily – the printed text. Austin Kleon creates newspaper blackouts and encourages us that nothing is original. “Every new idea is just a remix or a mashup of one or two previous ideas.”

You will need: a magazine, newspapers, book, booklet or any printed material that contains text. A pencil/pen. Optional is a black marker or a scalpel and coloured paper.

  1. Select a small section of text and scan for the words that can connect together to form a new sentence
  2. Draw a box round the words you like and ‘cut-out’ the words you don’t need with your pen or black marker

Jeff Goins agrees that rearrangement is key for the creative mind: “There is a secret every professional artist knows that the amateurs don’t: being original is overrated. The most creative minds in the world are not especially creative; they’re just better at rearrangement.” By giving yourself constraints, you allow yourself to get more creative more easily.

The Sparkle Experiment Cutout Poem
The black marker approach to masking out unused words

A couple of variations you can try:

  • Use a layer of coloured paper and cut out the spaces to reveal the words – this is more time consuming than the pen method. Use window glass or light box as a surface to trace where the words, then finally scalpel cut out the boxes
  • Use different designs of paper as a layer or try painting paper to get a painted effect.
  • Start with a longer article and create a short story or beginning of a story, expanding on the idea of a poem
The Sparkle Experiment Cutout Poem
Different style of painted backgrounds to mask unused words

After some practice, a rhythm of making the poem emerges. It feels like you’ve cracked a code and you have a sense of satisfaction after finishing each poem. Because you are able to choose any combination of words, it feels like there’s no right or wrong result, just the one you end up with. Cutout poems are completely portable so can be created on the move and in ‘fringe’ times, all you need is some printed paper and a pen in your bag. It’s a quick, nourishing and creative form of ‘entertainment’ and fun and a welcomed alternative to checking your phone in any ‘waiting’ time.

“Transformation that is flattery – taking the things you’ve stolen and making them into your own thing… combine it with your own ideas and thoughts, transform it into something completely new, and then put it out into the world so that we can steal from you.” – Austin Kleon in Steal Like an Artist

How to mine your daily life for snippets

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Snippets are different from quotes. They are a words or small sentences that peak your curiosity. Words can be collected from everyday life in the form of signs, shops, windows, labels, graffiti and posters or from art such as books, magazines, websites, audio, tv, movies and online. Anything you see or hear. Coleman Barks said “When I was twelve years old, I kept a little notebook of words that I loved: azalea, halcyon, jejune. I just liked the taste of them… I just love lively language wherever it occurs.” Austin Kleon created a journal for creative kleptomaniacs, “This journal is designed to get you looking at your world like an artist, always “casing the joint,” always collecting ideas, always looking for the next bit of inspiration to lift – to turn you into a creative kleptomaniac.”

You will need: a notebook or paper and pen/pencil

  1. Carry a notebook wherever you go
  2. Write down anything you find interesting.

Even conversations can be a source of inspiration, either from people you know or from strangers. Listen gently but not obsessionally. This works best with people walking away from you so that you only hear a tiny piece of their conversation. It’s also less voyeuristic and creepy that way.

“The great advantage of being a writer is that you can spy on people. You’re there, listening to every word, but part of you is observing. Everything is useful to a writer, you see – every scrap, even the longest and most boring of luncheon parties.” Graham Greene.

Any snippet could spark an idea, get you thinking about a project or serve as an abstract journal. For instance if you’re on holiday and overhear something interesting, writing it down could later transport you right back to that moment (add a note of where you were to help retain the memory). Snippet collecting creates more engaged with your surroundings because you notice every day delights that normally may be invisible.

“… crafty way of blending in / Try to make it swaggy. / …trotted out like a prize bull / Tooling around / By crickey / Blithering blowholes!” – various snippets collected June 2018

The biggest rule of collecting snippets? Don’t judge what you find interesting or censor yourself writing it down because who knows what it might spark in the future. Regularly seeing the small may just surprise and delight you in the process.