Self-Imposed Limits in Painting Can Fuel Creativity

Painting of shoes in black and white by Vincent van Gogh
Shoes, by Vincent van Gogh, 1886. Photo by Lisa Marder

Sometimes self-imposed limits hold us back, preventing us from taking risks and trying new things, but other times they are just what we need to help us be more creative or improve our skills.

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), largely self-taught as an artist, did not decide to pursue painting seriously until age twenty-seven, but when he did, he did so in a very intentional way, limiting what he did in order to learn technique and to master drawing.

It entailed practicing constantly. According to exhibit notes at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, "Van Gogh did nothing other than practice, practice, practice for an entire year. He painted portraits inspired by the work of 17th-century masters. He studied the human body by drawing nudes, and copying classical sculptures. And by concentrating on still lifes he perfected his skills in painting techniques and in combining colours."  

Here are 10 ways you can limit yourself to enhance your creativity and skill:

  1. Limit the size of your painting. By choosing a surface to work on we naturally limit the size of a painting. Make a conscious choice to work at a certain size Try working small, keeping your paintings within a foot square. Read Painting Small
  2. Limit the colors you use. There are a number of different color palettes you can choose from. Try sticking to a certain color palette for awhile and using only those colors. See the range of colors and values you can get from a limited selection. Read 10 Limited Color Palettes.
  1. Limit yourself to only using your palette knife. Put aside your brushes and try painting only with a palette knife. Don't worry about getting the detail you would with your brush at first. Enjoy the textural properties of the paint and practice developing dexterity with a palette or painting knife. You may not always want to paint solely with it, but you may decide to incorporate it more into other paintings.
  1. Limit yourself to black and white. Try to see your composition in terms of Notan, the Japanese term for the balance of black and white. Read Composing a Painting Using Notan
  2. Limit yourself to a 3-inch house painter's brush. Using only a big brush will help you capture the essence of your subject and avoid getting bogged down in detail. Only paint what you can capture with your 3-inch brush. Do not use a smaller brush for finer detail.
  3. Limit your subject. Like van Gogh, choose the subject that you want to study. Do you want to improve your still lifes, or figures, or portraits, or landscapes? Each genre has its own unique challenges. Choose your subject and paint only that for awhile until you feel that you have gained some new understanding and improved your skills. Van Gogh painted many floral still lifes in order to learn about color and technique. However when those weren't available he would paint what was, even something as mundane as shoes.
  4. Limit the time you spend on each painting. Sometimes an artist ruins a painting by spending too much time on it and overworking it. Try capturing your subject in a short amount of time, in under an hour. Or even in half an hour. Try various time frames to work with that will make you work more quickly. Then try doing a painting a day. This will help you improve quickly and give you many ideas for new paintings and approaches to paintings. 
  1. Limit the number of shapes in your painting. Simplify your subject into no more than 5 basic shapes, as in a diagram. This is your composition. Choose your shapes carefully. Which shapes are most important?Which shapes tie into other shapes? 
  2. Limit yourself to a monochromatic painting, one color plus black and white, painting only value. This will force you to learn to see the how light and shadow work to create the illusion of three-dimensional space and form. Read Value, Form, and Space in Painting.
  3. Limit the intent and audience of the painting. Don't try to please everyone with your painting. Choose an audience. Maybe it's just meant for yourself, or maybe your audience is dog lovers, or gardeners. Or maybe you are painting not to make a painting that is aesthetically pleasing at all but to convey a message. Figure out your intent before you begin your painting. 

    A blank white canvas can be daunting. By creating self-imposed limits, starting and finishing a painting can be easier, and may lead you to new discoveries.