Creativity and Limitations

Stick with me on this one because I will get around to talking about painting. Eventually.

I am becoming increasingly tired of new films, in particular overblown, overcomplicated CGI fests. I am no longer interested in watching the extras on how these films were made. The magic has gone.

Compare this to the films of one of my heroes Ray Harryhausen, Jason and the Argonauts for example. The magic is still definitely there in abundance. There are moments that can be easily missed such as when a skeleton jumps over a fallen soldier. Think about that: a stop motion model jumping. Just how did Harryhausen do it? Or what about a moment from The Valley of Gwangi when Gwangi is captured by some cowboys lassooing him. The viewer can see the rope go from the hands of the live action cowboys, across the screen and around the neck of a stop motion model, that also moves around the screen. Again, how did he do it? It's the thrill that I get when I watch a good magic show. My brain is fully engaged in trying to work it all out.

Now, they just use a computer. And a big blue screen.

The limitations placed on Harryhausen forced him to be creative to get around problems. I'll admit there is a fair bit of creativity in the use of CGI but when you have the ability to do anything, things seem to turn out a little bland or even worse...

Let's take a film example again: compare R2-D2 (in the original trilogy) with Jar Jar Binks. One has stacks of character despite having hardly any articulation and is very well loved. The other, well... I wish I could erase him from my memory. With a scouring pad. George Lucas moans about the limitations he was made to work under but I think that it's those exact limitations that forced him to be creative and make something brilliant. Just because you can do something George, it doesn't mean that you should.

The world of music can also be helped by limitations. Now that we can record music on to a computer rather than tapes, we have the ability to change any of the elements at any time. It is often advocated in books on the subject that musicians should set things in stone as soon as possible. For example, mix all of the drums and bass together and lock them so they can't be changed. That way problems have to be sorted by being creative with the other instruments, possibly creating something that wasn't originally planned.

And I think that's the key. Limitations force us to do things that we wouldn't normally do. They push us out of our comfort zones to create something that we would never have thought of if we'd had free rein. The results seem to be fresher, more interesting and have that indefinable magic.

With this in mind, when I paint I give myself artificial limits. For example, in the series 'The Seven Gates' I have made myself compose my images in a panoramic frame. This has caused me a fair few headaches. In 'The Insidious Whisper' I would have liked some more height so that I could show the scale of the creature better. But I think in the finished picture the scale is absolutely fine and the cramped panoramic frame forces the creature into a pose that looks sinister and creepy, in fact, "insidious".


I've written about it before but, in the same painting, the fact that I'd already painting the background meant that when I came up with the problem of the creature's head not working in the composition, I had to radically redesign it. That mask is something that I wouldn't have created without that limitation and I'm very happy with it.

Another rule that I've stuck to is using a limited palette. I use the three primary colours, white, plus Sepia and Prussian Blue to make a black. So that's six pots of paint and for the majority of the time I only use the primaries and white. There have been many occasions when I've come across a problem where I would have loved another colour just to differentiate between two areas. But I've had to solve those problems in different ways, either by changing the drawing or adapting the tones. Again this creates something that wouldn't exist without the limitations. Another upside of using a limited palette is that an artist can becoming very familiar with mixing those colours.

My love of limitations has possibly led to me using acrylics and painting traditionally rather than painting in Photoshop or Corel Painter. The use of layers in these apps means that any element can be changed at any time. I have used them to create full paintings, but I find my perfectionist tendencies become excessive and I spend far too long tweaking every little detail. My background in mathematics probably contributes to my love of problem solving also, so I'm going to stick with paint and its limitations for the foreseeable future.

So whatever you're doing, try giving yourself limitations and get that creativity flowing. I'll leave you with a final example from films, both from director Sam Raimi: The Evil Dead and Spiderman 3. Point made?

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