“If you have five elements available use only four. If you have four elements use three.” — Pablo Picasso

The concept is Freedom Within Structure.  For those new to the idea, it can seem a little counterintuitive, but the fact is, once one has become familiar with its forms, this technique can be one of the most powerful tools at our disposal, not only for breaking through creative blocks, but for strengthening the health of our daily creative practice.

This is a well-known, time-honored principle among working artists.  The imposition of limits which provide the structure against which creativity finds its expression.  Think of it like pruning a plant, where the cutting back of particular pathways, the pruning of various branches and stems, can cause a profusion of growth as the plant compensates in other directions, as it focuses its resources on alternative pathways.

Who likes to be limited?  Isn’t being “free” part of the charm and the spell of art?

Well that’s true, but the natural world in which we find actually ourselves is one of space/time, pairs of opposites, things that come and go — and thus limits.   And like as not the artist projects whose freedom we admire were very much shaped by the limits imposed upon them, either imposed from without by the limitations of the project, by the medium itself, or sometimes the limitations placed on the work by the artist herself, often in order to access this very vitality.

The freedom we see expressed in an art work is one that is always delimited by its scope.  It may appear to be a work of unlimited freedom, but it is not.

And this is a good thing.

“I don’t believe in total freedom for the artist. Left on his own, free to do anything he likes, the artist ends up doing nothing at all. If there’s one thing that’s dangerous for an artist, it’s precisely this question of total freedom, waiting for inspiration and all the rest of it.” -Federico Fellini

Examples of this abound in popular culture.  Much of the music of Motown was recorded, not on the unlimited-track studios of today, but on a three-track tape machine, most of the Beatles’ music was recorded on a four-track.  The wild creativity, the artistry we hear in those recordings was not a product of perfect artistic freedom, it was defined by its constraints.  Think of the amazingly witty and creative dialogue of the screwball comedies of the late 30s and 40s, written under the severely restrictive Hayes Code, which limited how suggestive any dialogue or scene could become — overtly.  The methods which writers devised to get around the restriction has given us some of the smartest movies Hollywood ever created.

Picasso knew what he was about.  We can use this principle ourselves, this dynamic of the instinctual human response to limitation, to free our work.

How?  Limit your materials.  Remove one seemingly essential tool that you use — and see what happens.  Or place limits upon your subject matter.  Focus only on food.  Or cars.  Or sky.  Or limit the range of colors you use — and “colors” can be translated to any medium.

One of the most powerful limitations, however, is simply time.  This is not only a fantastic creative blockbuster, it’s also a great way to rejuvenate one’s artistic process even if everything’s great.  It’s dead simple.  Figure out the time you need to complete an average project — a painting, a song, a short story — and set yourself a completely insane deadline.  Cut the time you allow yourself  in half.  Then cut that in half.

This does a couple of things.  One, it allows you to completely immerse yourself in your medium — you don’t have time to do anything else.  Two, the desperate pressing needs of churning out the work in such an impossible amount of time short-circuit any ordinary tendencies to overthink, or to dawdle, or to second-guess yourself, or to judge.

It may take a little while to get used to the idea, and it may take a few attempts, but it’s a thoroughly engaging technique that can have lasting effects.  The main thing is to complete the work. The work may not meet your “standards,” but that’s not the purpose of the exercise.  The purpose of  the exercise is to allow yourself new connections with your media, to eliminate judgment as you create (which is much closer to that idea of actual freedom, whatever the constraints of your particular situation may be), and to experience creativity in a rawer, more alive way.

This technique is such a powerful motivator that artists of all stripes and all levels of experience frequently call upon it when they are presented a situation in which they feel they have too much creative freedom.  It really can light a fire.  Try it and you’ll see.

Be well.