A colleague recently asked me, “How do you keep your creative energy alive right now?”
Back in March, the pandemic turned routines upside down. The pivot was quick and astonishing. It triggered some kind of biological instinct for survival. Everyone had a different reaction: excitement, fear, anxiety, inspiration or maybe a little of everything. When your house is on fire, what do you grab as you run out the door?
The gambler in me would have lost his shirt trying to predict what the next few months would look like. I expected that things would get back to normal again relatively soon. I left my sense of curiosity on the pre-pandemic shelf and diverted my energy to other stresses and worries. This was no fire drill. This was something else entirely.
At AHA, we have always found ways to keep our brains sharp and stimulated. We use prompts, playing with words and pictures several times a week, an activity we call Creative Stretch. We use this time as an opportunity to look at creative challenges from different perspectives, and those 20-minute sparks of inspiration feed our collective creative energy.
Maintaining that routine has proved difficult throughout the pandemic. The work has felt harder, the stress more acute. The changes to where and how we work and the complexity of remote collaboration have often meant cutting out the nonessential tasks. But how nonessential are our keep-fresh creative practices?
You can’t swing for the fences if you are timid at the plate.
No matter how long you’ve been in the business of making things, every task requires the herculean effort of an original idea. When we set aside time to sharpen our creative instincts, the process becomes more like second nature.
Baseball players practice batting at a far greater number than when they’re at the plate. But the reason they do so much batting practice is because that develops muscle memory so that, when the time comes, they can react in a split second. You can’t swing for the fences if you are timid at the plate.
The French painter Henri Matisse once said, “Creativity takes courage.” And he’s right. We need to have the courage to put in the work. Reps build courage, hone instinct, facilitate magic.
Practice is mandatory, and I was out of practice. I could feel it in my bones. Creaky joints, dusty sketchbook. Do you ever get that buzz? That frenetic energy that pulses through your body when you start to think about some crazy idea that’s way out of scope but that also might be genius? I used to get that when I was driving or walking, when my mind could wander over snippets of inspiration. Where I could think about something I once saw and piece that together with ideas from my own brain and make it into something new.
It was time to re-engage, to get comfortable with the uncomfortable again.
I needed the courage to get creative again. I needed to face 2020 and explore the new reality and my own mind to discover new ideas despite all the new stress and concerns, during this year unlike any other.
The key is consistency. Consistency is vital to building muscle memory. For this practice to make an impact, you have to consistently integrate creative play to establish that muscle. For me, this muscle-building strategy is small and fast, a sketch that can be completed in minutes. Lack of time is a great reason to keep yourself from practice. Find a way to kill that excuse. As incredibly busy as we may be, there is always a little bit of time—always.
My personal sweet spot for a canvas is the 5.5-by-3.5-inch Moleskine Art series. It’s pocket friendly, has a beautiful texture and looks sleek. I work from edge to edge and focus on composition, texture and experimentation. My tool of choice fluctuates between the best pencil in the world—the Palomino Blackwing—and the Pentel Japanese brush pen. I also like using oil paint or mixed media.
Over the past two months, I’ve worked in these notebooks almost every day, filling two and-a-half sketchbooks with marks and mistakes.
Apart from consistency, the other key is to keep goals simple. Work every day, any amount of time. Make something new. Go back and revisit old work. Make something terrible. Push your curiosity. Be bold. Be delicate. Ruin the page. Don’t stop. As Milton Glaser, one of the greatest American graphic designers of all time, said, “A designer must DO! Do work, any work, whether it’s good or bad. The act itself is the path to discovery.”
It took me two weeks to remove myself from the “I have to make something perfect” frame of mind. At first, I tried too hard, took too long to find materials, planned too many spreads and leaned into too many expectations.
“A designer must DO! Do work, any work, whether it’s good or bad. The act itself is the path to discovery.”
And then I started to find tension on the page. The work tried to be precious. I veered toward familiar subjects. I thought about the future and less about the present. I can remember the weather. I remember conversations around the work. I remember the inspiration that brought me there. I associate the projects I was working on at the time and the struggle of the days with sketches that happened during meetings. My speed increased. I cared less. I worked faster, longer. I struggled less and learned more. My pencil was often in my teeth, a familiar pose from pre-COVID times. I started seeing things differently—fonts, type styles, textures, patterns.
The construction of a feather. Shape, form, emotion become color. Letters as objects. A single line across the page.
Ink taking root in the page like it would sprout and grow if I left my notebook in the sun. It seeped and spread in the microscopic fibers of the page. As I planted the seed of curiosity and creativity, I sowed clarity.
I’m now on sketchbook three. Feathers have given way to faces. Who knows what will come next. The work is better. I’m better. Maybe you can be better too. Draw, write, doodle. Some of the most brilliant people in the world are doodlers.
And if you’d like to join us, send me your email and I will invite you to our next Creative Stretch. We can find curiosity together.