art

constraints

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In the world of animation, constraints are essential. And I don’t just mean this as a concept. 

Constraints are actual animation tools that allow you to attach one object to another (in other words, to constrain them together). When used correctly, they can save a lot of time and significantly improve the animation’s quality.

To give you a quick example, if you had a person juggling, you might use a constraint to keep a ball in the juggler’s hand until it was released. If the juggler was also standing on a moving skateboard, you might constrain the juggler and all the balls to the skateboard’s movement.

There’s a coworker I once had who claimed, “I’m old school, I don’t use constraints.” The rest of us chuckled, knowing it really meant he was being sloppy and allowing his lack of knowledge to negatively affect his work.

The funny thing about constraints (both in animation and as a concept) is that they can actually be freeing once you learn how to use them well.

In Done!: Finish Your Creative Project in One Month  (my email course, eBook, and audiobook) I have a whole chapter about learning to love your limits. Turns out this approach can really boost your creativity and productivity.

Working within constraints or limits is something I’ve experienced often. It’s also something I hear creatives talking about more and more.

To that end, here’s an excellent TEDx video featuring talented artist Phil Hansen talking about this very subject. He’s got some amazing examples of his own limits and the artwork he produced within them.

Check it out:

The power of constraints

authentic

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Authenticity has been a big buzz word for a few years now. These days, calling a product or person “authentic” is high praise.

But I have a problem with it. 

Now, I’ve got nothing wrong with being authentic in itself, but when you’re trying to be authentic or when your authentic appearance is part of some ulterior motive, that’s another thing altogether. 

This quote sums it up pretty well:

“Sincerity - if you can fake that, you've got it made.”

― George Burns


There’s another side to that coin. If something is practiced and performed, does that make it dishonest? I expect all manner of content creators have asked this of themselves.

As a side note, I felt like the movie Galaxy Quest was a pretty enjoyable little exploration of that issue.

In my very brief experience recording for a podcast, this is something that has come up frequently. Even though I’m talking off the cuff for most of it, the whole thing still feels like a performance in a way. Knowing I’m being recorded and that the recording will be freely available online has a very heavy influence on how I think and what I say.

I don’t expect that will ever change, but I also don’t believe it’s necessarily a bad thing.

Mr. Rogers Neighborhood was a scripted show, but it felt as genuine as anything I’ve seen. On the other hand, many ”reality” shows feel completely fake.

To be authentic is to be true to form, the real you. But what does that mean exactly? It seems to me a performance can be more revealing, more vulnerable, than a candid recording. Not always though.

This is still pretty fresh for me and I’m sure I’ll have more to say later, but I’ll leave you with these last few thoughts:

When you pour yourself into your artwork, whatever form that may take, it’s impossible to hide the real you. On the other hand, if you’re trying hard to be yourself, you’re probably failing at it.

mediocre

Have you ever felt like your hobbies weren’t good enough? Or maybe you considered starting a new hobby but never began because the bar for excellence seemed way out of reach.

If so, it’s a downright shame.

Personally, I’ve taken on many-a hobby over the years, some to a greater extent than others, but I’ve found all of them rewarding in their own ways. 

I dove into the fine craft of painting miniatures just so I could have nice figures for a board game that a friend had given me. It’s not something I plan to do again, but I was happy with the outcome and glad to have a deeper understanding of the process.

Lately, I’ve been trying my hand at piano. As is often the case for a skill with a broad spectrum of talent, I began thinking, “hey, I’m not too bad at this!” and quickly shifted to, “oh, this is super hard, I don’t know if I’ll ever get very good.”

But you know what? I still enjoy hitting those keys and making some kind of sound that isn’t totally terrible. Right now, I’m just happy if I can go through one full scale, back to front, without messing up the fingering.

All this to say, you should check out this article by Tim Wu 

In Praise of Mediocrity

In it, he makes a strong case for not only having a hobby, but also enjoying it regardless of your skill level.

I tend to agree; it takes a lot of the pressure off and makes things more fun that way. After all isn’t that what a hobby should be all about?

Tyrus

Even though Google may be taking over the world and all, I do so enjoy their Google doodles about people of importance. Often they choose lesser known figures who have made a great impact in some way.

Recently, Google featured Tyrus Wong, a Chinese-American artist, who passed away a couple years back. I’d never heard of him before but I’m glad I know of him now. 

Tyrus was the driving creative force behind the animated Disney movie, Bambi. He was also a major influence on the artistic direction of movies like Rebel Without a Cause, and his work can be found in many household items such as dish wear and greeting cards. Besides all that, he also designed really fantastic kites that look like animals.

Turns out he had a pretty hard go of things in the US, traveling here with his father as a young boy, leaving the rest of his family behind. He endured a lot of racism and didn’t receive much recognition until later in life (he lived to 106). But his work has now made it into museums alongside some other greats like Picasso and Matisse.

Besides being in awe of the man’s brushwork, I always appreciate creatives who are good at more than just one thing. Hey, why not be a painter of movies and dinnerware as well as a kite maker? As I’ve found while working on writing and game design, creativity has so many applications. Why limit yourself to one? Just don’t try to do them all at once.

There isn’t much more to this post than to say you should look the guy up, just do an image search of “Tyrus Wong” and be amazed.

combined

This is the second of a two-part series, both of which are excerpts from my upcoming book, The Endless Creative.

You can find the first one here:

Unexpected

To recap from last week: 

There are two common aspects of creativity I’d like you to keep your eyes peeled for, especially when looking for inspiration.

  1. Creativity is unexpected (yet understandable)

  2. Creativity combines (the unrelated)

Now the second point, creativity combines. It’s about juxtaposition—two different things placed together. Imagine a life-sized sculpture of a man walking his dog made entirely of discarded coffee cups. Common trash has been used to make a piece of art.

This juxtaposition is a hallmark of creativity. It’s unmistakable and easy to identify. It’s one of the qualities that makes the work of the famous UK street artist Banksy so popular (besides their controversial nature, of course). 

Images such as trees growing out of a barcode, a man who appears to be throwing a bomb but is actually holding flowers, the Mona Lisa with a rocket launcher or the painting of a grim reaper in a boat painted over an actual dirty old canal—they all stand out because of their unusual combinations.

But don’t think for a nanosecond this only applies to art. For example, my brother-law, Jonny, needed to find a place to teach his students how to read maps. He found a local frisbee golf course (one with a fairly confusing layout) and printed out a satellite view from Google Maps, with a few discovery points he’d included for the students to chart. Mapping and frisbee aren’t two activities often found together, but it turns out the event was a big success (and I’d wager that the people who owned the course didn’t mind the extra business).

It’s remarkable what you’ll find when you start to look for unusual combinations. I heard about a board game being featured at a convention where the board itself is actually created during the game by a programable sewing machine. The way the game is played determines what sort of board the machine ultimately prints out. Such a game might not have mass appeal, but it’s a clever idea.

You can even find such things during your regular old day-to-day activities. During a visit to the dentist, I noticed an informational poster about gum disease and tooth loss. It had a large picture of a perl necklace with one pearl missing beneath the words, “Each one matters.” The tooth of their message was not lost on me.

Like Banksy’s work, some combinations are more to prove a point. Some, however, are simply made for the novelty. Take the shoebike—a bike where the wheels are made of shoes. It sounds fun at first, but when I saw it in use, it looked like a very uneven ride and I can’t imagine tying all those laces is a pleasure.

Other combinations are actually useful, like a backpack that becomes a tent or a bracelet that’s also a paracord, compass, whistle, and lighter. Yes, I just went on a hike. Why do you ask?

When you stop and gander (but please don’t goose), you’ll find creativity is all around. Whether it’s the unexpected, the combined, or some other aspect of creativity—you will soon have more source material than you know what to do with.

So next time you’re out on the streets (or on the trail), look out for the unexpected and combined—you won’t be disappointed.

overplayed

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Don’t you hate it when a good song gets overplayed? It is out-and-out the worst.

Ok, maybe not the worst, but it’s pretty bad, mostly because something quite enjoyable has now been ruined forever.

This is one of the reasons I just can’t stand listening to the radio.

I’ve found this happens all the time with Christian worship music. Some artist puts out a really moving, powerful song and, before you know it, everyone is playing it all the time. Suddenly you’re wondering if being deaf might not be that bad after all.

Of course, this happens with all kinds of music. I distinctly remember when The Bodyguard came out and I was subjected to hearing Whitney Houston sing, “I Will Always Love You” more times than should be legally permissible under any jurisdiction.

Overplayed songs are the audio equivalent of eating too many pancakes, what once is God’s fluffy golden-brown gift from heaven becomes a morbid, hellish form of unthinkable torture. 

What is it that makes us lose our sense of moderation and indulge in something far beyond any reasonable level of enjoyment?

I think C. S. Lewis may have touched on this in his book, Surprised By Joy. 

“Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again... I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.”

Too often we exchange joy for pleasure and then lose both. We find something which brings just the faintest glimmer of joy and then grasp it so tight, we squeeze all the joy out of the thing until the wet sponge we once held is now just a bit of chalky dust ground into the folds of our palms.

Even the creative process is subject to such dreadful behavior. 

We discover some method, some little trick that brings a measure of success and we cling to it like a life raft in the middle of a tempestuous ocean.

Trouble is, the same thing over and over gets old fast and a life raft can only take so many waves before it goes under.

Certainly, it’s good to take the time to appreciate a thing of art and beauty, but if you don’t eventually set is aside to make way for other things, you’ll drain all the life out of it, like some obsessive vampire. Instead, keep the door open for a fresh gust of the new to flow in. And mind the garlic.

Heck, I’ll bet even Whitney Houston had to turn off the radio for a while when her song came out. 

I’d also wager she shares my feelings for pancakes. Come to think of it, maybe that’s really what her song was about …

pandering

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As a writer, I’ve thought often about working with the audience in mind. It’s advice I’ve heard from many a source: know your audience.

It’s not always easy advice to follow. Do I pick one person and write with them in mind? Do I try to guess exactly what an entire demographic would want to read?

I’ve heard some folks advise extensive research before even getting started. First discover a popular subject and then choose a niche market within that. Make sure your every word caters to those within the market.

While this approach may turn out lucrative for some, I fear it may also be soulless, passionless, and disingenuous. In short, it’s pandering.

The way I see it, pandering is playing tunes you know the crowd wants, even if it’s not the music of your own heart.

I saw a comedian making fun of this in country music. I couldn’t help but laugh at how dead-on his spoof of the popular modern country song turned out. He even had a gust of wind blowing his hair at just the right moment.

On the other hand, I just read an article from an author I respect who suggested that writers don’t need to know who their audience is (at least not at first). It took me by surprise, since I don’t think I’ve heard that from anyone else. I appreciated the untypical approach.

Whether you’re a writer, musician, designer, director, chef, or any other form of creative, there will exist a temptation to take the popular route, to put the audience first. But, may I humbly submit, good art is never made this way.

True art is made from inside.

I know, it sounds so hippy and new-agey, like something my high school art teacher might have (most definitely) said. But I’ve found it to be the case. 

When you begin with the things you care about, when the art truly matters to you, it will inevitably matter to someone else, too.

Pandering, on the other hand, may win you some fans, but you’ll also lose a lot of respect from other creatives and you yourself will not find satisfaction in your work.

Now, it’d be wrong to say the audience doesn’t matter. Of course they do. You don’t create in a black hole.

There is clearly a time to consider who would be most interested in your work—once you’ve made it. But don’t start out with the goal of winning friends and influencing people by making what you think they’ll want.

You will find the right audience when you produce the best work you can. 

That happens when you let your creativity flow out of something you delight in, something real to you. Then you will naturally draw the best kind of audience, the one that appreciates you and your work for what it is, an expression of your true self.

recommend: funtherapy

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A recommendation this week: 

Funtherapy

What is it?

It’s the newest podcast I’ve been listening to and, in my totally unbiased opinion, it’s most excellent.

Funtherapy, hosted by Mike Foster, is a very creative way to do a therapy session. It’s also many other things. Beautiful, simple, heartbreaking, and moving—just to say a few. 

Besides that, many of the interviewees are creatives I already enjoy and respect, like Sleeping at Last frontman Ryan O’Neal and Caitlin Crosby, founder of The Giving Keys.

While listening, I've heard some great discussion about the challenges of creativity and the world we now live in.

Here is their own writeup/intro/spiel:

Each episode will feature a candid “therapy” session with a key leader, influencer or artist (with a smile). No talking points. No shameless self-promotion. Only beautiful imperfectness on display as we discover tactics to turn our setbacks into superpowers.

Give your ears a treat and give it a try.

You can listen to the trailer right here

comparison

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There’s a lyric from one of my favorite bands which goes, “I am haunted by my love for comparison, my fascination with a single common theme.”

Why is it we love to compare so much? Is it because it gives us a standard of judgement? Does it comfort us to look down on people we believe we are better than? Does it help us determine differences and similarities?

Yes, all those and more. But comparison can be a tricky thing, especially when we compare ourselves to others.

Comparison is like a cactus: juicy on the inside, but painful when handled without caution.

It can challenge us to try harder, but it can also weigh us down with impossible burdens. 

Just think about the woman who suffers from an eating disorder based on an obsession with her physical appearance. She believes her body must look like the ones on magazine covers (most of which are Photoshopped and fake) in order to be beautiful.

How about the guy who gets pumped up on steroids in so he can out-perform his peers or look more “manly” at the beach. Comparison can become a deadly trap, a spiral staircase winding down and down.

Parents are prone to compare their child to a sibling or neighbor kid, “Why can’t you be more like Susie or Jonny?” Such talk is more damaging than it is encouraging; it sends their child the message of inferiority, that there is something inherently wrong within them. Hardly motivational.

Comparison can also be a creativity killer.

If you feel you must produce work on par with the greats, you’re going to be sorely disappointed when your first attempts look a two year old’s Jackson Pollock food splatter and less like a Rembrandt. In fact, you may just give up before getting very far.

When it comes to feeding our hunger for comparison, the internet doesn't help either. 

The availability of so much high-level content can be great for inspiration, but a downer for competition. It's not hard to find a near endless supply of incredible photos, websites, outfits, designs, music, etc. that seem eons better than the content you're currently producing.

One of the problems with comparison is how unrealistic of an approach it can be. When I view someone else’s final outcome after years practice and learning, but believe I should be able to do the same kind of work instantly, I am deceived.

When I take a person with an exceptional quality, one which may only show up once in a generation, and believe anything less on my part is worthless, I give myself unhealthy expectations. 

Everyone simply can’t be as good as the best person out there. The best by definition is the only one on that level. 

The same can happen when I hold others to my own standards without understanding their particular challenges and abilities, I become proud and devalue them.

However, we can also use healthy comparison to drive ourselves to try harder and discover better practices. I can compare my own performances in order to beat my personal best. I can study from the methods of the best runners or most successful writers and learn how to improve my own techniques. 

Comparison either lifts up or pushes down.

The question to ask is, what result does the comparison produce? Does it bring encouragement, leading to improvement? Or does it cause me to desire something I am not and think less of myself or others?

attitude

When it comes to art, this is the general attitude I’ve discovered: in order to become great, you have to get all your bad junk out of the way. If you want to draw well, you have to draw 1,000 bad drawings first. If you want to write well, you have to get a million worthless words behind you. But I think there is an inherent flaw in this way of thinking: it views your previous work as useless, a necessary evil, an unfortunate part of the process.

Toward that end, there is a quote by Dorothy Parker I’ve heard repeated by many an author,

“I hate writing, I love having written.”

I once shared this mindset, but I’ve changed.

Malcom Gladwell proposed the idea you must spend 10,000 hours practicing at a thing before you become a master of it. He also pointed out that people who are exceptional at their craft are the ones who fall in love with the practice of it.

I heard fantasy author Brandon Sanderson make a statement about writing which really changed my perspective on the matter. I don’t recall the exact quote, but essentially what he said was, each and every word you write is a necessary one in the process of improvement. Those words aren’t a waste, they’re the steps you have to take to reach the next level and without them, you’ll never get there.

I believe this is just as true of any and every creative practice, artistic or not.  The difference, my fellow creatives, is in the attitude. If you want to be great at something, you have to love the practice of it, you have to enjoy the process. So I’ve been working to change my attitude about creativity and the hard work and effort required by it.

Fact is, I don't have to be creative, I get to be one. I don't have to write, I get to write. Creativity is a choice, one which takes determined effort, but it’s a good thing.

Now I’m thankful for the times I get to write, whether I feel like I’ve written well or not, because every words matters, each one accumulates toward something better.

 

What do you think? Do you view your own creative efforts this way? Do you see the importance in them or are they just something you have to do in order to achieve a desired result?

 

Creatively yours,

A.P. Lambert