HIIT for Creativity

HIIT for Creativity

Sometime in 2015 I started making 9 inch by 9 inch abstracts with alcohol based markers. I do this activity most weekend nights. Pre-pandemic, I would also socialize but I usually make about one a week. I haven’t counted my output but it’s a lot.

Maybe a year ago the supplies were organized, markers separated by colors into three containers (warm, cool and neutral), finished work dated and put in box. Now there are many containers with no categorization. Worse, there are four pads of paper, each holding undated finished pieces, some that still have the tape I use to hang them while working. A few are quite good. One I felt should be framed and hung. How had it gotten so neglected? One was stunningly bad. Color selection is atrocious. Why put baby blue with so many warms tones? Composition is maybe the worst ever. The opposite of harmony. Looking at it is like eating a lunch of leftovers from three culturally distinct meals, spaghetti with seaweed salad and a few bites of burrito. That one is never going into the box!

I was noticing all of this as I set up last night. It made me a little uneasy. What is all this about? my mind demanded to know. What exactly are you doing here? What’s the point? You’re awfully messy. If you can’t even preserve the ones you’ve already made, why are you making more?

Ack! I couldn’t put the music on fast enough!

With monkey mind diverted by song I choose some markers and got to it. Ten songs later and a good way into the piece I started pondering again, but with a more enthusiastic perspective. Doing this is practice for everything else. If I can be brave enough to confront a blank piece of paper and not walk away until it’s totally filled, I can do that in other arenas as well. I can do that in my job, which requires a lot of stamina and creative decision making. I can do that in my relationships, which require me to fully be present and open to unknown terrain, some of it quite anxiety producing. By engaging over and over in creative uncertainty, watching it resolve through choice and time, I learn that I am competent to do that. There is almost nothing more useful.

Making one mark after another over and over makes me stronger. It’s a workout for creativity. It’s like a very targeted exercise that uses repetition to build of intuitive muscle matter. Some are good and I feel so grateful. Some are hideous and I hate it. It’s not about getting it right every time, it’s about getting it done and learning from what the finalized piece has to offer.

I like the thoughts I have while making art so much more than the thoughts I have when I am only thinking about making it.



I am a stickler about accuracy and my headline does not match my essay. I didn’t draw a sufficient parallel to High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). I just used the word as a synonym for workout because Workout for Creativity is Blah! Maybe another time, goodness knows I’ve been known to do a part one and part two of a topic.

Rules. Can’t Live with Them. Can’t Live without Them.

Rules. Can’t Live with Them. Can’t Live without Them.

Right off the bat, do you like the idea of having rules or hate it? Chances are if you hate it, it’s because you didn’t make them. How about rules for art? How does that make you feel? Many people bristle at having rules for their art. They think of art as a place to break rules. But whose rules? I want to make a case for creating your own.

The rules to follow in your art practice are the ones you create to make the process easier and get a good result.

That’s not really accurate but it’s more powerful then saying rules are set in place to make the process less frustrating and guide the result in the direction you are hoping for. The process will always be frustrating, and the result is never guaranteed. But to keep from being paralyzed with indecision about how to begin and anxiety riddled with dread that it will all be futile in the end, a few rules are super handy.

Are you with me? Do you want to make some rules? Great! But hold on. Rules can only be formed from analyzing artwork you’ve made that you like. Not artwork that someone else has made. Artwork you made. We will get to that. First you need some constraints. Constraints might become rules but only if you say so.

You don’t get a rule until you find a constraint you really like. What’s so great about constraints? Let me answer a question with a question. Do you prefer making multiple decisions an hour or just one or none? Say it’s around 5 pm and you’re getting hungry, what do you like most, for your spouse/partner/friend/roommate to say I’m getting us some pizza, sound good? Or inform you they just sent an email with 25 new restaurant options, could you take an hour to peruse them all and decide which one to order from. Maybe if it’s 2 pm on a lazy Saturday the second option could be fun, but not for every meal. It’s too tiring and it steals time from the good part, eating and hanging out.

Same with art. Having all the choices just keeps you from getting too it. Whittling down the choices to the ones you will most enjoy is super helpful. A constraint is a way to make entry into the process as easy as it can possibly be. Let’s assume what we want is to be making some art, how can we go from not making art to making art? Make all the decisions that cause waffling ahead of time so that no decisions need to be made during the fragile transition period from everything else you do to making art.

Let me give you an example of something I have been doing for 4 or 5 years that has almost no decisions attached to the entry point. And because of that I’ve made quite a lot.

I make abstracts. Here are the constraints.

  • 9 inch x 9 inch paper
  • Alcohol based markers
  • Abstraction only, no representational imagery

That’s it! Very very easy to start one up. I just get the paper out, get the markers out and go! The first decision I make is the first mark and I usually make it very fast. It really doesn’t matter too much. That’s not true. It probably matters a lot. But thinking about it and getting worried I will mess it up doesn’t alter the way it matters. It doesn’t contribute to something better. The process works just as well if I deliberate or don’t deliberate. That’s the value of constraints!

So how do constraints become rules? Constraints are physical, material and easy to define. Rules are stylistic, aesthetic and related to what pleases you. They would be harder to convey to another person but intuitive to you. Because you decide. You decide based on what you want. How do you know what you want? From looking deeply at what you have already created and noticing what you want more of and want you want less of. If you look at your work and see that some is neat and some is messy, which part excites you, attracts you? Do more of that and less of the other. The rule would be let it be messy or make it neat. Often it’s the relationship between the two, make it two thirds messy, one third neat. Rules aren’t easy to convey to anyone but yourself because you need a very intimate understanding of what you are doing to make them, and you are most likely the only person with that understanding.

The rule for the two abstracts above was create a pleasing balance between symmetry and chaos. Of all the times I have tried to achieve that, the one on the left is my favorite. The one on the right is not bad but not quite as good to me. I am not going to show you the ones I hate because once I determine I don’t like one, I never want to see it again. I make quite a few of those. Naturally if you are pushing your boundaries, you are bound to fall over them. Failure is also useful for rule formation. The rule is usually a variation on don’t do that again. The trick is to identify what that is. You can’t make it a rule if you don’t analysis it and make it conscious.

Sometimes the rules are use only four colors. Or they revolve around combining a limited set of shapes. Often, it’s a combination of two or more types of rules: Use these colors, use these shapes, make it loose but tidy. The point of the rules is to narrow my focus, so I don’t get overwhelmed. The point is to help me make the one thousand decisions every piece of art demands. The point is to see what happens and lean into the direction that feels good. The point is to make a lot of art. The point is to make some good art. This is how I get there.