Creating with Limitation:  Thoughts on Creative Identity


“The difference between genius and stupidity, is that genius has its limits.”  Albert Einstein


One assignment I have my art and design students complete is a large Compositional Study.   It starts with specific, limited, guidelines.  It allows only for specific line widths, thicknesses, and shapes.  These strict rules are placed on the design process so that important Organizational Principles are explored.  As the series of compositions develop, the limits are gradually released, culminating in a large composition that has none of the beginning parameters or restrictions.

The beginning of this process is frustrating for my students.  But the thing is, without those limitations, my students would never know how to complete the large final composition.  There would be too many options.  They would have no idea where to begin.  If they skipped any part of the process the end result would not be as complex or compelling.  I tell them the frustration is worth it.  That working within limitation is their friend.  I tell them the story of Michelangelo, who carved the David out of a stone so flawed that no other sculptor wanted it.  I remind them that some of the best music is based on a simple-three chord progression structure.  Sometimes serious limitations can lead an artist to their best work.


It got me thinking about how design limitations in creating art are similar to limitations I perceive in my life.  I have frustration when I think about limitation.  About not getting the results I want. I see limitation as a lack of imagination.  An absence of inventiveness. A villain to wrestle with until I get my way.


When it may just be what gets me to the larger, more compelling movement in my life. What if lack was pulling me into a larger imagination?


That’s hard to believe.


Because we all have limitations.  The partner who left. The dream that died. The once close friend we can’t forgive. Illness that is never going away.  Full time caregiving that leaves us exhausted and without creative outlet.  Some days my list of limitations are too many to count. Limits outnumber the stars. My creative vision becomes lifeless and blurry. I question what the point of creative ambition is.


Nobody likes working within limitation, but artists who embrace limitation make better art.  I think this principle is true in life, as well.  Individuals who embrace limitation tend to be more inventive, optimistic, and lead more fulfilling lives.


It’s tough. I’m trying my hardest.  My identity as a creative is rooted in a connection to life, to a divine ground of being I call God.  This belief that I connect to is not grounded in fact, but mystery.  It is where I pull my sense of optimism from.  The long narrative that exists from the beginning of time whispers that there is always creatively more.  There is more abundance.  There is more life.  Some really bad stuff exists, too.  But if I can shift my attitude in the midst of challenge and limitation, to awe and wonder, how will that change me?


My rebel heart is learning to embrace an attitude of limitation.  I’m using it to make art that sings within its bounds.  Despite flaws in stone and life, I see my David. I pick up the chisel and begin.


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