Reaching New Levels of Creativity En Plein Air

23 May 2011

Plein air painting by Skip Lawrence, Walk in the Woods II
How about painting an abstracted landscape en plein
air, like this mixed media piece called Walk in the
Woods II
by Skip Lawrence?

Do you ever feel like you’re just painting the same old, same old when you are painting outdoors? Couple of trees, maybe some water—it’s actually fairly easy to fall into the rut of painting the same plein air subjects again and again. At least, that’s how I get to feeling on occasion.

But recently my friend Maureen said something to me that hit me like a bolt of lightning: The secret to reaching new heights of creativity is to place limits on yourself. At first, that might not seem to make any sense at all. It seems a bit contradictory, right? We tend to associate creativity with freedom, with “thinking outside the box,” with breaking boundaries. And yet, I knew in an instant that Maureen was on to something.

I started to consider how I could apply this idea of setting parameters to generate creativity, and my thoughts returned to last summer. One of the best parts of last year’s plein-air painting season for me was the challenge I set for myself to paint architectural subjects. My style is fairly loose and painterly, but my architecture always seemed to come out looking either sloppy and amateurish or overly tight. So I set a limit for myself: paint one type of subject repeatedly until I learned to do it better.

You could do the same with any challenging subject. For example, I could decide to paint only backlit scenes or figures in the landscape or night subjects. It’s a limitation that would lead to creative excellence because I'm really focusing on honing my skills, not just moving on when the work gets trying.

Plein air painting by Andrzej Skorut, Sunrise.
If you’re looking for something new to try at your next
plein-air session, think about limiting your color palette,
like this tonalist landscape by Andrzej Skorut called Sunrise.
But this concept can be pushed even further in ways that would really start the creativity flowing. I could choose a familiar outdoor painting subject, like trees, for instance, and challenge myself to see how many different ways I can paint them—from an odd angle, cropped tightly, totally abstracted, or using any color but green.

Other possibilities abound. How about taking up a funky color scheme and seeing if I can pull off a good painting with it, or I could really limit color choices by doing a tonalist painting. I could use an unfamiliar tool exclusively—a palette knife, maybe?—and see where that leads.

Even now, as I write this, I’m astounded at how quickly the idea of limiting myself gets my creative juices flowing. Just simply placing a single limitation in one area automatically starts me brainstorming all kinds of creative solutions in response. So, what do you think of Maureen’s idea? Did any creative ideas come to your mind as you read this? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


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on 25 May 2011 3:21 PM

I do completely agree. My mostly frequent limitation is using a couple of complementary colors, plus one adjacent color sometime. The challenge is to get the wider color range by mixing, mixing and remixing..

Bertha R wrote
on 30 May 2011 11:39 AM

Limit color

E.M. Corsa wrote
on 3 Jun 2011 10:00 AM

This is a wonderful idea. In 2010, I decided to paint clouds for a whole year ending up with hundreds of paintings which resulted in an upcoming state show. The real plus was how much I learned in the process.