The creativity/constraint connection

Limitations and creativity are close allies; when you embrace the limitations you face and accept their challenge, your creativity will thrive. However, experimenting with constraints involves risk-taking, and you have to be prepared to fail in order to succeed. How does this look in practice, and how can you use constraints to your advantage? Sophia Hawkes reveals the link between creativity, limitations, risks, and failure.

© Benjamin Von Wong. Part of Von Wong’s e-waste campaign to highlight Dell’s global recycling program.
© Benjamin Von Wong. Part of Von Wong’s e-waste campaign to highlight Dell’s global recycling program.

Imposing limits on yourself leads to new ways of seeing and doing, and therefore more creative outcomes compared to if you didn’t impose the limitations. In his famous TED talk, artist Phil Hansen declared: “We need to first be limited in order to become limitless”. Patricia Stokes is an expert on the subject of creativity, adjunct professor of psychology at Barnard College at Columbia University, and the author of Creativity from Constraint: The Psychology of Breakthrough, and Creativity from Constraints in the Performing Arts. She explains that both limitations and creativity demand a change “in a current style or solution”. To move beyond a limitation you, need to use your creativity in order to come up with an alternative way to execute a task.

To further illuminate creativity, Stokes has framed an aspect of the phenomenon: The creativity problem, “which is the same in all contexts – do something new”. The solution to this problem, how to do something new, involves stopping something you’re doing and substituting it with something else, she says. “The something, for photographer, can be your motif (the subject constraint) or your materials and how you use them (the task constraints).”

Budget and technical constraints

Behind the scenes on Benjamin Von Wong's e-waste campaign for Dell’s global recycling program
Behind the scenes on Benjamin Von Wong's e-waste campaign for Dell’s global recycling program

Commercial and fine art photographer, Lilli Waters says that a small budget for personal projects is one of her greatest limitations. But Waters uses this limitation to her benefit. “Often having a lack of budget for a body of work can work in your favour, as you are left to use your imagination . . .” Limited funds has also led Waters to create her own props. “I like to incorporate nature into my photographs and use items that are a part of everyday life and all around us, whether it’s a lobster from a fish market, an old shotgun found in an abandoned house, or a bed sheet from a second-hand shop,” she explains.

Waters solves the creativity problem, and what Stokes calls the subject-constraint, by changing motif. Moreover, this is an example of when a photographer pays attention to what attracts her, which is one of Stokes’ top tips. The result of Waters’ imaginative interaction with constraints has been successful. Recently Waters held a solo exhibition, Coral Lands, at Saint Cloche Gallery, Paddington, Sydney in mid-2018. The work featured a series of nine photographs elaborately constructed underwater using coral, marine creatures, and flowers. “I’m often drawn to darkness in my photographs and wanted to play with colour with this body of work,” she says. Her exhibition exemplifies a photographer changing something in a previously successful strategy. Waters’ work has featured in magazines such as Elle, Vogue Living, and Real Living, as well as on the silver screen in Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed. Waters was also invited to show her work as part of the Venice Biennale in 2017, and was featured in this year’s ABC documentary series, Art Bites: Mirror.

Having the equipment to manifest an image idea is certainly one constraint photographers commonly encounter. While this can be frustrating, Hansen suggests a change in attitude. “As creators, it’s easy to think things like, ‘I don’t have the right equipment for this project’. My tip is to flip the language and say, ‘My equipment isn’t normally used for this’. I do this all the time because it distances my future action from ‘normal’ and allows for more freedom.” When Roderique Arisiaman, or Dracorubio as he’s known, first started his photographic career, he faced technical constraints daily. “I had nothing but an old three megapixel digital camera and an attic as my studio, with a small window that acted as my light. I had to learn photography and the way light worked from those tools, bouncing light from Styrofoam boards and just creating images and stories,” he says.

© Dracorubio. Endgame. “One of my favourite shots made during a workshop I held in Denmark. I really love the texture and fidelity of this image.”
© Dracorubio. Endgame. “One of my favourite shots made during a workshop I held in Denmark.
I really love the texture and fidelity of this image.”

Today Dracorubio is a well-established professional, working from his own fully equipped studio, and represented by the agency, DraumList, in the Netherlands. A self-confessed gear-head, Dracorubio says he faces limitations with his equipment. “I do trap myself in the thought that I can’t create a certain image because I lack the proper equipment, but reaching back to the memories and images from the attic always gets my mind back to the really basic aspect of creating images,” he says. Sometimes, limited by his own mind, when something “feels impossible”, Dracorubio says his “creativity kicks in and finds a way to make it work”. Limitations lead him to possibilities that perhaps he wouldn’t have discovered had he not faced the limitation in the first place.

Canadian photographer, Benjamin Von Wong is sponsored by a wide range of companies including Adobe, Think Tank Photo, and Manfrotto. His art style has been labelled as hyper-realistic, it’s a “fusion of special effects and innovative concepts specifically designed to go viral and drive conversation”. Currently, his passion for conservation and social impact projects is driving his photography. Von Wong’s creativity prospers in an environment of constraints. “Without limitations, it’s really hard to be creative because you have no parameters from which to start,” he says. “Being creative without limits is something that I personally find really tough, whether it’s a personal project, collaboration, or client project. The best ideas are the result of people, or your wallet, saying, ‘Oh, we can’t do that . . . so let’s find another way,’” says Von Wong. For him “technical challenges become friendly competition”. He always engages with and operates from a world of constraints. “There’s a great analogy which is that if you set up four walls in a playground, kids will bounce off the walls and come up with all sorts of different activities that use the space to its full advantage... If there were no walls, they just hang out in the centre of the space. I’m pretty similar.”

© Juco. Part of an editorial series, Jello, for Paper magazine.
© Juco. Part of an editorial series, Jello, for Paper magazine.

Solving the creativity problem

Stokes believes the creativity problem may be more difficult to solve for expert photographers compared to emerging ones. “Doing something new for a beginner involves changing motifs or mastering new techniques. The problem is actually more difficult for an expert. Experts get stuck in successful solutions,” Stokes states. If you find yourself stuck, unable to do something new, change something in your successful solution, or your style, in order to see where it takes you. Constraints are in fact a positive thing as they force you to change the solution. One expert that’s solved the creativity problem by abandoning previously successful solutions and styles is internationally renowned American portrait and fine art photographer, Jill Greenberg.

Greenberg’s distinctive work is an act of cultural activism that challenges the status-quo and invites the viewer to examine their views of gender roles and other power dynamics. She probably best known for her series, End Times. Greenberg also names budget constraints as the main limitation when working on personal projects. “Photography can be very expensive to produce . . . unlike a drawing where you can just draw it. [For example,] if I want a rainbow-hued horse, I need to rent a horse, possibly get some sort of specialised horse painter, if that even existed, and shoot in a ring, et cetera,” she explains. But Greenberg creatively gets around problems like this, sometimes, by means she wouldn’t normally employ. “What I actually did for my book, Horses, [published by Rizzoli] was to shoot horses with white light and do the colour treatment in post, which is quite unusual for me since I have been working with coloured gels for over 30 years,” she elaborates.

© Jill Greenberg. From the series, Auto Portraits.
© Jill Greenberg. From the series, Auto Portraits.

During her time as a photographer, Greenberg has seen coloured gels go in and out of fashion, and currently she’s noticing a resurgence of their use. In order to move forward on the project, Greenberg changed something. Recently, she wanted to add images to her portfolio utilising coloured gels. She chose the constraint of working on her own, including using herself as the subject. “As I set up the lights and posed alone in my studio, it was quite interesting. I love it when I can do something alone. My Painting series was [also] done without assistants. I can just blast the music and tune out from the world and make images which excite me. My passion for photography stemmed from my drawings and paintings, which are also solo endeavours.”

For many, the reality of having to complete every part of a project on their own may seem like an obstacle, but once embraced this limitation can result in fantastic outcomes. “I am now playing with photographing myself in front of the End Times images – a reaction to the reaction,” she says. This project would never have come about if it wasn’t for the initial open and spontaneous experimentation in her studio with herself as a subject. While photographing herself in front of a large painting on the studio wall, it occurred to her that she would try reacting to the painting behind her for a photo-series. “I love working with no preconceived notion, or if I had set out to do something different, being totally open to finding the real diamond in the rough and pursuing that instead,” she says. If you’re working on something and come up against a limitation making it impossible to proceed with the original idea, relax and go with it. Dare to see where this limitation will take you.

Julia Galdo is one part of the Los Angeles-based photography collaboration JUCO, along with Cody Cloud. JUCO has an impressive list of clients including Apple, Nike, H&M, Cosmopolitan magazine, The New Yorker, Coca Cola, and Sony Music. One lasting self-imposed limitation JUCO works with is to never repeat what they’ve done before. Instead, they always try to “reach just beyond” what they’ve already created. And this is exactly what Stokes is talking about when she mentions solving the creativity problem – “do something new”. Similarly, Von Wong is always seeking to add layers to his projects. “I never really repeat the same idea/concept/technique. If I am doing something similar, I’m always trying to layer it with another layer of difficulty. Know how to shoot a guy spitting fire? What if he’s with a model? Figured out how to do it with a model? What about five? And so forth . . .”

© Juco. Cover shot for Janelle Monáe’s album, Dirty Computer.
© Juco. Cover shot for Janelle Monáe’s album, Dirty Computer.

Working with the unexpected

Galdo finds that unexpected limitations or other unforeseen elements faced during a project make her act instinctively. She says this builds excitement for everyone involved. “We notice what we need. The things we notice are clues to where our work is going, elements we will be using,” Stokes says.

When faced with a limitation, either internal or external, you have the choice to respond to it with frustration or with innovation – a possibility focused mind-set. Dracorubio explains. “If you plan a shoot outside, and the weather changes from overcast to rain, don’t let it get to you. Change your idea or form another one. Either drag your model and yourself into the rain and splash shoot like crazy, or switch to a dry location inside and just have fun playing. Letting go of a pre-planned situation can give you the freedom to explore, experiment, and grow,” he says.

© Lilli Waters. Fertile Crescent, from the series, Coral Lands.
© Lilli Waters. Fertile Crescent, from the series, Coral Lands.

Adversity, failures, and risks

Based on the examples outlined above, the intrinsic connection between limitations and creativity should be much clearer. But where does adversity, risk, and failure fit in? Stokes explains the connection between adversity and creativity like this: “Adversity forces you to alter your currently successful solution. In other words, adversity forces you to be creative.” In order to rise above adversity, you’ve got to be prepared to take risks. “The link between risk-taking and creativity is obvious. It is risky to preclude a successful solution. Only some experts can do it,” says Stokes. There’s no change without risk, and no true creativity without change. All creativity comes with risks. Hansen explains the link between them by putting them on a timeline. “We start with adversity or we create risk for ourselves. Then, we get creative with the challenge. And at the end, we may succeed, fail, or have a mediocre conclusion. And then you start the whole process over again,” he says. This is where failures enter the scene and why they’re actually a positive thing. “Failures are opportunities that force you to be a risk-taker,” Stokes explains.

American photographer, director, artist, and entrepreneur, Chase Jarvis has interviewed Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston on a number of occasions. Once, when discussing the topic of creativity, Brown said, “We want to see someone do something ballsy”. According to her, it’s about having the courage to proceed in uncomfortable moments. “When you’re doing something that’s easy, you know it’s not going to be a big or important thing . . . there’s no creativity without vulnerability”. Creativity is not about winning or losing. “[Creativity is] about having the guts to show up and be seen when there’s no prediction of outcome,” Brown tells Jarvis. Hansen has taken some gutsy moves in his career. One such move was to take on a commissioned assignment involving a Guinness World Record drawing a connect-the-dots image with the highest number of dots ever recorded – a huge undertaking. “The reason this was a risk was I had never created a connect-the-dots picture in my life. But the risk paid off. I ended up meeting my goal in creating the Guinness World Record of the most dots in a connect-the-dots image, as well as learning a lot of valuable lessons about myself as a person, and as an artist, along the way.”

© Lilli Waters. Lotus Galaxy, from the series, Coral Lands.
© Lilli Waters. Lotus Galaxy, from the series, Coral Lands.

Waters finds some element of failure in all her images. There’s things that haven’t resulted in her initial vision, but she sees this a natural component of the creative process. “I often look back at old work and think, ‘Wow, so average’, but it’s all a learning experience, and you can’t grow and improve if you don’t experiment and take big risks in your work,” she says. She resists having a ‘go to’ that she knows will work as it wouldn’t bring challenges, and she’d get bored and not grow creatively. Despite her ability to look at and grow from her failures, Waters has days when she feels as if she should quit and that everything she makes is “shit”. Still, she pushes on and takes opportunities to create new images. There’s an incessant drive to create inside Waters. This allows her to reach above and beyond failure.

Brown’s advice regarding adversity is to not be squeamish, and to take it on. “It’s our egos on the line, and we’re putting ourselves out there so blatantly…it’s hard not to be sensitive about some things,” Galdo states. However, risking a bruised ego is necessary if you want to excel creatively. JUCO turns failures into teachers; every time something goes wrong, they learn something new. “Instead of beating ourselves up about failures, we have a very healthy conversations about how each person perceived the problem and how we could have done things differently,” Galdo says. If you don’t have a collaborator, Hansen’s amusing, but serious advice may work. He says it may sound silly, but it is effective. “We should talk about our problem to ourselves out loud, with an accent. This is my own approach for the problem of psychological distance. When we are in our problem, it’s harder to see the solution, but if we can create distance between ourselves and the problem, our minds have more freedom to explore. Talking in an accent will create this distance,” he says.

© Dracorubio. Mater Suspiria. “On-the-go shoots without preparations, involving normal tape, some tree bark, and lots of giggles keeping the stuff stuck to Laura’s body. And then a hell of a lot of editing to create the environment.”
© Dracorubio. Mater Suspiria. “On-the-go shoots without preparations, involving normal tape, some tree bark, and lots of giggles keeping the stuff stuck to Laura’s body. And then a hell of a lot of editing to create the environment.”

For Dracorubio, the only true failure is when he doesn’t learn anything. “There is always a lesson in things that go wrong,” he says. “I’ve made some amazing images, but also some really crappy ones,” he says. Because of this focus on learning through mistakes, he doesn’t get beaten down if he doesn’t succeed in something. “Every skill learnt trickles back to my creative well, giving me new insights on how to create an image.” Dracorubio says that even if you do feel down after a perceived failure, keep creating. Eventually, if you do something every day, you’ll notice a theme and a change. “Creating when feeling down is the best way to beat a funk,” he concludes.

Von Wong recognises that every success is the result of many smaller failures. However, he doesn’t label them failures, but rather experiments. “How something looks like in my mind is always different than the final outcome, and experiments happen in every step of the way – from the preproduction, shoot, to the post production. I think in many ways, I’m actually actively trying to be unsatisfied with wherever I’m at in the process – so that I can continue to improve. After all, progress only stops when you’re satisfied.”

Next time you face constraints, remember that they are a positive thing intrinsically linked to creative success. Dare to reach beyond your previous successful solutions and take a risk exploring something new, because it’s the only way to solve the creativity problem. Re-brand failures as teachers or experiments, and let go of the fear of being unsatisfied with a result or others’ judgement, because playing it safe will keep you stuck. Give yourself a limitation and watch your creativity come out to play. Allow this play to lead you towards that which truly inspires you, and trust that as your toolbox grows, so too does your creativity, and following its lead will always be rewarding.

Patricia Stokes’ top creativity tips

  1. Pay attention to what currently attracts you.
  2. You will know your work is changing when you become attracted visually to different, but not necessarily new, things.
  3. Preclude/change something from your current successful solution.
  4. Remember the words of [artist] Jasper Johns about how he works: “Do something. Do something to it. Do something else to it.”
  5. Keep making the contents of your toolbox (what you know and what you can do with what you know) bigger.
  6. Learn, borrow, and collaborate. The creativity of your solution depends entirely on the contents of your tool box.


Roderique (Dracorubio) Arisiaman                   

Julia Galdo (JUCO)       

Jill Greenberg             

Chase Jarvis interview   

Phil Hansen                

Patricia Stokes            

Benjamin Von Wong     

Lilli Waters   


Get more stories like this delivered
free to your inbox. Sign up here.