The Power Of Simplicity & Constraint In Art
There’s power and potency in working with simplicity and constraint in your art
Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication
– Leonardo Da Vinci
Multum Non Multa
There’s a Latin phrase multum non multa which translates to much, not many. In employing much, not many in your art, you go deep rather than wide.
You explore a few things thoroughly rather than many things superficially.
One of the most important foundational concepts for artists and innovators is constraint. Indeed, I love to think of painting as employing simplicity and constraint.
The topic of constraint is paradoxically limitless
The concept of constraint is so rich and diverse that we could spend a lifetime on it. Indeed, the topic of constraint is paradoxically limitless.
Even science is about constraint and abstraction. Science gets rid of the extraneous and boils it down to the essence of truth. And doing so does not disrespect the complexity and richness of the natural world. Quite the contrary, it’s a way of more deeply appreciating it.
What Is Constraint?
What do we mean by the word constraint? The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as: a limitation or restriction.
Synonyms for constraint are:
Some of these synonyms sound quite negative. You may be asking yourself: Is constraint such a good idea for my art?
It sounds paradoxical that a key component of creativity and innovation is constraint. This doesn’t exactly fit the image of the free spirited bohemian artist. We often don’t realize the power of constraint in art.
And yet one of the many paradoxes of painting is the concept that within a constraint, within a limitation, is infinite freedom.
Why is this the case?
The Elegant Solution
Scientists talk about the elegant solution to complex problems.
The variables we deal with in creating a painting are endless. So how do we simplify things?
The question becomes how do we take a concept and boil it down to its essence?
Let’s take the enormous subject of color. Color is a topic you could spend your whole life studying and never reach the end of it!
Let’s simplify color as much as possible. In particular, let’s explore how working with constraint applies to employing color in your paintings.
The Potency of a Limited Palette
In the beginning of my painting journey, I couldn’t wait to get into my studio and use bright, vibrant colors. I used mostly chromatic hues, lots of paint and very little grayed colors.
I was known as a colorist in my plein air oil landscapes and mixed media figurative abstractions. I reveled in jumping from color to color and surprising myself with color combinations.
I remember my plein air teacher recommending using a limited palette but I didn’t like the idea and resisted it for years. I didn’t yet realize the power of constraint in art.
One day everything changed
I saw the work of my dear friend and New Orleans artist Duane Couch and was smitten by her use of neutrals and scratchy mark making. I loved her minimalist aesthetic and her combinations of bronze yellow, aureolin, parchment, and various green golds and yellow greens.
Inspired by Duane’s neutral palette, I began using constraint and started exploring a limited palette of grays and neutrals with a bit of chromatic color.
Instead of using almost every bright color in my studio when I’d create a painting, I began to simplify my palette.
I learned about the power of simplicity and constraint
There’s been a great deal of research in creativity on the value of constraint in opening up creative channels. If you’ve ever explored improvisational theatre you know about constraints in the form of prompts.
You go onstage and you’re handed a basket full of folded papers. You choose one. Written there you see a word or sentence. This is the prompt for your improvisation. For example it might say: Red horse canters into town.
From this prompt, this constraint, you create a 30 minute monologue…
And you have no idea where you’re going with this or what you’re going to say or do.
You’re stepping into unknown territory
Another more quotidian example of constraint is the example of someone asking you to tell them a knock-knock joke.
Inherent in this request is the constraint of using knock-knock to formulate a joke. If you were simply asked to tell a joke your mind might go blank, searching for a joke out of thin air. The constraint of knock-knock tethers the request, making it easier to improvise.
Constraint In Art: Picasso’s The Bull
Another example of simplicity and constraint in art (and working in a series) is Picasso’s The Bull, a series of eleven lithographs in which the bull becomes increasingly distilled down to its essence.
Within the constraint of exploring the concept of bull, Picasso had infinite possibilities he could experiment with.
Years ago I read a little book that made a big difference: Free Play: The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts. One concept from the book is about how in one’s creative life there’s no absolute breakthrough experience but rather a series of ongoing, open-ended breakthroughs. Essentially, there’s no end to our journey of creating.
The Power Of Limits
In Free Play, author Stephen Nachmanovitch discusses the eternal dialogue between making and sensing. This is the ongoing conversation between working with the constraints outside of ourselves versus the inner nature of our urges, impulses, life history, habits, preferences, and personality.
Examples include how the cave paintings were constrained by the walls and crevices of the cave or how the sculptor works with the boundaries and limits of the material nature of marble and yet is informed by her inner narrative, personal history and her own aesthetic.
One of our most powerful instruments of constraint is our hands.
The hand is a potent example of the paradox of the infinite freedom found in constraint. The shape and form of our hands has limited variations of usually five fingers on each hand which have certain relationships to one another.
There’s a limited range of motion of the fingers, opposable thumb and wrist and this varies according to each person. And yet there’s infinite possibility contained in this wondrous instrument.
From the moment of birth, we’re searching and finding our way in life. From the beginning we have innate reflexes such as the grasping reflex in our hands. If you place your finger in the palm of a baby’s hand, he or she will grasp it immediately and the baby’s grasp is surprisingly strong.
One of our most sensitive and receptive tools is our hand. Our hands and our mouth are early sensors that help us discover our world.
We understand the world around us through our senses
And that includes more than seeing. One important sense is that of touch. When we’re infants we explore the world through the sensations from our mouth. This is why babies put everything in their mouths. This is how they learn about the world.
As we develop neurologically, the hand becomes one of our most potent tools for sensing and understanding the world.
As a sculptor, I remember discovering the intelligence that resided in my hands. My hands knew and felt the tilts, angles and form of the head in ways that were even beyond what I could see.
The knowing in your hands is a kinesthetic memory and you can access this memory when you paint as well.
Your hand reveals your individuality, your personal marks and gestures. The movement, sensitivity, weight, pressure, firmness, looseness and lyricism belong to you and your particular personality, history and aesthetic.
The actions of your hand reveal your own personal marks and the deep intelligence in your body.
Picasso explored the reaches of variations on the bull, the color blue and many other constraints. He knew the power of using a structure or constraint.
Years ago, in between seeing psychotherapy clients, I was walking to a summer oil painting class at Stanford when I happened upon a group of jazz musicians at the Stanford Jazz Workshop. I struck up a conversation with three musicians and before I knew it I was invited to a masterclass that same afternoon.
I’ll never forget that masterclass. It was a riveting lecture and performance by a young alto saxophonist, Steve Coleman, who’d improvise for awhile on his saxophone, talk about construction and deconstruction of the piece and then invite participants from the audience to improvise rap pieces on the spot.
It was pure magic.
Coleman was sponsored by the NEA to create a commissioned work with his jazz-rap ensemble Metrics and various guests. A true innovator, Steve Coleman said at the time: “I don’t want to know what it’s going to look like beforehand”.
He knew that the magic lives in the place of not knowing.
One of the things I learned that day was the idea that there’s an underlying structure in even seemingly unstructured pieces. Even as the music seemed to be falling apart, even as the piece was deconstructing and devolving into near disintegration, there was still a pulse, an underlying rhythm.
There was a thread of structure holding the work together. Gradually the musician built the piece back up to increasing structure, increasing cohesiveness, as if he’d reconstituted it.
It was as if the piece were being resurrected
The piece became a living, breathing experience.
I think often of Steve Coleman’s talk. Though I heard him over 20 years ago, his words and music still inform my work.
The idea is that even a tiny bit of structure can be the nidus, it can seed the crystal and act as a catalyst for your work.
And the structure may or may not dictate the expression of the piece or the form, but it may act as a constraint or counterpoint to bounce ideas off of or to respond to.
You only need a few constraints
We can map out a territory of a few constraints and then allow our imagination to explore the reaches of those self-chosen rules.
We don’t need many constraints, maybe one or two, because we already live with inherent structures.
Our own biology and physiology has exquisite structures such as the armature of our skeleton, the network of our nervous system, the brain’s protective casing of the cranium.
Painting is riddled with paradox
Indeed, limits yield unpredictable results
We want to be awed and surprised by what emerges in our work. To open up this possibility, we must embrace the unknown.
This is where the magic is.
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What a beautiful meditation piece: SIMPLICITY & CONSTRAINT.
This leads to an amble into a tiny magic spot into a massive world of myriad simplicities of improvisations of shapes and tones of nuances of indefinite limits. Love the paradoxes that can be applied to a created art work. Thank you for this insightful sharing.
Thank you Micheal. I delighted in reading your thoughts on this too! Love that “tiny magic spot into a massive world of simplicities and improvisations…”
Dear Nancy,The idea could be illustrated using the difference between study and research. While study includes a wide area, research is learning more and more about less and less.The lesser the area the deeper you could go down.Like Jesus said, if your eye is simple, (focused)your entire body will be bright. When choice is limited you are meticulous about nuances and the artwork transcends the limits imposed by generalities and get transported to the realm of unique identity.Thank you for your article.Dr Vishnu Somasundaran, India
Had to check your writing since you share a sister- in- laws name. Not bad.
Thanks RC. Interesting about the name. Who knows? We might be related.
Nancy, please consider making video examples of art using color constraint. I would love to figure out my personal color palette and stick to it. Once I’m comfortable that my colors “work”, I think I would feel free to explore.
Carolyn, thanks for the feedback. These are the kinds of lessons I teach in my courses, especially the color course. Yes, it’s great to explore constraint, especially in regards to color because color is an enormous field.
This is a very powerful principle and I love the analogy to music. It’s so true – you “constrain” yourself to a scale, in a specific key and time measure, and yet there are a myriad of opportunities for self-expression within those decisions.
Thank you for these encouraging words and reminders.
I originally moved through the lesson of simplicity and constrained but didn’t really internalize it until now, lesson 10. My recent move has required me to simplify in all areas of my life and at first I was fearful and felt a great loss, but now I am experiencing the beauty in it and the freedom. I have only now moved from learning the lessons to the freedom of painting from knowing the lessons. I am so joyful and grateful to you and this year of abstracts
It’s an absolute joy to watch your journey unfold Carolyn. You inspire me. You’re a bright, shining light in my life and I’m so happy that you’re in this world. ???❤️
Love constraint. But love to push at them even more. Constraint vs. exception to the rule. Pushing at those constraints is where my fun is. Not black, but blue black, not white but white with a yellow tinge? Just barely there but still following the rules? Or is it?
I love it Ariane. I love what you’re saying about pushing at the constraints. Yes. I think it’s an interesting thing to grapple with the paradoxes of painting (and life). The intersection of constraint vs no constraint.
I’m right on the edge between using every bright color I have, and trying limited pallets. I love both. Thank you for your article! It is so well written and inspires me to explore more.
Thank you Linda! I can relate to the tension between wanting to use every bright color but also wanting to limit the palette!
I had a large table by my easel, laying on top of the table in plastic containers of which my paint was organized by individual colors . I probably had 60 tubes of paint !! I’m guessing on the numbers & that could be more!! I decided one day to remove my table . I started feeling chaotic when I would paint.. also the paint I was using was every brand possible & not the best. I ended up using so much paint, cheaper paint tends to have less pigment. The removal of the table changed my painting, also buying new & better paint of about 10 colors changed my painting habits quickly & I discovered less is more. I loved your article & it gave me valuable lessons on the restraints of painting . Thank you for all your insights & inspiring thoughts & wisdom Nancy. Sincerely, Linda
Oh I love your story of moving from chaos to constraint, from complexity to simplicity. It’s a powerful experience indeed. You illustrated it beautifully. Thank you, Linda.
I think this is one of your posts that I like best – thanks to your course Studio Journey I’ve learned about the power of simplicity and constraint, it was like a window of possibilities opening before me, I am working now on so many series based on colour constraints (a limited palette). It makes everything so much easier, there is a new great flow in my work. Colour constraints have multiply my creativity. And this resonates with me at a deeper personal level, because in my life I try to simplify things, to not waste anything, to recycle and upcycle, to buy fewer things, etc.
Thank you so much Maria. I’m delighted that this concept has resonated so deeply and powerfully with you in your art and life. I feel that it’s one of the most powerful in art.
I’m fascinated to read this. I’ve been working on a large abstract piece using a limited palette. The work is constrained in the use of colour but I’m creating many different marks, therefore creating work that appears somewhat chaotic. I like the chaos as it creates a huge energy. I’m really interested in seeing what happens if I constrain the mark making whilst trying to keep a powerful energy. Thank you for your great post ??
I love the paradox that painting brings up, Polly. I can imagine your limited palette in conversation with mark making/huge energy that you describe. Wow! What a potent combination! Thank you for your kind words.
Hi Nancy, I find this a fascinating insite into producing effective paintings. To adjust your mindset so that you restrict or constrain how you develop work. Personally I tend to take on several strands of work and it can become confusing. You’re right – simplification / constraint can be a spring board to something new and exciting happening on the surface of your paper.Ive been away on holiday so I’ll get my creative head on and get something started. Lynne
Hi Lynne, thank you for your kind words. I think it’s a very interesting thing to be aware of constraint as we create. I think otherwise, the variables are endless and lead to chaos and confusion. It’s good to come back to constraints and actually realize that, paradoxically, we’re infinitiely free within our constraints.
I congratulate you – you definitely think outside the box and your work is fascinating!
Wow! Thank you so much Helene!
I find this to be true in all aspects of life. As a designer, I am much more creative when given constraints, it could be budget or format. When I limit my palette, and set a size format constraint, I do better work. On the other hand, when I have tons of different ideas of what to do, writing, art, crafts projects, I become stuck because I have no structure.
Thank you, Chris. I was just asking myself if constraints might be important in other ways. You validated my thoughts. Jackie
It’s such an interesting paradox that we’re freer with constraints. I think without it, our work can devolve into chaos. It’s fascinating to hear about how you employ constraints on design work. Thanks so much for writing,Chris.