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The Power Of Simplicity & Constraint In Art- Nancy Hillis MD

The Power Of Simplicity & Constraint In Art- Nancy Hillis MD

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:

  • restraint
  • restriction
  • limitation
  • curb
  • check
  • control
  • curtailment
  • damper
  • rein
  • hindrance
  • impediment
  • hampering
  • obstruction
  • handicap
  • continence
  • discipline 
  • discretion
  • inhibition
  • re-frainment
  • repression
  • reserve
  • self-command
  • suppression

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.


The Hand


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.


Inherent structure


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.

Underlying structure


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

By constraining the tools or the elements (limited palette, 6 maquettes, for example) you have infinite freedom. One of the paradoxes is that within a constraint is unlimited possibilities, unlimited variations.


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.


From my studio to yours,




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