the size of a canvas

One of my favourite creative and pedagogical concepts is one that I have dubbed ‘canvas size’.

That probably sparks a few questions.

During my music degree, composition students were given the same thing at the beginning of every semester. A small booklet, complete with cartoon on the front, detailing what was to appear in our folio that semester. A piano trio, a wind quintet, a solo woodwind piece; there was always a wide variety of expectations, styles and, crucially, time limits.

I asked one of my tutors once why we didn’t get to choose what we wrote by ourselves. The answer is one that has fascinated me ever since. I can’t remember it completely word for word, but this was the general meaning of what he said.

“If you give an artist an unlimited canvas size, they will get overwhelmed. They will try to include too much, too little, or they will get completely overwhelmed and not know where to start. The result is work that doesn’t show what they can do; it will likely be overly complicated, too long, or just plain confusing. By limiting the size of the canvas you can work with, you enable creative choice to flourish.”

In other words, limitations and expectations allow us to create on purpose, with deliberation, thus creating something that is much better than it otherwise would have been.

The real challenge of self-directed creativity lies in the fact that you have to create the size of the canvas for yourself. I have been finding this difficult. There have been times when I have made my canvas too small, or miles too big.

But if I have learnt anything, it’s that it’s okay to start with a canvas that is too small. Because even if there is only room for one colour, at least you made a decision about what that colour was going to be. And then you can make the canvas a little bigger. Add maybe two more colours. The decisions will be deliberate and may take time, but at least you will understand why something has ended up where it is.

And if I have learnt anything else, it’s that it’s okay to start with a canvas that is too big. Because even if you throw every colour you have at it, at least you created something in the first place. And then you can make the canvas a little smaller. Remove maybe two or three colours. The decisions will be deliberate and may take time, but by the end, you might have found out why something has ended up where it is.

The point is: start with some kind of canvas size. Impose some kind of limitation on yourself. Creativity is not an easy pursuit; it’s not all following the pictures or sounds in your head. It’s a craft that takes, at its very heart, decision making. Some of the best creatives and most prolific creatives I know are also some of the quickest decision makers I know, even if they regret their decision ten minutes later.

Want to create something? Choose a canvas size. Give yourself a specific project. Start somewhere, and see where it can take you.

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