Advice (On Creativity)…

The most frequent question I get asked is, “How do you come up with all of those designs?” To be honest I find it an incredibly flattering question, with its implication that there is some rich reserve of creativity inside me that remains ineffable to others. At the same idea I find it a thoroughly confusing question, for the very same reason. For many people the creative process seems a distant concept, something magical that happens for only a select few. And this, I must admit, baffles me…

Thanks to the way art is taught in America, creativity is generally regarded as an innate talent, something one is born with, something that is largely unlearnable. It is an ephemeral quality granted to only the select. (This, of course, is utter balderdash.) Furthermore the gateway to the entire learning process seems to come at some time in late elementary school when the prized skill of being able to draw a cartoon cat or a flower determines whether a particular student will earn praise and be admitted to the fellowship of the creative. (I was resolutely not one of those children.)

From that point on, the path of creativity is all but written in stone; you are creative or not. You can draw the teapot or you can’t. There isn’t really much art education; there is exposure that is either accompanied by praise or isn’t. Having taught college-level art for nearly a decade, please believe me when I tell you that the hardest part of the job is undoing almost everything students think they know about drawing and composition.

So then, if creativity isn’t innate, where does it come from? In my experience the answer is simple: work. Lots and lots of work, just like anything else. You would never expect someone who seems to get along well with babies to be inherently prepared to be a pediatrician, would you?

At first blush, this may seem a tad elitist, but I would argue it is ultimately more democratic than the innate talent model that says if you are born without creative talent then you are just doomed to mediocrity at best. Personally I find this model to be both unfounded and offensive. If we take creativity as innate I would surely have been excluded. (Please believe me when I tell you I am in no way understating my native facilities; my stick figures truly need trips to the stick hospital and it only gets worse from there.)

If, on the other hand, we take creativity as a process, as a product of ongoing work and effort and study, then all those with the drive, commitment, and, to be honest, the willingness to put up with not making money for a very long time can gain access. The key word here, though, is work.

Creativity rarely strikes, and even less often when one is just starting out. Let’s step back to my days as a college professor. The number of pieces from first-year students that get juried into an annual student show are few and far between, which is why there is often a category just for those students. About 1 in a 100 pieces from first-years will be up to the standards of even a junior level class. And maybe 1 in 10 pieces from juniors will be up to the standards of the seniors. Why is there this disparity? Work, and lots of it. It is not that the first-years don’t work hard; it’s that work is cumulative. The work of the past aids in the work of the future. Experience helps.

But even here, the work of a college senior is rarely up to the level of say a graduate student in art, and graduate level art is rarely up to the level of a professor or long-time gallery artist. Why? You guessed it: work.

Now I am in no way saying that everyone who wants to be creative needs to go to art school or get a graduate degree. That is just one path, and it happens to be the one I took because my first love is academia. School just happens to be a great place to get to do a lot of work, see a lot of work, and talk about that work. Occasionally it is the place where a professor makes you cry in a critique (thank you Barry Gunderson, and I mean that. Best critique of my life). It is a great place to rack up the hours of work.


Speaking of hours. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers he writes a lot about the “10,000-Hour Rule.” I love this rule. I think it makes a whole lot of sense. In brief it states that it takes about 10,000 hours to reach mastery. Think of some of the people that really changed the game in their fields and there is a good chance that those people put in thousands and thousands of hours of work before they did so. For some it was in school, for others it was at home, on the ball field, in a basement studio, and myriad other places. The Beatles didn’t just record Sgt. Pepper one day. Special Relativity didn’t just pop into Einstein’s head. Picasso didn’t accidentally paint Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. While the idea of magical inspiration is appealing, it rarely if ever happens unaided. Inspiration comes from work, from experience.

Now I would never compare myself to The Beatles, Einstein, or Picasso. They merely illustrate the idea, tell the story. How do I come up with all of the designs? I work. A lot. I sit and bang my head against the desk. I research. I read and write and look and gather. But more than anything I use the skills and concepts that have developed over the past 20 years of banging my head against desks, tables, shop benches, and even floors.

Have I reached 10,000 hours? As an artist: long, long ago. 10,000 hours is just 5 years of working at something 40 hours a week. So I’m probably coming up on 50,000 hours at this point. (That just illustrates, I hope, just how profound my lack of innate talent is, whatever innate talent is.) Have I reached 10,000 hours as a fabric designer? A quilter? Not even close. While I’d like to believe that there is a lot of crossover with the concepts and skills between my previous experience and what I am doing now, I am absolutely sure that I have thousands of hours to go before I even reach competency.

All of this brings me to my advice: Do more. Make more. Sew more, cut more, sketch more, write more, do more more. Creativity is hard work. It is frustrating as all heck. The only way to make really amazing stuff is to make a lot of crap along the way. Take pleasure in where you are, but recognize that it is not the end point. First-year students make good work for first-year students, but they are not on the same playing field as a museum-caliber artist, and it would be unfair to judge them by that standard. At the same time, it is important to recognize that there is indeed a difference in the quality of their work. By the same token, I have a long way to go before I reach the level of my fabric and quilting idols; I’d put myself somewhere around the junior in college level in this analogy. I can readily see the different levels of facility, maturity, and experience when I look at my work and many other people’s.

Also, be honest with yourself about what you are making and your goal. Not everyone needs to put in the 10,000 hours; that is a good rule of thumb for becoming truly expert. Not everyone has the time or even the interest in that. There is absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying what you do and being good at it. Good is good, as is enjoyment; this isn’t a competition. We all do this for different reasons.

At the same time, if you do want a career in this industry there is nothing that is going to take the place of the work, of the hours and hours and hours. It will not “just happen.” The world simply does not work like that.

Remember those kids back in middle school who were identified as “talented?” Know why many of them may indeed end up somewhere in the arts? Well, they were tracked into art classes, given encouragement, made to practice. They made more (likely bad) art, and over time they got better. Those kids who weren’t identified as “talented” stopped making art.

How did I buck that system? Let’s just say I was a spiteful little bastard back in the day and decided to prove the high-school art system wrong. Know what, after thousands of hours of work I think I have. Hence my advice: Make more. Everything else will eventually follow, just not as quickly as you may hope.

Yay work!!!


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16 Responses to Advice (On Creativity)…

  1. 1
    collette says:

    very intelligent, interesting post! 10, 000 hours phew – I really enjoy reading these posts. Your observations are well articulated and introduce some really interesting perspectives to the world of quilting and design. It is refreshing to read such thought provoking posts.

  2. 2
    betz White says:

    I think this is my favorite post I’ve read of yours yet! You’ve articulated a lot of what I already knew on some level but have never been able to say. Now instead of shrugging when someone asks “how did you get to be so creative?” or “where do you get all of your ideas?” I can think back to this post and have a real conversation about it. 🙂 Thanks, Thomas!

  3. 3
    Jamie Cooley says:

    Oh, I just love this post!!!!!! As I was reading I kept thinking about the ice hockey players in Malcolm Gladwell’s book and the 10,000 hour rule. It makes so much sense. When I was in 5th grade I was identified to be in an art club. My mom took me to Doug’s Hobby Shop and we bought all the painting supplies and a canvas which was a pretty penny. A few weeks into it, my art teacher called my mom and told her she had made a mistake and I was out. From that point on, I always felt, even now, that I’m really not all that artistic or creative and why in the world do I love fabric so much? I have a daughter, Bea, who is 6 and quite into creating things. She has a sewing machine and goes to art camp in the summer and spends most of her free time making things. Maybe she will be an artist someday. Thanks for sharing this! Now, onto the question I wonder, what is my style? I seem to admire lots of different types of “modern” quilts, but I love them all…the shabby chic, the ultra modern with lots of white or negative space, the 30’s repro, even the Civil War browns. When will I figure out my own style?

  4. 4
    Kevin Fitzgerald says:

    You can take the teacher out of the school, but you can’t take the school out of the teacher. Hmm, that made more sense in my head. I think you get my point though. And regardless, this is vital stuff to be sharing; thanks for putting it up.

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  6. 6
    jill says:

    This is a great post – I’m a highschool drama teacher and I get complaints from my students about this all the time. “This is drama – why do we have to do all this work? Why do we have to do this scene again? Why do we have to memorize all these lines? Why do we keep improvising again and again when we’re just bad at it?” Because that’s how you become good – by doing it again and again, even though you are bad at it right now. I tell them I am teaching them the disciplines of acting. It is the same for any creative process – you need to do the work.

    Anyway, thanks for putting it so eloquently.

  7. 7
    Douglas says:

    “Do more.” “Make more.” I love it, thank you for such a well-written piece. An easy trap to fall into is comparing one’s work against others’ while forgetting they likely have much more time behind the wheel. It takes a lot of my mental energy to stay calm and keep doing; thank you for the nice reminder!

  8. 8
    Colleen says:

    I so agree! I NEVER thought I was creative growing up. I had the artists in the family but was never encouraged or given opportunities to learn other then the occasional class in school. I always wanted to be in on the secret. I can remember buying an art kit at age 10 from a yard sale. I tried to follow the directions in the booklet it came with. I see now I was looking for experiences and practice. My aha moment came when I was 21, recent college graduate working with first graders. All of a sudden I was teaching the art center creating group collages of animal habitats, stuffed fish book characters and more. And then my grandfather game me my grandmothers old white sewing machine and I learned to quilt from tv shows and email list servs. But my creativity came out in other areas. re-purposing and transforming furniture, old windows, etc. Creativity is definitely available to everyone with just a little knowledge and practice.

  9. 9
    Mary says:
    Have you read this? You might have been the one to tell me about it, actually. It is Ira Glass (NPR This American Life) on creativity.
    Anyway, thank you for giving me permission to dismiss the voices; The voice of Elizabeth Grayson, whose knee socks always stayed up and who, in fourth grade, informed me that I would never draw as well as she did; the voice of a college creative writing professor who told me that I would make a great critic since I was wonderful at identifying why something was “good” or “bad” but didn’t seem to have the innate qualities of a ‘real’ writer; the voice of my college advisor who asked me if I really truly needed to write every day in order to live, and when I told her I wasn’t sure, told me that she would not recommend me for the masters program.
    Nobody ever told me to work without fear of being crappy. Nobody ever said the crappy would get less so and might very well become “good.”
    Nobody ever discussed the craft in the art. We tend to talk about art in lofty terms, but there is a craft to all art, and craft, with hard work, is always learnable and teachable.
    Thank you, Thomas. These posts have been like good medicine!

  10. 10
    Karen says:

    I also was not an “innate” talent sort. Being a bit more mathematically inclined, I often said, I’m not the creative type, yet I’m a singer and piano player. I’m really good with color. But I really can’t draw well. Go figure.

    Homeschooling my kids taught me that, indeed, creativity is work and can be learned and gets better with practice.

    Nice post, Thomas!

  11. 11
    ritainalaska says:

    your are sew right! creativity can be learned! it is this attitude that is missing in today’s classroom. am enjoying your posts!

  12. 12
    Mary Ann says:

    I am so inspired by this post Thomas. As I have said before I love the thoughtful posts that make me think about my creativity. Like many others I was never good enough in art to be thought of or to think of myself for that matter, as creative. But I was always drawn back into the sphere through crafts. Printing, sewing, handwork, you name it I have done it along the way.
    Thank you for prodding us to be thoughtful in our creativity and for the reminder that greatness only comes from work even if no one sees the work that preceded. And oh the language….your posts nearly make me swoon!

  13. 13

    What an incredibly well written post! This is, by far, one of the most meaningful posts I have read in some time. Growing up, I was always told that I had a “math brain.” I was sent to math and science camps but never any art camps. As a kid, I wasn’t allowed to play with Play-doh because it was too messy! All I ever really wanted to do was to paint, sculpt, doodle, etc, but this wasn’t allowed. In high school, I wasn’t allowed to take Home Ec because I was “too smart” for that. Now that I am an adult, I feel liberated at the opportunity to create! In A.N.Y.W.A.Y I want! While it appears that my oldest daughter has a love for math and science, too, I continuously encourage her to create, in anyway she wants. And she loves it 🙂 Thanks again for such a thoughtful post.

  14. 14
    Jill says:

    yay! so true, yet so easy to forget (or ignore in the first place). it’s rather interesting, I think, that it is easier to accept that ability and results improve with effort and practice when considering almost every endeavor *except* those that also involve creativity. as a child, I grew up assuming that I would always be an artist, and I had plenty of encouragement from family and friends. I showed some age-appropriate levels of skill, I suppose, but I would also spend my days drawing and creating (at least when I didn’t have my nose in a book <– literally, my sight has never been stellar). but when my life got sidetracked, I found myself looking up from time to time and wondering, 'what happened, how is it possible that I'm living such an creativity-free life?' I have considered getting back into drawing and painting countless times over the past [gasp!] two decades, but you know what? it's *scary*! gone are the days of instruction, guidance and the habit of practice. and so the desire to create is tempered by the fear of failure (or, more realistically, mediocrity at best and disappointment). [why it would make sense for any person who wants to be an artist to also dabble in perfectionism, I will never understand.] somewhat recently, I decided to start dipping my toes in the water of sewing, something that I have had little experience with outside of the crazy manic sewing of patterned costumes with a strict October due date. because my skill set working with fabric was never there, it somehow feels like there is less to lose. and with each project that I make, I learn something new and know how I could make it better the next time. and for some reason, that knowledge doesn't make me feel like a failure (or mediocre, or disappointed); instead, it makes me feel empowered, emboldened. excited.

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