It may seem counterintuitive that placing limits on our creativity can actually make us more creative. But think about it this way: if I stuck a sheet of paper in front of you and said “make art,” you’d probably stare blankly at me. But if I handed you the paper, a crayon, and a pair of scissors, and told you to use these to make something that could fly, your mind would start buzzing with possibilities. You could draw a butterfly. You could turn the paper into a kite. You could cut it into a snowflake. You could color the paper and fold it into an origami bird. Or how about a paper airplane? Because I gave you parameters or limitations as to what you could use and what you had to make, your mind was able to make connections in a whole new way, allowing you to come up with diverse creative possibilities.
In this article, you’ll learn why constraints, parameters, limitations, and restrictions are so effective at increasing our creative power. Then, read on to discover 20 fun creative limitations you can use in your artwork.
Limitations can help you get to work faster.
Choice paralysis is a real thing and one of the reasons why we stare at a blank canvas with fear. It’s not that you aren’t “creative enough” to come up with something to make; it’s just that the infinite possibilities are so overwhelming! Placing limitations on what you’ll make can serve as a guide. Begining your project with set parameters is a great way to overcome that fear and get your creative juices flowing. This is one of the reasons why it’s so helpful to follow a daily drawing challenge like Making Art Everyday.
Limitations help you gain a more intimate understanding of your tools and media.
A digital artist has the world of art mediums, a plethora of useful tools, and infinite possibilities at their fingertips. We are naturally inclined to utilize as much as possible, trying absolutely everything but never gaining a thorough understanding of each feature, tool, and technique. Doing so puts us into a “jack of all trades, master of none” situation. By restricting yourself to use a single tool, you push yourself to analyze that tool closely, concentrate and observe it with more depth, consider every little detail and capability of the tool, and ultimately gain a greater understanding of your craft.
Limitations can help you re-frame what creativity is altogether.
In school, one of my favorite subjects, after art of course, is math. The two might seem like opposite ends of the spectrum. But I like art and math for the same reason: they are both a form of problem-solving. In art, I’ll have an idea and have to figure out a way to execute that idea. When you impose limitations on your art, you have ultimately created a problem that needs solving, and the limitations are the clues to help you get there. I want to make “X” but I need it to also be “Y” and “Z”. Reframing creative act as sort-of “puzzle,” means a solution exists, and it’s up to you to find it. How’s that to get your wheels turning?
Limitations help you think unconventionally.
You are shipwrecked on a deserted island with no rescue team in sight. You only have a handful of materials from your broken boat and the island’s natural resources at your disposal. How will you survive? Welcome to the ultimate exercise in creativity. When you are confronted with restrictions, constraints, or obstacles, you simply have fewer resources with which to create. You are forced to think outside the box and use what you have in unconventional ways. Creative limitations make you question your own understanding of what a material or medium, should or can do. When you only have one thing to work with, you’ll naturally find new ways to use that thing. By narrowing our focus, we can start to see new ways of creating.
So embrace limitations in your work! They are beneficial to artists in so many ways. The old adage of “less is more” really does ring true here. By starting with less, we can create more.
20 Creativity-boosting Limitations
The following are some ideas of limitations you can impose on yourself as an artist. These limitations are geared toward digital artists, specifically those using the Procreate app, but you can definitely apply them to many other creative mediums. And I realize that (ironically) in this list there are a lot of limitations ideas to choose from. Don’t let that overwhelm you. Just pick one and go for it! If you hate the results, you’ll have learned something. But I can promise you that if you stick with something you hate long enough to find something you love about it, you’re going to experience some major breakthroughs. Work your way through trying as many limitations as you can. I hope you have fun with these creative limitations!
TIP: Descriptions and examples for each limitation are below. Tap a heading to jump to that section.
- Use only one brush
- One layer only
- Teeny-tiny art
- Make it symmetrical
- Start with a photograph
- Try a different medium
- Use a limited color palette
- Black & white values only
- Monochromatic colors
- Explore color harmonies
- Use a color you hate
- Draw with your eyes closed
- Set a time limit
- 30-second sketches
- Use your non-dominant hand
- Draw upside-down
These are ways you can impose limitations within the media you are using. For Procreate users, this could mean utilizing less-oft used software features, limiting brushes used, limits with layers, and more. Or how about working in a completely different medium?
Use Only One Brush
Illustrate your entire piece with a single brush. You can get more versatility from a brush by adjusting the brush size or opacity, as well as utilizing the pressure and tilt functions. Before starting, experiment with the brush to make as many different kinds of marks as possible. Maybe try using a brush that doesn’t seem very versatile, just to see how far you can push it!
One Layer Only
Stick to using just one layer in Procreate. This may force you to re-think the workflow of your drawing. You might have to simplify or find other creative ways to work within the layer. Here’s a tutorial I made about drawing in a painterly style using only one layer.
Working digitally, we can zoom in on areas of our artwork to get a better view or to add more detail. What if you couldn’t? Open a new canvas and draw a small box on the screen. Create your piece within this box and do not zoom in at all. Alternatively, you could try a medium such as pixel art where you are limited in the amount of detail you can incorporate. Watch my pixel art tutorial and get the free brushes!
Make it Symmetrical
Turn on Procreate’s symmetry feature found within the drawing guides. Challenge yourself to make a perfectly symmetrical piece of art. Here’s a tutorial that utilizes the symmetry feature.
Start with a Photograph
Challenge yourself to incorporate photography into your work. One idea is to start with a photo (you can take your own or find free stock photos at sites like Unsplash or Pexels) and use the smudge tool to manipulate the photo. Or what if you drew over the top of the photo, adding embellishments or little characters to an existing scene? What other ideas can you come up with?
Try a Different Medium
Prohibit yourself from working in the medium your most comfortable using. If you are used to working on your iPad in Procreate, why not draw on paper with crayons, bust out some real paints, heck, you could even build the prompt out of Lego and photograph it!
In the digital RGB color space, there are almost 17 million possible colors from which to choose. With all those options, it’s easy to become overwhelmed when trying to choose the “best” color for your art. When illustrating something that exists in life, your mind’s eye might tell you to replicate the colors you see. You might become frustrated or confused about picking the “right” color. Limiting the number of colors you have to work with forces you to come up with creative ways to make a one color representative of another. You might even come up with a unique color combination you’d never thought to use before!
Use a Limited Color Palette
Start with a predetermined color palette of only two or three colors and build your piece around it. If you want, you could work with the same color palette for the entire week or month – just think of how creative you’ll have to be with those colors! Download some free Procreate color palettes to get you going and read this tutorial about how to use color palettes in your work. I also made you a Pinterest board of inspirational illustrations with limited color palettes.
Black & White Values Only
Here, your limitation is that you can only work with two values, black and white – no shades of grey. So you’ll have to think of other creative ways to depict value – think crosshatching, scribbling, etc. Here are some examples.
A monochromatic palette consists of all the tones, tints, and shades of a single hue. A hue is what we think of when we hear the word “color”: blue, yellow, green, etc. Choose a color and create a drawing using only shades of that color. Something else to consider: what is the symbolism of the color you are choosing?
Explore Color Hamonies
Learn more about color harmonies such as complementary colors, analogous, split complementary, and more. Use these harmonies to create your own limited color palettes. Learn how to use Procreate’s color harmony feature in my Procreate 5 tutorial. (The section you’ll want is at 7:53). Also, check out this cool article about color harmonies called, “Why Hulk Wears Purple Pants.”
Use a Color you Hate
For me, that color is purple. For you, it could be baby-poop green, beige, or maybe it’s hot pink that makes you cringe. Choose colors you would NEVER normally use and see if you can find a way to love them! Make the despised color dominant in your piece and see where it takes you.
We all have our usual way of doing things. After a while, it’s rather easy to get stuck in a rut. Imagine you went on a walk every day, always taking the same route. Eventually, you’ll become blind to your surroundings, and walk around on autopilot. When you do something frequently like drawing every day, it’s crucial to find ways that make it feel unfamiliar. Take a walk around a different block and try some of the limitations below.
Draw with Your Eyes Closed
Okay, maybe not for the WHOLE drawing, although that could be fun! Close your eyes and attempt to draw your subject for a couple of minutes. Open your eyes and finish the piece. Try to have the “eyes closed” part of the drawing remain a dominant element of your completed artwork. Another option: close your eyes and place some haphazard scribbles on your canvas. Turn your scribbles into something else!
Set a Time Limit
Decide on an amount of time, preferably shorter than you’d typically take to finish a piece, and set a timer. Do whatever you can to complete your artwork in time! Be strict! If you don’t finish before the time is up, don’t give yourself a pass and keep going. Instead, challenge yourself to try again tomorrow to complete your artwork in the set amount of time. The more disciplined you are in sticking to your constraints, the more you will learn from each attempt.
Riffing off the idea of time constraints, set a timer for 30 seconds and sketch your prompt or subject. When time is up, start all over again with a different approach to the prompt. Keep going until you have filled your page with sketches. With each attempt, draw the first thing that comes to mind and keep the sketches fast and loose. There are no wrong answers or bad ideas. If you want, you can choose your favorite sketch to develop into a finished piece.
Use your Non-Dominant Hand
Using your opposite hand to draw something is a classic exercise given by art teachers to their students. It’s pretty simple – if you are right-handed, draw with your left hand and vice-versa. It’s been said that using your non-dominant hand stimulates more of the brain and helps to make new neural connections. It forces you to analyze the process of drawing something and reduces your actions to the fundamentals of what it is to draw. Just remember: it ain’t gonna be pretty. That fact is quite freeing! It enables you to let go of the idea that the drawing needs to look “good”, and lets you focus instead on the act of creation itself – so embrace the awkwardness! Here is a great little video about an artist who discovered that drawing with his left hand produced an entirely new look and feel. He now uses his left hand when he wants a loose, emotional feel in his children’s book illustrations. What an excellent example of embracing your “weaknesses” and using them to your advantage by turing them into tools..
Pull up a reference photo of the thing you would like to draw. Now, turn it upside-down. Then, draw what you see. By doing this, you must concentrate and draw what exactly what you see and not what you think your subject looks like in your head.
This type of limitation has to do with the way we choose to depict a particular subject. As artists, we are in charge of making all the decisions about how a specific thing will look and feel in our art, as well as what message it conveys. Using style constraints is a great way to explore the versatility of a particular visual style or technique, especially when you apply the same limitations to a wide variety of subjects.
Basic Shapes Only
Depict your subject using only simple basic shapes, such as circles, squares, triangles, etc.
Choose a Mood
Decide ahead of time that you’ll depict your prompt while conveying a particular mood, tone, or emotion. This can produce especially creative results when the subject matter and the mood don’t seem to go together, like “rubber duck” and “terrifying”. Here are some ideas of moods to choose from: whimsical, romantic, tranquil, dark, energetic, uplifting, majestic, cinematic, gloomy, humorous, ominous, angry cheerful, scary, silly, uncomfortable, relaxing, etc. Some things to consider. How do you interpret that mood? What does it mean to you? How can you visually manipulate your subject matter to match the mood? With color? Lighting? Additional imagery? What if you used this limitation to introduce a narrative to your artwork? Can you use the mood to tell a story?
Stick to a Visual Style
Limit yourself to one particular visual style for an extended period, using that style to depict an array of subjects. In doing so, you’ll learn to manipulate specific visual characteristics in novel ways. Perhaps you can explore an art style you learned from March’s Making Art Everyday prompts. Read my article, 30 Art Styles to Try in Procreate for lots of examples. Or…come up with your own visual style. Decide on the characteristics you want your style to have, such as type of line work, type of shading, loose vs. refined, etc. For an extra challenge, I’d recommend choosing something beyond what you usually do when you make art.
Simplify and Simplify Again
When creating art, it’s easy to get caught up in the details. You’ll often hear artists lament that they’ve “overworked” their piece because they didn’t know when to stop. It results in a frustrating experience. Instead, decide to simplify. How can you boil your subject down to it’s most essential elements? How simple can you go and still have that thing be recognizable?
- In this Ted Talk, Phil Hansen shares his story about how a physical limitation, his shaky hands, helped him discover redefine who he was as an artist.
- In this article from Creative Cafe, learn even more ways that limitations help boost creativity, with some great, real-world examples.
- This quote: “Creativity is not born from freedom. If you really want to push yourself beyond your limits you have to learn a skill, absorb its rules, learn where the limits lie, and exceed them.” Read the full article from Medium here.