Does control kill creativity?

One of the things I do at The Art Place Finland is host silk painting workshops. Having never had formal training in silk painting, I’ve come up with my own techniques over the years that I’ve later understood aren’t generally done on silk. I’ve simply not had the sense to understand what you can and cannot do… 

When painting on silk, the colors spread more or less uncontrollably along the thin threads and silk painters often use different types of resist to control the process. I, on the other hand, don’t use any type of resist at all. 

I never planned to do things differently. Like most things in life, it just happened. After I received my PhD a few years ago (seven actually), I took up silk painting again after a break of several years and painted with my kids in the summer at our getaway in the Finnish archipelago. After all, I didn’t have a thesis to work on anymore, so what on Earth was I going to do with all that free time?!

We were out on the island and I ran out of gutta, the resist I liked to use at the time. I was practically in the middle of nowhere with an itch to paint but with no way of getting more gutta any time soon. So, I decided to paint without gutta, and fell completely in love with the process of allowing the paints to move around on the fabric any which way they pleased and working with that. 

Little did I know that it was the start of something new for me and a method that a good friend of mine later named ‘the no-resist technique’.

However, I find that there is a lot more behind this technique than just a lack of resist. It’s a wonderful metaphor for collaboration and dialogue – for life. 

Just like in life, if I didn’t accept what is happening in my paintings as I paint – because it truly does live a life of its own – take it from there and work with what I have, I would never complete a piece. Correspondingly, in true dialogue with others, we have to listen and accept what the other person is saying and build the conversation from there. If we don’t, it isn’t actually a dialogue. We talk at each other instead of with each other and fail to find a mutual understanding. (This is a method also used in improvisation theater, by the way. You have to think ‘yes, and…’ instead of ‘no, but…’ in order to be able to build on what the other actors are doing and saying.)

I teach the no resist technique at The Art Place Finland. It’s fun, but it also fosters an attitude and a state of mind that you can take with you to your work or everyday life. 

In June, I had a lovely group of ladies over for a workshop. One of them was an academic and a thinker like me, and after the workshop, when she posted pictures on Facebook, she asked the following question: “Can you create without taking risks?” Or, in other words, can you create or be creative without letting go? 

I’ve been thinking about that and, at least when I paint, I‘ve noticed that the paintings turn out better when I do indeed let go and don’t try to control the process. I allow my brushstrokes to move in a way that feels natural, and instead of trying to create a certain look or end result, I pick up on and emphasize happy accidents and surprising details that evolve on the canvas. 

Painting commission can therefore be tricky. I accept commissions and enjoy doing so. Being involved in realizing someone’s vision or dream is magic it itself. However, it involves more or less controlling the process and creating a piece of art that corresponds to what has been agreed upon. It means you can’t lose yourself quite as much and let the process take you wherever it wants to go.

No, I don’t think control kills all creativity, but I definitely think it hampers it. If we are too controlled we don’t come up with all those seemingly wacky ideas that lead to brilliant innovations. Something to consider in a world where we increasingly try to control our surroundings?

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