Artist: constraints are your friends

October 6th, 2006

One lesson we can draw from the 20th C. is that total freedom for the artist is not the path to happiness. Never have there been fewer constraints on what an artist can do, and never has the life of the artist (relative to other professions at least) been so wretched.

. . .

The drawbacks of total freedom should not surprise a physicist or an athlete. Certain mathematical problems are difficult or impossible to solve without a sufficient number of constraints. Without the constraints of rules, sports would be chaos.

We can see evidence for the longing for constraints in the most important painting movement of our time: the Painting a Day phenomenon. What is the explicit purpose of this movement? It is a pure statement of constraint. There must be one painting per day. This constraint severely limits what an artist can produce on a canvas. The enthusiasm with which artists are joining this movement demonstrates the hunger for constraints, for simplicity, for order. After all, you can’t rebel against nothing, can you?

But you don’t need to become a Painting a Day painter to have constraints. All you need to do is think about your own situation as an artist and examine what constraints you already have. And then, of course, to appreciate them and make the most of them.

One year I had no studio for a few months. I needed to work at home, so I drew in my sketchbook each day instead of painting. The work that I designed then I later painted and sold for a lot of money. The constraint of having no studio, temporarily, in fact helped me a great deal.

In order to make the most of your constraints, you need to be aware of what they are. Everyone has limitations of time, space, and talent. The particular mix that you have will influence what you do — much as will the mix of your painting medium or selection of your palette. The practical acceptance of constraints is the key to using the constraints in a positive way. It helps to remember that more opportunity and freedom would not necessarily help you.

So, let’s get to work . . .

. . .

14 Responses to “Artist: constraints are your friends”

  1. Gramercy Galleria Says:

    This post is particularly meaningful today as I have just read an excerpt from a book on being content (Lao-tzu in A Path and a Practice: Using Lao-tzu’s Tao Te Ching as a Guide to an Awakened Spiritual Life by William Martin). Our own struggle against constraints we deem “unfriendly” can account for periods of depression and lack of productivity. Your example of making use of a notebook when a studio was not available is a perfect example of constraints as friends, as well as “be content.”

  2. Karl Zipser Says:

    Interesting comment, Gramercy Galleria. Are there any more concepts from your reading that can we can make use of in this context?

  3. Karl Zipser Says:

    So, is Painting a Day the most important movement in art in our time, or am I completely nuts with this assertion? If the later, what is the most important movement?

  4. Gramercy Galleria Says:


    There are probably more, but to be honest, I might not have made the actual connection had I not read both the excerpt and your post in the same couple of hours. A sad comment on my memory, but it is true.

    What I can say with ease and surety is that waiting to “work” on idea about “blue” until one has all shades of blue, or three shades of blue, or two, or even one shade of blue (for example) is not necessary. Blue might also be about the absence of blue in the composition.

    We are always bound by the most important constraint — time, this moment only. Perhaps that is what makes “a painting a day” an important movement. It’s not only about creating a painting a day, it is about not waiting. Within this parameter, what has been created that might not have been otherwise?

  5. Karl Zipser Says:

    Although I’m not a member, Painting a Day is in fact the only art movement I am aware of at the moment that I consider both new, vital, and widespread. Not that I am a student of contemporary art movements . . .

    I think a key aspect of an art movement is that a group of people accept the same constraints. This makes the constraints more powerful.

    You say that we are all bound by this moment only. That makes it a practical constraint for a group of people to adopt. But to me that is the magic of painting, that it creates something that transcends the moment. We change and age, but the picture stays more or less the same.

    Another useful aspect of the Painting a Day movement is that the constraint, the central concept, is comprehensible to people outside the movement. I’ve thought it was not, in itself, such an interesting concept, but you make we think about it differently. I like your “it is about not waiting” reformulation.

  6. Gramercy Galleria Says:

    I also love that created art transcends the moment. What I mean by “this moment only” os not about the art – it is about our ownership of the moment. You can’t do it “before” and you can’t do it “after” you CAN do it now. Maybe I am overworking the thought.

  7. Karl Zipser Says:

    I don’t think you can overstate that particular thought.

  8. auspicious Says:


    You might not be aware, but there is a similar PAD (picture a day) movement within photography. This arose out of the earlier picture a week idea, which coincided with the beginnings of photoblogging. A photoblog is a daily space which requires filling. An easy reminder, or a nag, that, actually, the days are slipping by and one hasn’t put the time into ones artwork that one intended to.

    However, back to your main question about constraints. Some people seem to work best with constraints whilst others find them debilitating. I stongly suspect that this is a very individual thing. People who need constraints will make them where they don’t exist (I will only use this technique this year), whilst people who hate constraints will always be fighting them (if only…….or, unless x happens, I’ll emigrate).

    I don’t think that the Picture a Day idea is a constraint by the way. Or at least not in the same way. A constraint would be “I’ll only use this lens this month”, whereas people seem to use the PAD thing as a motivator – either to start, or to finish, their work, depending on personality.

  9. David Says:

    If Painting A Day (PAD) is the most important art movement of our time, then I think it’s safe to say there aren’t any important art movements at present. I mean I’m not knocking the practice – if doing a painting every day is a way to keep working, then great. But it seems like if there’s going to be anything significant about it there needs to be more going on than that. Once a painting is done, who cares how long it took? It has to hold its own against other work that may have taken much longer, like a Painting A Year (PAY), or been done more quickly, like a Painting A Minute (PAM).

    Plus, I think a lot of the supposedly important movements of the past weren’t even movements. They were often one or two innovative artists, with a bunch of imitators, and as often as not someone else, perhaps even dismissively, named them. The “Impressionists” and the “Fauves” are both examples of this.

    I’d like to propose a movement called PAW. The constraints are that the painting has to take exactly a week, and it has to have a dog in it :)

  10. Karl Zipser Says:


    A constraint provides simplicity at the cost of freedom. In an overly complex situation (such as, what should I paint next, and how long should I spend on it?) a constraint such as A Painting A Day can remove the paralysis of indecision and focus creative energy. In this context, it is precisely the constraint that enables the motivation.


    We seem to agree that Painting A Day is the most important movement, if there are any at all. But in fact, the even more important movement is Painting Never, which is what many artists end up joining.

    I think we should focus on Painting A Day some more. I think it is a mistake to underestimate the phenomenon. I see it as a rebellion against the established art system. I’m not surprised that at first such a movement would seem simple and humble.

  11. david Says:

    a constraint such as A Painting A Day can remove the paralysis of indecision and focus creative energy…the even more important movement is Painting Never, which is what many artists end up joining.

    I don’t know, Karl, it sounds to me less like an art movement and more like a form of therapy for people with motivation problems. But then I don’t really know anything about it other than what I’ve read here. I’m open to finding out more – but I’m skeptical.

  12. auspicious Says:


    Can I recommend ‘Art and Fear’

    by Bayles and Orland, and the later ‘View from the Studio Door’ by Orland.

    If that URL is a bit long for Blogger, try:

  13. David Says:

    auspicious, it looks interesting. I’ll add it to my Amazon list. Thanks.

  14. Kris Shanks Says:

    I think there are two elements to the painting a day phenomenon. One is that it involves artists sharing their work directly with the public, so there is a sense of connection between the artist and the onlookers as opposed to having experience of viewing art mediated by a gallery or museum. The other element is that it focuses on the here and now, day to day elements of life. Artists have always provided ways of seeing for non-artists. PAD artists (myself included) are focusing on the inherent beauty of the small and uneventful aspects of our lives.