Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Using Creative Constraints to Force Creative Breakthroughs

Creativity coach Coleen Chandler provides top tips on the creative life.

Great artists often set themselves limits so as to deepen their experience of art-making. They may decide, for example, to paint predominantly in blue, as Picasso did for a time. Or they may be forced to live with limits, say because the pigments they really want are too expensive, and they find themselves obliged to paint with cheaper, “garish” pigments, as Van Gogh did, much to his benefit. “Limits” make for an interesting topic, and they are the subject of today’s post by creativity coach Coleen Chandler, called “Using creative constraints to force creative breakthroughs.”

Eric Maisel
Creativity Coaches on Creativity
Source: Eric Maisel

Coleen explained:

Do you believe free-rein creativity is the holy grail of the creative process? I did, for years.

Today, I am realizing more and more the beauty of constraints and that creating “in the box” can be incredibly liberating. It releases your mind to focus on a specific outcome, which forces you to think and challenge yourself in new ways.

Let’s define creating “in the box” in this context. It’s not the claustrophobic feeling of being stifled by rules and conventional norms. Rather, it’s the ability to create within predetermined limits to compel your mind to explore beyond automatic patterns.

Creative constraints can be intentional or fortuitous. Here are examples of both. See which one may work for you.

The self-imposed deadline

Perhaps the most well-known constraint is the deadline. Suddenly, the project or commissioned art piece you thought you had ample time to finish is due, and you haven’t even started. Nothing focuses the mind like a deadline because you can no longer afford to have 20 artistic visions floating in your head: You must focus and make a choice now!

And the miracle happens: What was a jumble of notes, sketches, or bits of recordings becomes an outline, a painting, or a song. This process always amazes me, and I’ve learned to trust it.

Force creative breakthroughs through commitments to deadlines (self-imposed or otherwise), and watch your creative output soar.

Limit your resources

This constraint requires a mindset shift from “I don’t have this or that available, so I can’t create” to “What can I create with what I have?” By embracing limits, you free your brain to explore beyond set patterns.

Artists get in ruts and replicate what’s comfortable, which can lead to staleness. I invited a client to use only two colors for his next painting. He hated this assignment, and yet he admitted that it challenged him to approach the canvas differently. It led to his creative breakthrough that fewer colors gave his paintings more depth.

If you find yourself complacent in your creativity, see what limits you can explore and play with.

Turn challenges into assets

Bob Ross, the painter, used to say, “We don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents.” Years ago, I got a bad cut on the middle finger of my left hand. I needed a prominent bandage for weeks, which meant no guitar playing. I grew very frustrated.

One morning, I picked up my guitar—I just wanted to make sounds, any sound. Awkwardly, I pressed down on the strings with my index finger and heard the familiar, dissonant, and unworkable sound of open strings.

I started to fuss with the tuning to make a chord with only my index finger—à la Richie Havens (he used his thumb). That week, I wrote one of my favorite and well-received songs, “There You Are.” It was a true breakthrough for me in rhythm and chord progression. It permanently changed the way I write songs.

Transforming challenges into creative opportunities is a creative high and makes you feel so good. Do you have a current challenge? If so, I encourage you to shift your mindset, treat your challenge like a gift, and let your creative process work its magic.

I think you’ll be excited to see what happens to your creativity when you use constraints and allow yourself to explore the vast creative world that opens up when you create “in the box.”


You can visit Coleen at