Creating with Limitation: Thoughts on Creative Identity

Words by Elizabeth Ivy Hawkins

“The difference between genius and stupidity, is that genius has its limits.”  Albert Einstein

One assignment I have my art and design students complete is a large compositional study. It starts with specific, limited guidelines. It allows only for specific line widths, thicknesses, and shapes. These strict rules are placed on the design process so that important organizational principles are explored. As the series of compositions develop, the limits are gradually released, culminating in a large composition that has none of the beginning parameters or restrictions.

The beginning of this process is frustrating for my students.

But the thing is, without those limitations, my students would have a much harder time completing the large final composition. There would be too many options. They would have no idea where to begin.  If they skipped any part of the process, the end result would not be as complex or compelling. I tell the students the frustration is worth it. Working within limitation is their friend. It prepares them to partner with clients who have limited resources and to be more inventive with less.

I also tell them the story of Michelangelo, who carved the David out of a stone so flawed that no other sculptor wanted it. I remind them some of the best music is based on a simple-three chord progression structure. Sometimes serious limitations can lead an artist to their best work.
It got me thinking about how design limitations in creating art are similar to limitations I perceive in my life.

I have frustration when I think about limitation and about not getting the results I want. I see limitation as a lack of imagination. An absence of inventiveness. A villain to wrestle with until I get my way.

It may just be what gets me to the larger, more compelling movement in my life. It could be what forces greater creative awareness, a stealth usage of resources, of creating with leanness and purpose. What if lack was pulling me into a larger imagination?Tweet This

That’s hard to believe because we all have limitations. The partner who left. The dream that died. The once close friend we can’t forgive. Illness that is never going away. Full-time caregiving that leaves us exhausted, without creative outlet.  Some days my list of limitations are too many to count. Limits outnumber the stars. My creative vision becomes lifeless and blurry. I question what the point of creative ambition is.

Nobody likes working within limitation, but artists who embrace limitation make better art.

I think this principle is true in life, as well. Individuals who embrace limitation tend to be more inventive, optimistic, and lead more fulfilling lives.

It’s tough. I’m trying my hardest. My identity as a creative is rooted in a connection to life, to a divine ground of being I call God. The long narrative that exists from the beginning of time whispers that there is always creatively more. There is more abundance. There is more life. Some really bad stuff exists, too.

But if I can shift my attitude in the midst of challenge and limitation, to awe and wonder, how will that change me?

My rebel heart is learning to embrace an attitude of limitation. I’m using it to make art that sings within its bounds. Despite flaws in stone and life, I see my David. I pick up the chisel and begin.

Elizabeth Ivy Hawkins holds an MFA in Painting, and currently is an Adjunct Professor at Kendall College of Art and Design in Grand Rapids, MI.  Elizabeth’s artwork has been exhibited regionally and nationally, including exhibitions in New York and Los Angeles.  She speaks on the importance of the artist’s voice, and mentors individuals and groups on how to cultivate individual expression as a way of being fully present in our daily lives.  She writes for the on-line publication Off the Page, and on her blog about creativity, relationships, and spirituality.  Her story, Where I Fell In Love, was posted on the Story Gathering Podcast. She is a wife to the dashing and strong Bradford, and stepmother of one, and mother of two naughty and smart children.

You can find her at

Facebook Artist Page:

Instagram: @elizabethivyhawkins

Twitter: @elizabethivy

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Essay used with permission from Elizabeth Ivy Hawkins.

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May 1, 2017