Prolific Creation


Two schools of thought involve creating fast and frequently vs. being slow and deliberate. I argue that creating prolifically is the best path.

Is creativity a limited resource? Do you have to be concerned about using it up? My belief is, no, it is unlimited, but it is not always ready to flow.

But I have heard about artists who are burnt out, dried up creatively. Doesn’t that argue that creativity is limited? No, an anecdote doesn’t make a proof. I don’t know these people and I can’t and wouldn’t make any judgements about why their creative springs dried up. But I believe that is a personal problem, not the nature of creativity.

Slow and deliberate

Some types of art is slow by its nature. Sculpture is an example. Some painting techniques take weeks to produce a work. Some large installations take months or years to create.

Well, then, these artists have no option except to create on a slow cycle, right? I suspect they do not wait long periods of time. Most artists are sketching and experimenting with ideas all the time. They may spend 6 months working on a sculpture, but many other ideas are bubbling with them at the same time.

My friend Kevin Caron, is an excellent sculptor based in Phoenix. He is a multi-talented 3 dimensional artist. Some of his large sculptures take months to complete. But at the same time he makes jewelry and 3D printed works. I believe these smaller items serve at least 2 purposes: provide works of his at a lower price point that more people can afford, and serve as a creative outlet to help fill in the drought between big projects.


Prolific just means doing a lot. It does not describe the quality or finish of any piece.

Most artists I know are always working. They are sketching, even doodling. I am a photographer, so most (not all) of my sketching is done with a camera or the computer.

Sketch with a camera? Yes. If I see something interesting I may take some frames of it, knowing that these will be thrown away because they are not quality. When looking at them later I may decide there really is something there. I will go back and “work” the scene to develop the real image. This often involves sketches from different angles and at different times. When I figure out the personality or gesture I think is interesting then I go for it.

This is something I have the luxury of doing on my home turf. I can return to a subject at will. It is different when I am traveling. It’s now or never. It is a different creative process to try to sum up a scene and optimize it in a second.

And sketching with a computer? Sure. I often go into Photoshop and play “what if” games. What if I take this subject and this texture and this color palette? What kind of results can I create? I am sometimes pleased with the results.

Why be prolific?

I believe creativity is a combination of the skill to do the work combined with some unidentifiable, unmeasurable thing we usually call the “muse”. This, supposedly, is the spirit of creativity that animates us.

I believe there is a muse. I have no idea what it really is, but I believe creativity ebbs and surges unpredictably. If the muse is gone, you can barely do anything creatively. If the muse is with you it seem. like creative ideas are bubbling all the time.

But I don’t believe we are helpless slaves of this spirit. Creativity is also something we develop as a skill. The more we practice it the more easily we can do it.

Creativity favors the prepared mind. – Roy Rowan

The harder you work, the luckier you get. – Anon

You weren’t any good at driving a car until you put in hundreds of hours behind the wheel. You were not a star at any sport you ever played until you had practiced for hundreds of hours. You couldn’t even write until you had practiced it a lot. And as for people learning to play the violin – well that’s a special subject.

A limited resource?

Is creativity a zero sum game? Once we use it up is it all gone? No, I think that’s the wrong way to look at it.

Creativity is like love: the more you give away the more you have. Don’t worry about running out. Your creativity may wax and wane, but you can’t use it up. I believe the more you use it the easier it flows.


If you want to be creative then practice. If you are a painter, go crazy sketching. Most will be junk. That’s not a problem. Try every way you can think of to put paint on a canvas. You will get more skilled with time. If you are a photographer, always have your camera and give yourself permission to use it. Take a lot of pictures. They don’t cost much to throw away. Make the camera an extension of your eye. Learn to use it without thinking. Make sure you can always get the result you wanted.

Be a prolific creator. Do it more and more. Put in the reps. Practice, practice, practice. Then, when the muse shows up, she will find you prepared. It will make her happy and she will lead you to great things.

Prolific, not Perfect

Kitten of boy's shoulders

This was inspired by a great blog by Benjamin Hardy. One of his points in this article is that it is better to be prolific than perfect. I believe this translates directly to my journey as an artist. Perfection is a dangerous and elusive goal. Being prolific and creating a lot of work leads to better craft and many more new ideas.

Benjamin illustrates the point about being prolific with this story taken from a book  Art & Fear, by David Bayles and Ted Orland.

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work — and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

I have seen so many times in my life that the demand for perfection leads to paralysis. If you take the perfection requirement seriously it creates such a high bar that it is impossible to meet the goal. Instead you delay, study the problem, try to think of new or “creative” alternatives. But mostly you avoid doing anything, because you know you cannot create perfection.

On the other hand, when faced with a difficult goal or a creative block, just getting busy and doing things will usually lead to progress. Planning is good, but in art and creativity working seems to clear out roadblocks faster. Many psychologists and business leaders have established that a bias to action is a predictor of success. Action brings confidence. Action gets us in motion and builds momentum. To follow the story above, doing and learning, trying and rejecting and keeping going will lead to much better work than sitting waiting to figure out how to do the one great and perfect thing.

One word the story authors used that jumps out at me is theorizing. This is a great trap. Art is ultimately a very practical and pragmatic discipline. It is about making things. We have to make a lot of things to figure out how to make the things that please us. Theorizing about how great something ultimately could be actually inhibits us from doing the work. The fear of not living up to the theoretical perfection makes us not try.

So cast off the inhibitions. Just do it. Make things. If you’re stuck, make something, even if just to throw it away. The process of making something gives us momentum and stimulates our creative spirit. Good writers have a habit of this. They write a certain number of words a day, even if they know it is not great. Doing it exercises the writing “muscles” and lets ideas flow. Visual artists should do the same thing. Work every day, whether or not you feel like it. Work when you are uninspired. Let your creativity flow through your work and lead you to new ideas. Being prolific really is the way to create better work.