Embracing the Abstract: 5 Ways to Start Being Creative

Why dive into the abstract? Not only can it help you think more conceptually, but it can also inspire you to reexamine what you think you already know. We live in an intellectualized world of sophisticated arguments, woke standup specials and podcasts that break down every phrase the president utters. That can get exhausting—and it can make us feel overly confident in our worldviews. Spending an afternoon making an abstract creative piece can be humbling and refreshing.

I recently took a watercolor course that made me play with nothing but triangles and circles for a few lessons. Not only was this incredibly relaxing, but it made me realize just how many shortcuts I’d been taking while painting. Inspired by those simple yet discipline-building exercises, I created a few prompts for further embracing the abstract.

1. Get Back to Basics
As The Lego Movie brilliantly demonstrated, you’ve got to become a master builder before you can create your own imagination lands. Or, in other words, you have to learn the rules before you break them. Whatever you’re doing, be like me with my watercolor circles and limit yourself as much as possible. If you’re cooking, make nothing but pizza dough for a week. If you’re writing, create one character and write nothing but her internal monologue for a few days. Then once you feel you’ve mastered something, switch to something else equally simple and limiting. The focus will help you understand your creative toolkit better, and the limitations will force you to think in new ways. If nothing else, you’ll be making killer pizzas for all your friends.

2. Embrace Negative Space
Start noticing how important negative space is in everything you like, from interior decorating to those next-level dishes on Chef’s Table. Would you pay $120 for a meal that filled up the entire plate? No way. Negative space is expensive. Think about what you can cut out of whatever you’re doing. You might be overcompensating and leaving little room for imagination. Balance everything with empty space. This is hard, especially if something is your baby. Ask your best friend or significant other what they think can be cut in a creative piece or dish. They’re bound to be nicer than the judges on Master Chef.

3. Free Associate
Time to start thinking conceptually! That’s extra intimidating. Before you start thinking “What do I want to say with this?” let your brain go “duhhh” for a little bit. It’s the equivalent of a mental massage. Or a shot of tequila. (Although actual tequila probably won’t inspire brilliant ideas, at least if you’re like me.) Take out a piece of paper and just free associate whatever comes to your mind. It’s ok if it’s stupid. Keep going. Go to more dumb places. Laugh if you have to. Keep going. Eventually, you’ll think of something you never would have before.

4. Deconstruct
Now that you’ve both mastered some basics and learned to think conceptually, time to tear shit down! That’s fun. Think about the components that go into something, and move them around. Separate them. Substitute in something unexpected. If you’re writing, take a Biblical story or fairy tale, deconstruct its elements and rebuild them in your own way. If you’re a photographer, make a collage of unseen parts of a house. Find your own formula for reassembling something you care about.

5. Translate Between Senses
What does a song look like? What does a vibrant scent make you think about? Focus on something you love, whether it be the song you always turn on when you’re weepy or the lemonade your mom made you when you were a kid. Create a devotional piece dedicated to that, in a totally different medium. Whatever you make will turn out better, because you truly care about the subject.

And most importantly, enjoy the process! You’re not trying to explain the meaning of life here. You’re going in the other, foggy, colorful, unknown direction, and you may just find your own meaning along the way.

Image via W&D IG

Becky Lang is the Creative Director at Superhuman in Minneapolis. She also likes to write and draw female protagonists.