The power of art-making within restraints

Art as inner journey, Developing an art practice

If you have the creative itch, and you would love to start creating, many things may hold you back. You may feel that you don’t have enough of the right materials, enough time, or enough space.

But the opposite can also be true. You may feel stifled because you have too many materials, too much time on your hands, or too much space.

I know very well from my own art practice the frustration of not having enough time, space, and materials. But I have also experienced that painting within those limits can work out very well.

If you limit yourself regarding materials, time, and space, doing so can free you up and unlock your creativity. Once that has happened, you just enjoy the materials, the time, the energy, and the space that you have at that moment. You realize that you can create with every material, always, and everywhere.

There is a lot to say about this. Let’s dive in!


Not enough materials, time, or space

Maybe you feel you don’t have enough materials. Or perhaps you have only cheap stuff that does not fulfill your needs. Art supplies are usually not cheap, especially not professional quality materials. If you go to the art supplies store, and you fill your basket with paint, brushes, canvas, or paper, you can be shocked because of the price.

In my experience, it is easy to get discouraged by this. If paint and paper are that expensive, can you afford art-making?

And maybe you feel you don’t have enough time. If you have a busy job, children to take care of, or older parents who need your attention, it can be difficult to find time to create. If you come home late in the afternoon, maybe all you want to do is sit down. Getting out all of your art supplies is time-consuming, not to speak of cleaning up afterward.

Maybe you have a chronic illness, which drains you of your energy. You need the time to do the most necessary activities like cooking and cleaning and, after that, your energy is gone. The idea of cramming another thing into your day can paralyze you and hold you back from jumping into the creative process.

Maybe you think you don’t have enough space. You live in a small apartment and have no spare room for an easel or other art supplies. You would love to work on canvas, but you just have no space to put an easel somewhere or store the paintings when they are finished. You might think you should wait until you can afford an atelier, or move to a bigger house.


Too many materials, too much time or space

Maybe you are in an opposite position. You have plenty of time, space, and materials. But when that is the case, you can also get creatively blocked.

If you have high-quality art materials, you can get intimidated by them. If you start making art with expensive paint, you might feel you have to make something beautiful with it; otherwise, you waste your money, don’t you? When you have many colors to choose from, which ones will you take first? Too many choices can block your creativity and the feeling of freedom.

Some people can get paralyzed because they have very much time. If you have all day, why should you start now? You might start postponing. First, you will do the dishes and then go shopping. After that, you will paint.

But something unexpected comes in between, and before you realize it your day is over. Maybe tomorrow. But the more you procrastinate, the more you lose confidence in yourself. You told yourself that you want to start painting, but now you don’t do it, even if the time is yours!

Even having a huge and beautiful space to make art can put a lot of pressure on you. If you have so much space that other artists don’t have, you tell yourself you should really make some good work; otherwise, you are not worth this space.

Or you start working on a big surface because you have space to do so, but once you begin with a big painting it feels daunting. Working big is not as much fun as you hoped it would be. The big canvas becomes threatening instead of inviting and inspiring.



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Let the restraints become your friends

The fact that you have limited money to buy materials, have little time, or have a small space, does not mean you can’t start making art. The opposite can also be true: if you do not have a lot of resources, it can free you up.

You don’t have to wait for the future when you are actually always well-equipped for art-making. Now, at this very moment, you can start. You can pick up a piece of copy paper and just start scribbling around. You can start making a simple Zentangle (see my article about this here). You can work on the kitchen table. There are possibilities everywhere; even in three minutes you can start and finish a small creative project.

When you are very busy because you have small children, you can paint along with them, on the kitchen table. And if you have a baby, you can make something minimal when your child is asleep. I don’t want to romanticize this; when my kids were babies, I was exhausted all the time, and the only thing that I wanted to do when they were asleep was get asleep myself.

But you get the point: if you get accustomed to the idea that you don’t need a lot of time to create something, then you will start to notice small moments of opportunity. Half an hour just before your job starts. Thirty minutes after you have put your children in bed. Five minutes before bedtime.

And when your children are older, you can create alongside them. When my daughter went to high school, she was very busy, and I started to sit down with her in between her homework moments and simply made drawings alongside her. I did not create very artistic work, but I was creating, and just happy doodling along. And at the same time I had a beautiful moment with my busy daughter.

You can also look at your daily habits with a fresh eye. Do you need to watch the news another time? Is it essential to check your Facebook now? I don’t want to sound patronizing (even though I may), but we lose a lot of time throughout the day. We consume so much what others create for us, that we have no space left for creating things ourselves.


How to set restraints for art-making

Giving yourself limits can help to avoid or break through a creative block. You can do this in different ways.


Working with limited materials

Having lots of art materials around is wonderful. Many colors and many tools give you lots of possibilities for expression. However, if you feel stuck, it can sometimes help you to take only a few colors or a few tools. It challenges you to use each material to the maximum of its possibilities. It makes you get to know your equipment and tools well.

It also it makes you more creative. If you don’t have a lot of colors, you have to find other ways to make the painting interesting and alive. You have to dig deeper to create contrast and different kinds of details. And if you keep doing this you become more and more creative and resourceful.


Working in a very limited time

Another way of giving yourself limits is working for only a concise period. ‘Five-minute-paintings’ are fantastic for this. I first learned about this concept from artist Jane Davies. And I have made many five-minute paintings since then.

You set your timer, you put your materials out, and off you go. Time goes so quickly that you simply don’t have a chance to get stuck in your head. Your creative energy doesn’t get frustrated by the chattering mind.

Of course, painting a five-minute painting can be difficult at first, because you might get stressed or stuck. But that is no problem since you only work for five minutes. After that, you can set your timer again.

You can do only one five-minute painting, but also you can do four or so in a row, and stop within half an hour. If you practice this, you start to relax under time pressure. The chances are that you sometimes produce something that you like very much – even in such a short amount of time. And if not so, you have practiced your skills. You have made progress, in whatever way.


Working within limited space or on a small size

If you challenge yourself to paint in unusual or imperfect places, you make yourself independent of the environment where you are. If you realize that you can make art at the airport, on holidays, in a café, on the floor or the kitchen table, you know that you can make art everywhere.

Working on a minimal size can also free you up. When I was busy, I sometimes made a drawing on the back of a business card. I drew only in black and white, with a very thin black marker. It was so much fun to do, and it made me realize that I should not make such a big fuss about art-making. The essential thing is to create something that was not there before. And you can do that at any size.

I hope I have inspired you to look with another eye at your lack of materials, time, and space. Maybe working within restraints can start to function as a way of unleashing your creativity. Let me know how your experiments turn out!




Simone Nijboer, Dutch abstract artist, online art teacher, daily painter, creativity accelerator


Would you love to paint, but never take the time? Sign up here for the free video series about collage making, and start painting now!


  1. Simone

    Dankjewel, Liesbeth! Veel succes!


  2. Liesbeth

    Dankjewel Simone, voor het benoemen van inderdaad al deze uitstel-redenen!
    En je 5 minuten- timer zetten vind ik erg inspirerend, die ga ik uitproberen.


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