“Thinking outside the box” is silly.
I’ve always thought that the phrase “thinking outside the box” didn’t make much sense for creatives. It’s like saying that a blank canvas is inspiring to painters, and anyone who’s ever painted can attest to the fact that the canvas only gets interesting when there is something to work with on it. Editing, shaping, and critiquing what’s already been created is a lot easier than creating something in the first place (that’s why everybody’s a critic and fewer people are artists).
Thinking outside the box implies creating with such wide open freedom that there’s nothing to work with or against, and that’s completely unrealistic. Creativity thrives on the specific problem-solving of a well-defined box.
The following are some of my standby “boxes,” the ones that I return to again and again to get my creative juices flowing:
1) Making work on deadline. Whether it’s rent that’s due or a piece that I need to finish for a client or a show, time constraints are positively inspirational.
2) Making commission work. When creating art for a specific client, knowing what I will and won’t do before I get into a discussion about the proposed piece is extremely useful. The rules that I set for myself are always negotiable, but only with myself not with the client.
3) Making work in series. Creating art about a wide variety of subjects can be interesting, but it’s only in narrowing the scope and digging into a specific subject that the work acquires the layers of meaning that I associate with good art.
4) Making portraits. Because portraits are images of specific people, I have a very specific goal when painting the faces I paint. This helps me to focus my creativity.
Though these are my favorite limitations to work with, I am always reevaluating them to ensure that they are still helping me to make my best work. Each box I think inside of is integral to the work that I create: it literally shapes my art. For this reason, I’m always sure to define my creative boxes carefully.