creative process

Guest series 2012: I asked fellow bloggers, makers and creators to write on their creativity and focus their essay on one of four topics: creativity and health, creativity and business, creativity and parenting or creativity and process. I am very excited to have a wonderful lot of fellow creative folk guest posting here at over the next couple of months. Please welcome…

Niamh O’Connor is a Minneapolis based Illustrator and the founder of the embroidery website Urban Threads, dedicated to making machine embroidery awesome one edgy, elegant, innovative, and/or offbeat design at a time. 

Creativity is an often misunderstood thing, no matter which side of the fold you feel you stand on.

I have found sometimes to those who work in a self-described “non-creative field”, they equate the action of design and creation to a form of magic. I’ve been told that we “artsy folks” are just little magic balls of creativity, with beautiful things spouting out of our ears at any given moment, no effort required. They long to be a “creative” type, because in their mind it seems a state of being, not a form of discipline.

To folks who do creative work, we know this to be a painful fallacy. While many of us would love the world to perceive us as genius fountains of endless creation, we know that creativity, like any skill, is something that needs to be worked, nurtured, and practiced. This is made all the more difficult by the sometimes fickle nature of our muses. An accountant is very unlikely to wake up one morning and suddenly be unable to do math, yet I certainly have days where the flow of creativity is halted to a trickle, and my deadlines still loom with ominous certainty. You must learn to work through what is sometimes a wax and wane of inspiration.

The issue of creative flow is really a lead-in for what I think can be a bigger issue for me when I’m creating something new, and that is finding time to fail. What I mean by this is not necessarily allowing yourself enough time before a deadline to fix something if it goes catastrophically bad (though that’s important too). What you need to allow yourself is the time to try all the wrong ways in order to find the right ones.

When I started work on our new Misfits Nursery series, I felt nailing the style was extremely important. Children’s nursery characters have been done for hundreds of years, in hundreds of ways, so really, it’s not the content I needed to explore. It was the character. I had to give myself time to try dozens of different versions of Bo Peep to find the real version hiding somewhere in between. This can be a difficult step to explain to some people. From an outside point it might look extremely redundant, but if I don’t give myself the time to draw and fail at many versions, I’ll never find the one that I feel succeeds.

I knew when I looked at my work … it just didn’t look right. So I kept trying. For me it’s the difference between getting something done and getting something done well.

This time is so crucial to an artist, and yet is often the first to go when your schedule picks up, projects get rolling, and fantastic opportunities finally start arriving. You push yourself. You think it’s wonderful you finally have all these projects on your hands … and yet, you find yourself always looking at your feet. You stop thinking ahead, you just react. If a project needs to get done by tomorrow, well by golly, the first thing you create better be good enough.

Creativity becomes reactive instead of proactive, and the exploration used to find something truly creatively satisfying is lost.

Time management, then, is crucial to supporting the creative process by allowing yourself time to fail. To make plans, to think ahead. To find ways of saving time on small tasks to leave more breathing room for larger ones. I use a number of project management tools, from a Google Calendar, to task managers like Wunderlist and Evernote, to keep my life and work organized. Work out what steps are really important to your creative process. What are you doing on a daily basis that, if you really give it a hard look, isn’t doing you any favors?

All these things give me a chance to breathe and look three feet ahead of me so I can really sort out what it is I’m doing. Sure, I’m drawing nursery rhymes, but for whom? In what style? What will make these designs different from any of the thousands of others that have come before? What will people use these for? Design without purpose can sometimes be creatively rewarding, but rarely commercially so. A product without purpose will have a hard time finding an audience, even if it’s cute.

So I always try to design with purpose, and remember that this work is not meant for me, but for everyone else.

This can be a hard struggle for artists sometimes. You go through life hearing all the nasty terms about “selling out”, about not being true to your vision. That somehow making your art for commercial purposes means you are sacrificing your own artistic tastes. This is absolutely bunk. Creating art for a commercial audience is quite literally the definition of a commercial artist, and if your career goal is to make a living doing what you love in a creative field, you darn well better keep your audience in mind.

If you want to design for no one but yourself, that’s fantastic, and is a wonderful creative outlet. But I wouldn’t recommend becoming a commercial artist with that attitude. You won’t get far.

I think the biggest problem many artists face with this is more the limitations it sometimes puts on how they create. You think, if only I could do it in any way I wanted, it would come out so much better! But I have learned through my processes that these limitations can be a wonderful catalyst for creativity.

When I first started designing for machine embroidery, I was often fighting against its technical limitations. Heavy directional stitches mean tiny details didn’t work. Too many colors added too many trims, too many stitches make a design too heavy on fabric. You can’t design a really cool T-shirt front and make it 50,000 stitches. It simply isn’t something that will work on light fabric; no matter how cool the design looks, your beautiful creation is useless.

These are also very important “failures” to learn. To take the time to figure out all the ways you might make your own work obsolete by not accounting for its intended purpose. These stumbling blocks of stitch direction and form have taught me to take advantage of embroidery’s dimensional structure and create sculptural, ornate designs. Issues with detail and weight taught me to make running stitch designs with experimental, open fills. These challenges basically forced me to create something I now consider wonderful by keeping my design parameters in a little box.

When designing illustrative style designs such as this Misfits Nursery series, I needed something that was stitch friendly and still evoked the charm of hand-drawn illustrations. Looking at gorgeous drawings from vintage Alice in Wonderland books and old nursery rhyme books from my childhood made me realize that doing this series without some form of that hand-drawn charm would make it loose its roots. So to mimic this, we designed a series that had messy, hand-drawn style outlines.

This seems especially counterintuitive when designing for machine embroidery, which can achieve perfection of line with ease, but if you remove too much of the hand of the artist from the work, it sterilizes it. So we designed it with intended imperfection, with the hopes that it evokes some of that old-world charm we all loved in our storybooks as kids. Believe me, though, creating that style look a heck of a lot of getting it wrong and working things backwards before we got something that looked right.

In the end, we must all take the time to fail in that oft quoted but unverified tale of Thomas Edison and the creation of the lightbulb, “I have not failed 1,000 times. I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways to NOT make a light bulb.”

Whether the quote was ever uttered by him, the message still stands. If Edison had not given himself the time for those 1000 failures and just said after a couple times, “Good enough, I have a billion other things I need to get done before tomorrow…”

Where would we be?


Guest series 2012: I asked fellow bloggers, makers and creators to write on their creativity and focus their essay on one of four topics: creativity and health, creativity and business, creativity and parenting or creativity and process. I am very excited to have a wonderful lot of fellow creative folk guest posting here at over the next couple of months. Please welcome…

Anne Weil loves to make beautiful things and then show others how to make them, too. She designs projects that are simple, easy to make and pleasing to the eye. Beauty exists everywhere. You know you’ve found it when that happy place inside you starts to hum. A busy, working mother of three, Anne relishes finding creative moments in her studio to sew, knit, crochet, craft, and photograph handmade lovelies that really make her hum. Stop by and visit her at Flax and twine.

I’ve been thinking about different kinds of creating. Most of the creating I do develops from situations I run into with my family or my kids or, more recently, with a submission I’ve been asked to do or a submission I want to make. This kind of creating has a focus. I’m solving a specific problem, such as:

Very specific, these tasks insert themselves into my brain and branch into a multitude of possibilities. I typically work with tools and materials I have on hand or can get easily. The materials spur me further and it becomes a frenzy. If it’s for a craft: I sketch. I make thirteen things in one sitting. I mock up samples of what I want to do. I pull out piles of fabric and thread and cardboard and trim. I feel a bit like a mad scientist.

With knitting or crochet designs, I sketch different options, fits, trims, details. I swatch it with this yarn and that yarn. I try it on this needle or that one. And then, I make decisions. This kind of creating, narrow and defined, comes easily to me. The exploration that I do is also why you’ll often see many projects made with similar materials or along the same lines, like 5 Fabulous Finger Knitting Projects or 6 Easy Chunky Knits. Once I get going with something, I explore it until I’ve exhausted idea.

Recently, however, I’ve been thinking a lot about a different kind of creating. The kind that starts with a blank slate. It’s the kind of creating that feels more like art. This is the kind of creating that makes me feel all panicky inside. Here is a blank page in a sketchbook, fill it. Here is an empty canvas, do your thing. I don’t know why, but this kind of creating feels super-challenging. The what-if-I-make-a-mistake feeling tends to overwhelm me. Or, maybe it’s more, what-if-I-do-something-that-makes-me-not-like-it-anymore feeling that is paralyzing. I’ve been driven, lately, to embrace that scary feeling and dive in to that undefined space.

I did just that at a recent creative retreat, where I took a class called Painting With Stitches with Marisa of Creative Thursday. I knew this would challenge me. Paint scares me–it’s so permanent. Marisa provided adorable templates, but I want to face the fear of the blank canvas head-on. So, I put a piece of embroidery thread on my needle and started stitching. I really just tried to let go and not judge myself. And, even harder, not worry! When it felt like I should stop, I stopped. When I wanted to go for another color, I used it. Then, the paint! I used it in the same way I did the embroidery thread, just letting the lines flow where they would. It felt freeing to just let it all go and be with the work in each instant. I had no preconceived notion of what it should look like or what it should be. Ahh, I kind of like that.

Yes, in a perfect world, there are things I would change, but I love it. I highly recommend this open-ended kind of creating, as I think it empowers you and opens up possibilities in all areas of creativity.

As a result of the embroidery experience, I decided to start a free sketchbook, not for projects, but for doodles and thoughts and color exploration. Dive in! Make it part of your regular creative practice, too.



Guest series 2012: I asked fellow bloggers, makers and creators to write on their creativity and focus their essay on one of four topics: creativity and health, creativity and business, creativity and parenting or creativity and process. I am very excited to have a wonderful lot of fellow creative folk guest posting here at over the next couple of months. Please welcome…

Katie knits, sews, spins, cans, and gardens from a small Boston apartment. This year she published her first knitting pattern and her first sewing pattern. She blogs at foxflat.

1950’s style dress, pattern made from a deconstructed vintage garment.

My first big DIY project was a pair of sandals. I was probably seven or eight, sweating out the long days of summer in smalltown Ohio, when I was inexplicably possessed by the urge to make my own footwear. I remember tracing and cutting a sole out of cardboard, and with a hole punch and kitchen twine, devising an elaborate lacing system. In what I was certain was a stroke of pure genius, I harvested patches of moss from behind the garage and glued them onto the soles (beauty and comfort people, these were the whole package!). I laced on my new sandals, pressed my toes into that green moss, and prepared to show them off to everyone in a two-block radius.

I don’t think I walked five steps before they fell apart. Complete and total engineering disaster. As I held the busted pieces, I started planning Moss Sandal Prototype #2.

Why would I tell this story? Well…first of all, I really am kind of proud of that moss idea (I’ve never felt a softer insole). But more importantly, it’s illustrative of the fact that, for me, creating and making is the realm where I am the bravest, the most curious, and the least afraid of failing. It’s the place where I get to exercise my resilience to setbacks. Where I allow myself to experiment without any assurance that it will work out. Where I am reminded that before you can be good at something, you’ll almost certainly be bad to mediocre at it.

My very first attempt at spinning fiber. The woman who taught me said, “I know you think it’s ugly and bad, but hang onto it. Someday you’ll want to look back and see how far you’ve come.”

Shawl knit from handspun.

I am a knitter. When I have the needles out in public it’s not unusual for a stranger to strike up a conversation. One of the most common things I hear is, “Oh I tried knitting but I was just so bad at it.” Yeah but… it’s a complicated string of awkward fine motor movements with at least three moving parts and a million ways to screw it up. Of course you’ll be bad at it. Everyone is. Now if you tried knitting, were bad at it and had no interest in it, that’s another matter (that was my experience with any sport involving a ball, so I understand). But sometimes I think we just don’t have the patience for learning curves. We live in an on-demand world and want to excel at things immediately.

I witness this firsthand in my day job, where I advise and counsel college students. Like me, many of them got through high school without experiencing many setbacks – the good grades and the high praise came easy. Now they’re in my office in tears, holding an essay and the first “C” of their life. I try to help them separate their self-worth from the grade a little bit. A “C” means that there’s room for growth, that you haven’t mastered writing at the college level yet…and that’s okay…after all, you just started college.

Naturally, I am only so-so at taking my own advice. There are a host of things I avoid doing for fear of failure, from the trivial (karaoke), to the life-changing (starting my own business). There are also components of my job that I can’t afford to mess up, such as composing emails to upper administrators or counseling a student through a crisis. So creating is both my refuge from pressure and perfectionism, and my inspiration for boldly approaching the unknown in all areas of my life. It’s where I continue to cultivate an appreciation for slow mastery of a craft, and where I recharge my emotional batteries.

How does creating and making factor into your own self-care? How has it influenced your outlook on life?



Guest series 2012: I asked fellow bloggers, makers and creators to write on their creativity and focus their essay on one of four topics: creativity and health, creativity and business, creativity and parenting or creativity and process. I am very excited to have a wonderful lot of fellow creative folk guest posting here at over the next couple of months. Please welcome…

Chawne is a multi-craftual quilter who channels all her nervous energy into making blankets and quilts to keep folks warm. She blogs about the processes at Completely Cauchy.

Thanks a bunch to Kathreen for asking me to guest post about my creative process. I thought that I might illustrate my “process” with my most recent patchwork project.

My style of patchwork is predominantly improvisational with use of the full color spectrum at once. Overall, my inspirations for patchwork quilting are historical: the quilters of Gee’s Bend and Anna Williams, while Malka Dubrawsky provides some food-for-thought with colors.

Sometimes I sketch ideas beforehand, but most often my quilts are started impulsively without any planning other than choice of fabrics. But when a quilt is intended to be large, I will stop for a moment to sketch out some ideas on how to incorporate the impulse pieces into a cohesive design. In either case, the final product rarely resembles the sketch. Really, this brief planning is more of a moment to make sure that the engineering of the construction is sound and that the materials available are optimized within the vision.

A few weeks ago, my friend Lynne sent me a small packet of scraps of Oakshott shot cotton in various colors. I enjoyed the immediate constraint of the various sizes, shapes, and colors of the scraps that served as initial constraints on the patchwork possibilities. I envisioned using the fabrics to make miniature traditional precision-pieced quilt blocks for a smaller-scale quilted wall-hanging.

But after making as many quarter-square triangles as the fabric constraints would allow, only a few skinny strips remained. Without enough fabric leftover to make much else, I use my own improvisational techniques to make small blocks of improv (see my simple improv tutorial). It was impulsive to deviate from the precision plan and I couldn’t yet see how the blocks might work together. All these pieces were left on my sewing table for a few days as I reconsidered the design.

Days later, more fabric arrived (a gift from the owner of Oakshott) and I kicked into high gear on a much larger idea. There must be a way to combine precision-piecing with improvisation. The traditional blocks could serve as a calming influence on the potentially wild and crazy improv sections, maybe?  That is, exerting a modicum of control on what might become an un-tameable beast should, at the very least, be interesting.

Block by block, the design was doubtful. But things seemed to come together in the end. This is still a work-in-progress: the patchwork still needs to be quilted. Any ideas?

My own creative process is most effective when working under severe constraints–either given by limited fabric resources or by limitations in the ability to build a good patchwork that will stand the test of hard use and laundering. Sometimes I succeed, but  other times I have to go back and begin again. But working improvisationally means that “mistakes” become “opportunities” in a second attempt at a design.



Guest series 2012: I asked fellow bloggers, makers and creators to write on their creativity and focus their essay on one of four topics: creativity and health, creativity and business, creativity and parenting or creativity and process. I am very excited to have a wonderful lot of fellow creative folk guest posting here at over the next couple of months. Please welcome…

Mollie Johanson, a graphic designer specializing in print projects, began her blog Wild Olive as an outlet for more whimsical works. Daily dreaming and doodling have resulted in a variety of embroidery and paper projects. Mollie, based in a far western suburb of Chicago, commutes daily to her in-home studio via the coffee pot.

When it comes to creating new ideas, I find that they start out in two categories. The first is the planned creativity. These are the ideas that you are working towards generating because you need a new idea. Maybe you need to add new products to your shop, or you’re writing a guest post. Whatever it is, you start from scratch, and go looking for the idea. The other category is the spontaneous creativity. These are the ideas that come to you, and I find them to by my favorite.

For the sake of example, let me tell you about some alpacas that I’ve recently created. Not everything I make follows this process, but in general, it feels like this:

In the middle of doing one thing, a whole other idea shows up. While researching hats from Peru (yes, I have a very strange Google search history), I see a hat with some llamas woven into the pattern. And the idea comes to me: a llama embroidery pattern! I find llamas to be quite the funny creatures, and around my house, we’re likely to randomly quote The Emperor’s New Groove: “A llama!?! He’s supposed to be dead!”

But just because an idea presents itself, doesn’t mean I can immediately run with it. So fast forward through a few weeks of this llama rolling around in my head, and now it’s time for research. Believe it or not, I don’t keep a clear picture in my head of all the things that I draw, so off to Google image search I go, because looking at real llamas helps. Looking at other illustrations of llamas helps me too. Why? Because it’s good to make sure that I’m not creating something that has already been done to death, or that subconsciously I’ve seen before. With the research done, it’s time to pick up a pencil!

Sketching. When I was getting started in illustration and design, I wanted to just start on my computer without a sketch. The more I do this work, however, the more I love the process of sketching out the ideas. And so I fill a page with llamas. One concept stands out, but it’s still not quite right. More sketching on scraps of paper. Llamas are showing up everywhere! Maybe instead of one, there should be two…in love? No… a mama and baby! That’ll be so cute! (I’m all about the cute.)

With the concept figured out, I go to the computer. My lazy way of doing this is to take a snapshot of my sketch with Photobooth, then start tracing in Adobe Illustrator. As I get to working on this, I realize that maybe I should consider making this llama into an alpaca, and ask Twitter about which is cuter. Twitter replies with a resounding “ALPACA!” Time for more computer drawing of what is now a mama and baby alpaca.

Now it’s time to move away from the computer again. Truth be told, I see a lot of embroidery in my head, so from early on I’m picturing what the final stitching might look like, but it helps to start playing with the actual supplies. I trace the pattern onto fabric, and before I even pull out the embroidery floss, my dad chimes in. He wants to know if these alpacas are going to be pre-dyed in pastel shades. What? No. They will be in natural alpaca colors. Or maybe…? He’s right of course. The pastel colors are genius, and once again, I’m thrilled to have the input of others in this creative process.

Stitching. Given my original love of working on the computer, and avoiding the “real art” part, I’m amazed and happy that my two favorite parts of the process are sketching and stitching. But part of that comes because I can do those things anywhere with anyone around. The alpacas get embroidered nearby my brother who is studying, and later, my parents who are chatting. I show them my work from time to time, and this making becomes social. Hiding away in my studio can be productive, but interaction is just as helpful.

Finishing up. After all the stitching is done, I take photos and head back to my computer to set up final files and prepare to present a new item. And sometimes I stall here.

You see, everything up to this point has been the journey, and I love that so much more than the destination. All of the little steps along the way add up to a finished product, but it’s those steps that I enjoy. Do I like seeing things finished and sharing those things with others? Yes, of course. But that’s not why I do this.

This is just as much about the process as it is the product.
But those alpacas deserve to be shared, so I edit my photos, make my PDFs, and add the new pattern to Etsy. Will it sell? I hope so, but even if it doesn’t, I’ve found joy in the creative process.

For a look at how some of my favorite artists and bloggers handle their idea bursts, check out these links: Going from Idea to Reality  :: The Circle of Woe  :: Behind the Scenes: Inspiration