My mother is a self-taught painter—one of her watercolors hangs framed in our living room. I, on the other hand, can barely draw a dog. My lack of skill in the visual arts never really bothered me until I had a child. Now, suddenly, the ability to sketch a chicken, horsey or princess on demand has become very important to my toddler (and therefore to me). In reality, the urge to be creative, for most of us, goes far beyond drawing for our children's entertainment. How can I and other aspiring artists become better writers, dancers and craftspeople without signing up for continuing ed? Here is what psychology research and working artists have to say about releasing your inner creator.
#1 Get outside. Spending time camping and hiking boosts creativity, a study in PLOS ONE found. Backpackers who were given a 10-item creativity test four days into their trip did about 50 percent better on it than people who were tested before the trek. Neal Overstrom, director of the Nature Lab at the Rhode Island School of Design, has seen firsthand how the lab's trove of fossils, plants and animals affects his students. “The fact that this collection of natural science specimens still inspires students 75 years after the founding of the lab tells me that nature and creativity are intimately linked,” he says. “I think most people intuitively understand the restorative value of a walk on the beach or time spent in the woods, but research is showing that humans seem to have an innate affinity for the patterns and forms we find in nature.” He adds that even images of nature can evoke positive emotional reactions and reduce stress.
# 2 Let your freak flag fly. All of us are weird in our own ways. John Rich, a playwright who teaches creativity at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has observed that strangeness can come in handy: “I find that my students who exhibit ‘odd’ behavior make compelling, creative work. Their oddness is a result of their making space for an encounter that opens doors to new thinking.” Not all artists may agree, but some researchers do: Vanderbilt University psychologists asked people with schizophrenia, control subjects, and people who exhibited some offbeat behavior and speech, such as talking to themselves or holding strange beliefs, to dream up new uses for common household objects and found that the quirky but healthy folks were by far the most creative.
#3 Leave the country. There is a reason the classic scene of a young artist fleeing to Paris to work on his craft is, well, classic—a surprisingly robust body of research suggests that spending time abroad boosts creativity. In one study, merely remembering something they learned about a different culture increased people's ability to creatively solve problems in multiple ways. “As artists, we have to show people the world in a way they can't see themselves,” says Stephan Eirik Clark, author of the upcoming novel Sweetness #9 (Little, Brown), who teaches creative writing at Augsburg College. “Before you can do this, you have to first see those things that make up your world, even those things that are so easy to overlook. The easiest way to do that is to live in a foreign country because every difference you observe there brings your homeland into stark relief.”
#4 Just play. Try not to worry too much about how “good” the art you are creating is. “It keeps you from exploring,” says Thomas Arena, an American contemporary artist best known for iconic advertising images he created for Tanqueray gin and Guinness. “I worked for a legend in advertising, Diane Rothschild, who created witty ads for Land Rover. The first day we worked together she said, ‘I’m going to say a lot of stupid things. I'd appreciate it if you do the same.'” If being an artist is in part about acting stupid, now that's something I can do. The next time I paint a purple birdie at my daughter's request, I'll quit focusing on how goofy the eyes look and just try to have fun.