Idea Jumping Trumps Forced Focus For Artists

Kirstin Borror writes: My difficulty seems to be staying focused on one creative idea at a time. Any tips?
Kirsten, I passed your post on to someone more capable of responding: creativity coach Romney Nesbitt.

Romney Responds

Dear Kirsten,
You may be fighting a losing battle.
The natural tendency of creative people is to carry the seeds of many ideas at the same time; the trick is keeping all ideas moving forward.
In my book, Secrets from a Creativity Coach, I have a chapter titled “The Care and Feeding of Leapfrogs.”  The chapter is about managing the flow of ideas without controlling the ideas.
I liken ideas to leap frogs.

Imagine a frog jumping in a race. The frog jumps, then sits, then jumps again in a different direction when it’s ready.
Creative ideas are like jumping frogs. An idea jumps, then sits to ponder, then jumps again when it’s ready.
Trying to stay focused on one idea at a time may not be possible or helpful. 
For most creative people, two or three ideas or projects aren’t too many to keep in play.
Let’s say you’re working on a painting, a preliminary drawing for another painting and a gallery proposal. Paint until you reach the point when you’re not sure what to do next.
Rather than trying to stay focused on that one idea and running the risk of forcing a solution, give your brain a time-out. Shift your attention to your drawing or your proposal.
By working on another creative project you’re allowing your brain to maintain its creative flow and you’re giving your subconscious time to work on the painting problem.
When your brain is in flow, answers will surface.  When the painting solution emerges, go back to the painting and paint with confidence.  Be willing to shift back and forth between a few projects and keep your creativity “on.”

Romney NesbittRomney Nesbitt is the author of Secrets from a Creativity Coach. In addition to her work as a creativity coach, she is also an artist, teacher, and ordained minister. You can read more of Romney’s “Ask a Creativity Coach” columns in Art Focus Oklahoma. She is also a contributor to the Art Biz Lift Off Home Study.

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19 thoughts on “Idea Jumping Trumps Forced Focus For Artists”

  1. I’ve found it helpful to do something completely different (and away from the studio) in order to keep “leapfrogs” alive. When I’m stymied or frustrated with a piece (or that dreadful time when it seems no ideas flow)I wash glassware, balance a checkbook, clean out a closet, or something along those lines. I’ll do ANYTHING but be in the studio.
    The physical distance from the studio helps clarify, and by doing other things (often related to the workaday), I find myself working out artistic problems that have plagued me previously.

  2. There is the natural leapfrogging & there is also lack of attention focus which is not exactly the same thing…Knowing which one is which is important…I have found that “casual collaborating” with other artists helps me to focus on projects that need more stick-to-it-iveness…Casual Collaborating means often just chatting about the project online to another artist, who may help me progress deeper…Sometimes other artists just push me harder than I push myself…I’d also like to add a plug here for the Art Biz Incubator- as a Silver member, I find the constant contact helps me to be less distracted creatively…I am pushing projects deeper, instead of dropping them when they get more complicated than I am able…Good leaping is good-but some leaping may be attention deficit masking as artistry…

  3. Pat, I see you’ve discovered what I have too! Doing something useful while giving your brain time to think (about the creative problem at hand) makes you feel that you’re not totally wasting time. It’s kind of like running in place.

  4. I have often joked that I have art ADD…always jumping all over different projects, different styles, different mediums, etc. At one time it concerned me, but now I just go with it, realizing that is how my creativity works. If a painting isn’t working, I walk away and either clean the studio, sketch new ideas, or simply pick up something that wasn’t working last week and suddenly I see what it needs and off I go… Of course, locking the studio door and going thrift shopping works too :-))

  5. The project that I’m working on right now is leapfrogging the project I was working on last week. Usually I like having multiple pieces going at once, it keeps my hands busy (there can be a lot of downtime in metalsmithing depending on your technique.) Sometimes one project will even help you figure out the other one.

  6. I totally agree both in theory and in my own creative life/work. To me the key is actually finishing projects. The only problem with jumping around a lot is when we don’t finish things.
    Sure, some projects won’t be finished. But if we don’t finish the ones that mean the most to us, we lose trust in ourselves. (Wannabe) artists feel a lot of pain because they have trained themselves to start a lot of things but never finish them.
    Thanks for this post that helps us know that multiple ideas aren’t bad!

    1. Well said Cynthia. Great works of Art are usually not accidents and require extreme amount of focus and implementation. What good is an idea if it cannot be shared? Being an Artist requires sacrifice and relentlessness of James Bond caliber of “Getting the job done”. I totally agree with your notion that if we don’t finish what matters to us most than we will lose our confidence and will find ourselves stuck in that Wannabe Limbo. I don’t want any part of that. Thank Goodness I can Hyper Focus!
      P.S: I am finally blogging thanks to your blog post and tips on that. I am actually having fun doing it.

  7. Eventually there comes a time when projects have to be finished (usually a deadline). When that time comes I have to push through and get it done. I do this by setting a timer for 20 minutes. I work for 20, then take a 5 min. rest, then back to work for 20 more. There’s a chapter on this in my book, SECRETS FROM A CREATIVITY COACH. BUT, always, always, always have another project in the works. I have a chapter on this in my book called “Be A Plate Spinner.” Always have something unfinished floating about in your creative brain.

  8. Loved the article. Felt very reassured to know that it is not necessarily that I have the attention span of a hamster but that I do have many ‘irons in the fire’ Difficult for others to understand though.

  9. Very reassuring! I usually have 5-15 paintings going at a time. Some days I will work on several and then set them aside for days, weeks or even months, until I know what to do next. It means I am never stuck – I am always working on SOMETHING.

  10. For years I forced myself to finish a project before I could start a new one to prevent having a messy work space. This meant that I rarely got any good amount of finished product. Now I have several things going at once and am accomplishing much more. Glad to hear I’m not alone.

    1. If you stop taking the time and your life for granted, you will not be procastinating. Just like that out of the blue people in Boston Marathon event lost their limbs. We don’t know what tomorrow may bring. Our time is limited on this planet so we must hurry up and get busy creating artwork and getting our act together. Only then we can make a difference. You can do it Portrait Artist!

  11. Robert P. Britton Jr.

    One of the things I’ve learned is that you must finish what you start. Too often, we get discouraged at the early start of a painting. But my experience is that if you push through those walls, you get to a new zone of creativity and enjoyment in a painting.
    I also agree in not being limited in your focus. Play with different motifs, color schemes, ideas, and let your brain internalize and be your partner in exploration. Your creative brain is your partner and your buddy and needs encouragement and feeding.
    Like I said…for me, getting a piece from concept to completion, pushing through those moments of doubt, and crossing the finish line are critical. Almost 100% of the time, the painting is much better than I ever would have thought.
    I look at some of the past pieces I started and never completed because I didn’t push through versus those that I did, and I feel so said that I never helped those little paintings grow up and unveil themselves.

  12. As a portraitist, I can’t do much leapfrogging. It is essential that I stick to the one portrait until it is finished or I waste tremendous amounts of time trying to remember the colours I am using. However I get depressed when I haven’t got a portrait on the easel so I do get all my reference material organised for the next portrait before I get to the end of the current one. That way I can get going quickly and never have an empty easel.
    This year I started doing more playful miniatures at the kitchen table in the evenings, but I use pencil or pen and ink for them so I don’t have any colours to think about.
    If I get creative ideas, I just write them down, so if I ever have time I can look at the book of ideas and find one which still looks exciting.

  13. Jen, I like your comment about keeping ideas jotted down. I recommend index cards for ideas. One card, one idea–this allows each idea to stand on its own (instead of making a list of ideas). In my book I have a chapter on a game I created called the “Now and Later” game. When you’re looking for an idea, pull out your cards. Put them on a table and sort them in 2 stacks: nows and laters. “Nows” can be started right away,”laters” require more research etc. Your ideas are always easy to find.

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