When I first saw Carla Sonheim’s artwork, I instantly fell in love with her playful and unique creatures (like the one above). Sonheim’s paintings and illustrations are what creativity is all about: giving birth to novel, stirring ideas that surpass the predictable.
Sonheim uses her boundless, innovative approach in her classes and books, such as her latest The Art of Silliness: A Creativity Book for Everyone. I love that she makes art accessible, surprising and fun for everyone.
I’m incredibly honored to share my interview with Sonheim for our monthly series. Below, she offers her wise and fascinating thoughts on the creative process. She shares how she connects to her own creativity and how we, too, can ignite our imagination.
1. Do you incorporate creativity-boosting activities into your daily routine? If so, what activities do you do?
Yes. I try to make a mark every day. I have a stack of sturdy card stock near my computer, a stack of watercolor paper at my painting table, and a sketchbook in my purse. Sometimes it’s just a line or a scribble. Some days, the mark turns into little creatures or more involved drawings or paintings.
Also, each day I write (or try to write) “morning pages” a la Julia Cameron (The Artist’s Way). Typing them at www.750words.com works well for me.
2. What are your inspirations for your work?
I’m inspired both by other artists’ work and the world around me.
Other Artists: Everyone! But especially Outsider Art, children’s art, contemporary illustration, illustration from the 1950s and 1960s, and the work of early 20th century artists such as Picasso, Modigliani, Klee, Matisse, Calder, and others.
The World Around Me: Mostly “little” things. When on walks I look at the ground a lot. I “see” animals in leaves and sidewalk cracks. I love living in Seattle where the spring flowers are spectacular… and then especially when they “die” and dry up a few weeks later. On the bus or train I stare at the faces of other passengers.
(I have to catch myself, that I don’t REALLY stare, but I do spend probably a moment too long admiring the curve of someone’s nose, for example.)
3. There are many culprits that can crush creativity, such as distractions, self-doubt and fear of failure. What tends to stand in the way of your creativity?
And each day is different; some days I feel pretty confident, but I’m unable to focus. Others, I just feel like everything I do is bad or embarrassing, and inertia creeps in.
I’ve come to see all these things as “resistance,” as Steven Pressfield writes in The War of Art. It truly is one of the biggest paradoxes; being creative brings such joy to our lives, why do we resist it so much?
Answer: The same reason we resist exercising, eating well, and doing anything else “good” for us: We’re human. (I know, NOT a satisfactory answer!)
4. How do you overcome these obstacles?
I’ll try to answer with a story.
When I had my first son, I was determined to meet all his needs quickly so he would never need to cry. (That lasted a week. After that I just tried my best to meet his needs.)
But no sooner would I figure out his routine and what worked the best, when something would change; he’d get sick, we’d travel, or he would simply grow out of whatever stage I had been enjoying for the few days I had finally “figured it out.”
It’s the same with overcoming the “resistance” or obstacles to creativity; just when I figure out a combination of tricks and routines that seem to work, something changes and it doesn’t work anymore!
But here are activities that have worked in the past: starting with “nonsense” exercises; walking or exercising; sitting myself down in the chair and just doing it, with a timer if I need to; trolling the Internet; library or bookstore visits; galleries; writing down 20 ideas a day, even if they’re silly; and facing the down days with as much gentleness as possible.
I have many, many days that I’m not “productive.” But it all works together; those down times are very important!
5. What are some of your favorite resources on creativity?
I’ve read a lot of books and get something from each of them! I’ve already mentioned The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron and The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. I also love Art and Fear by David Bayles/Ted Orland and The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp.
6. What is your favorite way to get your creative juices flowing?
I have a game I play with myself when I need inspiration. I have a flickr.com account, a photo-sharing site. Artists and illustrators all over the world use it to share their work. I have dozens of “favorites” — drawings and paintings I like. I head over to my favorites list and click on an image that inspires me that day.
Then, I’ll go to THAT artist’s favorites list, and click on one of THEIR favorites that inspires me. I’ll then root around this new artist’s site for a while, and when I’m ready, will go to THAT artist’s favorites. I will repeat until I’ve found about 6-7 new artists.
This almost never fails; I ALWAYS want to pick up my pencil afterwards!
7. What’s your advice for readers on cultivating creativity?
Creativity has both tangible and intangible components. I’ve found that if I indulge in the tangibles (the making of something physical that wasn’t there before, such as drawing, painting, writing), the intangibles (freer-flowing ideas, problem-solving skills) come more easily as well.
Julia Cameron writes, “The creative part of us is always childlike.” The easiest way for me to enter into an open, “kid” mindset is to do some silly drawing or writing exercises: I’ll draw with my left (non-dominant) hand, do a series of one-line drawings, scribble all over the page, write a list of words as fast as I can, write some silly haiku, etc. — I give myself “assignments” to get the pencil moving.
Also, I’ve found that creativity, like trying to remember nighttime dreams, can be elusive; the more pressure you put on yourself, the more difficult the process.
You need to have an open mind for creativity to flow, and this is difficult or impossible if you are beating yourself up for not being more creative! Practicing gentleness with yourself is a good catalyst to creativity.
8. Anything else you’d like readers to know about creativity?
What works for me might not work for you — heck, what works for me today might not work for me tomorrow! We need to find our own way in all areas of life, including our creative endeavors. Diet, exercise, relationships, housecleaning habits, spiritual things, cultivating creativity… we are hopefully constantly trying to improve these areas of our lives, and need to find our own particular way of doing it.
It’s never-ending and always changing, but that’s what makes it fun, too!
More About Carla Sonheim
Carla Sonheim is a painter, illustrator, and creativity workshop instructor known for her fun and innovative projects and techniques designed to help adult students recover a more spontaneous, playful approach to drawing. She is the author of three books, most recently: The Art of Silliness: A Creativity Book for Everyone. She holds online drawing and painting classes from her website: http://www.carlasonheim.com and lives in Seattle, WA, with her photographer husband, a game-playing teenager, and her blog.
Opening image by Carla Sonheim.