How Adding Limits can Supercharge Creativity: the 3-Marker Challenge

How Adding Limits can Supercharge Creativity: the 3-Marker Challenge

I love watching kids create. They naturally come up with these little tricks to supercharge creativity, and they don’t even know they’re doing it.

We just returned from a Washington Coast getaway with family, and as usual, the kids taught me a thing or two about creativity. Really, I think we can learn a lot about creativity from kids.

I get creatively challenged all the time. You know how it goes…

You’re sitting there staring at a blank piece of paper or computer screen, and your mind goes blank. nothing. zip. How on earth are you supposed to be creative when your head is empty?

It sucks.
I’ve been there.
I still find myself in that place all the time.

But, maybe that’s not really the problem. Is your mind really blank? Or is it so full of so much everything that your brain throws up a blank, white wall in a self-protective measure?

When you sit down to create, and you’re faced with a blank screen or paper, the possibilities are infinite, and that’s hard to process.

The way to deal with too-much-everything is to narrow things down. Add some limits and boundaries and see what happens. Narrow the focus.

What happens in your brain when you go from “I’m going to write a blog post,” to “I’m going to write a blog post about apples”? I don’t think I’ve ever written a post about apples, but I’ve got to say, I felt a shift when the focus narrowed from the infinite to specifically apples when thinking about this example.

The boundaries help.

The specificity helps.

Now narrow it down some more. Keep narrowing and getting more specific until you have something you can work with.

The 3-Marker Challenge

On a recent vacation, my daughter and my niece spent hours with their noses in their sketchbooks playing what they call, “the 3-marker challenge.”

two young girls sitting at a table and drawing in sketchbooks

They pick a subject (cat, dog, dragon, whatever they think up) and then they each grab 3 markers with their eyes closed. Then they set a timer.

The challenge is to create the coolest looking image of the selected subject, in the specified amount of time, using only the 3 colors they grabbed from the bucket. They draw, compare notes, compliment each other, encourage each other, and then pick another subject and trio of markers to do it again.

They spend hours playing this game, and I’ve got to say it’s the most ridiculously wholesome way I can imagine a couple of 12-year-olds would think of to spend their time.

It inspired me, too.

The real trick of this challenge is in limiting the colors. Just three markers in random colors. That can really limit your options, and it’s precisely those limits that get your brain spinning in different ways. Limitations require you to think differently to get around them, and thinking differently is where your creativity starts to kick in.

This little game works as a warm-up before diving into your creative project, even if you can’t draw and your project has nothing to do with art. It’s about getting your brain to think differently.

If you’re hitting a wall, creatively, maybe your options are too wide open. Try adding some limits. Maybe the scope of your essay is too wide. Maybe you need to narrow your intended audience. Maybe you need to dial in on the focal point of your painting; you can’t focus on everything.

Tips for Regenerating Creativity

Tips for Regenerating Creativity

Sometimes, my attitude about creativity can really trip me up. I start getting stingy with my ideas, hoarding them with the thought that I will need these in the future. I worry that I will run out of creative juices, that I might just use them up. And that’s where I create my own problem.

By hoarding my ideas and not expressing my creativity, I get blocked up. In graphic terms, it’s something like being creatively constipated. Creativity, like riding a bike, requires movement, action.

Curling up in a blanket burrito on the couch was doing nothing to help my malaise. Neither was hiding away my best ideas for a later day.

But what about my idea log?

Sure, keep an idea log. Many creatives I know maintain some kind of listing of ideas for future projects.  But an idea is just an idea. It’s not going to get you anywhere on your own, and 50 different artists with the same idea will turn out 50 different works.

The spark of brilliance is not in the idea itself, it’s in the action. It’s in the process of creation. Creativity is not a state of being, it is a state of doing. Creativity is action. 

Creativity is self-regenerating action

Yes, that’s right, the act of creating will produce more ideas and more creative juice. The more you create, the more you’ll be able to create.

But sometimes we get a little stuck when we’re in the middle of creating. That happens to me, too. But no amount of saving my best ideas for when I’m feeling more creative will break me out of that kind of funk. 

What to do when you’re feeling less than creative

  • Action. Like taking a walk. Get some exercise and get your blood moving
  • Free writing. Just let it all out. Write till you’re empty and write some more.
  • Play with color. Fling some paint around. Color in a coloring book.
  • Doodle. Draw shapes, swirls, doodads, and whatever else pops into your head. Draw something ridiculous.
  • Get out of your comfort zone. Switch things up a bit. Try a creative activity that is not something you normally do. Write or draw with your non-dominant hand. Create in a way that’s out of character for you.

Just try something different for 20 minutes or so, and then go back to your work and go at it again. A fresh perspective will help. 

It doesn’t matter if it’s been 20 years since you last did something you considered creative. We’re all creative throughout different aspects of our lives, from the way we dress to the food we cook and eat. Use that to fuel more creativity. 

Journal/Creative Prompt:

What are the ways that you hold back creatively? How is holding back impacting your work? 

Check out my Instagram account for daily journal prompts.

How to make baby shoe ornaments

How to make baby shoe ornaments

When Gem grew out of her first baby shoes, I couldn’t bear to get rid of them. I wanted to keep them, but I didn’t want them just tucked away in a box for decades either.

baby shoe ornament

I didn’t know what to do with them until we started putting up our Christmas tree.

baby shoe ornament

Now, they are included among our most cherished Christmas ornaments. Yes, they spend most of the year tucked away in a box, but they bring a smile each holiday season.

How did I do this? Simple, just threat a little string through the loop in the back. For one pair, I poked a small hole in the back and threaded string through with a needle, but most of the baby shoes had a place to attach the string already.

Nothing to see here

Nothing to see here

It’s happened to me time and again, I take my camera out on a photo walk and everything is all wrong. The light is flat, the scenery dull and uninteresting. I wonder what I’m doing out in the cold and wind, and I just want to give up and go home.

There’s nothing to see here. I’m wasting my time.

Then, I look a little closer.

It never fails. A closer look always leads to something special.


I just discovered this site, which plays the sound of rain. Sooooo relaxing.

Living in the gap

Living in the gap

Our 4-year-old asked for a pencil and paper. We were at my husband’s office visiting, and she developed an urgent need for writing implements. We handed them over, and Aaron and I continued our conversation – till we noticed she was writing something.

She was copying down the Arabic alphabet from a graph in the book. Her initiative, her drive, her curiosity, her thirst for knowledge and understanding never cease to amaze me.

Of course I took a picture.

be kind: we're all living in the gap

Then when I went to post the picture on Instagram/Facebook, I hesitated.

There have been so many posts rolling around complaining about moms who do nothing but brag on their kid on their Facebook page. I thought about it again, and hesitated again.

Then I posted this on Facebook:

I know I post a lot about how awesome my kid is – and I know it can get annoying. Too bad. Every kid needs someone who pays attention, who notices what’s unique and amazing about them, who champions them. I wish every kid had that. So if you want to post on facebook about how awesome some kid is, some amazing thing they said or did, some spark of genius, or creativity, or compassion you noticed in a young person – rock on. The world needs more of that too.

It wasn’t till that post started generating some positive response, that I finally worked up the nerve and posted the picture about my daughter above.

But why did I hesitate in the first place?

Why do I place so much stock in the opinion of whiners?

On a logical level, I don’t give a crap what everyone else thinks – but there’s that little girl, deep down inside me still desperate for acceptance and approval. I grew up with an overwhelming fear of being obnoxious and annoying; it was one of my greatest fears, and it kept me isolated.

I have this idea of who I am, and who I think I should be. I think I should be someone who is not driven by fear, especially fear of the opinions of others.

Then I take a look at my behavior and it doesn’t always match.

I think my choices as a parent should be based on what will best help my daughter to grow into a strong and compassionate woman of integrity, but what I do is different. I watch myself making parenting choices based on what I think will negatively or positively impact my popularity. It takes me right back to Freshman locker banks at my high school – an anxiety ridden place, indeed.

This entire scenario reminded me of Ira Glass talking about how a creative person’s sense of taste develops before their skill, so there is this gap between what they think they should be doing and what they’re actually able to do.

That story was life-changing for me.

It’s not just about creativity

While Glass was being specific about creativity, I think his point carries over to many other aspects of our lives.

We have this vision of the world, we have this vision of what it means to be a good parent, a good person… We see how our own attitudes and behaviors play into that vision. We know we want to “be the change.”

But there is this gap.

You don’t just wake up one morning and decide to be different, better, and that’s it, done. It takes practice. Years of practice.

But life happens in the meantime. We are all living in the meantime – in the gap.

We don’t get practice time, and then go out and live our lives after we’ve perfected ourselves. We go out and try things, see if they work, we fall down, we get up, we embarrass ourselves, we don’t die of embarrassment – but we don’t get to practice life without an audience. And that audience usually has an opinion. It doesn’t matter.

Life is not about perfection. It’s about doing the best we can, and when we miss the mark, learning from it, course correcting, and moving on.

We need to remember to be gentle with ourselves, to remember that we’re living in the gap. To just keep trying.

And when someone else offends us, well, maybe they’re living in the gap, too.

be kind: we're all living in the gap

So here I am, waxing on about wishing I could be as brave as I think I should be, and my little girl just wanted to practice writing new letters.  I’m so proud of her, and I want the whole world to know it.

P.S. She calls the Arabic alphabet “letter parties.”

Syndicated on BlogHer

That thing that scares you… do it.

That thing that scares you… do it.

I toyed with the idea of a photography show intermittently for a couple years, but something always stopped me. I couldn’t imagine working up the courage to approach someone about showing my work. I wasn’t sure my work was good it. (2)

I was scared – scared of both failure and success.

Then one day in the middle of a conversation with the owner of a coffee shop that I just adore, I took a deep breath and then blurted out a question that was something along the lines of “how do you select artists for your exhibits?” I can’t remember exactly how I asked, I could hear my pulse in my ears. But I chose well; the person I asked was one of the nicest people I know. By the end of the conversation, I had a show booked for October, nine months away at that time.

Of course, there was quite a bit of work left to do, but I managed to get it all done, and showed up October first to hang 25 pieces with the help of my unpaid intern:


she was a lot of help. [ahem]

I can’t express what it felt like to see my work up on the walls.


Even better, we had a reception for the exhibit, with live music, a wine tasting, tasty bites, and my friends showed up to support me. I had so much fun that I didn’t take any pictures during the party, and that never happens. I will always remember that party – especially when I think about doing something that scares me.  To top it all off, I sold a bunch of pictures, too.

Now, I’m working on setting up an Etsy shop.