How to photograph your surroundings

Pattern of pink details: mostly building materials found on foot in urban environments

There’s world of strange details, patterns and shapes within your everyday surroundings. But it’s a hidden world unless you intentionally start to look closer. Finding the art in your local environment allows you to let go of the idea you have to go somewhere beautiful or faraway to find interesting things to photograph. The constraint of going for a walk in your everyday surroundings and finding one thing that is different or interesting focuses your attention and forces you to “make it work” right where you are. Danielle Krysa in Creative Block interviewed Stephaine Vobas on getting creative: “Your attention to small things are little gifts, or clues, as to what you should be exploring further. Delve deeper.”

You will need: a camera or cameraphone and to look for details on foot

  1. Spend time looking around at small hidden details underfoot, around and above you as you meander on foot.
  2. Restrict yourself to a specific number of photos say between 1-10 photos. The restriction forces you to be more thoughtful and question if it’s worth taking the photos.
  3. Review photos at home at a later date to see if there are any reoccurring patterns or subjects that caught your eye.

Carolyn Schlam in The Creative Path speaks of an ‘inspiration hunt’ walk: “Think of your daily life as a hunt for art. Take note of what you notice and what you keep noticing. What interests you?” She encourages this process of reviewing possible connections because “These connections are the gold mine of your inspiration. Use them.”

The Sparkle Experiment Hidden Photos
Example of finding patterns – capturing X’s in urban environments

Feeling unsure what to look for?

  • Choose one colour, say red, and be on the lookout for red things
  • Choose one type of shape
  • Choose only black and white objects
  • Choose signs or symbols
  • Choose to really narrow it down and look for a specific thing eg. drainpipes, window corners or pavement cracks

More constraints makes it easier for you to find possible subjects. When you can photograph ‘anything,’ the endless choice could overwhelm and paralysis you. It is also vital you limit the number of photos because in a world of ever-expanding data storage, people tend to overtake due fewer restrictions. This creates extra work and mental energy due to deciding which images to keep or delete. Deciding before you even take the image saves your future self from additional review work.

By slowing down and focusing on what’s at your doorstep, you start to see hidden connections and allow yourself to be intrigued by ‘uninteresting,’ unexpected details. This new way of looking will feed back into your life in more ways than you’ll realise.

TheSparkleExperiment Hidden Photos 02
Looking for only yellow details in urban surroundings

“You need to let the little things that would ordinarily bore you suddenly thrill you.” – Andy Warhol

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How to make patterns with everyday objects

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection
Created using a circular piece of metal

We love to feel prepared before trying something new because it’s not easy putting ourselves in an unknown situation. It’s uncomfortable. When making art you may think you need to go out and buy lots of ‘good’ art supplies but what if you used what was already in your cupboards at home?

In The Runaway Species Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman talk about raw materials used for creativity “Human creativity does not emerge from a vacuum. We draw on our experience and the raw materials around us to refashion the world.” What if part of the fun was exploring everyday objects to see what marks they could make? In this experiment you do just that and because you don’t need to buy anything new, you can get started straight away.

You will need: paper, paint, a plate and household objects of your choice. Ideas to start you off: cutlery, rubber bands, corks, cardboard, sponges, string etc. The list is endless. Use one paint colour to keep things simple. If you don’t have any paint, use coffee. You can experiment with adding more or less water make it lighter or darker. Use a plate to mix your chosen paint and allow you space to dip your objects onto.

  1. Take your chosen object, dip it in your paint
  2. Experiment making marks!
The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection
Left: Created using a small piece of plastic. Right: Created using a fork.

Different objects with create completely different marks. The marks made above by a fork required it to be dipped more frequently into the paint so a slower mark-making approach was created. This experimental approach to making marks creates an intuitive way of working as you test making different sizes, shapes and how much paint to use. There is no right or wrong way to make marks, just make them and see what turns up. By using unorthodox painting tools, you lower your expectations around how ‘good’ the marks are. So if you use a fork to paint, you instantly have lower expectations compared to when using a paintbrush.

Flora Bowley in Creative Revolution talks about creating in a kind of “ambiguous territory,” when creating work without a firm plan of where you’re headed. That you will be rewarded for your bravery to “create with no map” and “opening yourself up to the unknown can also be invigorating and deeply revealing. By experimenting using tools where the markmaking results are unpredictable, it allows you to safely let go of outcomes so you can focus on the playful nature of exploring. As Bowley suggests, “the more you flex your brave intuitive muscles, the easier letting go becomes.” Have a look around your home and see what you could use to experiment making your own patterns and marks.

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection
Created using a small piece of plastic

“Good scientists, like good artists, must let their minds roam playfully or they will not discover new facts, new patterns, new relationships.” By allowing yourself to playfully create new patterns using what exists around, you opens yourself up to other unknown possibilities.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention

How to collage typography

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection
Finished rearrangement of the original below

If a white piece of paper blinds you with too many possibilities, starting with another piece of art and editing that can get you straight into the art-making process. Creating instant restrictions creates less resistance to getting started because there’s less choice on offer. Austin Kleon in The Steal Like An Artist Journal encourages us “If we’re free from the burden of trying to be completely original, we can stop trying to make something out of nothing, and we can embrace influence instead of running away from it.” By mixing up existing art into something new, you’re creating your own art and experimenting with what you like visually.

You will need: Text (or images) to cut up. Pencil and ruler if you want to be really accurate. Scissors or scalpel to cut. Glue if you want to fix permanently in place.

  1. Divide your chosen text into squares of equal sizes and cut out
  2. Optional: Use pencil and ruler on the back if you don’t want to do it by eye
  3. Rearrange the squares into a new arrangement
  4. Optional: fix in place with glue
The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection
Left: original printed typography found in a magazine. Right: image cut into equal squares, ready for rearrangement

Why not try cutting different size shapes and then fit things together like an abstract jigsaw puzzle. Play around creating more irregular shapes and arrangements that aren’t so neat and square. Cecil Touchon uses a similar process to create his Typography Abstraction art and so ‘frees the letters from their burden of being bearers of meaning.’

Seeing something arranged differently and changing your perspective will feed back into other areas of your life in a positive way. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Creativity says “Good scientists, like good artists, must let their minds roam playfully or they will not discover new facts, new patterns, new relationships.” By allowing yourself to playfully create new patterns using what exists around, you opens yourself up to other unknown possibilities.

Look what’s already laying around your home that you can cut up and rearrange and go have a play.

 “…nothing is completely original. All creative work builds on what came before.  Every new idea is just a remix or a mashup of one or two previous ideas.”– Austin Kleon, Steal Like An Artist

How to make cutout poems

Using a newspaper article, adding a layer of coloured paper with cut out spaces to reveal the words

Facing a blank piece of paper before you’ve started making art can feel very intimidating because where do you even start? An exercise to dive straight into art-making is to use an existing piece of art and edit that instead. Cutout poems are an easy way to make new art because the basic material you can find so easily – the printed text. Austin Kleon creates newspaper blackouts and encourages us that nothing is original. “Every new idea is just a remix or a mashup of one or two previous ideas.”

You will need: a magazine, newspapers, book, booklet or any printed material that contains text. A pencil/pen. Optional is a black marker or a scalpel and coloured paper.

  1. Select a small section of text and scan for the words that can connect together to form a new sentence
  2. Draw a box round the words you like and ‘cut-out’ the words you don’t need with your pen or black marker

Jeff Goins agrees that rearrangement is key for the creative mind: “There is a secret every professional artist knows that the amateurs don’t: being original is overrated. The most creative minds in the world are not especially creative; they’re just better at rearrangement.” By giving yourself constraints, you allow yourself to get more creative more easily.

The Sparkle Experiment Cutout Poem
The black marker approach to masking out unused words

A couple of variations you can try:

  • Use a layer of coloured paper and cut out the spaces to reveal the words – this is more time consuming than the pen method. Use window glass or light box as a surface to trace where the words, then finally scalpel cut out the boxes
  • Use different designs of paper as a layer or try painting paper to get a painted effect.
  • Start with a longer article and create a short story or beginning of a story, expanding on the idea of a poem
The Sparkle Experiment Cutout Poem
Different style of painted backgrounds to mask unused words

After some practice, a rhythm of making the poem emerges. It feels like you’ve cracked a code and you have a sense of satisfaction after finishing each poem. Because you are able to choose any combination of words, it feels like there’s no right or wrong result, just the one you end up with. Cutout poems are completely portable so can be created on the move and in ‘fringe’ times, all you need is some printed paper and a pen in your bag. It’s a quick, nourishing and creative form of ‘entertainment’ and fun and a welcomed alternative to checking your phone in any ‘waiting’ time.

“Transformation that is flattery – taking the things you’ve stolen and making them into your own thing… combine it with your own ideas and thoughts, transform it into something completely new, and then put it out into the world so that we can steal from you.” – Austin Kleon in Steal Like an Artist

How to mine your daily life for snippets

The Sparkle Experiment small creative play equals connection

Snippets are different from quotes. They are a words or small sentences that peak your curiosity. Words can be collected from everyday life in the form of signs, shops, windows, labels, graffiti and posters or from art such as books, magazines, websites, audio, tv, movies and online. Anything you see or hear. Coleman Barks said “When I was twelve years old, I kept a little notebook of words that I loved: azalea, halcyon, jejune. I just liked the taste of them… I just love lively language wherever it occurs.” Austin Kleon created a journal for creative kleptomaniacs, “This journal is designed to get you looking at your world like an artist, always “casing the joint,” always collecting ideas, always looking for the next bit of inspiration to lift – to turn you into a creative kleptomaniac.”

You will need: a notebook or paper and pen/pencil

  1. Carry a notebook wherever you go
  2. Write down anything you find interesting.

Even conversations can be a source of inspiration, either from people you know or from strangers. Listen gently but not obsessionally. This works best with people walking away from you so that you only hear a tiny piece of their conversation. It’s also less voyeuristic and creepy that way.

“The great advantage of being a writer is that you can spy on people. You’re there, listening to every word, but part of you is observing. Everything is useful to a writer, you see – every scrap, even the longest and most boring of luncheon parties.” Graham Greene.

Any snippet could spark an idea, get you thinking about a project or serve as an abstract journal. For instance if you’re on holiday and overhear something interesting, writing it down could later transport you right back to that moment (add a note of where you were to help retain the memory). Snippet collecting creates more engaged with your surroundings because you notice every day delights that normally may be invisible.

“… crafty way of blending in / Try to make it swaggy. / …trotted out like a prize bull / Tooling around / By crickey / Blithering blowholes!” – various snippets collected June 2018

The biggest rule of collecting snippets? Don’t judge what you find interesting or censor yourself writing it down because who knows what it might spark in the future. Regularly seeing the small may just surprise and delight you in the process.

How to collage

The Sparkle Experiment
Cutting different coloured shapes from origami paper

If you feel terrified at the thought of making art, this is a perfect exercise for you to feel more in control. Danny Gregory in Art Before Breakfast says “Creativity is the act of shaping the mush of the world around us into something – of creating your own order.” You make your own rules. You don’t have to commit to any arrangement so no decision is made in stone. It’s about playing around and seeing what turns up. And because you’re rearranging shapes, you don’t need any creative skills to get started. You can dive right in.

You will need: paper in different colours, photographs, images and text from magazines, books or any paper source. Scissors or scalpel knife. Optional glue or sticky tape and a tray to put things on or work from.

  1. Cut out shapes. Squares, triangles and circles are the easiest to start with.
  2. Cut out images. Don’t overthink it, cut it out and add it to the pile.
  3. From your pile of cut out elements, pick some and start arranging on a piece of paper. Play around with different combinations without thinking of a final look.
  4. If you like a combination, take a photo or fix it in place with glue or tape.
The Sparkle Experiment Collage
Images sourced from the book ‘In Vogue: Six Decades of Fashion,’ published 1975

Feeling overwhelmed with choice?

  • Pick one colour and only elements that match it
  • Only use coloured paper and shapes
  • Only use two colours or two shapes
  • Set a timer for 2 minutes to force quicker decision making so once the time is up, the work becomes finished by default

Have a jar/box/folder/somewhere to keep all the things you cut out in one place so you can revisit them quickly for future collages. It becomes your material for another day. Danielle Krysa in Collage says “Generally the actual making of a collage is a quick process – the groundwork of searching and collecting materials having already been put in place.” She encourages us to get collaging considering that “Collage is cheap and accessible to everyone.”

The more you make, the more you learn what you like and don’t like. Practice brings more decisiveness about knowing when your collage is finished.

Collage 01
Using old photographs to create fun collages

“So how do you create with no map of where you are going?… Creating in this kind of ambiguous territory can present some definitive challenges, but opening yourself up to the unknown can also be invigorating and deeply revealing… It’s such a naturally human tendency to want to plan and plot. However, the more you flex your brave intuitive muscles, the easier letting go becomes.” Flora Bowley, Creative Revolution.

How to do a blind drawing

The Sparkle Experiment Blind Contour Drawing
Created using a 1/2 blind drawing approach

Sometimes when getting creative, we get caught up in judging our art before we’ve even finished making it. Focused on wanting to make something ‘good,’ we limit our potential by having such a low tolerance for ‘mistakes’. There is so much potential in making strange and weird marks, allowing for spontaneity and happy accidents, that making bad art is a way to get better a making good art. Sam Anderson suggests blind drawing is “the fastest way to break them out of old bad habits, to make them unlearn lifeless conventions.” As well as being “Joyful and meditative…you can do it anywhere, anytime, with any subject. It will flip you, like a switch, from absence to presence.” It’s a kind of active meditation where you let go of the outcome and get very still while drawing.

You will need: paper and a pencil or pen. Optional board or book to fix the paper to, if you find the paper keeps slipping.

  1. Fix your gaze on your chosen subject and without looking at your paper, slowly draw what you see
  2. Take your time to finish your drawing without looking at your paper

Kimon Nicolaides reminds us that “a contour study is not a thing that can be ‘finished.’ It is having a particular type of experience, which can continue as long as you have the patience to look.”

The Sparkle Experiment Blind Contour Drawing

A couple of variations you can try:

  • close your eyes and draw from your imagination
  • set a timer and draw until it goes off
  • Place the paper within your peripheral vision so that it’s still fuzzy but you can see where your pen is in relation to the paper. This creates a sort of 1/2 blind drawing, allowing more control
  • Use your non-dominant hand to draw and either choose to look at what you’re drawing, or not. Be prepared for some fun mark making!

Your first attempt is likely to make you laugh because it will be so strange and bad but that’s exactly the point. Art should be about having fun and letting go. Blind drawing is a wonderful exercise in letting go, embracing bad art and getting clumsy like Piasso. But with practice comes improvement, more speed and confident according to Felix Scheinberger.  “As strange as it may seem, blind contour drawing will teach you to observe more closely and to draw more confidently.”

“Lately I’ve been experimenting a lot with “un-perfecting” as a way to loosen up, embrace the grit, and explore new kinds of energy in my paintings. While a highly refined painting can certainly be lovely, I find raw, messy, human expression and experience to be incredibly compelling – and refreshing… One way to achieve this kind of less controlled look is to explore using your nondominant hand.”Flora Bowley, Creative Revolution.