The Magic of Thinking Big is in Working Small

The irony of Chuck Close’s career-launching “Big Self Portrait” is the title itself. The 107. 5 inches by 83.5 inches rendering of Close, cigarette dangling with a devil-may-care expression would never have existed had the artist not learned the power of thinking small. A lesson that all creatives would do well to emulate

Art Block

Like all aspiring artists, Close’s early work was all over the map and quite incoherent. In Julie Burnstein’s book, Spark: How Creativity Works, he said so himself.

“My work had been abstract, loose, and sloppy. I worked all over at once.”

The reason Close’s quality was suffering had nothing to do with a lack of talent or inspiration. Instead, It had to do with poor execution.

“I didn’t know where I started or finished. I wasn’t very good at flying by the seat of my pants. Also, part of my learning disability was being overwhelmed by the whole…”

This all changed when Close realized the creative power of thinking small.

Moving from the Macro to the Micro

To accommodate for his learning disability, Close demystified his creativity problem in a very mechanical way. He chose a photograph of himself and drew a grid of lines over it, twenty-one across and twenty-six down, breaking down the photograph into small squares. He then worked on one square at a time.

“I found a way to break down a complicated image into a lot of small bite-sized pieces. I found it particularly useful to use a grid to isolate one small piece that I could work on and forget about the rest of the picture.”

The Magic of Thinking Big
Chuck Close grid via

Viola! Close’s creativity block was busted and Big Self Portrait was freed from recesses of the artist’s mind to its rightful place on the canvas. 

Small Thinking is Needed in All Creative Work

Story Grid creator and veteran editor Shawn Coyne recommends a similar creativity busting technique for fiction writers. When getting lost in the weeds, Shawn prescribes to the struggling author: Write a scene.

He urges storytellers to forget plot holes, characters development problems, and setting issues. Instead, they must return to the smallest element of storytelling and play around in it for a while. In so doing, the writer inevitably retains creative control over the big idea. 

And if what’s good for the painter is good for the writer, surely it’s good for your creative endeavor as well.

It’s a simple creative principle of evolution from the abstract to the concrete.

The World Needs Your Small Ideas

Do you have a big idea? Good. But your idea, just like Close’s,  does the world no good if it stays in your head. No matter the grandeur of your imagination, the artist’s job is to make the abstract tangible.

We’re moved to tears when we read that scene. We feel chills when we hear that musical piece. Our jaws drop when we behold beauty on the canvas. The world needs your art. But for that to happen you need to stop thinking so big. 


Are you struggling with a creativity block? What is the smallest unit of your project that you can begin executing right away? How have you gotten past creativity blocks in the past?

Give me a shout in the comments section below.

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