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Creativity in Art & Design

You can teach creativity

There is a misconception floating around education in the UK that you cannot teach creativity. Now, there is a political reason for saying this. Some educationalists are reacting against constructivist, liberal ideas that permeated education in previous decades. They want to enforce rigorous, concrete teaching and learning methods, and so publicly denigrate creative teaching techniques. What is being omitted in this argument is the specificity of subject domain knowledge; that different subjects need different teaching techniques, at different times. You cannot decry all creative teaching carte blanche. It has a place in the right context and one such place is Art and Design. Art is a creative subject and creativity must be at the forefront of what we do.


What is being argued is that you need a body of subject knowledge before you can be creative. We use knowledge when we are creating, but knowledge alone doesn’t make us creative. If it did, then the most knowledgeable people would always be the most creative and this isn’t so. Often, it isn’t the experienced professor that makes an all important breakthrough, but the novice rookie. This is telling us something important. Creativity is complex. It isn’t one thing - knowledge, but rather a conglomerate gloop of processes, actions, behaviours, information and understandings. Creativity, as I’ve said on many occasions, is knowledge in action. It’s doing stuff with the things we know. It’s playing with knowledge, inventing things with it, building on it, prodding, testing and poking it to see ‘what happens if…’ This doesn’t always come about from simply knowing facts and information.  


But actually, I don’t have a problem with accepting knowledge as a vital pre-cursor to being creative in most cases, but what is important in schools, is the delay between learning knowledge and doing something creative with it. If the delay is large - in the belief that we must master a body of foundation knowledge first, then we actually hinder creativity, because we must weave creative tuition in with learning knowledge to learn it properly. The gap has to be minimal and cyclical. If it isn’t, students lose their ability to express themselves creatively. They become fixed by rules and order, dependent on being fed information, addicted to surety, and afraid of venturing into the unfamiliar. Students become so reliant on knowledge that they struggle to diversify their art into new and more abstract outcomes. They come to believe that if art doesn’t have ‘skill’ then it doesn’t make sense. They usually reject conceptual, intuitive, gestural, or instinctive art forms as being trivial, or less than, ‘skilful’ art forms. What has happened is that order and sense have become the norm; the playful and the spontaneous have become marginalised. Creativity has lost. 


The idea that we can’t create something until we have a certain body of knowledge is mistaken. Very young children show us that and they keep reminding us of their creative capacity as they grow, constantly coming up with new and fascinating creations. Children have the capacity to create things from the tiniest pieces of knowledge and so knowledge and creativity work in symbiosis with each other. Which comes first, humming a tune in my head, knowing the scales or playing it on a piano? The answer is that one is not more important than the other, or prior to it, they are entwined with each other and interdependent. We teach something, we creatively apply it. In short cycles, again and again, learning and playing, playing and learning. They aren’t exclusive or hierarchical. 


So how do we teach creativity? Well, we can teach the historical processes by which inventions and discoveries came into being, so that people might apply them in new contexts. We can teach pupils how to use different types of play such as conceptual blending, mimesis or reduce and rebuild. We can teach the different types of imagination and provide exercises to develop them. We can teach pupils how to create things using a systems approach, or critical thinking skills to solve problems. We can show pupils how to be more divergent, then become convergent when the time is right. By learning about different creative approaches pupils can become more confident at using them themselves.


Creativity is inventing, it’s innovating, it’s making the right choices, making original choices, solving problems, it’s dreaming and imagining, playing and being absurd. If we don’t teach this, if we eliminate it from education then we diminish our capacity to create, and when we do that we become less human, because everything in our world has been created. We are all creative. Creativity is an important part of all our lives. When we decorate our homes, when we redesign our garden, when we put together a new outfit for a wedding, when we design a new cycle route or workout, design a new spreadsheet at work, or even a new playlist for the car. We’re all consumers of creativity too; TV, film, music, books, fashion, furniture and commercial goods. Creativity is inherent in us. We are constantly seeking out creative forms; we are constantly being creative ourselves. Few of us will ever make or invent something profound or important, but we can enrich our lives further by learning how to be more original and purposeful when we create. If you believe we can’t teach this, then I think that’s very sad indeed. 


How do we teach creativity?

With that in mind, let’s look at some ways in which we can develop our curriculum to make it more creative. To do this, we have to look at where we are now and then make decisions about where we want to be and how to get there. I can’t comment on your future choices, or indeed evaluate your current position, only you can do that, but there are patterns I see in secondary schools that are depressingly familiar. These are when schools prioritise the skill of realism above all others. When secondary schools do this, they are not only narrowing the potential of what art might be, but also strengthening pupils misconceptions that to be good at art you have to be good at realistic drawing. 


Now, I don’t want to sound hypocritical here. After all, I’ve got a whole page on this site devoted to learning basic skills in drawing such as shading, identifying shapes and perspective. Pupils need to be taught skills, but skill is a broad term that encompasses many different things. Abstraction is a skill, layering textures and surfaces is a skill, pattern-making is a skill, gestural drawing is a skill, and cognitive drawing is a skill too. And young children draw graphically instinctively; whereas realism has to be learned. They can make patterns easily; they draw forms and shapes intuitively. It’s societal norms that favour one style of drawing over another. These skills don’t come after we learn realism. 


What I’m saying is that there is a duality here. Two contrary things exist side by side - Fine Motor Skills and Creative Expression. We need Fine Motor Skills in order to realise our cognitive intentions, and there are rules to representing reality in two and three dimensions that have been developed over centuries, but there are no rules to the way in which we do that. Art has no definitions and we are free to visualise what we want, using any material we wish, in any manner we choose. 


We want pupils to develop their fine motor skills. We want them to be able to realise their cognitive intentions successfully in whatever form they desire. But, as art teachers, we have to expand their minds, to open them up to new possibilities of what they could produce. Art isn’t something that can only be accessed once you’ve acquired enough skill. Art is new possibilities; new horizons. This is why creativity must be taught. If all art in school is, is raising skill, then we aren’t opening minds, and opening minds, and possessing a greater repertoire of possibilities is a gateway to diverse thinking. 


Creative Choice

One way we can begin teaching creativity is through the creative choices we offer. By controlling creative choices, we can make art activities more, or less creative. Teachers usually design art & design creative activities around themes, topics or starting points that integrate appropriate aspects of their progression plan; knowledge of art and artists, or skills, techniques and processes. It’s through a creative activity that we exercise this knowledge. 


If I restrict the learning opportunities to include only the ones I’ve pre-selected, then I restrict creative potential. This isn’t always a bad thing, often you’ll want to focus improving attainment in one particular area, and so narrowing options is sometimes best. 

Teaching creativity in art and design

Let’s look at three examples where we draw leaves as a creative classroom activity. In the first example, the pupils will draw the leaves on white paper using a HB pencil. I might improve their drawing skills and do some focussed shape drawing lessons, or teach shading skills. There’s nothing wrong with an activity like this, but isn’t especially creative because the outcomes are pre-determined. We know what they are going to do before they do it, their imagination hasn’t been utilised. In order to hand over the skill from teacher to pupil, the pupil must be able to reproduce and reapply the skill to new creative conditions that they have invented. This is what I’m implying in the second example. We learn skills of drawing through the leaf drawing exercise, then apply them to a new, novel situation. The trick is to get them thinking not you! Challenge them to invent something from those shapes, perhaps a character, a scene or a pattern. It is only via their imagination that their creativity is developed, and it needs to be done repeatedly to be developed properly. But there is another way of developing your pupils creativity, and this way is more diverse and expansive. 

In the third example illustrated, we expand the choice of drawing materials and broaden the subject matter. We let them select from a range of art materials; pencil, coloured pencil or felt pens. We give them a range of coloured papers to choose from and we allow them to select their favourite from a range of leaves. These choices are designed in such a way that the same skills can be developed as before, but where greater diversity is also enabled. The results from the class drawing exercise now will be more personal, more colourful and creative. 

However, there’s a trade-off. The level of drawing skill (realism) will likely be lower because we haven’t narrowed the medium and taught it in such a tightly modelled way. It can only really be overcome if you have enough curriculum time to teach both approaches; repeating the exercise using both teacher-led, and creative approach. 

What is certain though, is that if you only use a teacher-led realism approach, then pupils will struggle to be as creative, and if you only use a creative approach, they will likely not be as skilled in realism. Personally, I prefer to teach using both approaches, but it requires the teacher to know when to tighten up and when to let go. To develop your ability to give creative choice to pupils, you need to know what types of creative choices you can offer. Typically, you can control creative choice in three areas; materials, stimuli or activity.


Stimuli - offer a selection of artists on the same theme across different styles and genres: traditional, modern, contemporary. For example, you might be studying portraits. I’ve chosen three contrasting examples that illustrate different ways of representing faces; representational, symbolic and conceptual. In this way, I’m showing the pupils that they can use their brains as well as their hands to make art! Try to be diverse like this when you choose artist sources. 


Materials - Provide controlled choice over the range of materials offered. Groups of materials work well together as choices, or they might be deliberately juxtaposed to provide good counterpoint. 

Group 1: 2B pencil, coloured pencil, felt pens are great to explore drawing. 

Group 2: Charcoal, chalk pastels are excellent for tonal work.

Group 3: Oil pastel, felt pens express pattern really well.

Group 4: Indian ink, fineliner pens are good to compare expressive drawing with accuracy.

Group 5: Poster paint, watercolour paint, acrylic for experimenting and exploring.


Activity - enable different directions in outcomes. In the portrait example above, some might simply paint a realistic picture of a face, some might make a sculpture of a face or some might paint a face onto a 3D surface. 

Teaching creativity in art and design

I hope you can see then, that teaching creativity is achieved by facilitating a series of processes, actions, behaviours and opportunities through your planning and teaching. By controlling the stimuli, materials and activities, we can limit or expand the creativity potential in art and design and facilitate diverse, personal outcomes. Usually, it requires us to teach traditional skills in harmony with facilitating creative choice. As pupils progress, they should be placed in greater control of the creative choices, until such a time as they are able to decide which materials, stimuli and direction they will use to tackle project starting points. 

Four types of Play 

Play is of profound importance in learning to be creative. But this is not simply a case of letting your students run wild. It is about controlling conditions that facilitate playful responses. Here I’ve illustrated four types of play you might use in your classroom.


  • Conceptual Blending - Combine or juxtapose words, ideas or images in new ways to bring new meaning. We are all familiar with schemas; mental categories for things. To invent new things, we can take objects from one category and move them to another. Put unrelated things together, place the fantastical with the mundane; the ordinary with the strange. Put hot colours where cold colours should be; apply patterns where you wouldn’t usually find them, make the temporary permanent. Mixed metaphors is another good example of conceptual blending. This was done by artists such as Duchamp and Picasso with ready-made art, and also Surrealists such as Rene Magritte, but think also of less obvious examples such as when land artists juxtapose elements of nature. Provide students with an object, such as a chair. How many uses can they devise for the chair other than for sitting on? 

  • Reduce & Rebuild - Something is reduced to its base elements then rebuilt in new ways. A painter might observe the ripples of waves on water then transform them into a pattern. A sculptor might deconstruct the form of a seed pod, then utilise aspects of it into an abstract sculpture. Play by reduction: flattening, outlining with lines & borders, simplifying colours, removing complexity. Or play by rebuilding: decorating, embellishing, adding texture, detail, text, overlays. This is abstraction of course, it’s what Victor Pasmore taught on his Basic Course; we reduce complex forms to their constituent parts, then play around with them to invent new things. The Dadaists deconstructed reason and logic and remade it with irony, wit and absurdity. 

  • World play - inventing and depicting imaginary worlds. The Bronte sisters had their Glass Town, Carl Jung was ruler of a medieval fortress, Nietzsche and his sister created a land for China figures, lead soldiers and a king squirrel. HG Wells was a pioneer of table top gaming with his game Little Wars. Alexander Calder built a hand made model circus. Young people have worlds constructed for them in computer games such as Fortnite, or they make their own in Minecraft. But creating your own new worlds is pure escapism. You might work in groups and ask students to devise a new city, country or island; developing subsequent layers of complexity over time. World Play may be creating a whole world scenario, or it may be expanding a piece of art beyond its borders. For example, consider the environment it will be situated in and the audience it is intended for. How will it evolve over time and with usage? Perhaps you might create a series of works that relate to each other or make a specialist place from which they can be viewed. #art #design #arteducation #teaching #creativity 

  • Mimesis - learn by watching and doing in real time. According to Plato, all artistic creation is a form of imitation. We see this in art with schools of art; where artists share common ideals and work with a unifying theme. Sometimes this is an artistic style, such as Impressionism or the arts and crafts movement, sometimes it’s a common theme or subject matter such as landscape or still life. The key here is not to copy, but to find common ground and represent it in new ways. We learn new skills via mimesis of course, but you can play with this process and compound the differences instead of accentuating the exactitude. For example, the Chinese Whispers art game, is where students study an image, which is then taken away and then drawn from memory. This is repeated multiple times around a group with the students working only from the previous drawing. The images are then compared afterwards. In biology, mimesis refers to camouflage, where living creatures mimic their surroundings to avoid being noticed by predators. Many artists have used camouflage as a theme for their work, such as Alighiero Boetti’s Mimetico 1966. You might also explore the theme of symmetry in nature, maths or art. 

Adapted from the book Power of Play: how play and its games shape life by Paul Pethick 

imagination types


Imagination is the foundation of all inventiveness and innovation. It is uniquely human, and with it, we have been able to think, design, conceive, construct and develop our whole human society. Imagination is a powerful tool for learning and with it, we can remember more, do more, feel more, engage more and achieve more. 

What is imagination? Most of us, when asked this question, would be tempted to say it’s when we think of new, novel things, usually of a highly fantastical nature. This is true, but it’s only one aspect of imagination which is a much broader capacity to rationalise things we can’t see directly. Imagination is a manifestation of our memory. It enables us to interpret past and present events in new ways or to reconstruct them into hypothetical scenarios. Imagination also helps us create mental models and is an important part of memory management. It fills in gaps or ambiguities in knowledge  - ‘What is this? What might it mean?’ 

Another role of imagination is that it enables us to create new meanings from cognitive cues or stimuli within the environment. It helps us connect disparate elements, helps us see things from new perspectives, and empathise with others viewpoints. Imagination is not always a conscious process. The brain periodically switches between hemispheres during a person’s consciousness. 

Our brains exist in isolation, within an external environment that we are constantly trying to make sense of, to interact with and interpret. Imagination is our means of doing that. It helps us to substantiate things that might not be in front us; make tangible what is intangible; conceptualise and strategise; empathise and memorise. 

Imagination is so important to us. Without it, we would not be the highly efficient, evolved creatures we are. Yet, most of us are unaware of how it works or even what it does. We use it like someone driving a car who hasn’t the faintest idea of how it works. We just put the key in and drive. And, for the most part that’s fine. We’ve got this far without knowing what’s under the hood after all. 

But, what if we were able to identify when and where different aspects of our imagination were useful? What if we understood which imaginative traits we excelled at, and which ones we didn’t? What if we could practice and develop our imaginative capacities to make us better thinkers? Imagine that! 


To do this, we need to better understand what imagination is and how it works. Dr Murray Hunter of the University of Malaysia Perlis, proposed eight main forms of imagination: 


1. Effectuative Imagination - synthesising information together to form new concepts and ideas. 

2. Intellectual (or Constructive) - a deliberate process of working from plans towards a distinct purpose.

3. Dreams - unconscious images, ideas, emotions, and sensations that occur during certain stages of sleep 

4. Emotional Imagination - projecting emotional dispositions into external scenarios.

5. Strategic Imagination - the wisdom to understand the potential & limitations of possible scenarios

6. Empathy Imagination - know emotionally what others are experiencing

7. Fantasy Imagination - generating new ideas for art, literature, music etc.

8. Memory Reconstruction - retrieving our memory of people, objects, and events.


  1. Effectuative Imagination

Combine information together to form new concepts and ideas

Effectuative imagination is about connecting disparate areas of memory together such as when problem solving. It involves not only being able to recall appropriate elements from memory, but also having a secure mental model of relevant subject matter; for example being able to visualise something, know it’s properties and behaviours. Knowing this, effectuative imagination requires us to recall, identify, then isolate component parts of relevant mental models, take them apart and reform them into new forms. Design is an obvious area where we do this, as is mathematics and science. While we do indeed need strong foundation knowledge to be able to use effectuative imagination to high levels, we develop it by applying the knowledge we learn to unique situations. For example; we learn the formula for calculating areas in mathematics, then solve area problems, the more advanced of which ask us to apply the formula to a real or imaginary problem. Geographers might learn about the issues facing a people and their environment, then use their effectuative imagination to suggest solutions, which will probably entail connecting remote knowledge from other areas. In science they use effectuative imagination to construct experiments, then ponder on the significance of their outcomes. In music they use scales, chords and patterns to create songs and melodies.

We teach this whenever we provide problem solving tasks that require pupils to synergise knowledge of things they are familiar with into new concepts and ideas.


2. Intellectual (or Constructive) Imagination 

Philosophy, management, or politics - pondering over meaning 

We develop our intellectual imagination by examining and analysing information to extract not only meaning, but their implications and potential uses. An obvious way we do this is when we analyse works of art. We should of course read the artists’ own intentions where possible, but ultimately, we create our own meanings as we absorb this new information into our existing schemas to create personal ones.

Religious Education lessons aren’t about indoctrinating anyone into a faith, but rather, they are about examining faith and pondering the self and the implications of our place on the Earth and in society. Philosophy does this too of course and the study of how great thinkers have influenced and shaped society can be enormously beneficial to developing imagination. This is integral to History lessons also. They teach students how to properly analyse and authenticate historical sources then make reasoned arguments about their implications, all of which improve our imaginative capacity in key ways. Less obviously, writing music is another important aspect of intellectual, constructive imagination. Writing music requires us to merge analytical, intellectual thought processes with intuitive, imaginative ones. I think writing music also incorporates strategic, memory, emotional and even empathy imagination types too, so it is a process that really exercises a broad range of imaginary skills. 


3. Dreams

Images, ideas, and sensations that occur during certain stages of sleep

It’s difficult to quantify how we might use our dreams for any constructive purpose in education. After all, we cannot really control what we dream about.

We could learn how dreaming has affected innovation and invention over time. Many notable people have claimed dreaming has influenced their thinking. From Mendeleev’s periodic table, to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it seems creative breakthrough’s can come about through a combination of intense application of thoughts in waking stages, and restful dream states. 

Dreams is a popular topic in creative art projects and fiction writing. We could analyse the dreams we have had to think about how our brains constructs them. How are we able to juxtapose seemly disparate elements into frameworks we would never imagine possible in reality? How might we apply this to our own creative thinking? 


​4. Emotional Imagination 

Manifesting emotional dispositions and extending them into emotional scenarios.

Human beings are typically highly emotional creatures. We often think with our emotions in the form of biases. Biases (rightly or wrongly), tell us which things to favour over others and so, being able to rationalise and understand our various emotional states would be highly beneficial to our capacity to think clearly, make informed decisions and our well-being. We might study bias and how it affects our decision making. We could also study emotion and how emotion drives our thoughts and impulses. We might visualise ourselves making decisions under different emotional circumstances and see how that affects the outcome. Greater knowledge of how emotional tastes, preferences, fears and aversions affects us is surely of great significance. 


​5. Strategic Imagination

Vision of ‘what could be’

Strategic imagination is similar to effectuative imagination, but more idealistic. Think of world play, or creating imaginary scenarios utilising existing or known parameters. It doesn’t always have to be fanciful of course. Business studies teaches people how to transform an imaginary business concept into a workable, strategic plan. In geography, pupils might create their own civilisation, perhaps combining artistic and computing skills to create a dynamic model where social and geographic conditions alter, as in the real world. Pupils might also write a musical score for a play or a film. In art, they construct in-depth responses to starting points that express their thoughts and feelings about global and personal issues. In Science, they speculate on more fanciful possibilities, then hypothesise how these might be realised.


​6. Empathy Imagination

Know emotionally what others are experiencing

Obviously, this kind of imaginative behaviour is most suitable for constructing and maintaining successful relationships. We ask pupils to think in empathetic ways in PSHCE lessons, or during assemblies and it is an important factor in creating a good school behaviour environment. The more empathetic we are, the more likely it is that we have strong social relationships. We can learn skills of empathy through role-play and so drama and English are great subjects to develop this skill. Also, taking part in discussions, where we practice listening without interrupting and learning body language, can all help with the development of empathy. In lessons, group work, collaboration, and team work in PE are useful. Also relevant is Design, especially I think Design Technology, where students are expected to empathise with the needs of others in order to design solutions. Geography also springs to mind as a subject where being able to empathise with the needs of cultures and environments is paramount. 


​7. Fantasy Imagination

Stories, pictures, poems, stage-plays

The subjects that immediately spring to mind that utilises fantasy imagination is English and the creative arts. Clearly, reading books, writing stories, plays, music or poetry, and making pictures in art all great ways to develop fantasy imagination. But there are other, less obvious ways too. Being exposed to new, unconventional stimuli develops our imagination, as does looking at familiar things from new angles. Science lessons are great for this. They regularly interact with subjects in thought-provoking ways, stimulating questions and providing unique information and perspectives on the world. Computing may not at first seem a likely place to develop our imagination, but it is exactly what computer developers need in order to create new software, games and innovations that the genre requires. Playing computer games is a superb way of developing fantasy imagination. We learn this when we play with knowledge - what would have happened if…? What would it have looked like if…? What happens if we change a small component? Essentially, it’s when we apply knowledge to existing, future or novel scenarios.  


​8. Memory Reconstruction

Retrieving our memory of people, objects, and events

Retrieval practice has become so innate in education recently that it needs little justification about its importance. If we don’t recall it, can it be said that we even know it at all? Except, memory is fallible. My ability to recall information varies from day to day, even moment to moment when the pressure is applied. 

Rather than simply relying on quizzes or knowledge organisers, we could teach pupils a whole toolkit of mnemonic devices during PSHCE lessons or even in form time. They could learn how to remember, why forgetting is so important to us; we use something called intelligent-forgetting to help us prioritise only that information which is useful to the current situation. 

Drawing is also something that has a proven track record in helping us remember. Making non-skilled sketches and diagrams alongside our notes improves our recall better than any other mnemonic device. 


It’s clear then, that our imaginations grow and develop over time by the very nature of being exposed to, and interacting with, so much information. However, Dr Andrey Vyshedskiy, a neuroscientist from Boston University proposed that a genetic mutation in humans that occurred 70,000 years ago, led to recursive language and modern imagination. And he found that modern children who have not been exposed to full language in early childhood, never acquire the type of active constructive imagination essential for juxtaposition of mental objects, known as Prefrontal Synthesis (PFS). 

What I think we can glean from this is that imagination isn’t a foregone conclusion in us all. Some people seem to be more imaginative than others, which implies that imagination may be susceptible to environment, genetics and learning. As educators, we can’t affect home environment, upbringing or genetics, but we can affect learning. To be fair, I think we’re doing a decent job. Much of what we do already in education develops and shapes imaginative capacity in learners to an extent. But, I think we can do it better. 



Dr Murray Hunter University of Malaysia Perlis. 

Teach Thought  

Recursive language and modern imagination in humans, Dr Andrey Vyshedskiy 


Paul Carney Paul is a nationally recognised art & design consultant having delivered specialist art CPD in schools, colleges, galleries, and Universities across the UK and for the UK’s leading training providers. He is a former Council member for the NSEAD, which means he is involved in national art education policy issues.Paul is a published author of two books: Drawing for Science, Invention and Discovery and his latest book Drawing to learn anything. He is also a practicing professional artist and designer. Paul runs his highly successful art website: that provides high quality teaching resources and advice to teachers around the world. He has over twenty years teaching experience at Primary, Secondary and post-16 levels of education, is an Advanced Skills Teacher, ex-Subject Leader for Art and was a member of the DfE Expert Advisory Group for Art and Design. In addition to this he was a member of the NSEAD Curriculum Writing Group that wrote the 'Framework for Progression, Planning for Learning, Assessment, Recording and Reporting 2014.’ 

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