This post is about the beginning.  That rich and exhilarating stage that precedes any creative output.

A seed has been planted, an idea has entered the scene and it’s hollering at a frequency that only the bearer of said seed can hear, “flush me out!” 

And though brainstorming what this precious seedling is gearing up to be feels like the beginning, there’s something that happens even before that. When we know full and well that a creative project is upon us, except it’s a vast, barren landscape that we’re staring off into.  Inside the void, we sense a deep well of everything that’s possible, which translates into a whole lot of diddly-squat. 

One of my personal creativity bibles is a book called, The Creative Habit written by the great choreographer, Twyla Tharp.

I’m going to let Twyla do the talking for a minute:

The first steps of a creative habit are like groping in the dark: random and chaotic, feverish and fearful, a lot of busy-ness with no apparent or definable end in sight.  There is nothing yet to research.  For me, these moments are not pretty.  I look like a desperate woman, tortured by the simple message thumping away in my head: “You need an idea.”  It’s not enough for me to walk into a studio and start dancing, hoping that something good will come of my aimless cavorting on the studio floor.  Creativity doesn’t generally work that way for me. (The rare times when it has stand out like April blizzards.)  You can’t just dance or paint or write or sculpt.  Those are just verbs.  You need a tangible idea to get you going.  The idea, however minuscule, is what turns the verb into a noun—paint into a painting, sculpt into sculpture, write into writing, dance into a dance.

And so she sets us up with this incredibly relatable experience – groping in darkness, desperately seeking that sparkly idea that will turn our verb into a noun. 

As I’m sure many of us can attest to, ideas aren’t always just casually kickin’ it, eager to be manifested.  Most of the time, we need to show the idea that we’re ready for it to enter us.  And so Twyla gifts us with a concept about how to move ideas from unseen realms into workable realizations, something she’s termed scratching.  Scratching is the way that artists intentionally set out to acquire new ideas. 

Twyla gives us some examples:

“A film director is scratching when she grabs a flight to Rome, trusting that she will get her next big idea in that inspiring city.  The act of changing your environment is the scratch.”

 “An architect is scratching when he walks through a rock quarry, studying the algebraic connections of fallen rocks or the surface of a rock wall, or the sweeping space of the quarry itself.  We see rocks; the architect sees space and feels texture and assesses building materials.  All this sensory input may yield an idea.”

Reading this stuff out of a book is cool and I’m so grateful to Twyla for providing us with this super useful framework. But because grabbing a flight to Rome for creative inspiration is a pretty far off reality for folks like me, I need to hear how this scratching stuff actually goes down for real people in my real life. 


My friend, Ariel Madrone, is launching her career as a fashion designer.  She's built a beautiful collection of wrapping jackets, crop tops, and sexy tunics that she debuted at the Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Commission’s yearly gala. She started designing clothes because, during her travels abroad, she was constantly moved by the native textiles of the regions and how they communicated stories of the people who made and wore them.  In terms of how she identifies as a designer, she describes herself as being motivated by the textiles more so than by the “fashion."

The textiles she used for this collection include vintage kimonos, luscious golden velvet, and bold, black and white striped linen. I had the fortunate opportunity to model one of her designs at the event, and my goodness.  I was utterly mystified; astonished by the way her vision became such a whole, authentic, and drop-dead gorgeous reality.  So I sat down with Ariel post-show to talk about how she scratched that one out. 

Ariel's mood board

Ariel's mood board

When I first introduced the topic of scratching to her, it took her a minute to formulate what that meant for her process, as it wasn’t something she felt she did consciously. When Ariel decided she was going to submit to the call for designers, there were some things required in her application that she initially felt resistance toward, but ended up paying off big time for her end product.  One such thing was a “mood board.”  She had never made a mood board before, a collection of visual clippings and inspirations. It was to her great luck that the day before she was assigned a mandatory mood board project, her boyfriend brought home a box of National Geographic magazines that he found on the side of the road.

So she flipped through those National Geos like a 1992 elementary school collage project and built herself that obligatory board -- before she went shopping for her material, before she envisioned any of her shapes and designs, and before she started her sketches.  The first image that really grabbed her was one of some Hasidic Jews and their black and white striped wrapping garments that hung down their backs.  (What did I wear at the show? A black and white striped wrapping garment that hung down my back). 

Then there was the picture of the deer — the inspiration behind her first creation: that figure-thriving, velvety golden dream-come-true of a dress.

Ariel's mood board and sketch integration

Ariel's mood board and sketch integration

How a picture of a deer becomes a super sexy dress is the magic of a creatively inspired mind, but without the image to serve as a launch-off point, all there is, well, is the void.  This is why scratching is so key and why knowing that that’s what we’re doing makes future idea-hatching feel potentially less desperate and threatening.  

Oh, I also asked Ariel how she scratched out those cornrows and amazing thick, blocky brows she had us all sporting.  She scratched that straight from her middle school days, from her predominantly Mexican girlfriends, in the predominantly Mexican hood she grew up in--back when Sacramento had a bit more cultural segregation.

Ariel in black surrounded by her creations.    Hairstylist: Shannon Ward   Makeup: Karina Martin, Ari Dee, Nicole Matta   Photographer: One Thirteen Photography

Ariel in black surrounded by her creations. 

Hairstylist: Shannon Ward

Makeup: Karina Martin, Ari Dee, Nicole Matta

Photographer: One Thirteen Photography

So obviously, you’re going to want to stay tuned in to Ariel Madrone.  She’s currently scratching out her next collection, a submission to Sacramento's Fashion Week.  I asked her if she’s going to make a mood board for her future projects. You better believe she is.

To get in touch with the lady behind the magic, email her at and like her page on Facebook to stay updated.

Would love to hear your about your scratch magic--do share in the comments!  

Scratch on.