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Over the long weekend, my daughter and I finally finished the soapstone carving project that we started almost a year ago. We bought a kit that contained a block of stone cut out in a rough shape of an orca. It looked exactly as if it was done with a cookie-cutter. In fact, it was made by hand using a scroll saw. We talked to the sculptor, who made these kits. He said that it took he quite a bit of trial and error to find the right dimensions of the cutout. But once it was done, it was matter of rounding the edges and smoothing the surface to produce a rather neat carved figure of an orca. The success was practically guaranteed, and a 6-7 year-old kid could produce a carving in a matter of hours.

In our defence, the reason it took us so long was that we had to leave the figure unfinished while we went to Europe for most of the year. All that was left to be done was to wax and buff the surface. We used a hair dryer to heat the stone orca (it became so hot that I had to hold it with a towel!) and rubbed it with a piece of wax, which was also in the kit. When the stone cooled down, we buffed the surface with a piece of cloth.

I wonder if it is the key to a successful and enjoyable creative project for beginners in any field: having the most time-consuming part pre-completed (e.g. providing a pre-cut rough shape of a statue with correct proportions), while leaving some room for creativity in terms of small details and finishing touches.

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This principle worked in a similar way, when my wife and daughter baked chocolate muffins to celebrate our daughter’s birthday at school. Both enjoyed the baking, largely because they used a store-bought mix for the dough.

Probably, this idea of having the hard work done is behind the enduring popularity of colouring books. After all, the outline is already there, with the proportions and the composition taken care of. All that is left is to have fun colouring the details.

University students sometimes complain that the projects they are doing in the labs are “cookie-cutter experiments”, meaning that the outcomes are predetermined, and there is no element of scientific discovery in their work. Perhaps, the instructors, who design the projects, need to find a balance between guiding the students by having some of the preliminary work done beforehand, but allowing enough uncertainty in the remaining process to enable sometimes-surprising results.

Then again, at some point someone would have to learn how to do the entire project from scratch, starting from the metaphorical rough piece of stone and finishing with a polished sculpture. There is a great pleasure in creating your own paintings instead of colouring within the lines all the time.

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