Back in 1978 Colin Martindale of The University of Maine put some electrodes on some students’ heads and made an art-shaking discovery. Subjects were asked to create stories while the electroencephalogram recorded their brain waves. Creativity, he found, had two main stages — with vastly different types of waves. He called the two stages “inspiration” and “elaboration.” While stories were being dreamed up, brains were surprisingly quiet — mostly alpha waves indicating a low level of cortical arousal. It was the same sort of activity that’s often found in sleep, dreaming or rest — which could explain why sleep and relaxation can help people to be creative.
However, when these quiet-minded people were asked to “work on their stories” their brains became suddenly busier — flashing messages back and forth between lobes. Vastly more connectivity, focus, corralling and organization appeared to be going on. Martindale found that the people who had the most creative storylines also showed the greatest contrast between the two types of brain activities.
Many creative folks know about this. But it’s been my observation that about 20% of artists never get into the second stage at all. Without this cortical shift they short-change themselves. The question becomes how to set yourself up to enter the high-buzz mode. Here are a few parallel, creativity-rich modes that might surprise you:
Lackadaisical boredom mode
Sublimated anger mode
Dreamy love mode
Relaxed time-off mode
Automatic joy mode
Careless abandon mode
It’s in this “abandon” mode that you can actually feel the brain change. Your tools quicken and they begin to run the show. The mind seems to think ahead, or giddily moves somewhere else. Some artists need a small change of location or posture to go into this elaboration stage. It may also take a trigger — music, memory, pressure, subconscious lapse. Or it may simply happen when the first mode has gone on long enough to play out and let the high-buzz mode begin. Ideally, as in a hybrid vehicle, the power is constantly shifting back and forth to whatever is appropriate and needed at the time.
PS: “Less-creative people can’t shift gears. Very creative people move between these two states intuitively.” (Guy Claxton, psychologist, University of Bristol, UK)
Esoterica: Artists who try to monitor their high-buzz modes often report going into overdrive when the work itself really starts to engage and to win them over. Getting further interested and getting excited replaces the more calculated and cerebral preparatory period. Martindale was one of the first to locate high-buzz creative action on the right side of the brain. He was also one of the first to notice that the most inventive creativity happens when both sides interact freely.
Creativity by doing nothing
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA
I’ve got a show opening Friday. I’ve had a month since I got back from Thailand to paint, but really didn’t start working on the actual paintings till last Wednesday. Oh, I looked through my photos and video, prepared the canvases, etc., but to a casual observer it might look like I’ve been doing nothing. I can’t explain the ‘doing nothing’ part of my process, but it seems to be an unavoidable part of how I do what I do. It feels pretty good, though. Momentum builds. Now the paintings are just flowing out, effortless and really good. I can’t wait till the show!
Accessing the Universal Mind
by Joy Gush, New York, NY, USA
This is an interesting explanation of what I have been calling “meditation” early in the mornings when I sit quietly, or with music I love from the past, and just let my mind wander as to what to do in the present day. Ideas — and guidance as to how to accomplish them — fill my thinking. Can the spirits of my old teachers now see where all these ideas come from? How does it happen that I open a book at random and read a page that is in direct answer to a question? How is it that a person steps into my life to help me who seems recognizable? Is it from another life? We are told the mind is not the brain. So where is mind? Or Mind?
Let yourself go
by Suzanne Partridge, Street, UK
Creativity only really needs one outlet at a time. Let yourself go and realize there are no rules to creativity, or to any form of self expression. There are no rules; we each have our own mind and way of working. Do exactly what you feel at the time. Don’t try to recreate something you’ve done before. Challenge yourself constantly. Sod the house, sod preconceptions, and let yourself go.
Looking for the mode
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA
I’ve been really High-Buzz lately… and in a “Sublimated anger mode” over the political scene in America which has rendered me apoplectic one minute by the insanity and ballistic the next over the body count. My love life is all bollixed up so I haven’t felt that wonderful “Dreamy love mode” in awhile, nor that wonderful “Careless abandon mode” either. Would somebody please disconnect the jumper cables before my brain goes into “Deadline mode.”
Usually objects spark my imagination to do a still life (that’s why I like flea markets) and now that you mention it, I do go into a very quiet Zen moment that Buddha would envy as the metaphorical power of the object hits me. Then there’s a flash of joy — I think I’m brilliant even if the idea is a total dud — and I visualize a painting in that moment. After that, it’s 99% labor. Naturally as I paint there are strokes of genius 1% of the time.
Thinking while not thinking
by Scott Pynn, St. John, NB, Canada
Isn’t it amazing that the brain never shuts off. I have always been fond of a good night sleep but perhaps for different reasons than many people. A good night sleep for me is one that is not only rich in pleasant dreams but also full of strange nightmares that rouse me from my slumber. It’s when you wake in the middle of the night that those shadowy images are burned into your memory and accessible in the morning. When you really examine your nightmares it becomes possible to separate the imagery from the irrational emotions such as terror and dread that accompanied them the night before. What you are left with is some truly amazing, sometimes bizarre, but almost always beautiful pictures in your head. Where did these pictures come from when your brain is apparently resting? Even when you think you’re not thinking, you are thinking.
Go with the process
by Sandra Davison, Lansing, MI, USA
It seems that the objectives get so much easier when we simply put ourselves in one of the two stages every time we go to the studio. I think it also connects very well with a topic recently discussed in your letter — and is reflected in the list of recommended states. Resistance ceases when I stop focusing on the produce and go totally into the process… brain fermentation, staring out the window at the light on the house next door, trusting the inner witness to be collecting for the next product. When I photographed professionally, I learned that “sketching with the camera” was a huge part of the process — it was that fermentation stuff. Now, painting plein air mostly, I let my heart connect to the life force in nature and send my thinking/ trying/ working brain “elsewhere” as support staff for my task.
Confessions of a horizontal thinker
by Marty Gibson, Scottsdale, AZ, USA
I’ve always known my most creative mode occurred in the bathtub. As a graphic designer for many years I always threatened to install a tub in my office with a big wrap-around curtain. It would be elevated on a platform with chairs arranged around the base. When having a client conference I could be in the tub, the clients in their chairs. I could yell “I’ve got it!” when the muse finally arrived. I’ve never been one of those who thought best on their feet. Me? I’m a horizontal thinker. I also treasure those minutes after first awakening. Not ready to jump out of bed, I cogitate on my life and art. Then the second mode you speak of takes hold and it’s frequently what springs me from the bed. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve painted in my nightgown!
Repeating the cycle
by Jim LeSire, San Diego, CA, USA
I find that the problem-solving technique in which the mind is first fully immersed in the problem, then saturated to the point of inactivity or “failure” followed by a period of rest, after which the solution presents itself complete out of absolutely nowhere, also works for creative story-writing. Nice thing about it is that the cycle can be repeated many times while the story works itself toward resolution. Writer’s block becomes little more than a period of rest, waiting.
High buzz in the evening
by Nancy O’Toole
Mornings used to be my best painting time, but lately I often go into “High Buzz mode” after puttering around the house doing boring housework. It seems that I need to build up to that mode and then let her fly! The problem is that I am in a real buzz just about dinner time! Thanks to a great husband who peels potatoes (he’s Irish), is happy with leftovers and waits to have a late 9 or 10 o’clock dinner (or goes ahead and eats without me), that I am able to keep painting till the buzz runs its course.
Joy decreases, labour increases
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Coquitlam, BC, Canada
I have noticed that I feel an enormous joy while I am roughing-in the shapes using sketchy lines with diluted brownish paint, directly on the imprimatura. At that stage I am imagining how the finished painting may look. I assume that my brain is then in the creative state. I still feel joy when I put in the mid-lights on the top of the drawing and imprimatura, but from that point on, the level of joy decreases, and the level of “labour” rises. By the time the entire canvas is covered, I wish with all my heart that I can just stop and call it a finished work. Unfortunately I can’t while I feel that the contrast and colors are not to the full. I guess my brain resents having to go back to the elaboration mode, and analyze what needs to be done.
Artist needs economic stability
by John Mix, Mt. Horeb, WI, USA
I recently hit the 20-year anniversary of my decision to pursue art as seriously as finances would permit. I was 36 then, raising a family, and working on a marriage. I’ve lived the struggling artist mythology during many of those years and the failures have shaped me as much as the successes (murals, sculptures, paintings). I feel like I am at a threshold of decision-making. I want to erase the debt I carry (helping my kids with college, plus credit cards). Part of me imagines parking art in the background (study, practice, workshops etc. — not relying on it for income) while I find something else that can erase the debt and produce a savings to re-launch my art career with some solid financial support. House painting has been the drop-back-and-punt for cash flow all these years, and mural commissions have come out of those occasionally. You can hear my fatigue with my old approach. It is souring my art spirit and yet I know the phoenix will arise someday. I have very part-time work now that I enjoy — art therapy with people at a drug and alcohol treatment center. I moved from the suburbs to rural Wisconsin to live more simply — and the landscape painting is more to my liking here. I just want to crack the financial “nut” and still have a life I enjoy. “We live in a description of reality” is my favorite quote of all time (Jean Houston) and I know I have the power to change my circumstances. I’ve had 10 studios in the past 12 years. I realize my itinerant lifestyle has not helped my art marketing and pricing.
(RG note) Thanks John. Itinerant or not, solvency is not a matter of income, it’s a matter of temperament. The idea is to curtail spending at any stage. It is never too late to set up a plan to “pay yourself first” — a regular amount into an enforced savings plan — mutual funds or other steady growth vehicle. Disappointing at the beginning, a nest egg compounds over time into a fine cushion so that the artist can get on with daily creative self-indulgence, and, if desired, itinerancy.
More buzz-modes to live by
by Faith Puleston, Wetter, Germany
Your modes ring a bell, particularly the deadline one, which is my personal unfavorite but probably the most productive. But I have a few more which help me to get my act together — sometimes:
The it can only get better mode (that particular painting is either doomed or redeemed by the subcutaneous “magic eye”)
The multiple tasking mode (thinking about other tasks — those boring and therefore neglected — while wielding the paintbrush thankfully)
The giving the left brain a rest mode (stop reasoning and discussing what’s going on there on the easel)
The Desperate Dan mode (usually involves turning the painting round 90° at a time — yes, even if it’s trees and houses!)
The leave it till tomorrow mode (exoneration from all evil, including the half-baked work in progress)
The escapist mode (while I’m painting I don’t have to do anything else)
The so what did you do today mode (reminds me that I already wasted enough hours for one day — can but does not necessarily induce creativity, but gets the brushes cleaned!)
The what does it matter anyway mode (which aids frivolity and reminds me that I make all the choices in my paintings — even and especially the bad ones)
The last of those gives me the most food for thought. I has taken me a long time to stop caring about what other people think about my stuff, which went as far as my destroying paintings which got a “bad review.”
Ideas of the ‘influence group’
by Jeanita Ives, Springfield, MO, USA
Now I know how to sell my art… I need about a half dozen people to stand around and socialize about my photos… an influence group. I have always observed this phenomenon… especially in the youth who are so keen on “being popular” whatever that is. And I have often thought that if Archer sat in the Bulldog Restaurant at the tables near where my photos hung and actually talked to others about how well they are selling… that they would probably disappear off the walls, just like Andy Warhol’s.
(RG note) Thanks Jeanita. One of the best ways to efficiently begin to build an influence group is to go online. A good way to get a quick art-site education is to go to our own art directory and click through to a variety of artists’ sites. There are some really effective sites accessed from our listings. The ideal is high connectivity, hot to search engines, tasteful presentation, easy navigation, and straight to the information and illustrations that people may be looking for. Under no circumstances should art sites have things that blink, rotate, evolve, pop or flash at people. Even peripherally, this has proven to be highly distracting and a trigger of migraines — more than 50% of visitors simply click elsewhere. Art is frequently calm and contemplative. Your restaurant should be a sanctuary.
Poke in the eye for wall-eyed model
by Star Galler, Sugar Loaf, NY, USA
I am working on an oil on canvas. I generally do a very detailed under-drawing in pencil, but I was having issues with one eye (the model is wall-eyed and even when things looked right — they looked wrong.) I kept reworking the eye so much that in one section the gesso wore down to the canvas and there is a hole where the pencil poked through. The area is done and I want to paint but I fear that the area will be compromised. It is very tiny — the hole can’t be seen and the area with thin gesso is maybe 1/4 inch. I wonder though if I should take preventative measures now before I paint — or will the paint just seal the spot anyway? I don’t want to incur any frays of larger tears from the weak spot. It’s Linen by the way — an ARTFX canvas primed really heavily.
(RG note) Thanks Star. While a dab of gesso will hide your sins, a penetrating soak in acrylic medium may help to strengthen the spot. But all the time I was reading this I was saying to myself, no, no, don’t use a pencil. A pencil is too sharp a thing to be laying out an oil. Try charcoal or at least Conte crayon. You’ll stand a better chance of getting that eye right when you come to paint it.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.
That includes Maggie Parker of Middlesbrough, UK who wrote, “I have created a meditative computer game and am just going into the empirical testing stage and will be using biofeedback — brain wave analysis equipment to test whether people can go into a relaxed state while playing a computer game.”
And also Steve Hovland of California, USA who wrote, “How to shift gears to high buzz? Pick up your brush, dip it in paint, make a stroke. Repeat. How you feel doesn’t matter. You just work. And you produce.”
And also Fran Deagle of Pocatello, ID who wrote, “I read one time that if you want to put your right brain into ‘high gear,’ that you should squeeze a tennis ball with your left hand. Has anyone ever heard of this?”
And also Debbie Lambert of New Zealand who wrote, “As one of a group of friends and artists, we get away for weekends to paint plein air in amazing places. We stay in Shearer’s Quarters for $20 (N.Z) per night and take our own food and bedding. It’s hard to pack up the cars and head home.”
And also Duncan Long who wrote, “You get ‘High-Buzz’ by putting elbow grease into your creation.”
And also Patty Grau who wrote, “Pot and coke work too.”