Recent research, aimed at finding specific triggers that result in good ideas, better solutions and bouts of creativity, has confirmed my own favourite times when stuff happens. Here are a few:
When we step away: Focusing at your workstation doesn’t always work, particularly if you do too much of it. Leave your cubicle or studio and step into a new environment. Great stuff is ready to grab out there, floating in the ether.
When we’re in transition: Waking up, falling asleep, showering, tubbing or going to the bathroom are hot times for new ideas. We need to trust the possibilities of fleeting brain waves at these times and take the trouble to knock them down for further study.
When we’re drinking: Moderate drinking gives confidence and gusto. A 2012 study at the University of Illinois at Chicago found that students who drank enough to raise their blood-alcohol level to 0.075 performed better on tests of insight than sober students.
When we’re doing chores: This may be one of the reasons why so many artists prefer to have their studios at home. I absolutely don’t want this sort of information passed around, but I personally find stimulation in washing cars, taking out the garbage, and helping our gardener move bags of manure.
When we’re satisfied: A relatively fulfilled life calms the mind and enriches the ground for idea growth. I’ve tried frustration, anger, disappointment, tiredness and misery, and they all work to a degree, but joyous satisfaction and a sense of élan work best.
When we’re daydreaming: It turns out that daydreaming is one of the most valuable things that creative people do. Even the fantasizing of chicks that bedevils a lot of men apparently hastens bubble-up ideas from the subconscious that have nothing to do with women. What women need to fantasize, I’m not sure.
When we see green: Green surroundings, whether green-painted walls or the green outdoors, suggest new growth, rebirth, fertility and renewal–just one of the reasons why a walk in the park can be so fruitful. Feeling non-creative in the studio? Squeeze out some green.
PS: “When students were given creativity tests, those whose test-cover pages had a green background gave more creative answers than those whose pages were white, blue, red or grey.” (Sue Shellenbarger, reporting in the Wall Street Journal)
Esoterica: Personal and unique fetishes can be useful as well. For a steady flow of creativity, easel-time foot-massage has been recommended, as has military marching music played loudly. I notice slight rises when I consult or share minor triumphs with Dorothy the Airedale. She is non-confrontational, always eager, never critical, and I know she’s quite fond of me. Sometimes she likes my creativity so much she sleeps on it. In other words, she’s a low-maintenance muse. ‘Scuse me, she just came in, and now she wants out.
Teenage students answer the question
by Dennis Potter, Hsinchu, Taiwan
I have taught Art in Middle and High school for almost 30 years (I am now “retired” or taking a break). I have taken this poll for most of those years.
Question: When do you get your best art ideas?
Answers: (surprisingly consistent)
1. Sleeping, half asleep, dreaming, napping
2. Bathroom activities, mainly showering.
3. Practicing. Sports, piano, dance, etc.
4. Riding in the car, especially long distances. (These are kids too young to drive.)
5. Math class
I’ve had lots of wonderful exceptions and variations and wish I could remember some of them. Like getting your hair cut. But, there was a huge majority that agreed on the above, with surprise and delight that no one said “in art class” ever!
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Key: Kill left side of brain
by Norman Ridenour, Prague, Czech Republic
The key is to kill the left side of the brain that Western society tells us is all important. Dreaming is right-brained; so exactly falling asleep, waking or even rolling over at 2:00 am will let the door open to right brain activity. Meditation works as well. For me, travel works, new things to see, smell (highly overlooked sense), taste. Even a new part of Prague where I have not been for a year or so sharpens perception.
I teach a course titled Art History, but it really is Visual Perception. The students are business majors, mostly non-Western and a majority Moslem (no images in the culture). One student project is to take at least a dozen photos of things in the environment/ surroundings which is art but not in a gallery or museum. Then use them to make a class presentation and explain why they are art. In Prague it is not a challenge but they just do not perceive door handles, doors, hand forged gates, stained glass windows, mosaic brick walls or paving, ornate gate arches. In the end I get some really good presentations, but I often have to push even after showing some of my shots. I get some really remarkable results.
Value of the mundane
by Len Boyd, Halifax, NS, Canada
I find that the best remedy for a frustrating episode of ‘painter’s cabin fever’ is to go downstairs into our garage and punch away a few rounds on the old Everlast heavy punch bag to relieve tension, followed by a nice car ride down picturesque St. Margaret’s Bay Road and witness the ocean’s gentle, undulating waves as they kiss the aged rocky shores. A short stop at Tim Horton’s for coffee on my way home is a nice conclusion to this well deserved getaway. Sometimes staring at the simplest, mundane things can trigger a bout of instant creativity — things like watching the way the milk dissolves into a tall mug of coffee, exploring its patterns and form. I often sit on a rock next to the ocean’s surf and watch the true mechanics of a wave, how it starts, folds over itself, splashes down and finally dissipates into the sandy shore.
Finding a creative solution
by Brenda Behr, Goldsboro, NC, USA
Before I was a full time painter, I was a full time idea generator. In a past life in Minneapolis, I was an art director in the crazy industry we call advertising. In advertising done right, like the wonderful ad commercials we love during the Super Bowl, Idea is King. Here’s what I find works.
Finding a creative solution is much like making a wonderful stew. Put every ingredient into the pot that even remotely relates to that stew. Lastly, add your creative juices and a prayer. Put the pot on a burner set on low to simmer indefinitely. Walk away from it, go to bed, take a shower, watch TV, whatever. Essentially, forget about it. When the stew is done, like a whistling tea kettle, it will let you know. It will whistle loud and clear with, most often, a brilliant solution. Like looking for a lost object — when you stop looking for it, it will magically appear. Great ideas are the product of our subconscious mind.
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The power of interaction
by Blair Pessemier, Paris, France
Albert Einstein was 8 years old when he was caught acting up in class. As a punishment, the teacher gave him the task of adding all numbers from one to one hundred. In less than two seconds, he announced the answer: 5,050. Einstein had realized there were 50 pairs of numbers that added to 101 (one and one hundred, two and ninety-nine, three and ninety-eight, etc.).
The trick to creativity is to constantly look at things in new ways. Einstein described “insanity” as doing the same task over and over, while expecting the result to change.
Technology sticks us in a rut. To view things differently, we need to be in contact with the world outside ourselves. Contact with nature and others forces us to be surprised and to look at things differently. Creativity is not about marketing labels or company slogans. These are things that tie you to old patterns of thought. More and more interaction gives you new ways to view familiar subjects. The result is growth, and appreciation of the universe we share.
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Playing with paints
by Terrie Christian, Plymouth, MN, USA
My favorite way of initiating creativity is when I allow myself just to “play” with paint. I begin with a wet paper and charge in colors that “speak” to me from my palette at that moment. I may sometimes tilt the paper so that they run together. Just watching them merge together in their own patterns that I have not pre-ordained gets my play gene happy. After they are dry, I take a sharpie marker and choose places to darken with no plan in mind. I tend to think plans get in the way of creativity! After I have done this, often some representational thing emerges when I look at the whole painting. In process, I do not concentrate on the whole, but the area that I am working on. Mostly I allow where the colors went to guide my pen. When my eye finds something representational (if it does) then I enhance that thing I see. Having started out with classical realism, ending up in this more abstract preference is a stunning thing. Now I find the realism a bit boring most of the time. I say playing with paints charges the creative battery! In the case of “Guitar” the only enhancement that I made was slight broken line indicating strings.
Recording ideas before they vanish
by Beaman Cole, NH, USA
In my experience creative ideas come and then disappear into the ether unless they are somehow recorded. In my career I have maintained a 9×12 sketchbook as my near constant companion. I think of it as a sketchbook and journal. I use it to record every single creative idea I get. At the top of my page I write the word, “IDEA” followed by a brief written description. Under this are sketches of the idea in pen, pencil or colored pencil, if I feel color notes are needed. If ever I need a creative spark, my sketchbooks are full of them in addition to many other sketches. Several times a year I find myself recording ideas in the middle of the night, for I’ve found that if I don’t they are gone from my memory by morning.
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A writer’s method
by Cindy Matthews, Waterloo, ON, Canada
After a long walk with my dog, I often hit my in-home studio. There, I have a Lazy Boy lounger on which I recline to brainstorm and daydream. From that perch I can view my writing and art areas. Words of inspiration dot the walls around me. I can often be found with a pencil or Sharpie, sketching ideas that arise from letting my mind wander. Those ideas can inform my art or my writing or both. I truly believe that the walks in nature and the reflection time are key. So true that ideas often spring out and up during the most mundane of tasks such as vacuuming, spreading manure or yanking weeds from a garden.
The medium of pets
by Kat Corrigan, Minneapolis, MN, USA
I find green to be incredibly inspiring, and will often wear it in the dull greys of winter just for a punch of energy! Of course, the dog inspires creativity as well, and when I can’t seem to come up with a reasonable excuse to get out of the house by myself, I can always use Gus as my excuse — he won’t hesitate to demonstrate his need for a walk. As I trot along behind his robustly wagging hindquarters, I find myself slipping into the non-thinking thinking that leads to my best ideas. Just letting my eyes wander around, especially now, as the snow melts into the muddy slush and the green bits of things find their way to the surface, there is so much for a painter to see! The clouds, the rain, those greys always seem to intensify the greens and make them reverberate with the life being flushed through them.
And I can lay all this creativity at the feet of my dog who has caused me to start a couple of annual daily painting projects. I love to paint animals, but thought they weren’t ever going to be taken seriously and so attempted abstraction (which I still feel compelled to explore) and landscapes, with skies, wires and trees. I love shapes and spaces, and finally realized I like to translate those through the medium of dog, most particularly their hind ends and haunches. Fortunately, I have also discovered that many people love their pets, too, and so I started doing “30 in 30” Projects in 2010, asking people for photos of their pets, not expecting to sell many. I just wanted outside pressure to force me to work — much like Gus forces me to walk, or at least provides that excuse I somehow find necessary. I think that is part of being a woman sometimes, a feeling of needing to justify taking time for yourself. At any rate, I know I need deadlines and external deadlines and have figured out a way to make this work for me! So, this will be my fourth July of painting one dog a day, and I just completed my third annual March project of painting one cat per day, and have the Opening Party this weekend.
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Alta Lake Marsh
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Susan Perez of Surrey, BC, Canada, who wrote, “I think it works both ways. Even the fantasizing of cats that bedevils a lot of women could hasten bubble-up ideas from the subconscious that have nothing to do with men.”