Painting, fast and slow


Dear Artist,

More than a few of us report that our first inspiration to pick up a brush was Les Automatistes of Quebec or Kandinsky and Der Blaue Reiter. Fast, intuitive strokes invite access to a spontaneous and visceral creative experience — an appealing prompt. Others first fell under the spell of the carefully planned masterworks of Neoclassicism, the incremental chiseling of a hunk of marble or the specific strategy required by conceptual art that leaves the end fabrication to a team of minions. This slower system, set in stages with rules and requiring concentration, focus, observation and accuracy, may have felt the most natural. However, no matter the speed of your brush today, take comfort in knowing there’s room to wiggle between these two systems.


Untitled, 1981
oil painting
Marcelle Ferron (1924-2001)

Studies show that “fast,” whether or not obvious in your work, is doing most of the heavy lifting. Let me explain. In his 2012 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, behavioural economist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman summarizes his life’s work on thought. Part of this focus is on “cognitive bias” — those unconscious irrationalities that colour and distort our view of the world, our life choices, tolerance for risk, optimism, wellbeing and happiness. By dividing thought into two systems — fast, intuitive and emotional or slow, measured and deliberate — Kahneman, through multiple decades of research, confirms that people are fundamentally irrational. Our “fast brain” — the one that can pick up on hostility or warmth or complete the sentence, “Bread and ______” — is pretty much running the show, except for when we’re doing our taxes and a few other things. As the cognitively biased, we do things like overestimate our ability to be objective, appreciate the familiar or let our environment make our decisions for us, all the while believing we’re rational and in control.


“Composition” 1950
oil painting
Paul-Emile Borduas (1905-1960)

One of Kahneman’s biggest revelations is that we — all of us — are skewed by a pervasive optimism that’s been hard-wired into our species through adaptive evolution. Turns out, our brains are prone to laziness, and analyzing things is exhausting. According to his research, it’s easier for us to go with our mind’s dirty draft of reality in an attempt to direct our own destiny with this “truth,” rather than face life knowing we’re but a pawn of chance and cloudy judgment. Why do I bring this up? Not only is this optimism bias helping us get out of bed, I’m convinced it’s what creates artists.


“Virgin Forest” 1948
oil painting 
Marcel Barbeau (1925-2016)

And while we’ve been painting and thinking fast and ignoring doubt, a lackluster bank balance or cliff edge, Kahneman, through a multitude of experiments, has inched closer to understanding and defining happiness, or what he calls “the complexities of well-being.” He’s divided the self into two distinct modes: the first, an “experiencing self” who lives in the present, moment to moment. The second is a “remembering self,” a storyteller who constructs an illusion of reality through the filtered lens of remembered experience. She’s the one who keeps score, measures quality and satisfaction and maintains the story of her life — like the fast brain, she’s running the show. Because she’s remembering and not experiencing, she forms her opinions based on the most critical parts of the remembered experience — during changes or at the end. If a painting is going very poorly for a very long time, but a breakthrough occurs and the painting ends up a success, the remembering self will draft a story about a love of painting. In the case of Kahneman’s test subjects, it was a lengthy colonoscopy with marked spikes in pain followed by a mellow denoument that was ultimately remembered as not so bad. Are you still with me?

One last thing: When we’re engrossed in an activity (say, painting) experiencing what artists know as “flow,” brain scans have shown that not only do the parts of our brain associated with the experiencing self go merely quiet, they’re actually shut down, or “inhibited” by the rest of the brain. So much for “being in the moment.” And so, who is doing my painting? Will I remember myself doing it? Or will I merely compose a memory out of snippets of the highlights to consume later — the breakthroughs — and how it turned out in the end?


“Squall” 1956
oil painting
Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923-2002)



PS: “I have always believed that scientific research is another domain where a form of optimism is essential to success: I have yet to meet a successful scientist who lacks the ability to exaggerate the importance of what he or she is doing, and I believe that someone who lacks a delusional sense of significance will wilt in the face of repeated experiences of multiple small failures and rare successes, the fate of most researchers.” (Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow)

Esoterica: If you’re feeling uncomfortable about acquiescing to your “fast brain,” remember the “planning fallacy,” whereby we irrationals — all of us — are prone to overestimate benefits and underestimate costs, which allows us to foolishly take on risky projects like art. (Americans remodelling their kitchens underestimate the cost on average by $20,000, for example.) Optimists are more psychologically resilient, have stronger immune systems and live on average longer than their more based-in-reality counterparts. And optimism protects us from the paralyzing effects of another bias, “loss aversion”: our fear of losing more than we value as gains. “Odd as it may seem,” Kahneman writes, “I am my remembering self, and the experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.”


Download the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“Happiness is determined by factors like your health, your family relationships and friendships, and above all by feeling that you are in control of how you spend your time.” (Daniel Kahneman)



  1. Ole Pathfinder on

    Interesting to think on a bit, but possibly over thinking the matter. The lazy point is precisely on point. On my part, the fast brain is necessary as, if I think too long or attempt to think to deeply, I simply move on to another interest. My memories do color what I see.and, In addition, I am at an age where much of the world out there is a blur and I prefer the clearer images of my best memories and that is probably what appears most often in my humble efforts. And, P.S. , what ever and however, I am quite happy.

  2. I got around ‘fast and slow’ this way: seize the moment but then put it away if it gets hung up and come back to it – even a break of a few minutes often does it …in other cases, I put it away for weeks , months or years….at worst, it makes a smashing book jacket for my library or chopped up into fundraising bookmarks.

    re” our brains are prone to laziness, and analyzing things is exhausting.” that is why we MUST analyze – and some CAN and some never will. But it is like working out – a strain for minute , but then later, everything works a bit better because of it – taking the time to conscientiously analyze makes the fast AND slow brain more responsive later.

    Also: the thing about colonscopy would better be communicated with the experience of childbirth – less gross. :-D And more fun later….happy mothers day to all daughters and mothers!

  3. As a mother, thanks Elle. Presuming the colonoscopy reference equates no gender bias? In any case, a painting is a journey for me, so at times painful and in the end hopefully something I am happy with :). I particularly like the mention of experiencing flow and ‘so much for being in the moment’ lol, love it. Thanks Sara

  4. Thanks for yet another good read… and well timed for my purposes! I needed to hear some validation for “taking comfort in knowing there’s room to wiggle between the two systems..” of fast/intuitive and slow/deliberate. Whenever my artwork lacks a balance of the two, it shows up as problematic in respective areas of art elements/principles inadequacies or lacking in life energy. It seems a real balancing act must be struck between the two “systems”… all along the art process, even at the first step of conception and preliminary sketches!

  5. Another brilliant post! That’s so true…all those times I was in the flow…who was that woman? I can’t remember… Utterly fascinating. Now I must go put up my easel and do some experimental self-portraits…who will I see in the glass? Heaven only knows! Fast brain…slow brain… Either way whatever appears on the paper I shall convince myself I look good. Optimism…a much appreciated mind set. :)

  6. “Turns out, our brains are prone to laziness, and analyzing things is exhausting.” It’s always been that way with me: first I have the image, analyzing it comes later, and you’re probably right, Sara, that this optimism of the moment is what allows us to be artists. I have said for a long time that the creative process is mostly unconscious. And you’re right, what rational person would “foolishly take on risky projects like art.”

    But now, for the first time, I’m seeing the dark underbelly of this optimistic avoidance of analysis in the world outside the studio. We’re on the crest of global ecological disaster, a wave soon to break, and yet we continue merrily on as usual, pumping our CO2 and methane into the atmosphere, making the planet into a deadly greenhouse and poisoning the oceans. It’s ironic and distressing to think that that which makes us creative also makes us self-destructive.

    • Odd to call painting risky…it is only paint and canvas afterall…what could hurt. Anything you do someone will like and another not like…so wheres the risk?

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Candace studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Angers, France but it is her travels in the deserts of Africa and Oman, Antarctica and the Arctic, and sacred sights of Machu Picchu and Petra that serve as her true place of learning. A desire to combine these experiences with a deeper understanding of her own spirituality has provided the underlying focus and inspiration for her paintings.

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