What’s good for the heart is good for the brain. As you walk, three main types of thought appear: Practical. Creative. Observational. Practical, like “It’s a long time since the studio curtains were laundered,” sets up mundane priorities and must-do lists. Creative, like “Why not try more complexity?” gives fresh insight, answers problems and lays the foundation for what happens next. Observational, like “Wood ducks have arrived at the pond,” brings the gentle leavening of the passing parade.
With practice, you can rebalance the three main types of thought to your own needs. My idea has been to get attainable creative benefits. A slight uphill grade right out of the studio can get things going right away. Typically, the creative zone kicks in after a few minutes. Other practitioners tell me that city walks don’t work as well as countryside or parkland. Further, walking with a talkative person can derail private thought. If you must go with a friend, take a four-legged, mute one.
When your studio work comes to a block or a problem, you need to put down your brush or send your laptop into sleep mode, and grab your hat. If you walk briskly, blood will soon be checking out the remote corners of your cortex. As if you are in the company of a miraculous goddess, blessed answers materialize like gifts.
I’ve noticed that fresh ideas know no geographic spot. They merely appear, are there, and can go in a moment. A notebook or a recording device may be necessary to catch the stuff, particularly on longer walks. The sort of sticks that pole-walkers use are a good place to attach a notebook. For those who can’t resist creative pauses, there are monopods with camera attachments. Saves bumping on the chest. Another system for idea retention is to repeat your new wisdom out loud. For many folks, several times is enough.
Consider walking familiar ground at night. It’s the lack of view that gets the wheels turning. “Nothing like a nighttime stroll to give you ideas,” says Mad-Eye Moody in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Fact is, some of the stuff we do may appear to be quite mad. It’s not mad at all. It’s all in the service of getting the very utmost from our creative selves.
PS: “The moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow.” (Henry David Thoreau) “Going out for a walk, I really found I was going in.” (John Muir) “Angels whisper when we walk.” (Raymond Inmon)
Esoterica: Before your thought walk, spend a few minutes reviewing several half-finished or stalled works. You have to burn them into the brain and take honest stock of their problems. Quickly leave the studio. Decisiveness, courage, audacity and perfectly reasonable solutions you weren’t able to see before, come to those who walk with the goddess.
Talking to yourself
by Edward Vincent, Sydney, Australia
Whenever you see someone on a mobile phone, if they’re not constrained, they’ll not stand still whilst talking; they’ll pace up and down, and the more intense the conversation, the more active will be the pacing. There seems to be a direct connection between the brain and the action of walking. Personally I find the old brain really swings into discussion mode when walking, especially at night. It’s as though it likes to be regarded as a separate entity; an entity with which a conversation can take place, where ideas can be exchanged. It’s only whilst walking that I’ve ever experienced this sense of “the brain and I,” where thoughts, ideas, discussions can take place with free abandon. Often the outcomes have been enlightening. It takes a little practice (talking to yourself), but if you can let it happen, it’s a clarifying and refreshing experience.
Dancing after heart surgery
by Gordon Sharp, Northumberland, UK
Walking meditation is of course a central part of many spiritual practices including Christianity and Buddhism. There is also a core shamanic practice involving walking known as “The walk of attention” but it’s always good to be reminded of the power and positive effect of this most basic of human activities. About a year ago I was very ill with major heart disease (a long and ongoing story that reflects in the name and work of my performance company Heart Performance CIC) and this time last year I could only walk a few meters at a time. Since having heart surgery almost exactly a year ago to the day I am now able to walk, run and dance again. Each time I step out the door and walk towards the beach (I’m lucky enough to live in a beautiful part of Northumberland near the wild North sea) or around a city centre I remind myself of how blessed I am to be able to move one foot in front of the other and open my eyes to whatever is around me.
Walking to drain the brain
by Angela Lynch, Toronto, ON, Canada
With me it’s all about draining everything going on in my head. Usually it takes a 5 or 6 km walk to do it, and when finished, I can look at my painting sitting on the easel with a completely fresh, unencumbered approach. The answer to a problem jumps out at me and I wonder why I didn’t see it before. Sometimes no answer comes forth but that doesn’t mean I should get out the scissors; it just means another walk is required. I am definitely the observational type, sub-consciously picking up information along my route. Dumping out what I don’t want or need and taking in new and fresh. Suburbia has its distractions for my “zoning out” but as with anything, find your way and work it.
Burchfield the pioneer walker
by Melanie Peter, Gainesville, FL, USA
I’m re-reading my cherished Charles Burchfield’s Journals, The Poetry of Place (J. Benjamin Townsend, ed., State University of New York Press, 1993). Burchfield must have walked a million miles in his lifetime. I feel sweet, sad envy of his day-long sketching walks; so many things have changed. For him the world was not fenced, “posted,” and dog-protected. He spent a lifetime exploring fields, valleys, woodlands and cities. He took trains, trolleys, and after 1934 his own car, but even then wandered far from roads and beaten tracks. He drew his own maps and gave his favorite painting places names. I realize how lucky I am in some ways to own my “art mobile,” an old mini-van completely outfitted with painting equipment, plus time and freedom to go nearly anywhere I want! Except for out walking alone as Burchfield did. Burchfield could urinate without baring his behind; I can’t. He was able to explore and paint distant farms, hamlets, seedy areas of towns. Both men and women have more to fear than Burchfield did, whether or not the statistics bear it out. Because of media sensationalism we feel more at risk. Women rightly feel most vulnerable “out walking” alone. I joke with my friends about getting a rottweiler, a gun, and a backpack-able portable toilet. (That’s a product I’d like to see in the plein air painter’s catalog.)
(RG note) Thanks, Melanie. We used such a device when my daughter and I painted down the Mackenzie River over two summers. Essentially it’s a plastic toilet seat with folding legs, sold at camping outfitters. It worked perfectly except for that time when the legs collapsed.
Why must we always be ‘doing’?
We rescued a wonderful dog about seven months ago. I walk with him in the morning for about twenty minutes and in the afternoon for about an hour on a wooded trail… every day for the past six months. I actually try not to think of anything and instead enjoy the new leaves coming out, the birds, the path, the aliveness that I feel very much a part of when I stop the incessant mind. I see people running past with headphones, and cell phones, and talking nonstop to one another… Why must we always be ‘doing’? I try to use the walks almost as a quieting stillness of my mind, and I find that when I return, I am always more peaceful and alert. I also sleep much better. Walking is really a meditation for me. The dog loves it too!
by Linda Saccoccio, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
The late author John O’Donohue spoke of the soul in all of nature. While walking, one is communing with something sacred. The lack of human speech allows for deeper wisdom to nourish the fabric of being. One returns to the bustling world with a sense of steady peace that allows one to sort through chaos and focus with joy and clarity, presence and a sense of humor. Creativity beckons to engage with it in the rhythm of the musings of nature.
Leaving the studio
by Paul Smith, Lincoln, UK
As one painting begins to conclude I turn my thoughts to where to go next and these thoughts seem to be like a warp or weft of day to day life and much of the other stuff often happens on auto pilot. When preoccupied with a particular problem sometimes I feel it is important to leave well alone and distract oneself with anything else — much like your walks perhaps, and then, as if the mind has been chewing it over by itself, sometimes solutions just pop up. Occasionally I find it necessary to mess things up on the surface, to do something unsettling and spontaneous to jolt the painting out of itself. When I do this I often find that having to resolve the new action, in terms of how it affects the rest of the painting, causes a dynamic which can (it doesn’t always work of course!) kick start things if they have become what I call rutty. It does not suit me to be in the studio for more than a couple of hours at a time because I think one can get too close to it. I find it necessary to leave it and return later with refreshed eyes and then perhaps have a slight surprise at something previously overlooked from being too close or too immersed.
Labyrinth for spiritual transformation
by Cyndie Katz, New Boston, NH, USA
This year I built a Classical Seven Circuit Labyrinth next to our house so I can do a lot of walking without leaving home, which I sometimes can’t. There’s nothing like it for changing the channels in the brain and working out problems. “A labyrinth is a single path or unicursal tool for personal, psychological and spiritual transformation. Labyrinths are thought to enhance right brain activity.” I think many artists would be interested in the challenge of constructing a labyrinth. Mine is just outlined with fallen branches from the woods.
by Leslie Tejada, Corvallis, Oregon, USA
When I take a walk to clear my brain, I do just that, and avoid focusing on any thoughts altogether. I try to get my breathing in sync with my pace, fully relax and feel my body and my surroundings. It is in the clear space of a quiet mind that ideas and inspirations emerge, like a pebble thrown into a still pool. I have no problem remembering such an idea, as it stands out so clearly against the background of quietness. It bubbles up and fills me with fresh creative energy. There are other times when an idea will emerge while I’m busily doing other tasks. I tell myself I should remember it easily, but then I forget all about it. However, this idea will emerge again at an appropriate moment in my studio. When I write down ideas and try to apply them to my painting later, the result is usually contrived. I embark upon a side-tracking detour, away from the direction the painting actually needs to head. A big part of my creative process, as well as life itself, has been learning to let go. Trusting in the creative flow, I have gradually learned to paint from the inside out.
Value in city walks
by Petra Voegtle, Munich, Germany
Practicing that kind of thought walk since quite some time I have realized that it works as well within the city. Of course a landscape painter won’t be attracted by the opportunities within a cityscape but as soon as you switch your brain towards another perception it very well works. I consider the views within a city also as a kind of landscape, a landscape with shadows and lights, with vertical and horizontal lines, with details in front and forms and shapes dissolving in the distance. Walking through the city or mainly taking the bike and the camera even helped me to discover completely new subjects for my painting, even a new painting style which I enjoy very much at the moment. With those city walks, even more ideas spread in my head and the inspiration is taking me further to even more projects which I am currently working on. So my advice to anyone who wants to broaden his/her way of seeing is never to exclude anything but rather open your eyes for the unknown and uncommon and take your camera to collect these ideas. It may be worthwhile.
A quiet room instead
by Carol Galligan, Lancaster, PA, USA
Please don’t suggest (particularly to a woman) walking at night alone, and daytime in isolated places isn’t any better. I got as far as this section of your letter and said to myself, “Only a man would suggest this… and how foolish, even for a man.” Keep in mind, not all of us have or can consider a ‘four-legged’ (to quote you) animal in our life. Yes, walking is good, but with caution… certainly not at night, alone! I lean toward a room of my own away from the studio where I can listen to my favorite music, or simply meditate. Sometimes, that is when I do my yoga exercises to calming music… a great way to stimulate blood flow and calm the brain. I always end my yoga exercises with at least ten minutes of meditation.
Tapping the introspective zone
by Brigitte Nowak, Toronto, ON, Canada
I take the dogs for a walk every day before heading in to the studio — this serves three purposes: it legitimizes and gives purpose to the act of walking, keeps the four-legged studio hounds happy and contented while I am working at my easel, and it stimulates my creative thoughts. As you noted, it is a good way to unblock or overcome creative snags. It also connects me to my surroundings and makes me more aware of changes in weather, seasons and atmospheric colours. As artists, many of us seek to comment on our experience of the world: walking in it is one way of connecting, and a much more effective way of experiencing our surroundings than speeding through them in a car. I would suggest that walking regularly is more effective in fuelling the creative flow than doing so only when the muse has evaporated. I think that country and city walks serve different purposes: while country walks may well be inspirational in opening one’s mind to external stimuli, I find that city walks, especially in familiar surroundings, are quite effective in tapping in to one’s own introspective zone. Night walks provide a special perspective: the familiar becomes mysterious; one loses the certainty of one’s vision. Senses open up: there are smells never noted, and sounds one never hears in the mundane light of day. Looking in others’ lighted windows gives one the aura of being a voyeur. And that is one of the essences of being an artist: seeing, observing, and commenting, on the lives around us.
What does it mean ‘to learn’?
by Norman Ridenour, Prague, Czech Republic
I used to be a 10K runner, still do 10K walks. Even running, I learned early to carry the note/sketch book. Just one or two words or a swirl/scrawl is enough to recall the idea when you get back — usually. It is like keeping a dream book beside the bed. In fact I believe that the runner’s state after about 3km is very dream-like. The more I am around people and the more I teach, the more certain I am that what we call education/up-bringing exists to beat any juice out of us which our “betters” do not think is useful. I asked my college pre-composition class two weeks ago, “What does it Mean — TO LEARN?” I got why we learn, who we learn from, when we learn but not a clue as to the process. Seeing them operate in the classroom confirms their lack of perception. What does it mean to see? Artists see anew, or so it is claimed. How many do? How many transcend technical skill? My drawing teacher, not much of an artist but a teacher, had the jazz or rock music on and had us dancing as we drew big swirling gestures, blobs of ink, scratches. The models would follow the music as well, shifting poses every three minutes. When they finally did a 30 minute pose you were warmed up. Tap that huge hole in your brain/soul which society has been hammering shut since the day you were born.
Enriching painting through sport
by Robyn Wohl, New York City, NY, USA
I thought it was just me: I walk several miles per day…it’s easy living in New York City & my painting studio is a mile from home. RUNNING in Central Park is something I CRAVE. Running (& training for) MARATHONS alone, without a chatting buddy is an important factor in the making of my artwork! In this small geographical area inhabited by millions of busy people, I often find myself in the 843-acre park ALL ALONE… not a person or even a squirrel in sight… during daylight hours for safety. It’s a wonderful experience & truly DOES assist with the creative process, as I jog alone with an empty mind, merely observing nature & the changing seasons. Ideas show up! My favorite marathons are run in rural areas around the USA, often with very few competitors, again, allowing me private space in the great outdoors of Utah, Nevada, & Arizona. My paintings are enriched by my sport!
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 Russ Henshall of Norfolk, UK who wrote, “There is a real problem of course for those of us who are old, disabled or just lazy! So what do we do? Jan and I are both oldish and Jan is disabled… I suppose my equivalent may be riding my old motorcycle along our lovely quiet Norfolk lanes when I need to ‘escape.'”
And also Margie Guyot who wrote, “What really triggers my creativity is taking a nice, hot shower!”
And also Paul Corby of Toronto, ON, Canada who wrote, “Yesterday I watched a brilliant art teacher (Grade 8) who said at regular intervals, ‘Okay, who wants to go run around the building?’ When they returned she greeted them like new students and put them on fresh tasks. ‘You smell like fresh laundry’ she said to one group. Thank God for pragmatists.”
And also Alan Wood f Sydney, Australia who wrote, “Bruce Chatwin, author of The Songlines, The Anatomy of Restlessness and others, famously said, ‘If I can’t walk I can’t live.’ Not long after illness kept him bed-bound, this relatively young man died.”
And also Tony Barrett of Liverpool, UK who wrote, “One big problem. I can’t walk. I’m in a wheelchair.”
And also Shayann Hoffer of New London, MN, USA who wrote, “I’m going out right now. Thank you.”
Enjoy the past comments below for The thought walk…