Building the creative muscle


Dear Artist,

Ever since I was a kid I’ve been interested in the nature of creative thinking. Where does it come from? Can it be learned? Can it be taught? I’ve been curious about my own periods of creative intuition and creative ineptitude. I’ve also been interested in the difference between “wild child” creativity and mature creative self-management.

Xenobalanus illustration by Anne Adams (1940-2007)

by Anne Adams (1940-2007)

Most of our creativity takes place in the right back corner of our brains. In addition, many folks are able to toss the creative ball both fore and aft and port and starboard. Studies of various brain disorders and traumas have thrown further light on the game. Anne Adams was a Vancouver, BC, scientist and painter who recently passed away from the effects of PPA. Primary Progressive Aphasia patients eventually lose their ability to speak. Anne tracked the progression of her disorder in a remarkable series of paintings. As her condition deepened, her creativity seemed to move to a different part of her brain. Her work became more linear, mathematical and ordered. One of Anne’s paintings, Unraveling Bolero, takes Maurice Ravel’s Bolero and makes it visual. Ravel, who died in 1937, also suffered from PPA.

Neurologist Bruce Miller of the University of California in San Francisco notes that one part of the brain can learn to do what another part becomes incapable of. While modifications take place in the process — as in muscle building for specific sports — by persistently asking, we get. With curiosity, audacity and effort, creativity can be redeployed. Just knowing it’s there for the taking is part of the game. Sophocles said, “Look and you will find it; what is unsought will go undetected.” Like Anne, we need to be prepared to let creativity take us where it will.

Moonsnail illustration by Anne Adams

by Anne Adams

We all have personal keys to developing our creative potential. For some it’s necessary to remain mute — for others a mild distraction is needed — music, even TV. Our individual preferences in reference material and experience are precious triggers. Studio tricks, attitudes and physical exercises jiggle the liquid brain into building the creative muscle. Our miraculous computers are forever rebooted. These days we seem to be able to modify and improve the performance of just about anything. Not including the use of drugs, you can train your creative brain to be brainier than you think.

Best regards,


PS: “If one part of the brain is compromised, another part can remodel and become stronger.” (Dr. Bruce Miller)

Rotifer illustration by Anne Adams

by Anne Adams

Esoterica: The idea of “wild child” creativity developed from the “noble savage” concept of the 19th century. These days, most of us try to know ourselves and manage our creative development. Doing what we can with our given abilities, we stretch ourselves when needed. The regular and reapplied art of stretching typifies the creatively evolving brain. In my observation, creativity is a self-motivated neural thing that becomes a winning habit.

This letter was originally published as “Building the creative muscle” on April 18, 2008.

I wish each and every one of you well during this global health crisis and encourage you to flatten the curve by staying at home with your creative materials. I hope our Painter’s Keys community can be a source of friendship and creative inspiration during this time and always.
In friendship, Sara 

Unraveling Bolero gouache by Anne Adams

Unraveling Bolero
by Anne Adams

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“I bring you with reverent hands / The books of my numberless dreams.” (William Butler Yeats)




  1. Oh! I like that last line in the Esoterica- “In my observation, creativity is a self-motivated neural thing that becomes a winning habit.” Now I am off to work on my habit. May there possibly be room us to sit at a corner of the table again tonight for supper… but if not, we will eat on our laps and I shall explain about my well developed, self-motivated winning habit creative muscle. ;)

  2. Are we to be satisfied, then, with our creative efforts? And dwell in the afterglow of their production? Is that enough? It’s not working for me as a rebuff sent me reeling, and I do need to crawl back out of this hole lacking energy. Have a rope?

    • Bonnie, I believe we should be satisfied with our efforts–for now. In other words, what we produced today is the best we can do today. Enjoy that moment. I have found that creativity begets more of the same. One painting idea open our eyes to new iterations or a complete change in direction. The next painting is a new opportunity to improve, solve problems and learn. If a rebuff to your work has sent you reeling, you are not alone. I think it happens to everyone, and if the critic is someone we particularly deem as important, it can be very discouraging. Please read and do the program in Julia Cameron’s book: The Artist’s Way. It will give you a way to find your creative energy again and your courage to create. All my best to you….

    • John Francis on

      Bonnie… I have some ‘rope’ here, and I dearly hope that it is sufficient to reach into that hole where you find yourself, lacking energy. Here in Toronto it’s almost 5pm and after reading what you wrote on this forum at 11:37 this morning, I find myself wishing I had read your words much sooner today. In truth, I only have myself to blame for that. I began reading Robert’s thoughts on ‘creative muscle’ this morning, but after the first paragraph I decided to read the rest later today. I simply didn’t have the ‘energy’ to absorb what he had to say.
      Reading sometimes requires more of me than writing does.
      I’m a writer and a photographer. I tried painting for awhile, abstract images, but I abandoned that when I began to feel I had reached my own limits. I managed to actually discourage myself.
      I have to tell you, Bonnie, that I was so struck by your words that I read your Comment several times. Your choice of words, your metaphor and how you characterized your own situation was so articulate and refreshing to me. The several questions you posed reminded me dramatically of someone I’ve been learning about for over 70 years. Myself…..
      I don’t know the nature of the ‘rebuff’ you experienced, but I know too well how that feels.
      If I may, I suggest that you describe briefly in words the nature of that rebuff. On paper. With a pen. I suspect, with your wonderful language skills, that you would have little difficulty doing so. This little exercise is, of course, a trick. What you are actually doing is ‘challenging’ the rebuff.
      In the privacy of your own mind. While you document and ‘profile’ that, you will find something Shakespeare’s Hamlet realised. You can defeat ‘slings and arrows’ by merely opposing them.
      Be well. And thank you, Bonnie, for the ‘rope’ handed me, here in my own hole. Cheers…jf

    • I send you a big squishy hug. Please feel free to cry and say what do “they” know about my work, my creativity, my expression, what was happening for me when I created this piece? Any number of these and then do a big WA! A fire breath and go create 3 more. Turn on some music, solo piano for me to let the brush do its own thing. You are Loved!

  3. This essay came at a time when I’ve been wondering if I’ve met my creative limit. I loved the last line, as well and I feel encouraged that I’m not done yet!
    Thank you for sharing these tidbits of wisdom.

    • Sharon, I am nearly 68. Have only been at art a little over 20 years (hard to believe) but when you’re stuck try doing something completely different.
      Playing with food, how to put it on a plate, one daily distraction.
      Try a different medium — yarn, maybe even knit a bit, card stock, pen and ink, coloured pencils…
      I am a woodcarver so I painted a carving, added aluminum sheeting to a carving and a canvas. Aluminum sheeting takes paint, amazing results, can be moulded and manipulated, …
      Paint glass, etch it, use wine corks for borders, paint a chair (I’ve done a few of those)
      How about writing for a bit?
      And I sew, but I sew patterns and designs and use different yarns and threads and a friend wanted a purse holder so I created one using her needs (had to hold phone, pen, glasses, notepad…) …
      I could go on and on …
      For a granny I have managed quite a lot.

      You will too. Our creativity ends with our final breath. Have fun.

      • Just looked at your art and am ashamed to have offered advice to one of your ability! Please forgive my impudence.

  4. Brenda Garrigan on

    Thank You Sara. Annes work is fabulous and may be the injection i need to get back to my easel. I have been studying Ernst Haeckels “Art Forms in Nature” wanting to begin a fantasy/abstract. I have been a microbiologist and am in the late stage of a career finding myself in the forefront of the crisis! Being an empath by nature have been currently experiencing creative ineptitude! Every thing occurring in my private life for 18 months has been irony, deciding to retire from medicine late last year, then making the last minute change to remain to get a pension benefit eligible late summer. Right after, this horrific crisis began. My higher power directs my every breath and my faith keeps me believing I will enjoy a late career as an artist. I think I will try a circular orientation as Anne has successfully done here. I have loved Sailors Valentines for ages and Annes Moonsnail work enthralls me!

    • If you like Haeckel’s art, you would enjoy David Rothenberg’s book “Survival of the Beautiful”. He argues fairly convincingly that natural selection favours beauty and he loves Haeckel’s work. His science, not so much.

  5. I am sorry your article was missed by yours truly when first published. I strongly feel the subject of your article is in the back of the mind of every art teacher who desires to stimulate the growth of their charges. In my old age and in my search for the answer to how to stimulate, enhance and develop creativity in any soul I have come to believe we all have it. It’s manifestation can be seen in so many ways that some of us do not recognize it , creativity , when it is not in the definition of a traditional definition of the Arts. I have had know people who rejected any artistic connection then as they age they turn to creative endeavours.
    Your posts are wonderful and I hope they go on for as long as I am able to read them.

  6. Thank You Sara, for this very interesting and inspiring post . I remember reading this in 2008. As they say” The Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree!” Your father ,I’m sure is very proud .

  7. Thank you for sharing this post from your father, Sara. There are so many of us older artists who keep seriously working in our art to strive to become better or to make a shift in our art. I dare say we become better artists as we have benefit from knowledge and experience. The journey never ends for us. Isn’t it great to know our brains can continue to grow as we strive to express ourselves in art.

  8. It’s interesting that Adams composed in a circle or mandala. This represents the artist’s psyche according to Carl Jung . It is also the basis of Tibetan Buddhist sand paintings used for meditation and visions of the universe. I find that when I create in a circle it depicts the interior self rather than the exterior or social self. If I use my non dominate hand I get even closer to the unspoken in my mind.

  9. At the age of 19 I had a horrific accident resulting in a severe concussion, among other things. There were many things I did not remember unless prompted by a family member or friend. I had partial amnesia for five years. I remembered the books that were important to life but not what was in them. Having been, and still am a voracious reader, I spent 2 years or so re-educating myself. I also studied a lot of subjects, including the brain, and learned I am one of the 6% of the people who function on both sides of the brain. I found/devised a simple method for making this transfer from one side to the other, and exercised it, and allowed it to grow over time. The creativity of my youth was always”there” but after the accident it became demanding even voracious maybe. Yet at times it abandoned me. Puzzling. I solved the riddle accidentally. I was doing the journaling recommended in The Artist’s Way and found there was a pattern. I work in 90 day of actively creating and 30 days of talking about it, reading about art, gallery openings, museums and meeting with friends over coffee but not making anything. Then something will spark the comment, ‘wow what if”. It all begins again. Am I famous for my art? no. Am I rich from it? No, because I am driven by creativity and one day maybe I will know why. In the mean time it has filtered into everything I do.

  10. I do not care for Anne Adams work shown here but I am intrigued by the similarity in her picture, Xenobalanus, and some of the paintings by Willem DeKooning in his latter stages of dementia, It would be interesting to see a show exhibiting each artists works and compare them. Over time they might show us the early signs of dementia or a disease of some sort. It has been a pensive 24 hours and I thank all of you for putting up with me. Stay safe and enjoy the free time.

  11. The best way I have found to enhance creativity is to ask your self to make a number of solutions to any visual problem. I was a wild child creative myself, but, eventually, all roads converged inside, which is not a bad place but it can become stale.
    While teaching design classes, I reintroduced myself to the idea of multiple thumbnails. Even if I still end up working from the first idea, or they mostly all look very similar, the search makes me dig deeper and become more creative. What would it look like cropped in, cropped out, shifted to the left, turned diagonally, from the side, higher view, etc? You explore and refresh with every variation.

  12. Helen GORDON on

    I am very interested in this subject and believe that the source of creativity comes from our soul or that part of us that lives on after we die. it taps into an infinite source of knowledge and possibilities that are beyond this material world. However we need to use our mind and put in effort to express that inspiration. Thus when people have damage to their brain it can limit that expression or give it a certain character. The other aspect of life that enhances creativity is the ability to live in the moment, to be totally present with oneself without your mind worrying or preoccupied by the past or the future. I was very privileged to live and work in a remote Indigenous community in Central Australia. While there I developed an art centre and a diverse range of art activities. The only art going on when I started working there was some women painting from some old embroidery patterns that some previous white staff had given them. I just collected all these deigns and put them in the bin and said ‘you can do your own designs. You don’t need to copy these’ I set up a small store room with paints, canvas and brushes so they could buy their own art materials I have never been anywhere where one drop of encouragement and finding some markets for their work went so far. Every adult in the community produced an unstoppable flow of exceptional art in the form of paintings, grass baskets, carved wooden artefacts, painted gum nut beads, dyed T-shirts. We made our own paper out of spinifex grass and developed a unique style of painting on the beautiful golden paper using embossed red sand. These people live very much in the moment being highly nomadic. They have never been to an art class or even had any formal education. I was only facillitating this process and had no influence on how or what they painted or the crafts they made. There were only 200 people in this community including children yet in the 3 years I was there I sold 600 paintings and had 6 exhibitions outside of the community as well as selling a huge volume of crafts. I also experienced the power of accompaniment – one day the women insisted on me taking my paints and some paper and took me to a nearby waterhole and asked me to do some painting myself. They just sat beside me – some 6 women and a child – totally silent for several hours saying nothing but just being there for me, totally present in the moment. I felt so uplifted and inspired i don’t think I have ever enjoyed painting so much and felt so encouraged and supported. And I thought it was such a wonderful gift – to give back what I suppose I had given them. I have spent most of my life working with Indigenous people, helping to facilitate the development of their their arts and crafts but this particular time was one of the most profound experiences of my life, and opened my eyes to the source of creativity, that it was beyond formal learning and came from another place beyond this material world

  13. Pam Erickson on

    I am seldom inclined to leave comments on any page but this column, continually inspires me, from both it’s current authors and it’s archives. And NOW, in it’s followers! Thank you All for addressing your kind , insightful and intelligent comments to a fellow creative! Never in my life, have I been brave enough to publicly lay it out there as Bonnie Jo did. I drank the “never quite good enough cool-aide“ early on and have been fighting it’s effects all my creative life. This continues to be a healthy and encouraging well of creativity in which to dip my toes!
    Thank you All for creating a Safe, Supportive environment for creative respite. Bless You!
    And now……back to my creative space!

  14. Robin Woodworth on

    Harley Brown said these words I’ve posted on my studio wall. They resonate though I can’t always live up to them.
    “You have full and complete ownership of your art. Take criticism and praise both with a jar of salt. You and I are both ‘one of a kind.’ Sing along with me. ‘Aren’t you glad, you’re you?’ ‘Enjoy yourself, It’s later than you think. ‘ Let’s enjoy ourselves.”
    Here’s to each of us distilling into ourselves as artists. We are, what we’ve got. :-)

  15. Thank you all for participating in this dialogue. My main studio is in a former elementary school with 8 other creative souls. During this isolation I had forgotten how absolutely essential dialogue with other artists is to maintaining my practice and my aliveness. Your kind words brought me back and now carry me forward. Thank you.

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Featured Artist

I grew up on a farm in Ohio, and that experience gave me a love of nature and the seasons and a deep belief in personal independence, as well as a love of experimentation. These have been the foundations of my work as a painter. I believe that learning in art or any subject is lifelong, and that the most important lessons we learn are through our personal interests and experimentation. After my husband’s death in 2018, I visited Israel the next year, and was inspired by the amazing landscape colors, and especially the old city of Jerusalem, with its crumbling walls, and its deep religious importance. I found my way out of grief by painting the Eight Gates of the old city.