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.


Anne Theresa Adams

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.


illustration by Anne Adams

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.

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.


illustration by Anne Adams

Best regards,


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


illustration 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.


Anne Theresa Adams, 1940-2007


“Unraveling Bolero”
gouache painting


“At the pyramids”
gouache painting


“Crown Crescent” gouache painting


“Before the condo II”
gouache painting






Unraveling Bolero: The insistent, rhythmic plod of the music transformed, bar by bar, into visual form. The brain of understanding.

At the pyramids: Photo based anecdotal reality surrounded by an encyclopedic collection of Egyptian motifs. The brain of monumentalization.

Crown Crescent: A regulated catalogue of houses and flora on an urban middle class street. The brain of organization.

Before the condo II: The competition between the scientific mind and the artistic-creative mind. The brain of compromise.


Creativity based on goals
by Bill Hogue, Dallas, TX, USA


“Luccia’s Final Curtain”
oil on board
48 x 24 inches
by Bill Hogue

The success I experienced in my first career as a design engineer and then later as a business man, can be attributed more to the creative process than to my skills in math and business acumen. When combining this process with setting proper goals, I found you could usually achieve what you wanted. Or, as the old saying goes, “If you can conceive and believe you will achieve.” The key is in defining exactly what you wish to accomplish, put this on paper and then focus on it until you become what you have defined. I attended the International Center for Studies in Creativity held in the summer at Buffalo State College and picked up a few more tools. The problem of using this application to create art is that I have no genre. Almost every painting is an experiment. But it’s what I enjoy.




Nature plus nurture
by Jim Glynn, Madera, CA, USA

When I was in college, I was selected to participate in a student retreat on the topic of creativity. We spent the weekend near Monterey, CA, with a professor of music. Although I have a very good memory, I can’t think of a single thing that we learned. Later in life, when I was a college professor, a colleague of mine who taught art tried to convince me that I should sign up for his class in water colors. His idea was that when you learned technique, you would also acquire the ability of creativity. More years passed, and I discovered that I was pretty good at creative writing. I have no idea about how that happened. I spent many years writing college textbooks in sociology, one of the least creative chores that one can do. Now, I’m sorry that I did not accept the invitation from my colleague in the art department. My conclusion is this: One may be born with the potential to be creative, but that gift only surfaces through rigorous practice. This, of course, flies in the face of the old nature vs. nurture debate. I’m convinced that the adage should be changed to “nature plus nurture.”


The nature of creativity
by Norman Ridenour, Prague, Czech Republic


“Sea Witch”
plum and walnut sculpture
65 x 87 cm
by Norman Ridenour

“Creativity can be learned like basketball, which does not mean we will all be NBA stars.” (Edward De Bono) Our educational system does its best to kill creativity as do many parents. My parents kept asking why I did not follow the ideas which came with the Tinker Toys or Erector Set. Further, creativity is a form of rebellion, willing or not, but it sure sets the holder outside the normal world. Therefore creativity is threatening and disruptive of the norms which seek to make good employees or conformers.





Living with a disease
by JoAnne Lussier, Weare, NH, USA


oil on canvas, 24 x 36 inches
by JoAnne Lussier

Today’s article is particularly relevant to me as I have been battling the cognitive deficits that come with a 20 year battle with Babesia/Lyme/Erlichiosis all of which have a great impact on my brain. I have had to change my medium and style four times. I have work that I call before Lyme, very detailed drawings which I love to do and no longer can due to the fact that I can no longer process visual information. I now paint “intuitively” just allowing the painting to take me where it may, since I cannot process and think as I paint. I will start a painting with just an idea and off I go unable to think, however, I still can FEEL the process and CREATE from emotion and soul. My work has gone through many changes depending on cognitive functioning at the time… some friends say for the better. I do, however, miss the detail but I love the mood I now concentrate on. I’m still on my journey and excited to go where it leads.


Damaged artist in recovery
by Dolores Ewen, Saskatoon, SK, Canada

I have personally experienced “re-educating” my brain. In the past I became addicted to a prescription drug. I was taken off it cold turkey and suffered a psychotic breakdown. As a consequence I lost nouns. I would speak and then be unable to name the thing I saw in my mind. I decided to give my body a chance to find a new area of speech. I was treated by hypnosis. That wasn’t all. I read up on vitamins and herbs and attended a conference for psychiatrists. (A psychiatrist who was interested in my case gave me a pass to go.) I learned of the effects of some chemicals in herbs and vitamins. I won’t say which. I took a chance and treated myself. I also went to a gym everyday although my hands were so shaky I would spill tea when I drank. I ran and ran and ran. I was determined to get blood and oxygen to my brain. There came a breakthrough. My thing words (nouns) came back. But now when I am stressed I find that they slip away again sometimes. I was a good artist before the break. While I was healing I drew and drew but my proportions were distorted. Gradually that also corrected itself as eye and hand coordination re-established. I am again a good artist but not as accurate as before.


Orthomolecular therapy
by Isa-Manuela Albrecht, Ebmatingen, Switzerland

Orthomolecular therapy can help tremendously. We have a superb group of good guys in Canada called Orthomolecular Medicine with the wisdom of Dr. Avram Hoffer. He was one of Linus Pauling’s co-workers. I am using this method also in my private practice and must say, it is a pity that it is only when a sickness enters a life that people begin to act. Preventive medicine is a new word here.


Does a bird have to think to fly?
by Anonymous

I prefer to let the brain take care of itself. If you start to think about what’s going on between the corpus collosum and the two halves, right and left cortexes and all the little corners, you get confused and mixed up in your creativity. Creativity just is and a creative person doesn’t need to understand it — just work it with all your might and the good things flow when you ask them, you are right about that. Does a bird have to think how to fly or a worm to crawl? And another thing, all this happens when you pick up your tools day after day and go for it. Talking and writing it down never got anyone anywhere. This is why art schools — except those that make people work –are such a waste of human energy.


Using Notan in dyslexia
by Dianne Mize, Clarkesville, GA, USA


“A Sip of Water”
oil on board, 11 x 14 inches
by Dianne Mize

I am dyslexic. For many years my creative brain was busy though often frustrated while my logical brain was trying to find order in a disorderly universe and at the same time, prove to myself that my “problem” wasn’t stupidity. The diagnosis confirmed that “techniques” I had created for my creative survival were valid rather than tricks to deceive. Today, the right side of my brain is happy whenever the left side provides a structure for it to function in. My method lies in the Notan which you discussed in March, 2004. Keeping a focus on the Notan of the painting allows my right brain to discover and respond creatively to whatever source I’m using for making my painting. I’ve illustrated how I do this. It’s always been a mystery to me the endlessness of the creative brain, almost like a perpetual spring. And I love your term “trigger” because that’s all it takes to get the creative juices moving. Beyond that, individual uniqueness makes evident an array of approaches, each approach finding its own validity within the universal language of painting.


Pick’s disease and art
by Faith Puleston, Herdecke, Germany


“Creative Processing”
original painting
by Faith Puleston

PPA is a most intriguing subject. How many of your readers and contributors are going to start looking for signs of what is called Pick’s disease in some circles and has a number of other names: “Primary progressive aphasia; Aphasia — primary progressive; Semantic dementia; Dementia — semantic; Frontotemporal dementia; Arnold Pick’s disease”? It has always intrigued me that scientists insist that every brain has the same pattern of functions, even though not everyone is e.g. right-handed. What if the talented artist has different brain patterns from the word go? We need never know what is going on in our brains, unless some striking change in “activity” is classed as a medical condition. Autistic children are born autistic and presumably also born savants, though at birth they have never seen a piano or held a pencil. Brains presumably do not all function in the same way, so what’s to stop a congenitally different brain-layout and functioning contributing to someone being an artist of some kind? I instantly went around the Web looking for more information on this. In this article by Benedict Carey two artists who suffered from Pick’s disease are compared. The message seems to be: As long as the effects are not debilitating, it’s not such a bad idea. Unfortunately, we cannot choose which disorder we contract. Is Pick’s disease wasted on non-artists, then? I find it really uncanny that Anne Adams hit on Ravel, who died of the same disease. Birds of a feather.


Disease affects spouse’s creativity
by Karen Sugden, Irvine, CA, USA


gouache painting
by Anne Adams

Anne Adams was actually diagnosed with Frontal Temporal Dementia (FTD). This disease often begins with PPA but eventually progresses to every part of brain activity. I am the wife of one of Canada’s top lawyers, who was diagnosed with FTD in 2004. He was 56 years old. He immediately stopped his practice. We left Vancouver and moved to California to be near our children and now 4 grandchildren. In four years the disease has progressed to the point where our little 3 and 4 year old grandchildren help to look after him. He can’t read, write, speak, etc. He uses a walker or wheelchair and needs 24 hour care. His personality still shines through — he is kind, patient, caring. His brilliant mind is silent, but his eyes show he is still enjoying life around him and especially his family.

The interesting thing is how this disease has affected my creativity. With our children grown, I was at the point where my art was flourishing. When we moved to Southern California I had a show in a gallery in Laguna Beach. That was almost 2 years ago and I have not been able to paint since. I miss my husband, even though he is here, and that loss has created the worst block. Not only have I lost my best friend, but I have lost the one thing that I enjoyed most besides my life with my husband and that was creating art – oils, pastels, graphite. I am working through some things to try and open that door again, but how do you move past a tragedy, a loss, a heart ache, to get to the peace one feels when they are painting? I do not wander around depressed. I appear content and strong to those around me, but the absence of art weighs heavily on me.

FLD is a tragic disease and it is very hard to see someone who was full of life, athletic, and brilliant to turn into a toddler-like existence. Dr. Bruce Miller at UCSF is also my husband’s doctor. He is part of their study on this particular disease. They are a wonderful team and very supportive.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Building the creative muscle



From: Faith Puleston — Apr 22, 2008

I’m so sorry about your troubles with the distressing degeneration of your husband’s brain. I don’t want to sound trite, but I think he would be horrified if he knew that his disease was projecting into you! Try to see the creative things you do as healing both of you. Has your husband ever done any drawing? How about gathering your grandchildren and your husband round a table and “doing” some art? There must be a key to that locked door. If you cannot find it by yourself, let others help you look for it. Your grandchildren are too young to know that they have an artistic granny. Why not open up that world to them? It will help you open up your own world again. Let the muse take over!

From: Janet Sellers — Apr 22, 2008

It’s good to be reminded that I can move through my life feelings and experiences, often recorded by my art. It makes some art more understandable when I approach musing over it in this manner. It also may be why humans like to share in the art by looking at it and experiencing that moment.

From: Mim — Apr 22, 2008

Having just had a stroke, I find this facinating!!! It was in the occipital lobe (vision) and the Doctors offer no hope for complete recovery, but this idea of the other parts of the brain taking over does offer hope!!! Creativity always wins out!!! I taught special needs students for years and saw their Art improve as they gained convidence in themselves and they gained convidence in THEMSELVES as their Art improved! Just do it! Let the Art flow!

From: Cindy — Apr 22, 2008

Mim, read the book ‘The Brain That Changes Itself’ by Norman Doidge. There’s an utterly fascinating chapter about a man who had a severe stroke. If I recall correctly he was unable to walk, can’t remember if he could talk or not. After a certain amount of therapy his doctors told the family that he had improved as much as he ever would (still couldn’t walk). Not accepting this prognosis, his son with whom he lived had him doing all kinds of physiotherapy tasks. He improved to where he could crawl and if I remember correctly eventually walked again and lived a good life.

Made me think I could do anything! Best wishes to you Mim.

From: Dayle Ann Stratton — Apr 22, 2008

I watched Jill Bolte Taylor’s film several weeks ago and was profoundly moved. My experience took place in slow motion, over a period of years, but with very similar dynamics. I, like Joanne Lussier, have chronic Lyme disease, undiagnosed for over 16 years. For many of those years, I continued functioning professionally, but my art all but vanished. The progressive impact on my brain eventually left me nearly incapacitated. I felt I was vanishing, too. After being diagnosed correctly and treated, it has taken years of recovery and healing, but my drive to create has re-emerged– more than that, it has become the center of my life. As with Joanne, my brain functions in a different way now, and I am freed to explore wherever that leads me creatively. Dolores, I also understand the feeling about loss of “thing” words! For years I undertook using adjectives until my meaning was clear! I still do sometimes, and now understand it is one of the delightfully creative ways damaged brains recreate themselves. Diane, I have been dyslexic all my life: I guess it is something I regard as normal, but still, your description of how you’ve learned to let your brain manage it sounds right to me. Anonymous, I’m glad you don’t have to think about how your brain works. May you always be so. For some of us, that is not an option. And personally, I have learned so much from people with wonky brains that it does not bother me at all to have one myself. So many artists throughout history have had to deal with, not the cliched insanity, but neurological disorders, that I think for many of us it is the very act of communicating with our own brains that sparks creativity and drives us to express it.

From: Faith Puleston — Apr 22, 2008

I’d just like to add something about the treatment of stroke patients. Just today I read about a man who lost his speech after a stroke. For two years he agonized through, hardly able to communicate. Then a therapist asked him if he could sing. She started singing “Happy Birthday” and he joined in with almost no speech defect! From then on, they worked on speech through the singing voice. Different parts of the brain are used – the left part for speech and the right hemisphere is responsible for pitches etc. The patient was soon able to transport words on melodies. Gradually he learnt to do this with things he wanted to say and the tunes were slowly stripped away. He still speaks with something of a lilt, but he’s talking properly now. That may be the answer to the problems of other stroke patients similarly afflicted. Do try it out if you have speech problems. I know this works for stuttering, but that is because the steady flow of breath needed in singing can be trained, whereas a stutterer invariably has breathing problems. Singing can heal many complaints (and cause some :-)).

From: Rick Rotante — Apr 28, 2008

The power of the human mind and body never ceases to amaze me. It is capable at times of great invention under some of the most horrific circumstances. Stories abound how one person has overcome some malady to achieve wonderful things. This continued “overcoming” is what amazes me most, especially when I hit that creative wall we seem to come into contact with at one time or other. I for one am not interested in tearing apart every nuance of life to see how we are made, to see how and what makes us work. There are far too many “scientists” doing that for us. In the end what I find the most comfort in is that we endeavor no matter the disappointments or travails we come across to rise again as the Phoenix of myth. The human spirit is capable of marvelous feats and if we don’t do something terrible to bring about our own demise, I feel we have only just scratched the surface.

From: Karen Taylor, Niwot, CO — May 14, 2008


I am very sorry for your husband’s disease and that it has affected your art. When I was a young illustrator my husband of four years left me and divorced me three months later for another. I learned to work through the devastation and somehow be creative because I had deadlines. I literally had to watch that resurfacing tears didn’t hit the drawing board.

One thing I learned from that was that I could not only continue art work through my devastating experience, but that it gave me moments of relief and even higher creativity when I was concentrating on the art .

After thirty some years I have lived through many life and family challenges including a (second) husband’s heart disease and raising teens. I would encourage you to make some baby steps in doing a few minutes of art a day until you get your momentum back. This can be done with a sketchbook only. When the painting block hits me at least I can draw. Soon a painting idea will emerge, maybe a little watercolor, then back to the easel at last. Start small. I am supporting you!

From: Ray Lashley — Apr 09, 2009

Just a few comments.

Everyone is ‘creative’. Just crossing the road is a creative activity. Even mimicry is ‘creative’. But some people just happen to have something interesting to say, a different slant on things, if you like. Often called maverick or rebel, I believe. Anyone, absoloutely anyone can ‘paint’ a tree. But some people pull the tree apart and make something else. That’s the rebel, the thinker, the memorable one, even if hated for what they do… and very often loved many years later. Now… this is intelligence. Intelligence is the ability to create something new with what you’ve learnt or seen. An autistic person is neither savant (as stated above) nor creative. Not to say they don’t have some sort of function in the world like the rest of us, but morphing of ideas is not one of them. They copy, and are damn good at it too… well some. Don’t forget many just enjoy collecting bus tickets or trainspotting. In other words, I believe when most people speak of creativity, what they mean is intelligence.

You sound like an intelligent woman. Your best ‘art’ is probably just about to arrive. Like most ‘creative’ people, you will make something ‘interesting’ out of sorrow, I’m sure.






Powell St. Glitter

oil painting, 12 x 16 inches
by Jian Wu, San Francisco, CA, USA


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 Rosie Jones of Byron Bay, Australia who wrote, “My husband and I study some great work in Australia called The Magician’s Way. It is all about creativity and enhancing imagination. It has been wonderful for my life as well as for my artwork.”

And also Pepper Hume of Spring, TX, USA who wrote, “I’ve long preached that creativity is a muscle that must be kept exercised!! Since reading Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, I’ve also maintained that everyone has that muscle, if they only can find it and nudge it into action… rather like the muscle that wiggles one’s ear.”

And also Luann Udell of Keene, NH, USA who wrote, “It is even more poignant to realize how important it is for us to express that unique vision in each of us, no matter what stands in our way. We persevere in spite of all the obstacles and obstructions.”

And also Hy Varon of New York, NY, USA who wrote,”An excellent 18 minute video that describes the nature of a stroke by a neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor who experienced it herself is here.”

And also Rob Kennedy of Sydney, Australia who wrote, “Our readers may want to read Has education killed the creative brain? (pdf file).




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