New angles on creativity


Dear Artist,

These days, high-powered creativity coaches are offering themselves to the world of business. Companies improve their bottom lines with the latest techniques in creative thinking. Much of what they’re saying has been known to artists for some time.

Today’s top mantras include keeping new ideas private until the time comes for a full birth in the presence of the right crowd. Another is accepting the idea that creativity pops up in unusual places in its own sweet time. The bathtub, the car and the fishing boat are often mentioned. Execs are told to move unresolved ideas to the back burner and let them simmer. In other words, go golfing. Here are a few more:

Watch your use of the word “creativity.” It’s pretentious and can scare creative ideas out of you. “New” is a word that’s suspect as well. Good ideas don’t have to be totally new ideas. The better ideas, new or otherwise, are often generated when the original questions are clarified. Rephrased questions lead to rephrased answers. In the world of ideas, have the courage to be wrong. Nothing is too crazy to look into. Be your greater self and dump some of your conservative tendencies. “The creative person,” said creativity pioneer Frank X Barron, “is both more primitive and more cultivated, more destructive and more constructive, a lot madder and a lot saner, than the average person.” Crazy or not, take your ideas into another room and beat up on them. Furthermore, ideas fleshed up in rough form (sketch) go a long way toward making them full blown. Also, commit yourself to making the better ideas happen — it’s not enough to just have the ideas — it’s important to get the wheels turning. And know that for every creative question there are generally several right answers.

Execs are also told to start relying on their hunches. “A hunch is creativity trying to tell you something,” said the film director Frank Capra. Also, there is a “state” of creativity, even though it’s not on the map. “The object,” said art educator Robert Henri, “isn’t to make art, it’s to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable.” Naming and claiming your creations are also up there on the list. “I start from something considered dead and arrive at a world,” said surrealist painter Joan Miro, “And when I put a title on it, it becomes even more alive.”

Best regards,


PS: “We’ve become conditioned to believe there is only one right answer. This goes back to the school system where you were rewarded for coming up with the one right answer that the teacher expected. To beat this conditioning, try to think of three right answers.” (Claude Legrande, pres. Ideaction Inc.)

Esoterica: Current research seems to indicate that the human brain is hard-wired to judge ideas at the same time that we generate them. It’s an instinctive response going back to the cave days when we had to deal with sabre-toothed tigers. An inner judge rules and makes a quick decision based on what worked before. Delaying judgment may not save you from a tiger, but it’s vital in creative thinking. Time gives the opportunity for more than one layer of the old cortex to go to work. A whole zoo of ideas is possible.


Call like the wolf
by Kathleen Arnason, Willow Island, MA, Canada

I have always believed you can not teach people to be creative. However I do believe all people are creative and one can nurture their creativity, just as you can nurture an idea. Action to an idea is like language to a child learning to speak. In the growth or nurturing of an idea and if the idea requires more then one person to believe in it, then it is important in the sharing process to be able to articulate the idea in a form people can understand. You must help them imagine. Humanity is in a constant state of creation no matter what field you are in, therefore the world is there for support. It is up to you the idea creator to gather and find those folks who will embrace it. Call like the wolf and you will find your pack. Mostly, all ideas are worth their thought and those that move forward and work are worth the action and effort involved to make them a reality. Dream your dreams, walk your talk and dance like nobody is watching.


Creative tricks
by Helen Scott, New Bern, NC, USA

Here are some tricks that I use and also teach to my students. First, I ask “What if…?” This expands my thinking to “What if… I darken this area, or lighten this area or use a complementary color or use a cool color or a hot color or a smooth or rough texture or…?” Then I will use a study piece of illustration board or whatever board I am using on my original and I “just doodle around” and as “the learning is in the doing” also is “the expansion of creativity in the actual doing”. Somehow, between my brain and hand, answers develop and ideas begin. Just sitting and waiting to be struck by the muse of arts “frying pan” with wonderful creative idea, I prefer to simply “Show up and go to work.”


Troublesome words
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA


original painting
by Coulter Watt

You’re so right about how pretentious the word ‘creativity’ is. I also find the word ‘artist’ pretentious. Here’s why: The label ‘artist’ is a judgment call, a compliment, it’s for others to call a painter, sculpture, writer, director, cinematographer, composer, etc. or anyone who makes anything of aesthetic value covering such a broad spectrum of endeavors. Geez, my accountant is a creative genius when I don’t owe taxes! As a compliment, the word ‘artist’ should never be used as a self-descriptive word; name your discipline.

There isn’t much that’s “new” either. Everything is a step on a long walk. The next one is always based in the previous step. Frank X Barron sure got it right. And showing up is 99 percent of the job. I’m headed for the studio.


Nothing new under the sun
by Ben Novak, Ottawa, ON, Canada

Indeed creative thinking does not have to be new thinking. Just look at some of today’s political decisions; many leaders do not bother to read or learn from history. I am also in the management training field (when not sketching and painting or playing one of my keyboards) and find the same applies there. New terms and acronyms do not necessarily add to the body of knowledge. Basic principles grow from philosophy, sociology and psychology. For example, reading excerpts form the Harvard Business review without looking at the date of publication often surprises me. What might have been written yesterday was also published in 1966!


Multi-tracking invites connections
by Kelly Borsheim, Cedar Creek, TX, USA


“The Triumph of Icarus”
painting on canvas
by Kelly Borsheim

I have discovered that it is better for me to be thinking about many things all of the time because my brain starts making connections between them. I do not mean all things, only those thoughts and images that have appealed to me over the course of my lifetime. I am often delighted with how an idea emerges that contains old and new experiences and observations. My painting, Triumph of Icarus one such example. One day I stretched a large canvas with dimensions that I liked. The first idea emerged as I was stretching. It was as simple as “I want to put a diagonal across the canvas from here to there.” The trick was to find a subject and composition that would create a diagonal in that location on that rectangle. I tried posing a model, painted her face and later realized that I was not getting what I wanted. The canvas sat for half a year. I kept being drawn to the memory of sun bursting through clouds above a Colorado quarry, and began the see the diagonal as a wing — something I had never depicted in my art before. Perhaps my father being a pilot caused me to remember my childhood intrigue with the legend of Icarus and how most people thought of his fall as the story. I did not. A visual idea was formed. It felt glorious! And worth the wait.


Permission to be different
by Jill Badonsky, San Diego, CA, USA

I teach creativity coaching and out of the ordinary techniques reign. The model I use dispenses non-linear tools that reflect the mysterious nature of creativity to the often creative seeker frustrated by attempting to be linear, fast, and direct. Day-dreaming, pampering, play and permission to make mistakes are just a few examples of that which a client are prescribed. Voids and lulls (walking, driving, sitting and doodling) are scheduled so that the subconscious can ingeniously fill in blanks – this is a foreign concept in a production oriented society. But as you noted, in the creative process there is a time when all productivity needs to cease so that small questions can be processed subconsciously and subsequent hunches can surface. An excellent book on the topic is Robert Maurer’s One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way. As a UCLA psychologist he talks about the function of the brain in the creative process. If we are under too much pressure or if the often normal fears experienced during the creative process surface, the amygdala (responsible for fear responses) shuts down our cortex (the part of our brain responsible for creativity). This is where a lot of people succumb to avoidance in order to escape the discomfort of fear and the frustration of ideas evaporating. Small steps and small questions repeated over and over reshape the brain so that it can operate more creatively – the smaller the step the less likely fear will arise. Repetition in this regard creates a whole new success system that is creatively based and amazingly gratifying. Companies could flourish beyond the competition with bright innovation if this model were incorporated over time. But time is another factor. We think the process is supposed to happen faster than it does – and in the process we cut off necessary time for idea incubation.

To move beyond the conventional, the existing, and the mundane, we must enter the realm of the unconventional, the curious, and give ourselves permission to be different. Often the Muse simply will not respond to direct and logical requests. She must be lured in with the playful and gentle. So creativity coaching can also be exceptionally effective by prescribing play in the workplace.

(RG note) Thanks, Jill. Jill Badonsky is the author of The Nine Modern Day Muses (and a Bodyguard):10 Guides to Creative Inspiration for Artists, Poets, Lovers and Other Mortals Wanting to Live a Dazzling Existence


Creativity needs a safe place
by Jean-Pierre Beeks, Montreal, QC, Canada


acrylic on canvas
by Jean-Pierre Beeks

The reason great ideas seem to pop up at the strangest places, like just before your head hits the pillow, is because your brain needs a safe place to express them and that’s usually when you’re alone. The first step towards creative problem solving is to focus and then forget, your brain will start a dialogue with your heart and let you know what it has come up with. And when it’s right, it feels right!

In the boardroom the process of creativity is totally exposed and usually comes with a time limit. In this context, the next step is the hard one to accept — the fear of saying something stupid. I love this quote by Scott Adam: “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” Cutting out the clutter in your mind is as simple as letting it out, and that means expressing some pretty useless ideas. That’s okay when you’re sitting alone in front of a blank piece of paper but gets far more complicated in a boardroom in front of your colleagues or your boss. If everyone in the room can get past their fear then you can come up with some incredible atomic reactions as ideas bounce off each other and explode into a wonderful concept. Again, creativity needs a safe place to flourish.

Being creative is like being a sculptor. Just remember to clear out the shavings once in a while, to keep your tools sharp and to keep a sharp eye on your “mistakes”… and embrace them!


Premature selling
by Tina Mammoser, Greenwich, London, England


“Erato (lovely)”
acrylic painting
by Tina Mammoser

As a working artist I find it difficult to make new paintings and not put them out for sale. But right now I really want to exhibit a nymph series (the Nereids) of 50 all together. Selling is a hard thing to resist! So far I’ve managed to not price them on my website, and resisting taking some to a fair this coming weekend even though I know they’d suit the visitors well. I will try to stay quiet (though that’s probably a bit too late) and keep these babies in the studio just for me to enjoy for now.

(RG note) Thanks, Tina. If you’re working up to a show (or a book, as I am) there’s nothing you can do but put them in a big closet with a tank trap of chairs across the door. When you have the urge to prematurely take them out and sell them, you must tie yourself up in another darkened room and have somebody pour used engine oil over your head.


Visitors interfering in the studio
by Dianne Bersea, Cortes Island, B.C., Canada


“Rock Bluff Symphony”
watercolour painting
by Dianne Bersea

My partner and I share a studio, in-studio gallery space and we teach. We welcome visitors to our space by appointment. We are both outgoing and really enjoy sharing our work and our enthusiasm for the creative process. Of course we sell prints and originals thereby. Occasionally a visitor arrives who has a contrary agenda. They either arrive with their own work looking for accolades or pointers, or spend the few minutes we give them, doing a running commentary on someone else’s work or even get critical of ours. A recent visitor was determined to tell us how to do workshops while her husband soaked up some technical pointers. Our work received only a cursory glance.

I regret that it takes time to realize what’s happening and to gently escort them to the door. Is there a key word or phrase we can use to screen people before they come to the studio? Any other suggestions to encourage genuinely interested visitors?

(RG note) Thanks, Dianne. I don’t have an open studio for the main reason that for me it would be crazy-making. Invited or not, when there is a knock on the door visitors always find me in my work clothes and with a brush in my hand. This sends a quick telegram that I’m a busy guy. Verbal techniques I currently use are: “My easel’s on fire.” “I’m in the middle of a wash.” “My pants are on fire.” “I’m on fire.” Regarding the question of ways to encourage genuinely interested visitors — be quiet, be private, try to do excellent work, and be busy. My record? Eighteen seconds. “I can see you’re busy,” he said. “I’ll take that one.”


Paint with comment
by Dave Wilson, White Rock, BC, Canada


original painting
by Dave Wilson

I am writing because of the conservative nature of Mr. Plough’s words about painting: to go outside and mime the creator, as if we are “mirrors” Thereof. If this planet were God’s ultimate statement about Reality-Truth, I would concur with Mr. Plough and imitate the ‘what is’ all around us: toothless, homeless junkies and starving babies, as well as pretty scenes from yet-to-be inhabited Nature. Those who mistake what the camera ‘sees’ for Truth, passionately play off it all, ‘increase its volume’ and offer it to humanity as a panacea for the atrocities humanity continues to allow!

For those who imagine God to be a Creator, hiding beyond this Universe, ‘small’ enough to have made mankind mere ‘mirrors’ of Its ‘Greatness,’ the notion of any kind of Guru is rough, indeed! But I am no servant of appearances, and paint need not re-iterate what is already beautiful — there to be seen by all. Painters do not improve on Nature by trying to enhance it. And humans do not improve on the planet by imagining that ‘what you see is what you get.’

It is good that some artists can paint scenes as well as they do, but it is not good that they stop there. Life is not “nice”. Paint with comment — or get a violin.


Why workshops in the city?
by Ann Armentor, Denham Springs, LA, USA

I have attempted local classes but was unlucky enough to be subjected to the instructors’ desires to use “the right color” and “apply it a certain way”. I’m learning on my own and I do have a large library but it has taken me a long time to understand that I needed to learn what was not said in the books. I have had no formal education, other than a BS and will never be able to go to college just to learn to paint. I applaud the instructors who willingly give of themselves with tidbits that open your eyes. I hope the “gurus” remember that there are a lot of really promising artists out here that are struggling on their own because they love the art and want to learn but do not have the finances to work with someone other than a “teacher”. Why do all the best artists give workshops only in large cities hundreds of miles from where they are needed by those who could benefit and not by those who find it interesting to learn a trick or two?

(RG note) Thanks, Ann. And thanks to all who wrote and asked about my workshop and seminar in New York City on October 26 and 27, 2005. That’s it for me this year. My acrylic workshop is limited to 16 people. The Painter’s Keys Seminar is limited to 100. I have to emphasize that there’s a load of truly capable instructors at the Great American Art Event, and some of those folks do workshops in smaller places as well.





Draw Poker

oil painting
by Andy Thomas, MO, USA


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.

That includes Laura Heusser, Switzerland who wrote, “In England people admire you for being self-taught. But where I live now the first question is where did you study?”




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