Have you ever wondered about those little mental lapses you have while you’re working? I’m talking about those times when the brush keeps moving but your mind goes somewhere else. It’s the creative equivalent of “taking your mind off the road.” I’ve never heard of psychologists examining the phenomenon in artists. After a lifetime of being curious about it, I’ve got a few ideas:
I’ve noticed that in beginners and less confident artists the brush tends to drift with the mental drift — that is it re-sweeps areas or repeats previous moves. An unconscious activity, it can go on for some time. In beginners the tool-action generally slows down and may wander to palette safety or paint rag where it sweeps some more.
In more proficient artists an “automatic pilot” takes over and work continues. The work may actually speed up. It can be intermittent or fairly steady. The absence of conscious control is recognized by many as a valuable creative state. Most painters have made passages that seem to have painted themselves. Several things occur here. Brush government is supplanted by motor skill. Muscle-knowledge kicks in and has the effect, if only temporarily, of neutralizing deeply held fears. At the bottom of it all, what you think you know (knowledge) together with what you don’t know (fear) are two of the main creative blocks. The absent mind knows no fear.
Active work-people know about and can attest to subconscious productivity. Mature painters talk about “blind painting.” While the condition may not be fully understood, I’ve always felt that within it there’s the glimmer of a valuable secret. We know that the conscious brush can be victimized by previous thought paths and erroneous zones. The introduction of mental loitering gives the creator a small state of meditation. Unbidden, it evaporates easily. It’s different from the longer-term state of “flow” as discussed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. To be contrary, there are many artists who dread these lapses because they feel work needs their full attention. It seems to me that the yin and yang of thinking and not thinking contributes to better work. Perhaps it’s a self-delusion, but I’ve found that after a period of slipping in and out of consciousness, some of the good stuff has been done in the “know nothing” zones.
Esoterica: Exercise: Prepare your support and palette and prime yourself with a rough plan. Begin. When you find your mind thinking about the task at hand, get into a dream-world. Use fantasy, practicalities, or just turn off. Be dull. While building the work, the idea is to make the work go away. The idea is to go absent and to give yourself and your work another form of presence. April Fools’ Day is as good a day as any to try this.
Overruling the ‘trying mind’
by Alan Reinhart, Lindenwold, NJ, USA
If you and I are standing a few feet apart and I suddenly and unexpectedly toss you a tennis ball, most often you will catch it — every time. Your instinctive reaction does the right thing. But if I say, “Now get ready — I’m going to throw a ball and you are to catch it,” more frequently you will miss — because you are trying. At that time you are using what is called your “trying mind” — the conscious. When the basic skill-set is there the sub-conscious can handle everything — the conscious just gets in the way.
In the book Zen and the Art of Archery there is a story about a student who was learning swordsmanship. He lived with an old master and was doing nothing but menial kitchen chores. From time to time the old master would jump out in front of him and catch him unawares and take a swipe at him. The idea is that in sword-fighting, if you have to think about what to do — it is too late.
The disappearing studio
by Mel Zeoli, Hernando, ME, USA
I call it “letting my eyes go fuzzy.” It is a meditative state in which work continues and the rest of me is far away from the “action” just holding on to the brush. Sometimes it is as if I am across the room and I can really see the big shapes in my painting. I produce better work under those circumstances and I love to “go there.” I just feels right. When I “pop” back into the real world, my painting seems to be better off than before. It is almost a spiritual feeling where all else, the studio, the music, the lights, and even the easel are at risk of disappearing.
Four levels of competence
by Nancy Lennie, La Paloma, Mexico
There are four levels of competency:
1. At the early ages of learning (painting) say age 4-8, it’s called — unconscious incompetence.
2. Then the next stage is awareness of the desire to do better — conscious incompetence. This level is where the main stream of people stop with their art, discouraged at their inability to be a Rembrandt. They give up — those of us whose mission in life is to paint keep on into the third level.
3. Then maybe years later and after much practice comes — conscious competence.
4. Then the final level for professionals comes — unconscious competence which is where Michael Jordan and Robert Genn operate. For many of us we are still working to get to this stage of our art. And when at times we break into the flow of this unconsciousness, painting becomes the blessing we always saw ourselves attaining.
(RG note) Thanks for the raise.
by Stanley Horner, Victoria, BC, Canada
The trance that you so beautifully touch on is for me the ground out of which the authentic can emerge. While you confine your discussion to the creative act of making art, I would also like to extend the trance to the act of looking into art as a beholder/viewer. Inner imaging, as I call it, is for me as significant as outer imaging (making art), and it’s the flow between these, if the trance is cultivated in both, in the context of a quest (questioning), that is for me the touchstone of creativity. As a guide for my students, I’ve outlined a process that is grounded in the trance experience.
(RG note) Stanley Horner’s trance process inner imaging is at: Layers of the Inner Imaging Process.
Drawing in fifth gear
by Raynald Murphy, Montreal, QC, Canada
Regarding the know-nothing zones, I immediately thought about the 3 to 5 minute warm-up drawing exercises I assign my adult students. The goal here is to “draw in fifth gear” as I call it, to unlearn useless “re-sweeps.” Kimon Nicolaides in The Natural Way to Draw teaches many forms of these “quickies.”
As parents and educators we are sometimes guilty of submitting young children to the coloring book trap. I believe that one of the reasons beginners and less-confident adults go over and over the same lines uselessly is because they revert to the childhood learnt “back and forth stroke, stay within the lines” coloring book mode. One way I have found to undo this habit is in Edgar Whitney’s Learn Watercolor the Edgar Whitney Way. He says, “Every three minutes waiting for a bus or train, draw, even during the ride.” I have followed his advice. My artist friend commented, “You must be the only person I know that actually looks forward to riding the bus or subway.” She is right. I am so addicted to these quick sketches that I make up excuses to go downtown just to draw quickies.
by Katelyn Alain, Madison, WI, USA
For more in depth reading on the matter try Ernst Gombrich’s Art and Illusion as well as passages in Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. It seems that theories are all over the map right now without the full and current research that this ‘lost state’ deserves. For now it seems to remain a creative spiritual matter as the researchers delve.
Listening to spoken words while working
by Deborah Elmquist
As a painter first and teacher second (sometimes reversed), I have spent a life-time teaching all ages. In my earlier years, I studied how the brain handles information, etc. I don’t subscribe to right brain/left brain learning as distinct areas since the brain still has to integrate information but here is an observation shared by myself and some other painters. The critical side that voices fear seems to be silenced when you keep it “busy” so you can stay in flow. We do this by playing, not music, but words from books on tape. At first I thought listening to a story would conflict with the act of painting but when I tried it, I was shocked. Listening allows you to work more confidently and directly without that quiet voice questioning each move or stroke you make. It also keeps you from drifting off and lapsing into mindless strokes of the brush. Have you heard of any research that would support this observation?
(RG note) No, but the idea is interesting and I’m going to give it a spin. The conventional wisdom is that orchestral (specifically Baroque) music, because of its lack of verbal content, is superior to the spoken word. There’s more info on our site at The Mozart Effect.
The ‘Flow Experience’
by Sandy Davison, Michigan, USA
Artist minds going AWOL is similar to the Flow experience from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who is a cognitive researcher studying what is sometimes called “the zone.” This flow experience has occurred for me while teaching yoga, mountain biking and painting. It doesn’t happen while watching television. I believe it is the same phenomenon that you speak of where the whole being continues on its task without the chatter and involvement of thinking, and it’s a quite powerful release from knowledge, fear, and what might be seen as the Buddhist “mind” into presence and awareness.
Problem while taping TV show
by Shannon Grissom, Hollister, CA, USA
I was just talking about those lapses last night with my director. I host a cable television painting show. (Think Emeril meets Bob Ross) It’s an hour show and we shoot live — to tape — no editing. Along about the middle of the show I get in the zone and the floor manager has to pull me out so I remember to talk to the audience. I am so glad that I do go in and out of that alpha state and so is my canvas. As for the audience, they get a ‘real life’ view of the painting process. Yes — the yin and yang make much better work.
Relationship to ADD and ADHD?
by Delores Hamilton, Cary, NC, USA
I know a great deal about these “know-nothing” zones. They are classic examples of dissociation, a common symptom in the syndromes of ADD and ADHD (I have the former). Dissociating while driving is the most common experience that most people have with this phenomenon. For others of us, it’s a constant. When I’m writing, I will slip into a dissociative state — I describe it (using an engine analogy) as going into “overdrive” — and, as you describe with experienced painters, some of my best writing occurs at that time. No matter how fastidiously I’ve prepared where my story is going, during those overdrive sessions, it takes the most wonderful, unexpected turns.
Some parents go to great lengths to “fix” or control their ADD and ADHD kids. I’m living proof that there are many advantages to having at least one of the symptoms of these personality disorders.
(RG note) Information for creators who might suspect they have ADD or ADHD is on our site under: Attention Deficit Disorder. Information from ADD coach Bonnie Mincu is at Artists and Attention Deficit Disorder
Magic in letting go
by Trish Booth, Oakland, CA, USA
This is the only way I can get any real work done. To begin painting is an effort for me. Too much conscious mind. Only by tackling a small and quite specific task — a little more dark here, move this over a bit, lighten this up, smooth over the spottiness — am I able to begin moving the brush and allowing it to take me into “the zone.” Once inside the zone my paintings virtually paint themselves. I don’t know how it happens but if I allowed, or required, conscious control, nothing would ever get done. The magic is in letting go.
In the zone
by Nina Allen Freeman, Tallahassee, FL, USA
I call that experience being “in the Zone.” It is similar, I think, to what athletes experience when they need all their energy for their performance. I love getting in the Zone when hours pass like minutes and the painting is good. I believe my best work is done when I allow my conscious mind to quit thinking so much and allow my artistic instincts to take over. This actually doesn’t happen all that often, unfortunately, too many interruptions, phone calls and thoughts about things that need to be done. To me it is delightful to have a day to paint with no interruptions and just go to the Zone.
‘Bad parent’ state of mind
by Brenda Hofreiter, Winter Park, FL, USA
My first time “in the zone” seemed like a possession experience for me. I actually managed to skip several skill levels ahead and create something much more mature than I had created before. It is true that “the absent mind knows no fear” which had been my major artistic block up until that time. After that, I religiously courted the “absent mind” in my art, believing it was a direct path that took me through observation to a more profound “truth.” Now, as a more seasoned painter, I recognize that not all of my “mental drift” is a good thing. Sometimes it is just “absentmindedness,” which can be easily recognized upon return to “consciousness.” Unfortunately for me, painting with my “knowledge” leads me into judgment and criticalness, tightens up the work and produces artwork that may be accurate, but is also lifeless and wooden. I call it my “bad parent” state of mind. It can suck all the joy and life right out of my art. Fortunately, I have learned to avoid this trap by consciously releasing judgment, refocusing my mind through observation, and drifting back through “hyperconsciousness” into meditation. Like other aspects of life, sometimes it comes easily and sometimes it doesn’t.
The Yoga of brushing
by Odette Nicholson, Saskatchewan, Canada
I’m in the midst of planning a day long workshop for participants to experience the combined effect of morning Yoga and afternoon Painting. The ‘blind painting’ thing, I’ve been for years practising and teaching as ‘intuitive painting.’ Whatever the label, it’s definitely the flow zone, the unprocess process of working with body and breath/paint and brush — a truly fabulous and necessary part of creative activity.
The soul of creativity
by Elfrida Schragen, Victoria, BC, Canada
The mind is not a loving organ. Its timing and focus are powerful and frequently take on a bullying aspect in the way it presents its thoughts, ideas, memories, and motivation. Many spend time and money trying to get it under their control. When I am creative, I get a far greater sense of satisfaction when the thinking mind surrenders to that peculiar unique combination of visual feedback, intuitive knowledge, and experienced response that takes on a life of its own. Some might call that the ‘spiritual’ or the ‘soul’ aspect of being creative. Some might refer to it as you have. I cherish and rely on this state. It is the basis for the ‘high’ I feel when I paint or counsel.
The zone’s gentle tug
by Alison Mackie, FL, USA
I was a power-hungry little artist who wanted total control over the creative process from beginning to end. I wanted to call all the shots, and so began a power struggle between myself and my brush stroke. Fearful to relinquish control, my painting became overly tight, and my images held little power. It was a kind of creative suicide. With nothing to lose, I decided to try your April Fool’s Day exercise at the bottom of your last letter. Your suggestion to allow the brush to do all the work while the mind did something else, like a daydream, appealed to me. It was wonderful: The pull of the ‘know nothing zone’ I liken to a playful undertow. Of such undertows, we are taught from an early age to be wary. In my creative power struggles, I had been consciously resisting the zone’s gentle tug. In doing the exercise, I soon felt the gentle tug sucking at my toes, swirling playfully around my ankles and this time I did not resist the current. Soon, I was in deep water and the shoreline was but a speck in the distance. I floated, utterly content, like a sea otter gazing at the clouds above, as my brush did its work.
(RG note) Thanks to everyone who tried the exercise and wrote to tell about it. Highland Laura thought it might be an April Fools’ Day joke, but it wasn’t.
Going ahead on distressed work
by Alev Oguz, Istanbul, Turkey
When I love a painting on its half way, my strokes get conscious. I fear to lose the effect, so I try to control every stoke very precisely. This feeling, if takes over your mind, the painting gets ruined finally.
But the reverse is also true. When I do not like a painting, there is an infinite freedom. It is ruined anyway, so there is nothing to lose. I go on fearlessly, rub out randomly. I even washed a canvas with soap and water, and the remains were a beautiful texture which was very inspiring to paint over. I go on putting my strokes unconsciously, not to save anything, but just as it flows.
by Che Baraka, Brooklyn, NY, USA
The “mental lapses” are in truth, states of “mind-full-ness.” The “know-nothing zones” are actually “all-knowing-zones.” These are states of self-consciousness, or “consciousness of the self,” if you will. I’m not engaging in word-play here, but attempting to express a perceptual and creative process that is devoid of our usual intellect-dominant, physical-object-focused, and psyche-fragmented perceptions.
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 Sukhdev Dail who wrote, “I must tell you that I was a little hesitant to subscribe to your letter. I usually get up before sunrise. Today I woke up at 4 am and read your mail, and thoroughly enjoyed it, much better than reading a newspaper.”
And also Hilarion W. Faison of England who wrote, “I have come to baptize this zone ‘The Divine Spirit.’ Good gracious me the results are mesmerizing.”
And also Tony Kampwerth who wrote, “I have heard the phrase ‘brain fart’ to apply to these moments. The brain is a funny thing isn’t it?”
And also Aliye Cullu, Gainesville, FL, USA who wrote, “I am about to graduate with a degree in visual art studies, feeling somewhat unprepared, yet excited about the possibility of learning to paint by doing it. I have realized that the moments of “no mind” are essential for the creative force to move through the hands and be authentic. I feel honored to be an artist, what a gift and responsibility it is.”
And also Gail Siptak who wrote, “Maybe some of what you are saying also applies to Willem de Kooning when he was in the throes of Alzheimer’s in his later years and still painting. At any rate, I’m glad it happens. It’s like another plane and points to another human possibility.”
And also Brad Brandts who wrote, “My heart became the heart of the painting; my soul, the soul of the painting.”
And also Laura Hilts who wrote, “I would never try to express this to people who don’t create. They would wonder about me.”