My idle mind

Dear Artist, The other day I got into a Brain Measuring Machine and was asked to do nothing in particular. “You’re older,” said the technician, “so you may have trouble turning off. Younger people seem to be able to switch around at will. They tend to be not quite as rigid as seniors. So don’t worry. Just try to relax.” This suggestion gave me a bad attitude about the University. I thought about withdrawing my financial support. After a few minutes of doing nothing in particular, with nothing to read, not even a brain chart on the wall, even an old phrenological one, I found myself mellowing out. I indulged my regular visions of loosening up and working fresher and more like Nicolai Fechin. Then a few nude oils of Anders Zorn tiptoed through and I wondered if my handler was party to them on her monitor. My attachments began to itch. I’d been warned that to scratch might prejudice my readouts, so I kept my hands away from my noggin. I became extremely uneasy. It was like some years ago when, as part of an encounter group, I was asked to stare at myself in a mirror, without blinking, for half an hour. On that occasion I watched myself grow horns and become James Cagney. But now I began to see myself as a particularly vacuous and empty-headed know-nothing. Who was I to claim to be an artist? Out of the corner of my eye I could see my inquisitor, now distinctly Tomas de Torquemada, bent over and taking notes in red ink with a large feather quill. Finally, like a Model A Ford going down a hill in second gear, I heard the computer digesting and putting out its various reports. “Well,” she said, unplugging me and pulling on a long graph like an EEG printout, “Very active, surprisingly active really. You processed a lot of emotional info through your amygdala and your caudate nucleus comes off as pretty busy too.” She paused to study the multiple lines that I took to be my medial prefrontal cortex. “A little idling there, but all over the place, like you do something very busy and finicky like quantum physics. Are you from the Physics Department?” I knew she was fishing. I don’t think she was supposed to know what I did for a living. “What do you do?” she asked, as I was putting on my shoes. “I’m a painter,” I said. “House?” she asked. “Picture,” I said. “Okay,” she said, “but what do you actually do?” Best regards Robert PS: “Older adults have trouble turning off the stuff that goes on in their heads.” (Cheryl Grady, Baycrest-Rotman Research Institute, Toronto, Ontario)

Esoterica: Recent brain research shows creative folks of all ages have active circuits, particularly in the default mode networks. This is the dreaming, wondering, wandering, idling fanciful department. It seems that artistic types can actually “live in” a world of their own creation, perhaps preferring it to the real world, their work being an extension of it. The Model A Ford, the Inquisition, and even Nicolai Fechin may exist as contrived players in an internally-agreed consciousness.   The speeding processor by Tobi Ann Baumgartner, Lorette, MB, Canada  

“Sunset Flood”
original painting
by Tobi Ann Baumgartner

I’ve always been told I think too much. As a child I needed to teach myself how to turn my brain off to relax. It wasn’t easy. Nowadays, (I’m in my 30’s) I’ve accepted that the quiet, calm of my body helps the speeding processor in my brain sort things out, process the stimulants of the day, and just work harder to achieve organization. For me, that is relaxation.   There are 2 comments for The speeding processor by Tobi Ann Baumgartner
From: Mary Bullock — May 21, 2010

Beautiful painting – very calm and quiet.

From: Anonymous — May 23, 2010

really nice painting . . . kudos!

  In the moment by Darrell Baschak, Manitou Beach, SK, Canada  


“Wellington early”
original painting
by Darrell Baschak

“Idle Mind” naturally gets into a very broad topic that begs the question of what is reality. Personally I believe, and I am certain many others do as well, that it changes constantly, and any effort to control it is contrary to nature itself. Maybe that is why when as artists we have the painting “paint itself” the piece is much more satisfying and true to the nature of the moment. Pieces that are contrived and worrisome are a lie and leave you and the viewer unsatisfied and bothered, as if there is something missing. We as artists certainly create our own world and the closer we come to creating while being present in the moment the more truthful the piece will be. There is 1 comment for In the moment by Darrell Baschak
From: Mary Bullock — May 21, 2010

Beautiful! I love how you did the grasses in the forground.

  55 and better by Carmen Gardner, Haiku, HI, USA  

watercolour 16 x 20 inches
by Carmen Gardner

I teach beginning, intermediate and advanced watercolor for our senior center here on Maui. Kaunoa gives preference to folks “55 and better.” Right now, I have 42 students who meet the requisite “age requirement.” I just wanted to chime in and add my wholehearted “Yes!” to your musings on seniors and the activity in our amygdala and our caudate nuclei. Apparently art and creativity in general have been shown to benefit seniors on many levels. It is thought that they are healthier, happier, “sharper” folk when creative juices are flowing. I am only one of several professional artists who are teaching at Kaunoa and we, too, seem to benefit from exercising our gray matter.   There are 2 comments for 55 and better by Carmen Gardner

Wow, this is beautiful!!! What colors did you use to get your background so dark. The colors are luminescent, making the flower almost wave at you.

From: Carmen Gardner — May 22, 2010

Mahalo for your kind comment Karen. I believe I used indanthrone blue to first paint in the larger shapes, and to establish shadow areas on the leaves (using the en grisailles technique). Then I used hansa yellow light for the lighter areas of the bg leaves. Once totally dry, I glazed several layers of various greens . . . again, mahalo and much aloha from Maui!

  Aging well by Nina Allen Freeman, Tallahassee, FL, USA  

“It’s a Big World”
acrylic 10 x 8 inches
by Nina Allen Freeman

I have this on-going conversation with some of my friends about why artists age so well. They stay active longer, they are involved with arts organizations and although have health problems you never hear about them. We believe it is because their minds are constantly active, thinking about the next painting, trying to solve the problems of the current painting and wondering what would happen if they tried something new. My oldest friend who falls in this category will soon be 93.     There is 1 comment for Aging well by Nina Allen Freeman
From: Mary Bullock — May 21, 2010

Nina – it is so true! I just started teaching art at a retirement home – one of the students is 100! What a hoot! The students are so funny and raucous, I’m having a blast.

  Right brain or left brain? by Dayle Ann Stratton, Brandon, VT, USA  

acrylic painting
by Dayle Ann Stratton

I wonder what the results would be were I to be in that position. My tendency when I have procedures that require me to sit (or lay) quietly, is to go into meditation. I am fully aware, but my mind chatter quiets. In a way, it is the same state I am in while painting. On the other hand, I do have a fairly odd and whimsical way of interpreting the world as I interact with it (something that baffles some people and irritates others). Or maybe that’s not another hand kind of thing. People who think the two halves of the brain have exclusive domain over specific things are mistaken: the two halves are constantly communicating, collaborating, and coordinating on a lot of tasks; lots of room for creativity in the process if we allow it. Then comes the part of trying to communicate it in some way to others — or not. Sometimes it’s just fun to be who I am.   Mind-painting by Anne Sete, Petaluma, CA, USA   I’m one of those painters who wakes up at about 3 in the morning, awake enough to have my mind working, though not awake enough to want to get up and do something. So I have taken up painting in my mind from 3 am until I fall asleep later on, probably around 4:30 am or so. I try all kinds of things! If I am problem solving with a current painting, I move things around, try different colors, different shapes and symbols. It is so much fun! I have noticed that my dreams are becoming richer, with more colors and texture. I have a whole universe inside my head; created, maintained, and enjoyed! There are 2 comments for Mind-painting by Anne Sete
From: Joanne Benson — May 21, 2010

I too wake up frequently and have trouble falling back to sleep. I actually got up to paint one night. Not the most successful painting but fanciful. I hadn’t thought about painting in my mind! What a great suggestion and much better than “counting sheep”!!! I will most certainly try this technique if I remember in my half awake state! Thanks for a great tip!

From: Ron — May 21, 2010

I too wake up at 3am.There seems to be so much thinking going on that it sometimes takes an hour or more to get back to sleep.I usually pray and do deep breathing exercises.I am 72,I wonder if that has anything to do with it??

  Totally out of touch by Judy Reinsma, Saugus, CA, USA  

“The Legend of Wunderbar”
book cover
by Judy Reinsma

What an interesting observation, one thing to ponder. Will today’s plugged in, turned on, tuned out generation have anything in their minds to ponder in their later years? How do you have an active memory bank of tweets, twitters, blogs and “YouTube” snippets? A life-time of observing, reading about and experiencing real life has provided me with inspiration for painting as well as writing in my later years (70). Time will tell, but it appears to me that many of our brightest young people are totally out of touch with real life.       Hidden gems by Collette Fergus, Waikato, New Zealand  

“Not a Still life with Red Apples”
acrylic painting
by Collette Fergus

What a fabulous story, isn’t it amazing how many people think that being an artist isn’t a real job! Shame that notion is still around! Your story points out to me that the perception we are not too smart as well is still strong. Just goes to show that we do have active minds and most of us are well aware of it. When I talk to other artists we understand what each other means when we talk of such things like the vivid colours of something or the concept of how we process what we see, often creating other things with our vivid imaginations from something others who are not artistic would simply miss! We have a particular stretch of barren road in New Zealand called the Desert Road that is dull and boring to most people, it is full of tussocks and rolling hills and the journey through it is laborious for them. I see so much more myself, like the layers of coloured rock in oh-so-interesting formations; the shades of colour in the hills and tussocks that make up the overall beige they see and of course the contrasts with all that is around it. I teach this to whoever is travelling with me and have hopefully opened up their eyes to all the beauty around them. We may not be able to always express in words what we think but us artists know we can visualize it much better than others could ever comprehend, and the satisfaction of being able to transfer it to canvas is immense! There is 1 comment for Hidden gems by Collette Fergus
From: Mary Lewis — May 21, 2010

I love your apples bouncing around in the air! Also the butterfly hanging on tight!

  Trouble turning off by Solette N. Gelberg, King City, ON, Canada   I started painting with lessons in Mrs. Bates’ basement when I was eleven years old and was “hooked.” I have been involved in some type of creative activity every since. She not only taught us to draw with pencils, charcoal and chalk; but showed us how to use water colour, oil paints and how to take good care of our tools. She also set aside a part of each two hour lesson to “impose” art history on us. I hardly paint anymore but once in a while I do pencil drawing (mostly when I am on vacation), I draw my own canvases for needle pointing with wool or silk threads, I do my own gardening and arrange my own flowers when they are available. My main “tool” right now is my camera and I have learned to delete, delete, and delete, saving only the very best of the lot. As for “brain measuring,” it’s nice to know that those of us who are older (I’m 69) have trouble turning off; at least our brains are always working. We could probably have saved her a lot of effort and research dollars if she had just spent some time conversing with us instead. It makes me wonder what purpose there is in all this research done mainly at or through universities with the hard-earned dollars that the rest of us continue to contribute. May be time for a serious rethink about what we do with our donations and how to redirect all those academic types to more useful endeavors.   [fbcomments url=””]   Featured Workshop: Mothership Adventures
061810_robert-genn14 Mothership Adventures   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order. 

Blue rain

oil painting by Aleksa Dskjhk

  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 Nader Khaghani of Sunnyvale, CA, USA, who wrote, “Nicolai Fechin! A great painter. Thank you for turning me on to him, but I don’t like the label impressionist. He is a good American painter period, but I guess we got to classify everything. And don’t worry about idle or over-active brain. We painters are all brain dead anyway.”    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for My idle mind

From: Raschella — May 17, 2010

There I was, reading along, interesting post, etc., got to the last couple of sentences and laughed out loud and scared the dogs.

From: Ron Unruh — May 18, 2010

Last Friday I told some friends and yesterday I was thinking that I am the most impatient painter. I have so many interests. Writing, reading, driving my MX5, reading, snoozing. I cannot stay at my painting task for very long. I always come back but this sporadic style means I am not very productive – at least my outcomes don’t meet my expectations. So now I am impatient with myself. My wife counsels me to ease up on myself.

From: Dwight Williams — May 18, 2010

After making a nice living painting…pictures…for 40 years, my sister says I can’t possibly retire since I “never worked a day in my life.” My reply is you’ve got to be really smart to get along as well as I have without “working.” Keep painting everyone and live the good life!

From: Darla — May 18, 2010

I’ve always thought that most artists have ADD, with their minds always having to be engaged on one thing or another. Is there really a way to stop thinking about things when you’re conscious and not painting in the zone? Doesn’t everybody always have thoughts running through their heads even when they’re not doing anything?

From: Dorenda — May 18, 2010

Good One! The line I usually get is, “but what is your REAL job.” I usually then tell them I am a “Visionary Archivist specializing in Realistic Data.” End of conversation :)

From: Dayle Ann Stratton — May 18, 2010

Raschella, I had exactly the same reaction you did! Thanks, Robert. I wonder what the results would be were I to be in that position. My tendency when I have procedures that require me to sit (or lay) quietly, is to go into meditation. I am fully aware, but my mind chatter quiets. In a way, it is the same state I am in while painting. On the other hand, I do have a fairly odd and whimsical way of interpreting the world as I interact with it (something that baffles some people and irritates others). Or maybe that’s not an other hand kind of thing. People who think the two halves of the brain have exclusive domain over specific things are mistaken: the two halves are constantly communicating, collaborating, and coordinating on a lot of tasks. Lots of room for creativity in the process if we allow it. Then comes the work of trying to communicate it in some way to others. Or not. Sometimes it’s just fun to be who I am. And yes, Darla, the brain seems to want to follow every random thing it encounters and commenting on it. The key is to let the thoughts just flow through without holding on to them. ADD people seem disjointed because, ironically, their brains lack stimulation and seek it.

From: Raymond Mosier — May 18, 2010

The best combination: Smart + Funny

From: Tinker Bachant — May 18, 2010

“Older adults have trouble turning off the stuff that goes on in their heads.” (Cheryl Grady, Baycrest-Rotman Research Institute, Toronto, Ontario) Which is a good thing. It just means we know so much more…:-)

From: Tatjana M-P — May 18, 2010
From: Tatjana M-P — May 18, 2010

P.S. From some reason, based on your description of the process and researcher’s comments, I am not under an impression that they know what they are doing. Maybe it’s just me…

From: Doris Olsen — May 19, 2010

When asked “What do you actually do?” reminds me when my grandson was 5 years old, said “he was going to be an artist when he grew up so he didn’t have to work.” When you advertised about your last workshop being on a boat, etc., I was almost the first one to sign up until I began to face reality about possible painting in the rain etc. I have made quite a few treks across the world and am growing weary. If you would just please give a workshop in a normal easy-to-get-to place, I will be the first to sign up! I am a watercolorist (trying to be an acrylic painter) My website is What about the northern California coast…beautiful spots, Mendocino, etc. I love your letters and your books!

From: Kathleen Arnason — May 19, 2010

I understand idle however if one wants to rest the mind then going to a place where we can let go of the chaos seems like a good idea . I know meditation does that for me. A true rest even from idle. But I love idle because the time one is in idle can be most useful. The place where clarity or understanding is allowed to just find its own place . I think idle for me is where I allow the pieces of the puzzle to drop into place rather then try to make them fit. The place where you surrender to creative order .

From: Linda Saccoccio — May 19, 2010

Yes, artists minds travel and the visions are as real as this physical world we live in. When we dream at night it affects us in a real way, so what we carry in our waking minds does to. Now the task at hand seems to be allowing the mind to wander while also disciplining it so we can function in the world. In other words our minds can be our greatest gifts or our worst enemies. The truest happiness flowers from within and allows us to engage in a balanced way in the world.

From: Bev Wilson — May 19, 2010

My mind never stops and my inner world has always been vast and busy. Sometimes to the detriment of my relationships. So, i try and honour my inner world and remember that i also live with others in an outer one. I definitely, at times, prefer the inner!!!

From: Paul Wolf — May 19, 2010

I find my idling brain more interesting now than when i was a young “knowledge worker”. I let it idle a lot, when getting dressed or undressed, when sitting on the pot, just after waking, and have, what to me are most interesting insights, or sometimes – good times – painting ideas.

From: Helen Musser — May 19, 2010

You are getting more and more entertaining with each art letter; thanks for letting us into your world. What comes next; who could ever have thought they could do a measuring of your brain; you are very brave to allow this hook up. It seems you are encountering a multitude of negative thoughts from outsiders. She did, though, commend you on your brain activity. We are all joyous you became an artist and not a rocket scientist.

From: Frances Stilwell — May 19, 2010

Ah ha ha ha ha ha. I understood part of it and the gist of all of it. Hope the study was for research and if not that it was for only slight memory loss which you don’t seem to have since you remembered all those parts of the brain.

From: Skip van Lenten — May 19, 2010

I would have said, “Both!” But I only get paid for one.

From: Anita — May 19, 2010

I continue to be amused an educated by your ponderings. You’re a funny guy.

From: Ruth Wren — May 19, 2010

I’m sure glad I’m older and can wonder and wander as I please.

From: Edna V.Hildebrandt — May 19, 2010

I don’t quite understand why you were having these measurements of your brain and the remark by the technician about “old people being rigid and have trouble turning off”. I think that the brain is turned off only when it is dead as in a person who is brain dead. I’d be worried if my brain is “turned off”. I think as people grow older they have garnered more knowledge and good memories that their brains are more active and productive where younger people have not. Perhaps that is how a creative person draws material for his inspiration. Old brain keep on dreaming, imagining and take flight on the wings of fancy for more beautiful and meaningful work of art. Translate those dreams wondering,and wandering into words and pictures that transcends mankind to a better world. Thank you for an interesting newsletter.

From: Cathy Harville — May 19, 2010

I would love to have my brain mapped! I live in Maryland, and you would think with Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, that they may be doing something awesome like that. But mostly, they do brain scans to look for mental disorder activity. I did have an MRI once, when I was about 42. It was deemed “unremarkable”. I felt a bit discouraged. In medical terms, unremarkable is good, but in real life terms, it seems like I must be a moron. My brain is often all over the place. Right now, I am painting with color combinations that no one would want to justify. But it is working, and I like the intensity. Just when you think you have your style down, your brain says “no, I want to play some more”. And I say, “okay”. I guess my brain is spoiled!

From: Eliane — May 19, 2010

Idle mind “NEVER” we as Artists know we don’t need a brain machine, to measure our activity. The Artist mind is always creating…give him or her a blank canvas and surely the juice will flow. I personally feel a need for 2 lifetimes to paint what is in my mind.

From: Claire Butler — May 19, 2010

Thank you for that belly laugh so early in the morning…the astonishing looks on the faces of people when they find out that I paint on canvas rather than on walls is just precious. With the economy as it is now, I might just consider a career change afterall…

From: Carmen Beecher — May 19, 2010

This is fascinating! I would find this very difficult. If I am lying still and awake, I’d better have a book or be getting a massage. And thanks for teaching the technician that artists actually can think.

From: Catherine Stock — May 19, 2010

When I tell people I am an illustrator, they almost inevitably respond with “Published anything?” Anyway, I just wanted to tell you that I always read your letters because they 1. Contain something of interest 2. Are succinct. Some other sites that I never bother with anymore involve opening numerous pages which I just don’t have the time or inclination to do.

From: Robert Head — May 19, 2010

Model A Fords are great machines. They can run on just about anything, unlike the spoiled and finicky machines of today. My synapses are making connections here. …I have probably killed more brain cells than the average 25 year old has altogether… …and I can still tie my shoes. Sometimes, the person administering the test is actually the test subject.

From: Rose — May 19, 2010

I have just passed a couple of your newsletters onto close artist friends and urged them to subscribe, I feel as though I have just given them a great gift. Odd (but as you would realize not so odd) some of your newsletters hit the spot when most needed.

From: Frank Gerrietts — May 19, 2010

“I’m a painter,” I said. “House?” she asked. “Picture,” I said. “Okay,” she said, “but what do you actually do?”>>> She, the tester, obviously never had her brain turned on…much less idling.

From: Lina Jones — May 19, 2010

Again I thoroughly enjoyed reading your letter and found it thoroughly amusing. So when are you going to get a real job?

From: Jen M. — May 20, 2010

This post is too funny. I always hate it, though, when people do that: “Yeah…but what do you DO?” That’s so insulting! My mind is always racing, reeling, and churning. Creatives are some of THE biggest/most active thinkers around. We have to be!

From: Nancy C Marshall — May 20, 2010

As early a kindergarten I was labeled a dreamer. Sometimes my dreamy nature prevents me from the mundane tasks of everyday life. But who wants to do the laundry (marketing, bill paying, cleaning, cooking…) when one can be painting?

From: Russian — May 20, 2010

Nicolai Fechin a good American artist – ha, ha, brain dead indeed!

From: Marie Pinschmidt — May 21, 2010

Absolutely fabulous session. I’ve enjoyed every word. It’s good to have validation of my quirky, never-bored mind. I have painted for years and took up writing (three novels) after becoming a senior citizen. My doctor tells me I’m the over-all healthiest patient for my age he has ever had. Creativity keeps us young, healthy in mind and spirit and I’ll be searching for something new to learn with my last breath. Thanks to all for making me feel more “normal” than “abnormal”.

From: Amy Garza — May 28, 2010

An idle mind is useless, but a placid mind is something of value beyond measure.

From: Carolynn Doan — Jun 18, 2010

I find the subject that you have chosen for this date to be of particular interest. I have been contemplating the over active brain for years. I myself have what I call a ‘pinging’ brain/mind….it never, or almost never, stops. After poling most of my family and friends, I have discovered that this type of over activity is not actually that normal. I had a specific experience that started me contemplating how different people ‘see’ life differently and I mean differently! Most people DO NOT jump from thought to thought in no particular sequence to no obvious conclusion. I found this rather odd. Most people do not actually ‘see’ what they are looking at, in fact, they seem to see what they want to see. I find that odd as well.


Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

Subscribe and receive the Twice-Weekly letter on art. You’ll be joining a worldwide community of artists.
Subscription is free.