How’s your myelin?

Dear Artist, During the past ten years we’ve probably learned more about the workings of the human brain than at any time in history. Neuroscientists have been busy digging around in our heads trying to get a glimpse of creativity, proficiency and talent. Something they were looking at was myelin. Long neglected by scientists, myelin is a whitish mass that surrounds our nerve fibers. Now it seems that myelin is a sort of electrician’s tape that insulates our wiring. The more myelin the better. As our brain fires off instructions to parts of our body, these myelin coatings have the effect of changing “dial up” to “broadband.” You can’t build myelin by taking pills, nor can you inherit it from your parents. Myelin builds through active and repetitious use of your brain. Scientists are now calling this “deep learning.” No room for the lackadaisical here, proficiency happens when you’re intense. Whether learning to play soccer, blow a clarinet or paint a picture, you need hard repetition, long hours, student mentality, and strong desire. While this may seem old hat, the relationship to measurable myelin is new. The value of myelin is well discussed in The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. He fingers a number of historical periods when deep learning took place. Florence from 1440 to 1490 is one of them. Verrocchio, Donatello, Ghiberti, Ghirlandaio, Michelangelo and da Vinci swapped ideas and technologies as well as competed with one another. Craft guilds arose and excellence prevailed. Talent occurs when folks don’t fear failure and there’s a premium on getting good. Myelin works in all human pursuits. In soccer, for example, Coyle looks at the remarkably high percentage of world-class soccer players generated by Brazil. With 40% of the country in poverty, soccer is seen as an avenue of economic escape. But the main credit for Brazilian soccer excellence goes to “futsal,” a similar game played in indoor courts with a small, heavy ball. Kids learn sophisticated, clever little moves not available to those out on the big grass of other nations. Reverse spins, back-shooting and ultra-short passing are ingrained through energetic, competitive hours spent in neighborhood pick-ups. Looking for little moves that count? Make small paintings, make lots of ’em, make ’em often, and you’ll be in the winning circle when you come to make the big ones. Best regards, Robert PS: “Practice makes myelin, and myelin makes perfect.” (Daniel Coyle) Esoterica: A current myelin hotspot is China. More than 2000 Chinese companies currently compete to make various types of scooters and powered bicycles. While lots of these two-wheelers are junk, it’s safe to say the next generation of great scooters will come from China. In the painting game, Chinese workshop-schools, mainly in Shenzhen, teach economically-stressed youth traditional Western methods. Thousands of graduates currently work in the low-cost art-cloning industry. But look out. Quality work tethered to individual ego will be moving the Himalayas. And with the incredible bog of dilettantism through which the West currently slogs, we will soon be studying Chinese myelin.   Smalls good for the bigs by Kat Corrigan, Minneapolis, MN, USA  

“They’re Up There…”
acrylic painting, 10 x 10 inches
by Kat Corrigan

This letter got me right where I needed it! I have been trying to paint daily and have been inspired by a number of daily painting blogs and it is the consistency and the commitment I am reaching for right now. I do feel more confident in my work and I’m wanting to spread out beyond my beloved dogs and go back to painting trees and skies. Living in Minnesota with the yearly miraculous reappearance of green requires a larger celebration and documentation than I think we give credit for! And thank you for stating that the small and the quantity develop the big and the deep.   There are 2 comments for Smalls good for the bigs by Kat Corrigan
From: Mary Bullock — Apr 16, 2010

Love your painting! The color just vibrate!

From: sharon cory — Apr 16, 2010

Love the picture. I need to put pink into a painting and I was really puzzling over how to do this without making it frou-frou. I can see from this how to do it, so thanks!

  Restoration of mental damage by Randal McClure   Ironically, I recently spent several days researching the nature of the blood-brain barrier, which insulates and protects the brain and its myelin. A break in this barrier can allow T-cells to enter the brain which in turn attack myelin, and can thus result in MS symptoms, Alzheimer’s, dementia, memory and motor function loss, you name it. The barrier consists of a lining of epithelial cells unique to that part of the circulatory system. So let’s say you have a compromised barrier due to inflammation or diabetes or something of that order, and you are fortunate to catch on to what is happening and get it under control with diet, medicines, supplements, exercise and meditation. It is great to think that mental and physical exercise can seemingly restore some of the damaged myelin. There are 2 comments for Restoration of mental damage by Randal McClure
From: cindy wider — Apr 15, 2010
From: Barbara WALLACE — Apr 29, 2010

Hi Cindy, if you want to learn more about CFS/ME, look at Dr Sara Myhill’s site. She states that it is caused by mitochondrial failure, and has a treatment plan. I’m glad to hear you recovered, and have rediscovered your passion for painting.

  Smalls without fears by L. Anne McClelland, Mountain View, AB, Canada   Hurrah for encouraging small works — I use them to experiment without fear in small gaps of time between other projects. Some of my best pieces are these little gems. Too bad many people think serious painters only paint big. Experimentation is key — you need to keep learning and discovering and then work, work, work to bring new skills or techniques into common practice in your imagery. That’s one of the best things about painting — always a learning curve. There are 2 comments for Smalls without fears by L. Anne McClelland
From: cary brief — Apr 16, 2010
From: peter Brown — Apr 18, 2010

The only difference between a big painting and a small painting is how far away one must stand to appreciate it.

  The cure of ‘deep learning’ by Dana Whitney, TX, USA   While it may have a genetic or even viral component, my reaction upon reading your essay was that my mother’s MS probably had a lot to do with her preferring drinking and denial to “deep learning.” Even though she had a superior brain and education for a woman of her time. Challenge denial. Embrace truth and sobriety… even when they’re inconvenient.   Possible re-growth of myelin by Sandy Gorski, Australia   I had Guilliane Barre Sydrome 5 years ago. That’s when the body eats away at the myelin and leaves you paralyzed. I was from the waist down for a short time. From that time I have endeavoured to pursue my creative talents. The stronger I got the more I did. I am a mosaic artist amongst other arts. You have to be quite strong to build cement sculptures. Slowly, slowly I kept at it. What you have said makes a lot of sense as I have experienced the re-growth of my myelin over these years.   The current wave of sketchers by Marilynn Brandenburger, Decatur, GA, USA  

“Journal Sketch”
mixed media
by Marilynn Brandenburger

I teach a workshop “The Illustrated Journal in Ink & Watercolor” that speaks directly to this issue. In it I show students how to make quick watercolor and ink sketches that record moments in their lives. The students think they’re learning techniques for travel sketching — and indeed they are — but I know what’s happening is much more than this; they’re learning how to paint. The results are always so much better in these sketching classes than in my more formal painting classes. Why? Because the students are relaxed (after all, it’s just a “sketch” not a “painting”) and absorbed in filling page after page with small studies, done from direct observation. They’re drawing and coloring intuitively, with joy. When they come up for air, they seem surprised they’ve been having so much fun and that their tiny paintings are so expressive and charming. Apparently that’s myelin in action, accompanied by intense, deep learning. I can’t say enough about the value of doing lots and lots of small paintings, and I keep trying to pass that on to students. Some years ago, International Artist published a great book, Work Small, Learn Big: Sketching with Pen & Watercolor — now, sadly, out of print, but still available — that makes this same point. And online groups like SketchCrawl and Urban Sketchers, that encourage artists of all levels to get out and sketch, are creating an international community of like-minded folk. So, there’s a lot of momentum, for this, Robert, and I’m glad to hear medical science is backing this up. There are 4 comments for The current wave of sketchers by Marilynn Brandenburger
From: Dana Whitney — Apr 15, 2010

I concur. I’ve subscribed to the philosophy of and try to at least sketch SOMETHING every day. Amazing the compliments I get now even though I’ve only taken a few classes. It sure helps my oil paintings, too!

From: John — Apr 16, 2010

Good post, good ideas. There are days when the idea of painting is just too daunting and I end up doing nothing, but a change in medium or something else on a smaller scale would be just right.

From: Raynald Murphy — Apr 16, 2010
From: Flora Rosefsky — Apr 16, 2010

I love Marilynn’s comments, and her wonderful sketches. Keeping a journal, whether it includes paintings, drawings, mixed-media, collage with or without text, can be inspiring, not only for the artist but for the future generations who someday will find and appreciate these small treasures. In the wired age of videos, CDs, DVDs, isn’t it nice to know that sketching like Marilynn Brandenburger is alive and well!

  Time and focused effort by Robert Lewis, BC, Canada   I’m dealing with a progressive form of Multiple Sclerosis and one problem I worry about is a decline in cognition so I spend hours reading and trying to learn new things. This supposedly fends off dementia and other problems of aging that affect the mind and cognition as the disease attacks the myelin sheath. I have read plenty of articles yet we now barely scratch the surface in understanding the brain and nervous system. Malcolm Gladwell has his 10,000 hour formula to become a concert violinist and so on. What all researchers are saying is that it takes time and focused effort to build again the synaptic connections.   Methods of defeating Alzheimer’s by Delores Hamilton, Cary, NC, USA  

“The Lion Remembers”
mixed media
by Delores Hamilton

Alzheimer’s runs in my family, so I read a lot of research on what one can do to stave it off for as long as possible. A strong connection exists between myelin and Alzheimer’s. Many of the suggestions for creating new neural pathways are similar to the suggestions you made. Others include: learning a new language, taking classes in higher math, solving jigsaw puzzles, creating original dressmaking patterns, and simple things like moving things around (putting the mouse on the other side of the keyboard, moving a wastebasket, and moving things around in the kitchen).       Work fast and train by Nigel McCoy, UK   It is amazing how old values like hard work, focus and steady application to a task are reinforced by the findings of modern science. And the idea the knowledge can be gained in miniature — such as the small indoor soccer pitches in Brazil — is exemplary. I was wondering if ping pong would be an aid to developing tennis players. Whether it’s a matter of growing myelin or something else, the principle is the same. Go for it, do it hard, work fast, TRAIN.   Combining science with practice by Anonymous   The idea is that through reinforcement — ‘deep practice’ as Daniel Coyle calls it — particularly when things go wrong in ways we can pick up and learn from — our brain develops pathways that become more efficient. This has been talked about for a long time in terms of the brain being a self-patterning system, where the more we use particular pathways the more bandwidth they carry — the only new bit of science is the knowledge that this ‘thickening’ is actually of the myelin sheath around the neurons. What Coyle does most effectively is to combine the information about this feature of the brain with observations of how to practice, an understanding of how seeing individuals break out can ‘ignite’ breakthroughs in others, and an excellent analysis of the most effective approach to coaching. As he makes clear, the idea that good coaching is about strong leadership and charisma simply isn’t true — it’s much more about micro manipulation on the edge of an individual’s or team’s capabilities.     [fbcomments url=””]    woa  

High Desert Spring

acrylic painting by Beverly Theriault

  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 Eva Kosinski of Louisville, CO, USA, who wrote, “Freedom and success are both the result of allowing others to take responsibility for, as well as bear the consequences of, their own actions or inactions, while exercising self control and taking personal responsibility for your own.” And also Marge Drew of Ormond Beach, FL, USA, who wrote, “While persons with MS cannot be cured by what you suggest, there is some excellent research on the subject of myelin repair here.” And also Ellen Kingsbury, who wrote, “How you conduct your hours and your days, is, of course, how you conduct your life.”    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for How’s your myelin?

From: Rita Putatunda — Apr 12, 2010

“Looking for little moves that count? Make small paintings, make lots of ’em, make ’em often, and you’ll be in the winning circle when you come to make the big ones. ” – Thanks for that. I needed just that at the moment. I’m struggling with a painting, and kind of losing heart.

From: Darla — Apr 13, 2010

Doing lots of small paintings will make you good at doing small paintings. But you need to practice doing the big ones too — they are qualitatively different from the small ones. Your hand and brain need to learn those big strokes and how to compose on a larger scale if you want to paint big. A large drawing pad or painting your wall with chalkboard paint give you room to practice big. It’s not just a matter of scaling up.

From: Tal Merchant — Apr 13, 2010

Robert, you’re dead on about young Chinese artists. They have enormous discipline and are well schooled. They work in a high volume reproductions market. They learn to work fast and their skills are honed. Some of these artists are escaping to the fine arts world, no longer being held back by their commercial concerns. These young artists are formidable. They havn’t been trained to believe that skill level doesn’t matter, that all “self expression” is created equal, and any effort is good. The not only know better than that, they are better than that. While there are still fine painters in the West, the Chinese are breaking out with unbelievable skill, eyes that see and hands that translate that seeing, and great panache. What’s more, we need to look at this art as it stands, and not bias ourselves against it due to some idea of economic or political system, are incipient racism. Ignoring or discounting this wellspring of artistic culture would be to our own loss.

From: Richard Smith — Apr 13, 2010

Myelin is fine, how’s yours? I really am a sick and twisted individual.

From: Gavin Logan — Apr 13, 2010

You mean your elin is okay but my elin is not? Sort of like that’s my analysis and that’s your analysis.

From: Heather Stubbs — Apr 14, 2010
From: John Fitzsimmons — Apr 14, 2010

A useful exercise that I do when I am at the end of a path and need to examine a new direction. is I make up 10or 20 two inch squares of Masonite, primed. I then do tiny paintings on them, the small scale not only forces you to look at the painting differently but it also means that the time into each is minimal and I can just concentrate on the one aspect I am interested in with out the distractions that go with a larger piece and thus larger commitment. Like a sketch but the result is more or less a finished painting. This is a great way to explore different colors and compositions.

From: Terry Mason — Apr 14, 2010

I seem to be hearing a song in some quarters that sounds suspiciously like “in hard times talent will out and cream rises to the top”. I think this is elitist hogwash. I am reminded of so many times in history where circumstances beat the hell out of talent. Just going back to the times of McCarthy we can see the totality of talent that never reached fruition [oh the works of art we lost!!]because of a stupid witch hunt of a self aggrandizing prejudiced man. And in this recession we are losing artists every day. We lose those who simply cannot start at all. We lose those who are working towards some sort of mastery but cannot continue with study that isn’t even ready to pay off yet….although in better economic times even learning artists can do well. Remember that it take some years and some dedication to paint well. And we lose professionals, those artists who have given years and years in the service of their craft because circumstances are such that they cannot sell at this time. Depressed markets, especially extended ones, take a terrible toll on art. And because of this, we lose art. This is not a scenario of cream rising to the top at all. It is a devastation plain and simple. I deplore the loss of art in these times. And I deplore the loss of ability to paint at all when one is driven to paint. For every Nolde that painted small and hid his treasures in the woodpile in tough times I wonder how many were just robbed of the ability to even do that. Bad times hurt art and science and every thing else. I do think it is better to mourn and recognize the loss than it is to deny it. To deny it may mean a person is doing well [good for them]and it may also mean that there is not room in their heart to recognize that difficult times are just difficult…..and although some artists will survive and do well….they may or may not be the cream of the talent. They are only the survivors. We will never know the talent of the ones we lose now. And that is worth mourning and speaking truth about. I believe totally in optimism in these times. It keeps you afloat if you happen to be or know one of the ones struggling to keep on keeping on. But I also want to acknowledge, and indeed take a moment, to understand that these times mean lost art and lost artists. And that is worth noting.

From: Margaret Rooker — Apr 14, 2010

As a teacher I was thrilled to learn about the extent of myelin’s significance in the phenomenon I have observed for years: that those who really work at learning make strides that cannot be accounted for in terms of their starting point. Thanks for this! Ideas about “talent” and IQ and “native abilities” must be completely reexamined in light of new research findings. My mom’s “Your brain’s a muscle. You need to exercise it” and “Practice makes perfect” weren’t half bad, were they? Now if we can just get funding for education so that (as in years past) every child could learn a musical instrument, practice an art, and learn a foreign language in elementary school and middle school, maybe calculus wouldn’t be so hard in high school!

From: Janet Morgan — Apr 14, 2010
From: Sarah Garland — Apr 14, 2010

There is a film that shows the importance of myelin and how it can be improved by diet/distilled oil. Lorenzo’s Oil is a 1992 drama directed by George Miller. It is based on the true story of Augusto and Michaela Odone, parents in a relentless search for a cure for their son Lorenzo’s adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD). The film was nominated for two Academy Awards.

From: Sandra Walton-Ball — Apr 14, 2010

I suffered from a rare form of Guillain Barre Syndrome a rare medical phenomenon in which the myelin is slowly shed from the bodies nervous system. I was on life support for 4 months. I took years to return to my normal abilities (whatever normal is?). I found my way back through my art. The initial test was to hold a paint brush, to push my fingers & hands into picking up fine Japanese Paper for collage work. My beginnings toward recovery were to work with miniatures in order to restore my energy each day. To-day it would be unbearable to think I have any less ability to produce my artwork then someone with a high percentage of myelin on their nervous system. Some parts of my body do not work as well but my artwork is & has been my answer to wellness & ability to produce art to a degree of satisfaction has been my award. The old saying “Once one looses something they have taken for granted all their lives, this becomes a challenge in making us into stronger & more determined human being.” I don’t miss the myelin I do not have & as far as I’m concerned the whole episode has given me a stronger desire to succeed in what I know & love best. I do not take the arrival of spring for granted or the many other happenings that seem to occur so naturally to others in their view of life’s offerings.

From: David W Fraser — Apr 14, 2010

“And with the incredible bog of dilettantism through which the West currently slogs, we will soon be studying Chinese myelin.” Thank you, Robert. And we better do it soon. We are adrift.

From: Christine Debrosky — Apr 15, 2010

Robert, Very interesting study, and insightful as always. I do believe that painters should hone their craft every day. It is true, that in today’s world there are sometimes only an hour or two that may be devoted to painting, hence small studies are an excellent practice- they have ‘kept me honest’ over the years. I do fear that the daily painting movement, in its great popularity may be at the expense of well thought out and crafted meaningful work. I believe all methods- sketching, small studies, color notes, plein air and alla prima painting, and the large sustained, in depth living with for weeks work – make for excellence in painting.

From: Sarah Garland — Apr 17, 2010

Robert Genn will be signing books on Saturday April 24th between 1 and 3 pm at Canada House, 201 Bear St, Banff, Alberta, Canada. He’s shy, but he’d love to say hello.


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.