Now it seems that researchers at the Universities of British Columbia and Minnesota have found a relationship between creativity and the height of ceilings. Rui Zhu and Joan Meyers-Levy tested various volunteer groups in rooms of eight- and ten-foot ceilings. “When a person is in a high-ceiling environment, they are going to process information in a more abstract, creative fashion,” said Zhu. “Those in a room with relatively lower ceilings will process in a much more concrete, detail-oriented fashion.”
These researchers feel people under high ceilings are “primed” to think broadly because of the sense of freedom associated with the space, while the containment of a lower ceiling encourages people to think small and focused.
There may be something in this. Artists have traditionally demanded high ceilings, not only so they can run up their easels and facilitate high light but also to give themselves creative headroom. My studio, for example, is divided into two areas, one with a 9-foot ceiling, the other with a pitch that goes up to 14 feet. I’ve noticed I feel different in the two areas, and bringing work-in-progress from one area to the other demands different moves.
On the other hand, working outside under an infinite ceiling can evoke a kind of conservative stagnation. In my case, this perverse reaction may be due to the intimidation that the great outdoors has always given me and may not be typical of all plein air enthusiasts. On the other hand, the studio in general is a sanctuary where I may safely vacillate between exploratory creativity and my personal bag of tricks.
Apart from the feng-shui of high ceilings and their invitation to power and expansive thinking, other benefits include the dissipation of toxins and more oxygen. And when you think about it, the availability of empty warehouses and lofts on Manhattan has contributed greatly to the New York “paint big” school. Paris has always had some big places too. “Give me the venue and I will fill it up,” said Picasso. While larger, higher studios may invite larger, higher work, they might also invite larger, higher ideals. Incidentally, these researchers ought to try to find out if shorter persons are more creative than taller ones because they have more space above their heads.
PS: “Higher ceilings prime the feeling of freedom that in turn facilitates the relational processing of multiple data.” (Rui Zhu)
Esoterica: Contrarily, I’d like to draw your attention to the possible value of confinement. Tight little areas such as bird blinds, cars and motorhomes work well for many. It has something to do with the absence of clutter and the opportunity to focus. Curiously, I’ve pulled off more than a few reasonable paintings in the economy seat of a crowded aircraft. I feel there’s something smugly brilliant about keeping my elbows to myself. In any case, when building the studio of your dreams, you need to think about bumping your head.
Expansive space — expansive work
by Faith Puleston, Herdecke, Germany
A few months ago I had to give up my lovely studio with its 15-foot high ceiling for health reasons. I had only painted there for just over a year and my paintings were getting bigger and bigger and more and more extravagant. I was putting the canvases together and there seemed no limit to the “expansion” of my artwork. I’m sure it was at least partly the challenge to live up to the scale of the huge area. After leaving the studio (and moving house) the paintings were too large to be accommodated and therefore confined to my cellar storeroom. I suppose I should find new homes for them, but am still quite “attached” to them. Now I try to paint in a “normal” room — but I haven’t painted anything remotely like what I was painting in that studio. I expect I’ll get used to scaling down my work eventually, but it has taken the edge off my “creativity” not to have this seemingly endless headroom above me — and yet be protected from the elements!
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
The Westinghouse Studies of about 1920 showed that people doing jobs responded to changes. They raised the illumination and productivity increased. Then they lowered the illumination and productivity also increased. I love the eleven-foot ceilings in my Victorian home and I also love the 20-foot ceiling in my 1930s art classroom. But you are correct in saying that a small place can be productive and interesting. I think that it is just changing places and formats. One should paint small, and then very big. Miniatures and murals. Humans do their best with variety. Most people are bored, and even artists are bored. The answer is change. That is how it works with my high school students. Big and small, color and pencil, 2-D and 3-D. High ceilings or low. It is all stimulation, and all humans need stimulation.
More short questions
by Janet Lee Sellers, Monument, CO, USA
I am a tall person with very high ceilings — 15-20 feet in most of my home, 8 feet in my studio where I teach. Oddly enough, I do my art in the living rooms with the high ceilings! I teach in my studio, but I always seem to go outside or, in bad weather, end up in the living rooms. I thought it due to the large picture windows with views of the Rocky Mountains. Now I am wondering if I feel greater imagination there. Also, I’ve long noticed that when I tidy a room or de-clutter, I get really creative and imaginative. I feel better doing book work in my office with the 7-8 foot ceilings. Did you make all this up? Wow. Did you get some laughs over the tall/short comments? Those short people use ladders more, but we all change the seats in the car, so how does that account for driving ability? Do people in tall cars drive differently than those in the short sports cars? I see roadsters doing the freeway slalom more often than trucks or sedans…
(RG note) Thanks, Janet. Now would I make up something like that? You can read some of the original research material on the UBC website.
Benefits of lower ceilings
by Dar Hosta, Flemington, NJ, USA
I guess I am going to have to paint a sky on my studio ceiling if I want to be more lofty in my creations. I work in a basement, albeit a very nice and finished basement, where the ceiling is not only of regular room height, but dropped even further above my workspace to hide its basementness. Perhaps this is the reason my work has become more and more detail-oriented through the years I’ve worked there! Here I thought I was just getting better. Then again, I’m pretty short… maybe I could start sitting on the floor for the same effect. Move over, dogs, you’re in my seat. Following this train of logic, we creative types ought to lower the ceilings over our computers so that we can better navigate and tolerate those devilish accounting software programs.
by Collette Renee Fergus, New Zealand
Where do you get these gems of information from? I work in two different rooms with vastly different ceiling heights and yes, there is a difference in the work I create in each one. The larger room does tend to lend it self more to larger scale works, but weirdly enough, my more free flowing abstracts of any size seem to happen there while my more detailed and pain staking difficult surrealist works always seem to be in the lower ceiling room. The amount of space in both rooms is not hugely different, so this was a surprise to find there is more to why I work like this than I realized.
The long and short of it
by Terry Scott Greenhough, Salmon Arm, BC, Canada
I was wondering what the UBC scientists would say to an artist who has a combination high and low ceiling as I do. It is also narrow, 12 feet wide but 25 feet long with a ceiling that is 14 feet high on one side (the 12 ft span) and runs across to 7 ft on the other side. This space is off the living room which is above the studio space and has a 7 foot ceiling where I am able to walk up a grand stair case and look down onto my work from 37 feet away. I have no idea what affect this space would have on me. I do paint large and small.
Best of both worlds
by Elizabeth Briel, Hong Kong
Artists work wherever they can, with whatever resources they can dig up.
Here in Hong Kong, space is at a premium, and an affordable studio is hard to come by. One friend rents a lofty warehouse space. He likes working there at night after his family goes to sleep — and the machines next door are quiet, too. He hails from the Boracay region of the Phippines, famous for its sunny beaches and relaxed lifestyle, the complete opposite of this workaholic, claustrophobic city.
I live on an outlying island, Lamma, in Hong Kong. There are no cars, and all buildings are three stories or under. I’ve just rented a small one-bedroom apartment for my studio. It’s got a “balcony” with doors that open onto a busy back street of the village, and a rooftop that’s ideal for developing my cyanotype photographs and paintings. The bedroom is my “darkroom.” Ceilings are low, as all apartments are on Lamma Island, but the generous natural light makes up for it. And the rooftop has a sliver of a seaview. Somehow, it’s the best of both worlds: outdoors and in.
Upwardly mobile soul soars
by Rene Seigh, Huntsville, AL, USA
I am forwarding this letter to my contractor, who is finishing up the addition of a sunroom that contains my little corner of the world (with my husband’s pool table on the other side). Through a combination of the framer’s foreman being out with a bad back and blueprints sketched on a napkin (shame on us), our new room went from a planned 14 foot-tall gable to an absolutely gorgeous 24 feet tall. It was supposed to be 9.5 foot walls with 14 feet total height, and instead they made it 9.5 foot PLUS 14 feet up. When I walk in, my soul soars, and now, too, shall my art. Whether it’s true or not that creativity is heightened by height, I know the power of suggestion will set me free! We have to pay gallery owners a commission, but maybe my contractor deserves something as well?
Everyone needs a great room
by David C. Benjamin, MT, USA
Vertical and horizontal space has a great effect on most individuals and not just in the creative process. Have you ever wondered why you feel cramped in a motel or other room which is usually full of furniture and has low ceilings? Have you ever had the expansive and almost spiritual feeling that I find in my great room with its 21-foot cathedral ceiling and large horizontal space? It is here that I do most of my reading and thinking. Although I have studio space downstairs (with a 9-foot ceiling), because I needed more floor space in which to paint and draw, tucked away in the northeast corner of the great room stands an easel where I will most surely put most of the finishing touches on my paintings.
Important to have dog in room
by Janet Toney, Greeneville, TN, USA
I favor horizontal space to spread out papers or canvases with paints comfortably nearby, lights positioned correctly. And, I want my phone close because rushing to get the phone usually results in a new color to the floor or my clothes as I drop the brush or knock things over! On the other hand, painting outdoors usually just makes me irritated. The wind untucks my hair, blowing at least one piece in my face to tickle my nose or cheek. Bugs always like to sit right where I just finished a difficult little spot. At home, the dog makes painting outside impossible. If he’s out he’s got to be right next to me pushing against me, and his nose has to go into the paint on the canvas or paper, because he likes to help me. If he’s pinned up, and he has an idea I’m outside, he has to bark and whine because he wants so badly to help me!
Short not without blessings
by Elizabeth Concannon, St. Louis, MO, USA
This one made me laugh. All ceilings are high to me — partly because I am very short and also because I look at clean white ceilings to return light to me as I paint in my basement studio. The “short thing” is a problem in so many ways that I am grateful that this idea made me think that short is not without blessings. Usually, in the grocery store is where glass jars filled with pickles have to be urged to the end of the shelf with a stick and then caught as they fall to save them from breaking, and the department store is where even the hanging clothes against the wall have a third tier that is never within my reach or in the hardware stores where the signs on various items are high enough and tilted enough to be unreadable even if I knew what was up there. And the propensity for tall people to choose the seat in front of me at the movies or the ballgame is without a doubt a puzzlement.
by Nancy R. Doolan, Savannah, GA, USA
Creating a painting while in the economy class of an airplane flight? I really want to know the details of that. What you worked with, what subject matter, how in the heck?
(RG note) Thanks, Nancy. It’s a homemade box about the size of a small laptop. The lid on this one doubles as the panel. Liquids are kept to a minimum and the brush handles are shortened. “Go ahead,” said the inspector, after she had opened and sniffed a few items.
Contemplation needed space
by Manuel E. De Leon, Tucson, AZ, USA
On a quiet personal visit to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I walked into a huge open room in the contemporary art gallery and found Vincent Price in the middle of the room, kneeling on one knee and hand on chin supporting his head, in deep contemplation of a massive canvas by Sam Francis. If you know Sam Francis you might have guessed that the canvas (about 10 x 12 ft) was completely empty, bare, nothing on the canvas. Price knew I was there, did not turn his head to acknowledge my presence, but said, “Seeing this blank canvas in this massive room enables me to understand Francis’s intent.” I asked, ‘Have you seen it before?” Without turning his head, he responded, “Yes but in a more confined area. Here I can see that the brain must create the composition and we can put anything in the picture plane that we wish to create in our head.” He cited that the massive space of the gallery did not permit visual distractions that impeded the visual process. We agreed that the more experienced and educated brain would enhance the success of the artist’s (Francis) intent, especially in the more open area. The overall public knew little of Vincent Price’s brilliance as an art connoisseur and that he often visited Professors Edgar Ewing, Francis de Erdely of USC and others, and his friend, Edward G. Robinson, for the intellectual compatibility they provided. Price was a selective collector as was Robinson. Edward G. built a gallery adjacent to his house with an entrance for the art-conscious public. He had an exceptional collection. He sold it before his death since his wife did not share his devoted passion for genius. Among the Sunday morning strollers on the La Cienega’s Gallery Row, Price and Robinson would often be seen catching up on the latest exhibits. They are missed by all who shared their love of art.
Enjoy the past comments below for Raise the roof!…
Khamai Girl, born a refugee
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, 2007.
That includes Tae Ess Uxmal of Kelowna, BC, Canada who wrote, “Perhaps research could be done on the subject if abstract artists are more prone to claustrophobia as opposed to realist artists. From my own observations, I can certainly say there is a relationship between the kind of work we produce (as artists) and how we relate to the space around ourselves. I find that many realistic artists are comfortable in constricted areas where as an abstract artist feels claustrophobic.”
And also Jo Bryant of Albuquerque, NM, USA who wrote, “How’s about this quote from one of Leonardo’s notebooks: ‘Small rooms or dwellings set the mind in the right path, large ones cause it to go astray.’ ”
And also Paul Corby of Toronto, ON, Canada who wrote, “And what about this one: ‘I wonder if a single thought that has helped forward the human spirit has ever been conceived or written down in an enormous room: except, perhaps, in the reading room of the British Museum.’ (Lord Kenneth Clark)”
And also Linda Harbison of Flatwoods, KY, USA who wrote, “I just returned from a visit to my son’s high school. What struck me as I walked down the hall was how low the ceilings were and how oppressive the place felt. I have always felt a strong reaction to the ‘mood’ of different buildings. Light and space are essential.”
And also Valerie Kent of Richmond Hill, ON, Canada who wrote, “From those of us, creative artists extraordinaire, for whom every ceiling is a high ceiling, it is a long time coming, but our exalted status of being ever diminutive is finally recognized as a state from which greatness emanates.”
And also Jane Kley of Hermann, MO, USA of Missouri who wrote, “I would happily paint outdoors but the distractions of insects quench the spirit as they drop from trees, crawl up pant legs, and track across my artwork. I’m not afraid of the little buggers, they’re just annoying and distracting.”
And also Harlan G Hoffman of San Francisco, CA, USA who wrote, “I am living with a 25′ high space and an 8′ high space. I constantly resist going to the lower area for almost anything but storage.”
And also Jean DeSavage of MI, USA who wrote, “Now I understand why I am the most creative member of the family, being the shortest. After years of short jokes and that stupid song Short People, I am glad to see at least one reasonable person understands that being height-challenged can actually be a benefit.”
And also Dereka Ogden who wrote, “I love being outdoors where the horizon can be seen and there is a huge expanse of sky. Outdoor painting is difficult, I think, because we are used to two-dimensional photographs and also there is just so much to see and it is hard to narrow down one subject.”
And also Cheryl Braganza of Montreal, QC, Canada who wrote, “I grew up in Pakistan in a house with 16 ft ceilings in every room with skylights at the very top. Yes there was this obviously liberated sense of space that swirled around me. I remember constantly looking up at the skylights to see if anyone might be peering through. One night someone did and he ended up robbing us of the family jewels! Here in Montreal, I have a studio high above the city. My parents never painted. I am furiously creative. Finally I know why… and being all of 4 ft 11 in. certainly helps. I am up for the next research project.”
(RG note) We’ll continue these “Artistic Personals” if there is interest. Unless a seeker requests privacy, we will not assign a box number. The one in the previous clickback has received five replies so far, four of which seemed legitimate and have been passed on. There is no charge for this service. If it gets out of hand for whatever reason we will discontinue.