Walk, feel, paint, repeat.


Dear Artist,

As if we didn’t already know this, the New York Times yesterday announced that going for a walk is good for the imagination. A recent study by scholars at the University of Graz in Austria and published in Scientific Reports has found that active people get better ideas. In other words and in case you needed reminding, moving your body is part of your art practice.

Place de la Concorde, 1875 Oil on canvas 78.4 × 117.5 cm by Edgar Degas (1834-1917)

Place de la Concorde, 1875
Oil on canvas
78.4 × 117.5 cm
by Edgar Degas (1834-1917)

By circulating oxygen, blood and nutrients, it’s been determined that fit rodents make more brain cells. Even the elderly ones, if sporty, perform better on problem-solving tests. Reasoning, remembering and mood are also through the roof. Up until now, scientists, while knowing about these benefits, struggled to measure and understand just how and why it was happening. Creativity is mysterious; it’s a skill that’s difficult to quantify and abstract enough to stump the data collectors. In a break from the usual studies that measured the short-term effects of formalized movements in controlled environments that ask participants to come up with ideas on the spot, this new research has instead tracked the lifestyles of reasonably active people to see if there’s an overarching trend towards innovation.

At The Races. The Start, 1861-62 Oil on canvas by Edgar Degas

At The Races. The Start, 1861-62
Oil on canvas
by Edgar Degas

Even more intriguing than elderly rodents is that this research has sparked a question about the other great human mystery: happiness. Artists are traditionally in two camps about this: Do we need to be happy to make art? Or does misery serve as a better muse? (I know which one is more sustainable.) Scholars are now wondering if perhaps happiness is not, as previously thought, a conduit between moving and creativity — thus making it the actual cause of good ideas — that it’s happiness and not movement that makes us better artists. Instead, they gathered a group of participants and tracked their moods, activity level and ability to come up with ideas over time. They found that daily, moderate walkers were generally pretty happy, and sportier types were happiest after rigorous exercise. They concluded that the walkers were the most creative, but not necessarily the most happy — suggesting it really is the movement that jumpstarts the imagination, regardless of mood. Consider then, that you don’t have to be the happiest or the most active to be great — you need only to practice a ritual of movement to both improve your mood and ideas. “Dance first. Think later,” wrote Samuel Beckett. “It’s the natural order.”

The Dance Class, 1874 Oil on canvas 83.5 x 77.2 cm by Edgar Degas

The Dance Class, 1874
Oil on canvas
83.5 x 77.2 cm
by Edgar Degas



PS: “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” (Marcus Aurelius)

Esoterica: The exciting thing about painting, among so many other creative activities, is that it requires movement. We needn’t think too hard about it. My Dad used to call a walk his “daily ablution,” with Dorothy the Airedale his willing conspirator. Whereas I’m guaranteed that walking will trigger a tumble of questions and possible solutions, oxygenate the brain and offer a temporary high, painting is the roller coaster, moving meditation that brings with it inevitable and relentless stumbling blocks and intermittent, hard-won triumphs. I looked up “painting” under the list of activities in the health app on my phone. The closest thing I could find, after tallying up canvas stretching, stapling and unstapling, mixing, moving, painting, varnishing and framing was “light carpentry.” I selected it and estimated “10 hours.” While the app was able to report that I’d burned 10,000 calories, it didn’t have much to say about the quality of my ideas. I referred back to my built-in hard drive — the one in my head and gut — but it’s still calculating, striving to quantify the mystery of what pours out of it, in paint.

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“You guard against decay, in general, and stagnation, by moving, by continuing to move.” (Mary Daly)



  1. I agree 100% with the walking theory. I find it true in my own creative process. As for happiness vs struggle to produce art I think both are relevant. However, I find I am at my creative best when I need to be. A friend of mine wrote this line……”like squeezing coal into diamonds, music is forged out of pain.” I find that struggle produces dark lyrics and happiness produces bright lyrics. The trick for me is to find a balance between the two

  2. All part of the cycles in life. Improved mood will open channels of creativity I am sure. Improved mood will happen through healthy living and exercise. I’m in constant awe of the impact “mood” has on my daily living. Off/down moods, for whatever reason they happen, will cloud the way I see things. Good moods will definitely put those rose coloured glasses back on and suddenly all is better than what I believed during the down mood. Getting out doors and breathing the fresh air, witnessing the breathtaking glory of sunlight on everything around me, or the sound of rain on my umbrella, to the smell of the natural beauty called outdoors, is a powerful drug to improve mood. However, when I can’t get outside, good moods still happen for some odd reason. Just feel good, or just don’t, I wake up each day and wonder what will be in my head today. My mom would say it’s caused by hormones, and season and moon shifts. The older I get, the smarter my mom becomes, I think she’s right. For whatever reasons scientists have yet to figure out the why’s of, I welcome those good moods and give thanks every time.

  3. Two weeks ago I fell and broke my ankle. No weight on it for 6 weeks minimum while I heal. I’ve also had some dizziness from the fall. I’ve always been active and walk regularly to receive the benefits to mind and body. So what now? I’m painting with curiosity to see how it can help balance my brain and keep my art spirit alive. I’ve simplified what I’m doing and leaning into the fatigue and discomfort. Will undoubtedly learn something new.

  4. Thanks for another interesting letter. I have a personal mantra similar to Beckett’s, which is “Excercise First”, but I now see that “Think later” maybe an unvoiced follow up to that.

    Walking is an important part of the “The Artists’s Way”, by Julia Cameron. It’s a book about the creative process with a program for blocked artists, or those who’d like to deepen their artistic practice. Almost 20 years old and kind of corny at times, I do still recommend it as a worthy read.

  5. Thankfully my dog has asked me to walk each day and when feeling uninspired, walking has been the start of discovering new inspirations.
    I also recently posted about taking a walk in a short video on Youtube: “How to Keep Inspired When You Don’t Feel like Painting” https://youtu.be/xWEL2KQAOMg – I take a walk and try to see the “light”, where it reflects from, like the snow…and hope that it can also reflect from us.
    Sometimes taking a break in our walks is helpful. And I believe happiness can always be invited to the painter’s palette.
    Thank you, Sara, for the continued “walks” in your artful words and art.

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https://painterskeys.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/shawn-jackson-artwork-landscape-mountain-trees_big-wpcf_300x247.jpgMelanie Islet
acrylic on canvas
24 x 30 inches

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Shawn’s paintings evoke the feelings of the West Coast, its shores and islands, ponds and lakes.


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