Your teenage brain


Dear Artist,

A recent study published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has reframed the vulnerabilities of the risk-taking, reward-seeking brains of adolescents. Now, it seems, those teenage brains are actually powerhouses of creativity. After all, we can’t develop new ideas or build skill without taking chances. Innovation requires a near-absence of caution — once considered a weakness in young people, but something scholars now believe could be a teen’s greatest creative strength.

Aldeburgh, 2016 watercolour on paper 6.25×9.75 inches by Kieran Williamson at age 14 (b. 2002)

Aldeburgh, 2016
watercolour on paper
6.25×9.75 inches
by Kieron Williamson at age 13 (b. 2002)

Children are born adaptable — their brains building new connections daily while pruning away the superfluous. Teenagers retain this, while also gaining executive functions like abstract thinking, empathy, deeper social connections, independent thinking and lofty visions of the future. The link between the striatum, a region in the brain associated with reward-seeking behaviour, and the hippocampus, our learning and memory bank, is especially strong in teenagers, allowing them to learn quickly when rewarded. As we age, this susceptibility wanes — rewards becoming more suspect or blasé. Leveraging reward learning in young people can amp up innovation because all risks aren’t dangerous, and many are crucial for creativity — it’s why experiments are so valuable, failure being the mother load of learning. Rather than shielding teens from setbacks and stunting their growth, we can grease and empower their risk-reward sensitivity, giving them the chance to find and live at their highest expression.

Iridescent Morning, 2018 oil on canvas 16 x 22 inches by Kieran WIlliamson, age 16

Iridescent Morning, 2018
oil on canvas
16 x 22 inches
by Kieron WIlliamson, age 15

Now, how do we tap into our own teenage brain? We can heighten our striatum-hippocampus connection by first re-igniting the thrill of reward. Identify your thrill, then tie it to the scariest part of your art practice. The risk of striding up to a too-large canvas with a giant brush, or banging out a 15-minute watercolour en plein-air, for example, will be rewarded with a thrilling, deliciously underworked and immersive record of your audacious artistic event. Or throw out your known assumptions about what is possible in art altogether and make something you’ve always believed to be utter fantasy. The harrowing weeds in the middle can be wrestled with by using those other areas in your brain developed in maturity — where patience, courage and the wisdom of being present with the challenge will escort you to the other side.



Sunlight Over Polruan, 2019 oil on board 14 x 10 inches by Kieran Williamson, age 17

Sunlight Over Polruan, 2019
oil on board
14 x 10 inches
by Kieron Williamson, age 16

PS: “I believe in the promise of adolescence and adolescence as an age of opportunity.” (Joanna Lee Williams, associate professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Human Development and contributor to the study, The Promise of Adolescence: Realizing Opportunity for All Youth, 2019)

Esoterica: Historically, teenagers have been at the forefront of social movements, mobilizing new energy and systems into societies and advancing culture — think about how they use the Internet, technology and language today. Their ideas are free of the rationalizations that curb the rest of us — our more grandiose creative ambitions subdued by world-weary practicalities. It seems the older we get, the more we may have to lose, should we stride out in an unknown creative direction. Urgency and the teenage brain’s default to anything being possible are adaptive and creative tools for survival and ultimately, evolution. Meaningful art could be a life-enhancing bi-product. “In every child who is born, under no matter what circumstances, and no matter what parents, the potentiality of the human race is born again.” (James Agee)

Kieran Williamson

Kieron Williamson

Have you considered a Premium Artist Listing?  With each letter, an artist is featured at the bottom of this page. The Premium Artist Listings are a means of connecting artist subscribers through their work.  Proceeds from each listing contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys. 

“Western parents worry a lot about their children’s self-esteem. But as a parent, one of the worst things you can do for your child’s self-esteem is to let them give up.” (Amy Chua)



  1. Hey, Teacher, leave them kids alone!
    (and that means NO “puberty blockers,” which destroy the vital and complex brain development that usually takes place during normal puberty. )

  2. I’m wondering as enter my mid-seventies, if I can revert from my reality checks and re-enter my childhood. I no longer care if other people like what I paint as long as I have fun with it. I have always tried to not take myself too seriously. I love that Kieron is painting plein-air.

  3. You write “failure is the mother load of learning”.
    I contemplate the meaning, but Sara, it is
    MOTHER LODE I think you meant!

Reply To Karen Blanchet Cancel Reply

Featured Workshop

Dive Into Abstract Painting in Santa Fe, New Mexico
April 3, 2020 to April 5, 2020


Join Julie Schumer and James Koskinas and take a leap into the unknown in this 2 1/2 day intensive acrylic workshop.  Through a series of structured exercises designed to help you loosen up, we will explore various elements of a non-objective painting including color, composition, and eye flow, line, value and texture using acrylic paint and a variety of mark making tools.


Bring your artistic passion and the willingness to try something different and gain a new perspective.  This workshop is available to all levels but is perfect for those new to abstract painting.  Cost is $595.00.  A materials list will be provided or materials can be provided for an additional $100.00 Wine Drinkard
oil on canvas
40 x 50 inches

Featured Artist

There’s a hush… a palpable electric presence radiating from some of the paintings in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and in the galleries of the Frick Collection.


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.