Creating Art: Let Yourself Be Distracted

Painters know the fear of the blank canvas. What to paint?? Or, is gessoing canvas really art?
Finding a way to let my thoughts wander, as I relax in the sunlight and spring grasses. Insights begin exploding as I let my mind unfocus.

by Laurie Carlson

As makers, we often think about creativity and how we can increase or improve our ability to find new or better solutions as we work. But creativity isn’t a singular process, it’s a combination of several things.

First, imagination is created from insights. Creative ideas evolve from sudden splashes of thought that occur when we least expect it. We can call it serendipity or the muse, or just plain luck. But there is a biological process to how we expand and open our mind to new ideas. When we are relaxed and not focused on the details–or on the problem–our ability to experience insights and solutions increases. When we are under pressure to find a solution or work out all the details, our brains balk and we are mystified

Alpha Waves
The way our brain works, a flow of alpha waves moves from the right hemisphere of the brain to the left, and causes us to experience a sudden insight into a problem. These mysterious brain waves happen when we are relaxed and happy. Or at least not worrying so much about stress. Like when our mind is wandering as we hand wash dishes or drive down the freeway.

In experiments, people who didn’t have a flow of alpha waves moving across the brain couldn’t solve a problem, even when given hints. No insights happened because there was no alpha wave movement.

Remain Positive
A positive mood is essential to problem solving and creative thinking. Researchers link that sort of brain performance to mood, finding that happy people solve 25% more insight puzzles than those in a gloomy mood.

Daydreaming is Good
One study found that students with ADHD had greater creative achievements than others, largely because being able to NOT focus allows the imagination to arrive at insights. Daydreaming is key to creative thinking because it’s so unfocused.

Even better, is to daydream in blue. The color blue relaxes us, and as we focus less on what’s in front of us, “we become more aware of possibilities simmering in our imagination, ” according to John Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works.

Find Joy
Since being in a happy state of mind expands our ability to think out side the box, we need to seek pleasant experiences and feelings. Studies found that after viewing a short funny video, people had more epiphanies than those shown boring or scary videos. Jerry Lewis fans were on to something, it seems. Discover what makes you laugh and include it in your life as often as you can. Stand-up comedy, funny animal videos, cartoons–whatever it is, seek and enjoy it. As Lehrer explains, “even fleeting feelings of delight can lead to dramatic increases in creativity.”

Early Morning
It’s probably no surprise that the best time of day to experience creative idea-making is in the early morning just after you wake up. Your brain is still floating, unwound from focusing on any particular problem or activity. In that state it’s open to all sorts of unconventional ideas and because the right brain hemisphere is unusually active at that time, insights come easily.

Don’t Force It
Trying to force an insight can actually prevent creative thinking. If you relentlessly focus on the problem you are trying to solve or the work of art you expect to create, you can inhibit or prevent the flow of alpha waves which are necessary to figuring out a breakthrough solution.

Using stimulants to help focus the brain, such as caffeine and ritalin, actually shift the brain activity away from the right hemisphere, in order to facilitate increased focus. That’s a no-no if you’re trying to daydream a solution.

Be Distractible
Just relax and indulge in distractions–the insight will appear when you stop looking at it. “According to scientists, the inability to focus helps ensure a richer mixture of thoughts in consciousness. Because these people had difficulty filtering out the world, they ended up letting more in . . . the creative person seems to remain in contact with the extra information constantly streaming in from the environment . . . the normal person classifies an object, and then forgets about it. The creative person is always open to new possibilities,” according to Lehrer.

So if you’ve got artist’s or writer’s “block” or are trying to come up with a fresh creative viewpoint, distract yourself from the problem at hand. Take a drive, wash some dishes, scrub a floor, work in the garden. Let your mind wander, keeping a sketch pad at hand to record those fabulous (and often fleeting) insights as they come your way.


Painting in the backyard today

It was a lovely day but I didn’t have time to drive off somewhere to paint plein air, plus the roses in the back yard were calling. We planted the roses last year — they are called Amanda Lambert rose, and they are really fantastic. So many blooms. The painting is only 8×10″ so ships easily — click here for information.

A New Challenge: Plein Air Yaquina

Today was my first day painting outdoors (plein air) this year, because it was our FIRST really nice day here. Sunny all day. No rain. I had entered the “Plein Air Yaquina” competition, which involves painting outdoors in the Yaquina River watershed. I have until August 1 to paint an entry for the show, which will be juried and held on Labor Day Weekend.  It’s a community effort in the little town of Toledo, here on the coast. And it’s an excellent motivator to get out and paint.

Terry and I drove along the river and found several possible sites. Finally I just stopped and set up. An hour later, I had a good study done. It was just heaven, with NO WIND. You read that correctly. So different from the actual beach areas where the ocean breeze is continual and wildly punitive to anyone with an easel  and a palette loaded with wet piles of paint.

It was so nice listening to birds chirping like crazy, ducks beating the water with their wings, and watching herons looking for their brunch along the water’s edge.  I’ll be painting at my studio in the Lincoln City Cultural Center over the weekend, but Monday morning, it’s back to the river.

Painting a Wave Exercise

Here’s a wave-painting process example.I used a split complement triadic color scheme: blue-green, red-violet, and yellow-orange. I worked in the darks first on a canvas toned with cadmium red acrylic. After the darks, I put in basic color and value choices. As you see, I wiped out the scud line (water’s edge) and repainted it a bit farther away from the viewer. Lastly, I worked up the highlights, shadows, and reflections in the water and wet sand. A few spatters, a bit of palette knife, and it’s done.

16 x 20″

Ultramarine blue

Alizarin crimson

Yellow ochre

Titanium white

Painting Water Scenes Class

I’m busy working up some demonstration and project paintings for my Monday class at Artists’ Studio Association. The class is full, so I am eager to see what we can do. I’ve got an 11-page handout. Plus charts. Plus two paintings to do. Four hours. I think it will be fun, move quickly, and convert some more painters to oil paints.

I want to work on reflections in still and rippled water, so have some photos of the Siletz Bay Wildlife Refuge, which has a waterway between the Siletz River and the Pacific Ocean. I took photos last autumn, and like them because they aren’t so green — which is how Oregon usually appears. Too much green sometimes. Anyway, here’s a work up I did today, which will likely be a quick study for the class, before we move to some ocean wave paintings.IMG_0150Siletz Bay National Wildlife Refuge, Autumn.  8 x 10″ oil on canvas panel