3 Ways to Paint Your Way Past “Brain Freeze”



Several years ago, a friend’s daughter asked her father what he did for a living. He told her that he taught grown-ups how to draw. His little girl seemed puzzled at first, and then she exclaimed, “Oh, you mean they forgot how?”

If you, like many of us, let go of visual expression because you forgot how, now is the time to recapture the joy and benefits of creating art, something once as natural to us as breathing. As an artist who is no stranger to creative brain freeze, I want to share with you three of my most successful strategies for reconnecting to the delight we found in color, materials, and art-making when we were children. Engagement in visual arts generates the kind of well-being we experience through exercise. Feel-good endorphins are waiting for us once our mind’s obstacles have been dispelled. The following are my favorite ways to break through inhibitions and self-censorship to find a path to visual creativity that promises no pain and a lot of gain.

1. Keep it simple and beautiful

Start your day with painting as your morning meditation. Focus on entering a place of tranquility and beauty before venturing out into our fast-paced, tech-dominated world. Keep things simple with a tray of solid tempera tablets, brushes, and paper ready when you awaken. Have at least a dozen vibrant colors and arrange your palette so that it evokes things that inspire you — sunrises and sunshine, clear skies, green living things, earth and sea, and twilight are my choices. Your palette holds the power to jump-start your day.

Choose unusual papers made from bark or other natural plant fibers, or even lightly patterned papers. Papers with strong character play more of a role in your painting than a sheet of white paper. These papers add a distinct voice to the visual dialogue underway and neutralize some of your control, allowing you to focus on process over product.

Make random brushstrokes on the paper and let these guide the painting’s evolution. Think of what you are doing as meditation rather than manufacturing a product. Lose your thoughts in music, dance, forest walks, churning seas, or morphing clouds, and your strokes will evoke suggestions of wonderful things — tidal pools, fauvist gardens, dancing trees, emerging mandalas, and more. And for those of you whose thoughts get lost most frequently in NASCAR or pickup basketball, that can work just as well. The resulting visual piece is your morning creative stretch, a good start to the day.

2. Why art alone?

Collaboration is a wonderful way to rediscover the child-artist you once were. It allows you to surrender a lot of control and responsibility for the outcome.

There are many ways to make art with others. The simplest is to get a friend or group of friends together, choose a medium and go. Conversation flows, and a wealth of ideas and inspiration blossoms in this relaxed and supportive environment. If you are more intrepid, take a deep breath and pass your artwork to a fellow artist to finish. This approach has a lot of spiritual benefits: increasing your capacity to trust, giving up ego and accepting ideas that differ from your own. One caveat: It can be disconcerting, initially, to see something you created changed in ways you never imagined. But it becomes liberating.

3. The weirder the better

Invent your own art materials and tools. Unusual tools and materials energize your problem-solving potential in a challenging way and free you to create without reference to the work of others.

There are many ways to let the spirit of your artwork spring to life and spontaneously evolve, rather than engaging in a struggle. Try attaching a paintbrush to a dowel and placing paper and a container of paint on the floor. With a lot of control removed by the distance between your hand and the paper, you can freely paint anything you want and it will maintain its own animus.

Try ink pads and your fingerprints to do pointillist drawings. Gather recyclables and found objects to make puppets and sculpture. Take a walk in the park, on the beach or in the woods to pick up branches, sand, shells, and grasses. Combine them with urban detritus to challenge your brain to make something new and fresh.

It is the challenge and the freedom to be visually creative that benefits our thinking and emotional well-being, not the product. Exercise the part of your brain that longs for the creativity you felt compelled to put in a box as you grew up. In abandoning our controlled selves to our creative selves, we enter a place in our brains that removes us from the daily overload of our technologically driven, nonstop world and gives us the possibility of fresh ideas. Priceless beyond painting a Picasso. Or the Mona Lisa. Or even being on the winning team in a Super Bowl.

Annette Swierzbinski designs innovative programs, workshops, and events that bring youth from different backgrounds and cultures together through art.

This article was first published in Brain World Magazine’s Summer 2012 issue.

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We believe that neuroscience is the next great scientific frontier, and that advances in understanding the nature of the brain, consciousness, behavior, and health will transform human life in this century.

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