Why am I hoarding art supplies and not getting any work done?

That bad habit will die, dear reader, when you finally own everything.
I paint random, meaningless still lives when I can’t get started. This is a stuffed birdie and the Douglas tartan.

“Why is it so easy to buy and hoard materials, then so hard to begin the artwork? Or is it just me?” wrote a correspondent.


The “Just Do It” campaign brought Nike’s share of the North American sneaker market from 18% to 43% over a decade. That tells us that dithering is a real, important part of the project-starting experience.
The dark shapes at the bottom left are credit cards, dear reader. Your problem is universal.
I can be a real ditherer. I spend way too much energy debating the order in which I should do simple tasks. None of this is productive, so my solution is to do all rote tasks in a specific order. I always make my bed, for example, when I get up. It saves me the hassle of debating whether I should make my bed. That battle can easily use more time and energy than just doing the chore.
Still lives are especially amusing when the technology they record is now obsolete. That’s not even a flip-phone.
The same holds true with my work. I always write my blog as soon as I get up. That’s usually 6 AM. Then I do other paperwork, and then I go into my studio.
The human brain reorganizes itself during learning. Scientists have studied activityin the ventral striatum of the basal ganglia, which is the brain region that controls habit formation. It shifts from fast and chaotic to slow synchronization pace as rats learn the ‘habit’ of running a maze.
“This is beneficial to the brain because once that habit is formed, what you want to do is free up that bit of brain so you can do something else — form a new habit or think a great thought,” MIT Institute Professor Ann Graybiel said.
Speaking of hoarding, the computer I bought this for died before the hard drive was ever installed. But I did enjoy painting the bubble-wrap.
One side-inference of this research is that even rats calm down when they have mastered habits.
So, the short answer to working efficiently is to develop the habit of regular work. This is the gist of the book Art & Fear, which I frequently recommend. The importance of habit is true across all disciplines, but creativity also requires a seemingly contrary characteristic: creative flexibility. Is that possible in a highly-ritualized person?
Those smarty-pants at MIT also discovered that brain synchrony, starting in the striatum, supports rapid learning. The human mind can rapidly absorb and analyze new information as it flits from thought to thought. These functional circuits are rhythm-based, and they’re controlled by the striatum, the same area that controls habit-formation and addiction.
Two very important elements of the backwoods painter’s experience.
The question of buying unnecessary art supplies is a different one. It happens because art is a system of dreaming and prototyping, and sometimes our ideas ‘die aborning.’ That’s not unique to artists; it happens to all visionaries.
I’m the opposite of a hoarder—I throw everything out. And still there is stuff in my studio for which I have no use, or that I bought for projects I never did. That habit will die out, dear reader, when you finally own everything.

Suffering from a loose wig?

No problem, you’re just a creative.
Creation, by Carol L. Douglas
Intelligence is a complex subject. I doubt we’re measuring it correctly, let alone that we understand how it forms. Still, I love reading studies on the subject. For example, this one said that people in cold states have higher IQs. It may not be true, but it seems like a good justification for freezing so much of the year.
Researchers recently went looking for a correlation between cortical thickness and intelligence. That makes sense, right? A V-8 engine is more powerful than my four-cylinder Prius, after all. Therefore, the more grey matter we have, the smarter we ought to be. Except that brain mass doesn’t really correlate very well with intelligence, something scientists have known for a long time.
This is your brain in the cold.
In a recent neuroimaging study by US and Canadian scientists, participants were given questionnaires that assessed their intellect and openness. ‘Openness’ is an even more amorphous quality than intelligence, defined by researchers as “engagement with fantasy, perception, and aesthetics.”
Researchers then correlated the results of those tests with MRI images measuring the thickness of the cerebral cortex. This part of your brain is responsible for memory and cognitive control.
But the bigger-is-better model failed once again to deliver. There was no relationship at all between cortical thickness and intelligence. There was a negative relationship between cortical thickness and ‘openness’. In other words, the less cortical thickness, the more likely you are to make creative associations.
Untitled, by Carol L. Douglas. There might be a face in there. I might have a loose wig.
Since the cortex plays a role in memory and structuring thought, the researchers thought it made sense that reduced thickness would be associated with openness. “It’s almost like a reduced filter mechanism that, in some cases, can be beneficial,” said researcher Oshin Vartanian.
This all just supports the old canard that creatives are eccentric. The fancy name for that is cognitive disinhibition, and it means that we artists have less control over our thoughts than ‘normal’ people, whatever they are.
Scientists—those poor unfortunate linear thinkers—posit that creatives suffer from schizotypal personality, a mild form of being nuts.
You are more than the contents of your brain case, kiddo, by Carol L. Douglas.
“In my research at Harvard, done in part with my colleague Cynthia A. Meyersburg, I have found that study participants who score high in a measure of creative achievement in the arts are more likely to endorse magical thinking — such as belief in telepathic communication, dreams that portend the future, and memories of past lives. These participants are also more likely to attest to unusual perceptual experiences, such as having frequent déjà vu and hearing voices whispering in the wind,” wrote Shelley Carson.
Sound like any successful artist you know? Me neither, and I know a lot of successful artists. This kind of ‘analysis’ is in itself the worst kind of magical thinking. Since science’s chief claim is rationality, that’s kind of funny.
The human animal is more than the sum of his or her parts. That’s worth remembering.

Everyone should make art

Why spend money teaching kids arts and music when we can drug them into submission?

Not only did yesterday’s painting class develop their brains, they watched an osprey family on that nest on the pole.

 As a parent, I skirmished with my kids’ school about doodling. I agreed to an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for my youngest just so they would let him doodle in class. To me it was obvious that doodling helps kids who are stressed from sitting in one place for too long.

A few years ago, I wrote about a teenager arrested for doodling. Sadly, it wasn’t the only time it happened.

I tell my students to carry a sketchbook at all times, mostly to help them improve their drawing chops. I draw whenever I’m waiting or listening. I’ve drawn through twenty years of church sermons, and I don’t think it’s damaged my ability to hear what my pastors have said.
Sadly, my kids’ school didn’t agree. Even with an IEP, drawing in class was eventually banned for my son. (The good news is, as an autonomous college student, his grades are great.)
Gwendolyn Linn taught a class within one of my painting classes. Her audience was rapt.
Science tells us that doodling-repression is flat-out wrong. A recently study at Drexel University used fNIRS (functional near-infrared spectroscopy) technology to measure blood flow in the so-called ‘reward pathway’ of the brain while subjects drew.
They were tested while doing three different short activities: coloring in a mandala, doodled within or around a pre-marked circle, and free drawing. All three activities caused an increase in activity in the medial prefrontal cortex.
Of course, the medial prefrontal cortex is not just the ‘happy button’ that gets turned on when you do something enjoyable or misuse drugs. It’s also involved in planning, personality, decision-making and moderating social behavior. Among its more important processes is the development of a sense of self and that Holy Grail of educators, executive function.
Nancy Woogen working on her pre-frontal cortex in my Sea & Sky Workshop a few years ago.
Doodling in or around the circle had the greatest neural impact, followed by free drawing and coloring. Mostly, the differences weren’t significant. The exception was for subjects who self-identified as artists. For them, coloring inside the lines turned out to be a negative experience.
There have been many studies with similar results. Training in drawing is associated with an increase in brain gray matter and changes in the prefrontal cortex. Making art improves the functional connectivity between cortices. Even passive engagement with art helps brain function.
Studies have shown similar positive results on the brain from making and listening to music.
Still, the arts are the orphan stepchildren of our educational system. They’re the first thing cut. But why spend money teaching our kids arts and music when we can drug them into submission?
Corinne Avery rearranging dinghies at another workshop, this time at Camden harbor.
Note: I’m demoing painting today at Windjammer Days in Boothbay Harbor from 1-4 PM. My pals Ed Buonvecchio and Bobbi Heath will also be there, along with my two favorite schooners, American Eagle and Heritage. If you’re free, come see us. You may discover a whole new way of lighting up the neural pathways in your brain.

The Sketchbook Wars

Pastor Alvin Parris listening to the sermon.

Pastor Alvin Parris listening to a sermon.
This week my student noticed that she seemed to be seeing things differently since she started to draw. That is because drawing changes how the brain works, as surely as studying music or language does. This is neuroplasticity in action, and it’s a power you can use for good or evil. Only you control whether you make good choices, like art, or bad ones, like using drugs.
Before the invention of the camera, people in many different fields were expected to understand how to draw. The visual image was almost as important for communication as were words. Nobody had the luxury of saying, “I can’t draw a straight line,” or “I’m not talented.” Drawing was too important to leave to a few anointed geniuses.
An ear of someone sitting nearby. Most of my sketches are pretty fast, since people shift around in church.

Most of my sketches are pretty fast, since people shift around in church.
That’s why I love this recent story in Scientific American. Dr. Jennifer Landin of North Carolina State University expects and gets beautiful drawings from her biology students. “Drawing is merely making lines and dots on paper. If you can write your name, you can draw,” she wrote. “But we all take shortcuts when we see; often our brains fool us, and we skip over most visual details.”
As I noted Wednesday, kids draw all the way through childhood until they reach adolescence. Personally, I think art is how they process the amazing changes their young brains are experiencing. Why most kids quit drawing is not well-studied, but cultural factors play a part. Not only do we devalue the arts in our culture, but we believe that only people with talent (whatever that is) can do them. As Dr. Landin so wonderfully demonstrated, talent is mostly about doing the work.
Coat thrown over a chair.

Coat thrown over a chair. You get to draw this a lot in the Northeast.
I always encourage people—and especially children—to carry sketchbooks around with them. Ten minutes in the doctor’s waiting room is far more productive when you surreptitiously draw the person across from you than when you leaf through last year’s People magazine.
I sketch in church because I’m someone who processes words better when my hands are busy. I’m not alone in that; it’s why so many people knit.
But try applying that principle to ADHD kids in school and you get into major trouble. My son needed the distraction of drawing when asked to sit for hours on end. His school absolutely forbade it. Letting him draw would break down discipline in the classroom. Their answer was drugs or a special school for troubled kids. As you can imagine, his school career was one long, unpleasant skirmish.
Don't ask me what those words mean.

Don’t ask me what those words mean.
He graduated by the skin of his teeth. Now that he’s in college, where he is in charge of his own actions, he’s on the Honor Roll.
An art teacher friend of mine told me that the only time her kid ever got in trouble was for drawing in class. It was one of the issues that motivated her to move to another district. If she, a respected professional, couldn’t get the administration to understand the value of drawing, who could?
“Real life isn’t neatly divided by subject,” wrote Dr. Landin. Educators would do well to remember that.