Keeping the Vision - Why Creativity and Artistic Ability are Not the Same Thing

One of the interesting things I have noticed is that people often lump creativity and artistic ability into the same subject.  They are definitely not the same thing.  Creativity is often measured by how many uses one can conjure within a limited time frame for a single object.  This is often referred to as keeping a child-like frame of mind, ruling nothing out.  How many uses for, say, a can with several holes punched in the bottom?  That creative child might come up with all kinds of answers: an apartment complex for spiders, a way to capture only the largest raindrops, as the smallest ones will fall right through.  Don’t get me wrong: creativity is a wonderful thing.  I do not discount this.  Creativity is not always wasted on youth, but the scientists can tell you that as people age their creativity, as measured by their answers, often declines.

I am not a researcher.  But I read the products of their research.  And I might as well warn you, I often don’t agree with their interpretations.  Oh, I don’t dispute the data or the results of numerous test subjects, but I think they often test for the wrong things.   Perhaps someone past age 60 can’t come up with 25 imaginative uses for a can with holes punched in the bottom, but perhaps, equally, it isn’t because he is losing his creativity but is evaluating the potential usefulness in each invention.  Age does bring with it some economy of effort, whether good or bad depends upon the age of the evaluator.  But this is why I often look at research about age and creativity with a jaded eye; it’s so easy to be clinical about the effects of age when you haven’t attained the honor of being old.

Artistic ability is much harder to define.  Why is this, you might ask?  We all understand when we see it, we know it.  The Mona Lisa.  John Singer Sargent.  Name one example of artistic ability that comes to mind, and as much as you might love them, the drawings that your children did in second grade are not likely to be on that list.  No, artistic ability relates to something much harder to measure or define than keeping a child-like attitude.  There used to be rules, then there were none, and now there are rules again, but no one really agrees on what they might be, which atelier you belong to, or groups you associate with, or magazine you examine cover to cover, or which gallery or corporate entity supports your work.   In this age of self-identified artists -  an outgrowth of Modernism in the legitimacy of the no rules self-expression approach -  everyone’s an artist.  We feel the intense desire, even if we don’t understand the why, or how.  

Something drives us.  I hear from so many artists who say they feel compelled to do this – but become frustrated when they can’t identify what that means.  What happens when we reach the age of 50? Certainly not the kind of identity crisis that used to be the red convertible and a comb-over hair style: no, this is something much deeper, and worthy of our introspection.  You paint.  You create music.  The time when you are immersed in your inner world stops as you seek what you can’t define.  Is it only art if it exists in the commercialized, corporate-controlled version that has established the careers of those who are granted entry?  Is it only art when there is economic benefit?  Does art require some societal value to exist, or has the function and social value of art taken on a new role? 

I am like you.  I am torn between these questions of where to place value and needing to do the work.  So I do the work.  Like the reed in the river, I bend to the need to put paint on canvas and try to find that expression of truth.   Perhaps that is why we feel compelled.  Not out of a desire for self-importance, but a need to identify some truth for ourselves…not narcissism, staring down at our own reflection in the pond, but a quest to capture a moment…to hold it...keep it for someone else. 

“The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.”  -- Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

Color In Your Life Television Show Expanding to include US Artists


I don’t usually write posts that sound like a PR campaign, but one mission of this blog is to promote collaboration and artistic support, and occasionally I come across information that is worth sharing. 

In December, I received the following email: "Hi my name is Graeme Stevenson.  I am an Artist and the producer of the TV series: Put some Colour in your life… a series that showcases Artists in their studios…their abilities and also their art…and story as a creator."

I responded with, "Hi  Graeme, I just spent some enjoyable time clicking through your website and watching the videos…I am always interested in quality, and it was a joy to watch the Three Amigos Painting!"

Color In Your Life is a site that delivers, educating artists through instructional videos and promoting their work through a free account.The show is the brainchild of Master Artist Graeme Stevenson.  Originating in the small Australian  town of Murwillumbah, the show has expanded to America, New Zealand, Canada, India and South Africa. Recently, Stevenson  partnered with FW publications in Ohio to distribute shows through their global networks.  From the website and You Tube channels you can access free instructional videos, and there are 74 US television stations airing the series, including PBS.  Colour In Your Life was “designed to foster creativity and interest in art, and generally highlights one artist in each episode." The show was nominated for a LOGIE Award in 2012. 

According to this media announcement, Stevenson is coming to The United States and planning to "film as many American artists as possible for the series. We know there is a plethora of incredible talent across the pond, and as we go to new heights with the show, we want to go greater distances for artistic skills to share with the world."  Just one more example of artists supporting and promoting other artists.

From the main website , I decided to set up an account as a test, and found it easy to do.  CIYL offers something very much like Facebook dedicated to artists, where you can promote your upcoming workshops, post art images, get feedback, and connect to other artists. Artwork is easy to upload, and although I have not explored the section for artwork for sale, the site offers a nice presentation. 

If you are interested, check out the TV Episodes link.  At the bottom, there are instructions for “Be On The Show.”  No Guarantees, but worth investigation, since the show has plans to come to the States. 

Here are some useful links:

Graeme Stevenson - YouTube videos which include free watercolor painting lessons from Alvaro Castagnet, Plein Air from John Crump, Acrylic from Carole Foster, and many more.

Find out about Color In Your Life here.

Testimonials from artists who have been featured on the show.

Home Page for Color In Your Life, where you can set up a free account.



Just off the Easel

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Stormy Weather, 12 x 18, oil on mounted linen


Art should be viewed as a gift.  Knowledge was passed on to me, and I try to pass it on to others.

 To find out more about my book, Ancient Wisdom, Emerging Artist, please click here

And thank you for reading this blog!


Please contribute to this discussion by posting your comments. 

Four Realities for the 21st Century Artist

1. There will always be gatekeepers.   Some are obvious, some you might not expect.  The least expected gatekeeper is money, keeping artists away from their work, short on supplies, and limited in their ability to learn. 

2. Art is not a linear progression.  What art has always been is a partial reflection of the culture of the time. As an organizing concept in Art History, we like to connect one epoch to another in order to project into the future, but that is all it is – a way of organizing.  The same could be said for the 4 by 6 file cards used when researching a topic: the cards are not the finished writing.    

3. Technology provides convenience, but does not provide human emotional connection.  At the end of the day,  computer generated images do nothing to aid in our basic desire for self-realization.   As humans, we crave moments of spiritual beauty and calm, found through music, dance, writing, and visual art.  If this were not true, how would you explain the flash mobs  that suddenly evolve into a full symphonic orchestra, stopping busy commuters in their tracks?   

4. Knowing why you are an artist is far more important than convincing others to see you as an artist. 

So what realities would you list?


My deep thanks to Thad Allen of Beard's Framing.  Read the interview here.

Here is a teaser from their 4 Inspiring Quotes About Framing page:

"4. “An Ebony frame can enrich a poor canvas, and make it look or sell as well as a good one.”
- Constantin Huygens

Unless you’re a professional art historian, you can be forgiven for not knowing who Constantin Huygens is..."

How Theme Can Move Your Work From a Depiction of Objects to a Visual Communication of Meaning

I recently received a question from Nicholas Wilson, asking:  “I've been an aspiring artist since childhood. That being said, I was wondering what your take on theme is. I've been primarily working on honing my technique more than anything else, so I haven't concerned myself with theme too much. I live in the southeast part of the U.S., so I do not frequently use landscapes as a theme. I'm really wondering if your theme was more intuitive, or did you consciously choose to focus on something in particular?” Since this struck me as a good topic for a conversation,  I wanted to share it more broadly through this blog.

 Theme is a foundation in Art Historical analysis. In Robert Hirsch’s book Seizing the Light, A History of Photography, he gives this example: “The sublime, like a storm on the ocean, can track its origins to awe, terror, and vastness, while the beautiful, a calm harbor sunset, situates its lineage within the organization of society, making them opposite concepts that cannot commingle.” Pg. 51

 Alvin Langdon Coburn The Temple of OhmSo what exactly does this mean?  

 Alvin Langdon Coburn (1882-1966) was part of an American Artistic movement influenced by the themes of mood, the mysterious, and the natural landscape.  In his 1911 photograph The Temple of Ohm ( at the left), Coburn used chiaroscuro to dramatically emphasize the vastness and abstract qualities in the landscape and establish a sense of the Sublime.


  Edward Steichen The Pond - MoonlightIn contrast, Edward Steichen (1879-1973), in his photograph Moonlight: The Pond (1906), was interested in aesthetic sensitivity. Evoking the mystery of the beautiful, Steichen’s theme could be described as the sensuality in the atmosphere, and turning a subject into an experience.   

These are a few examples of theme that artists can employ.  Exploring more deeply, we could think of theme as storytelling – not just the synopsis, but the richness of character development, and the undertones of subplots.  Theme can examine the effects of light, or unravel the social narrative.  It can be an investigation of form (Coburn) or an emotional experience (Steichen). Theme, to some extent, is employed in every piece of art, and whether the artist thinks of it as intuitive, or conscious, it is unique to that individual.  In the early stages of learning the craft, we are more conscious of skill building aspects such as composition, or color harmony, rather than theme.  But eventually the artist realizes that in order to move his or her work away from a mere depiction of objects into an impactful communication of meaning, then a conscious consideration of theme must be at work.

Jade and ancient glass emil carlsenBut for me, the most important aspect of theme is this:  If art is a way of capturing something of visual importance, then theme can be thought of as a multi-faceted collaboration between artist and viewer: the viewer looks at the visual information and develops his or her own interpretations of theme.  The more opportunities the viewer has to do this the more interesting the art.

  Looking at Emile Carlson's still life, Jade and Ancient Glass (image at left),  his theme could be interpreted as an Impressionist approach to light, or the more sublime idea of tension and contrast through the placement of large to small, or an exploration of the beautiful, in the mysterious environment containing his objects.  Compared to a painting based upon illustrating specific pieces of fruit, I find this image more interesting long term.

Certainly some aspects of theme attempt to deconstruct the idea of art - Damien Hurst, who uses death as a central theme in his work, wanted to shock viewers as a way to create a commercial commodity.  And at the opposite end of the spectrum, Thomas Kinkade depicted images of nostalgia in a formulaic way.  But theme exists whether we put it there or not - because the theme comes as much from the viewer as it does from the artist. 

How do you use theme in your work? What insights have you discovered? Please share your ideas with your comments. 


"When I started my blog in 2007, there were few resources available, so I started writing in response to my own sense of isolation.  As a mature artist who was newly entering the field, I was competing with people either half my age, or who had been painting successfully for decades. I had come across a research project that profiled artists in New York City, people who were both unknown and at the end of their creative lives. I realized that the hardest part of being an artist was carrying on the face of rejection – and this was particularly true for those entering the field after the age of fifty, who are often dismissed as hobbyists and not serious artists. I felt that my readers were more interested in the ideas and not in a catalog of my own work, so I tried to keep the two separate.  What I wanted to offer was the example of my own struggles, failures, and perseverance."

     ~from a blog interview I gave in 2014

 Art should be viewed as a gift.  Knowledge was passed on to me, and I try to pass it on to others.

 To find out more about my book, Ancient Wisdom, Emerging Artist, please click here

And thank you for reading this blog!


Please contribute to this discussion by posting your comments. 

The Art of Metamorphosis: Finding Talent

Less than one hundred years ago artists were excited about the growing democratization of the arts.  Artists bypassed the exclusionary establishments by coming together, briefly mounting their own exhibitions before moving on.  Regional movements rose, along with a sense of limitless possibilities, and an explosion of innovation and style consumed the remaining three quarters of the century.

This, according to James Elkins, is proof that “painting is the art of metamorphosis.”  Tradition, arguing with innovation, generated ideas that grew wildly, while materials in combat with methods ruled the day.  And then, the experiment reached a conclusion with nowhere else to go, like a wave that sweeps up onto the sloped beach and then recedes.

Today the viewing public has unprecedented access to art of every type at any time and any place.  It is the ultimate democratization.  And a subtle loss of meaning.  A thousand images of trees can make your landscape seem pointless.  Up against the art of five hundred years, the desire to be an artist leaves us embarrassed.  With democratization, we cannot quite find our place.  Everything has become homogenized:  there is no right way to apply the paint, or select subject matter that will convey the complex reactions of our eyes and our minds and emotions when we experience that sense of awe. 

With democratization we have, in a significant sense, lost our boundaries. Everything has become nothing.  And we are rootless.

Visual art is a fundamental human desire, to both create and interpret, dependent as much upon the viewer’s receptiveness as the artist’s sensitivity.  There is a philosophy proposing this: at the moment of creativity, the act is everything.  What is interpreted out of the result is simply an artifact. Yet this idea conflicts with the modern concept of art as a commodity, to be created specifically for the viewer, admired, and sold.  The selling is proof.  The viewer’s money becomes the only validation of the artist’s talent. 

Years ago, I remember reading a blog post about talent, and writing a naively indignant response.  Talent, I stated, was not some blessing endowed at birth to a selected few but available to everyone if they developed skill.  But now I realize that skill – or talent – in fine art is not an end result but an ongoing process of learning and progressing.  We do not know what we do not know until one morning what we heard a few years ago suddenly solves a problem as we manipulate the paint.  It is both a mystery – the talent bestowed – and an understanding – the skill developed:  A metamorphosis which assigns equal importance to the quality of the finished work as to the moment of creation.

The struggle for today’s aspiring artist is to maintain the boundary that makes this metamorphosis possible.  This is not a boundary that specifies method, for as German Expressionist painter Max Libermann said “there are as many techniques as there are painters.”  It is a boundary that excludes what it cannot refine, that seeks the “qualities” that exist in the art that sinks in, stays with you.  And while there is a universe of artistic approaches, there will be only a few that can pull you in with the force of gravity.  These are the ones you follow.  Despite the voice we try to silence, that art might be a sham, that there is no real meaning left other than the ultimate “selfie” of expression – there is gravity there, a mystery.

 Let it pull you in. 


One significant challenge most artists face is maintianing perseverence.  Whether it's weathering the disappointments that come with failed aspirations, or the increasing demands of simply getting through the day, creative activities are inherently isolating. 

What is most gratifying are the emails I receive from artists reading Ancient Wisdom, Emerging Artist, and a frequent comment is "Thank you for your accessible...inspirational words."   Art should be viewed as a gift.  Knowledge was passed on to me, and I try to pass it on to others.

 To find out more about my book, Ancient Wisdom, Emerging Artist, please click here

And thank you for reading this blog!


Please contribute to this discussion by posting your comments. 

Perseverance of the Everyday

I have been thinking about the last post and the idea of the Blank Review.  A critique traditionally comes from others.  They tell you what they want to see in your work, and sometimes how to get there.  But the blank Review is one you give yourself.  It isn't about what other people want to see, but what you want to communicate.  It's an invitation to explore your own work.  Asking questions is the usual advice.  Comparing, and - borrowing from Sarah Lewis's analogy - identifying the specific parts of a tune that might up the entire song.

I read an interview with graphic Illustrator Yuko Shimizu, where she pointed out the necessity of starting with a certain style, but over the years allowing the work to grow into something uniquely your own.  She said she wanted to “lead and not follow”, and that her “ultimate goal is to be respected by peers and people I respect.”

Developing a vision for your work takes the perseverance of the everyday. Sometimes this comes from others - I have asked artists to look at my work, and at times I didn’t want to hear what was said.  At other times the opinions held no relevance to what I wanted to achieve.  Not all information has value,  but I could not distinguish between the valued and the valueless until I appreciated my own strength and vision. 

So these days I work differently.  Sometimes this looks like I’m doing nothing.  Other times I am trying everything, creating more problems than I know how to solve.  It’s frustrating, and I’m filled with doubt then, and perhaps a fear of the unattainable. 

But an artist works on speculation.  Everything is vulnerable - to rejection, or acceptance, or misinterpretation.  It is a state of tension most artists learn to live with, or they find a differnt job.  The ones who hold out, though, they have developed the skill of perseverance, the ability to validate progress and meaning in the small acts of the everyday. 

As I grow older I realize the actual work in the studio is a meditation.  On theme, on technique, on surface preparation and mediums and paint.  I recently realized I wanted to see more complexity overall, and I began to explore the skills to accomplish this goal.  It's akin to standing at the edge of a field, seeing the distant flag, and plotting the strange path to get there.  First you have to see, and then to plan.  But ultimately you need to take that step into tall grass.

TED co-founder Richard Saul Wurman is quoted as saying that “learning can be defined as the process of remembering what you are interested in.”[i]

Everyday perseverance can be described as the process of remembering what you envision, and to making small steps toward an outcome you cannot clearly see. But then one day the fog lifts. And you make something uniquely your own. 

[i] Laurence G Boldt, Zen and the Art of Making a Living, pg 514

The Blank Review

 This summer I have been reading The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, by author Sarah Lewis.  I often turn to writers, philosophers, and researchers in my quest to understand, and recharge, especially after the long stretches when nothing – creatively – seems to get done.

Lewis aptly describes this frustrating period as the gap.  “Trying to bridge the gap between work and vision can be like hearing the notes to a song without being able to finish hearing the complete tune.”  Part of this process, she proposes, involves working in private, examining failure, and self-critiquing progress to better identify the goal.

We often have a vision but lack the skills and ability to achieve what we imagine.  But the experiences of artists before us support Lewis’s conclusions.  Start somewhere.  Evaluate what you accomplished.  Try again with the idea of improving on what you accomplished. And slowly you begin to understand exactly what you want to achieve.

This should be an easier process than it is, but Lewis adds, “Closing the gap means coping with the blank review.”

And the blank review is the one you give yourself. 

Ideas I use when confronted by this blank review:

The self critique, where I look at the characteristics of work I would like to achieve, and compare to the work I produce.

The plan, where I try to identify what I need to learn and master in order to achieve idea number 1.

The committment, where I insist to myself that I not give up when my efforts to achieve idea number 2 result in multiple failures. 

The vision, which I hold on to when idea number 3 begins to fail. 

What ideas do you use? 


The Summer Doldrums



The summer months of July and August slip into a kind of heated listlessness that mingles with the soft droning of insects.  Major shows have passed or are in progress.  The euphoria or depression that arrived with acceptance or rejection melts into a decided lack of energy.  Thinking of the nautical meaning for the Doldrums, the experience can be transient in nature, hard to predict, but capable of leaving an artist caught in the becalmed water of inertia.

The modern day sailor will tell you the Doldrums are caused by the sun heating the air around the equator and causing it to rise straight up. The result is hot or cold - little or no horizontal wind and ocean current, or the threat of potential hurricanes.  18th century sailors feared the Doldrums because the unpredictability of the weather could prevent all progress for weeks on end.   It was not then, nor is now, a place sailors wish to be when wind is their only means of propulsion.

The artist can relate, when she enters the studio after months of ambitious work only to look around at the stacked paintings and empty calendar.  When the goals so eagerly set feel like distant, teasing clouds at the edge of the weather.   In the heat of August it is easy to feel the disconnect between desire and energy, purpose or meaning, when the lapping of becalmed water lulls you into a listless drifting, fingers trailing, sending ripples of inconsequence across the glassy ocean’s surface. 

Does it feel somewhat empty? And yet seductively comforting? To be letting go of some of the urgency of purpose but not really, not yet, giving up on the need?  Perhaps this listless drifting is the beginning of doubt, out of which we must struggle to find faith.  But struggle we must.  To find and reconnect to what it is we want – when all we have is wind as our propulsion. 

What is it that drives you, breaking your heart when you can’t find it but making up for everything when you do? 

For me it is the memory of standing in a hot stuffy space so completely enthralled by a Titian painting that I still recall the sensation, realizing how art has the power to reach out across centuries and connect with another human experience. 

I hang on to that sensation when I am in the Doldrums. 

It is the source of the wind that slowly, softly, begins to lift the sails. 

What do you hang on to?

The Real Time Management

Time management isn't limited to carving out your studio time.  A lot of effort can be wasted in those precious hours if you spend the time on the wrong activity.

Time is initially spent mastering technique. But at some point it becomes more important to discover  the painting you want to paint, not just indulge yourself in the pleasant activity of painting. 

This means a willingness to evaluate very early in the process and wipe off repeatedly.  Spending more time in the thinking areas because you already have a pretty good command of the doing areas. And this can also mean the fear that days might be wasted while you struggle over the idea of what to paint. 

Recognizing when you are ready to manage your time this way, and then having the vision and courage to actually do it, now, that's the real time management.


Inspiration this week:

From the 99U blog Massimo Vignelli on The 3 Traits of Great Creatives


 Upcoming Events:

OPA Western Regional Juried Exhibition

Event Dates: 8/30/2014 - 9/30/2014
Location: Mountainsong Galleries - Carmel-by-the-Sea
Ocean Avenue, Between Mission and San Carlos
Carmel, CA 93921


Strategies and Outcomes

“Using strategies to force outcomes”, author unknown, is one of those random collections of words that hit home.

I plan out my artistic goals, and I know others do as well.  We each have a vision of success, and it becomes about the “doing” coupled with the “expecting.”  A way of thinking that not only frustrates us but magnifies our fears.  Because all this planning and strategizing and goals met or missed doesn’t help strengthen creativity.  In fact it might accomplish the opposite.

What if we could disengage long enough to put art back into its original form?  If each painting, carving, bit of clay became an object of devotion or entreaty?  The way the shamans in the caves at Lascaux used red, yellow and black to mirror reality and validate their experience?

Because until we tap into honest human experience, we cannot communicate that to others.  And until we understand we hold unique experience, we cannot let go of the expectation of universal acceptance.  We cannot force that outcome. 

It is not the result that holds importance, but the act of creativity itself.  The showing up, the participating in a visual conversation that has gone on for thousands of years and validating a part of human existence that would be lost were it not for you. 

We cannot use strategies and outcomes as the measurement for creative work.

But we can show up.  We can begin each day with a search for our inner truth.  The struggle is not easy but it might just be the only one with meaning.  

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Tide Pool, 11 x 14, oil

A re-emerging theme in my work is water, in part because it is ever changing, yet there is power, energy, and peace in its movement. With each surge something new holds possibility.  With each withdrawal there is reflection.  And the cycle begins again.

Like life. Like art. 


Feeling like you need to reconnect with your art?