Skip the Basics, Move Straight on to Mastery

Skip the Basics Move Straight on to Mastery Abstract


Forgive me, but if you read the above title with anything less than skepticism, you need to reevaluate your thinking.

We have become so addicted to the ‘buy it now’ button in life we are forgetting how to invest.

There is no ‘buy it now’ button on mastery. The best things in life require investment. One place that it might well be impossible to over invest in is the basics. Probably 99% of us assume we know the basics more profoundly than is true. It’s human nature to hurry to take the next step, to progress (seemingly). But it’s hard to overstate the value of distilling the relevant skill down to it’s most fundamental units. Simplifying the complex, burning in it, making it second nature. Then stitching it all back together for profound effect.

An expert is someone who has succeeded in making decisions and judgements simpler through knowing what to pay attention to and what to ignore. ~ Edward de Bono

Imagine the challenges of building an upside down pyramid? Or how about starting from the middle and building down and up simultaneously. It’s challenging just to imagine let alone accomplish. As we try to master our craft, are we just adding pieces in the middle, or starting with a knowledge base? Is our skill acquisition haphazard or thoughtful?

Illustration aside, building our skills from the most fundamental, helps us in a couple ways. The more fundamental our skill set:

  • The more layers or depth we can eventually add to that particular skill.
  • The greater our ability to transfer key aspects of that skill to other area’s of our study.
  • Additionally, the more fundamental our study and understanding of a particular skill, the greater our ability to deconstruct problems and sticky points later on.

For example, as artists we tend to be captivated by the tools and techniques of the leading artists of our day. Always looking for one more technique or trick to add to our arsenal. But how often do we take the time to really peel back the layers? The flourishing brush stroke is quick to grab our attention, but that is the end of the matter. What is the beginning? Well lets unpack it.

The most fundamental aspect of painting is drawing. Can we draw with a brush? Probably not if we haven’t learned to draw with a pencil or a fixed point tool. The vagaries of the brush bristles will be endlessly frustrating if we haven’t mastered the fundamentals of drawing with a pencil. There is a reason classical art schools start with traditional drawing. But it doesn’t stop there. We can and should, keep peeling back layers. How can we distill the skill to an even more fundamental?

“The painter draws with his eyes, not with his hands. What ever he see’s, if he see’s it clearly he can put it down.” ~ The Painters Eye – Maurice Grosser

To draw well, we must first see well. To draw with our eyes, see relationships and proportions of form, line and space. Honestly this alone could be a lifetime of study, it is so powerful.

“Seeing is without limit. It is a great thing when one has a fair measure of seeing. Then to invent the means of expressing it. To be a master of technique rather to be the owner of a lot of it. Those who simply collect technique have at best only a second hand lot. A great artist is one who says as nearly what he means as his powers of invention allow.” ~ Robert Henri – The Art Spirit

Another advantage of this of course, is our second bullet point, tranferability. In cultivating first our ability to see, we will be better able to layer on the skills. For example, switching from drawing with a pencil to drawing with a brush is challenging, even an outright road block for some. How can we use our fundamental ability to see, to make this transition? A pencil is a tool of lines. It can be used to shade and produce values of course, but primarily drawing with a pencil, you’re seeing the world, translating the world, into a series of lines. You can use a brush to make lines too. Studying Sumi-e and exploring shifting line weights, the possibilities are endless. But the true strength of the brush is in producing shapes.

The greatest skill to cultivate moving from pencil art to brush art, is the ability to see the world as shapes instead of as lines.

Lastly, starting with fundamentals, building up from fundamentals, is immensely helpful when we have problems, when our painting fails.

“The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars. One of the basic and difficult lessons every artist must learn is that even the failed pieces are essential. ” ~ David Bayles – Art & Fear

We all have failed paintings, and some of them break our heart. But what’s crucial is how we treat these failures. Will they be stepping stones or our own personal albatross? Hopefully we’re looking at them as stepping stones. Which is to say we are post mortem analyzing what worked and what didn’t work, what to repeat and what to avoid.

If we are building up or expertise based on fundamentals, this will be hugely productive. If we’ve ignored the fundamentals we’ll be tossed about like a ship with out an anchor. We’ll think we have a composition problem when really our values structure is off. We’ll think we have poor color harmony when really the problem is with our color temperatures. Worst of all, we may not even realize there are fundamental problems with our painting at all. We’ll end up investing countless hours of work essentially on a expertise plateau that we don’t even realize we’ve topped out on…But building with fundamentals, we’ll be better able to identify problems in our own work.

It’s certainly not glamorous, but investing in the fundamentals is investing in your long term self.

Enjoy the Deep Now

Harvesting Intuition

Abstract of Harvesting Intuition


Harvesting Intuition

Are your ripe fruits of intuition rotting on the vine, going ignored? Or are you making full use of all those sweet signals? Intuition does not need be mysterious, its there for all who want it.

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and forgotten the gift.” ~Albert Einstein ~

Powerful words from a scientist, and genius non the less. So how can we honor our gift? First, lets discuss what intuition is.

What is intuition?

What would your mental process look like without words? Without a language to channel your discursive mental meanderings? The concept of our thoughts as a stream of words is easily grasped. But consider your thoughts as pictures instead… It’s interesting to note, that Einstein, who is famous for thinking in pictures rather than words, places intuition on such a pedestal, as quoted above. There in lies a connection I believe. But pictures (visual/spatial) thinking is only one mode, aside from verbal (auditory/sequential), there is also somatic, kinesthetic and others.

Intuition is answers with out words (sometimes to questions we haven’t even asked yet)

There are of course many definitions from Descartes to Hume to Kant and many more but if were to harvest our own intuition we need to break it down and understand it simply. When you have an answer you can’t put into words, when you understand a concept but cant explain it (at least not verbally), or even when you feel (somatic awareness) somethings up but your not sure what yet, your intuition is plugging away.

If you have a square peg and have to choose between a round hole and a square one, you know where it goes. Even if you don’t know the word for ‘square’. Your visual spatial sense understands it. Its possible to know the answer with out knowing the words to defend that answer.

The exact definition of intuition will probably continue to be debated for a long time. The one we’re working with here lines up partially with tacit knowledge (though not completely). This is my preferred definition because, we can wrap our heads around it, break it down to fundamentals we can acquire, and it doesn’t involve any ‘woo woo’ factors.

Unblocking your intuition

  • Be in your body. A common statement” from business leaders and others is “I just had a gut feeling”. Lets unpack that a little. Your gut is sometimes referred to as a second brain for its extensive nervous system components. It can even operate autonomously from your brain. So there are signals there. Butterflys in your stomach before public speaking ect.. If we are in a dynamic situation with many variables were trying to process we may feel something in our stomach or our hands get a little sweaty, we just got a clue what our next decision should be. Post mortem we can analyze and isolate what we are responding to, but if we are in our bodies, present, we can respond rapidly in the moment to our gut response.
  • Toggle between contemplation and concentration. Some times our best approach is contemplative. Non-linear or lateral thinking, a visual/spatial approach where we are exploring the outside edges of the problem or project. Other times concentration is key, what we might think of as a brute force analytical approach. The intuitive mind sees analytical thought as a tool to pick up or put down as the need arise. Not every problem can be handled analytically. As Picasso said: “Computers are useless, they only give answers”. Sometimes the best course is to ask a better question. This is the result of a more intuitive contemplative approach.
  • Pick patterns over pieces. This is really just an extension of the previous point, but represents an important avenue we want to burn into our process. Many definitions of intuition include pattern recognition. Constantly being aware of patterns even as we deal with a project piece by piece will allow us to take short cuts and sometimes even leaps of insight as we grasp a concept spatially and thereby enable our selves to skip certain mental steps. Here’s also a great example of where an analytical approach can serve your intuition well. Put in the brute force of analyzing as many different patterns that may apply to your field of study. For example in Daniel Kahnemans book “Thinking Fast and Slow” he mentions the pitfalls of intuitive rapid judgements ( to be sure, just because a person makes a decision rapidly doesn’t mean it’s intuitive, or even that they’ve trained their intuition effectively). He uses examples of reputable stock brokers who basically have less than a 50/50 win/loss ratio. But notice this quote of Josh Waitzkin of Search for Bobby Fischer fame “In my experience, really high level thinkers have integrated cognitive bias’ into there intuitive process”. A cognitive bias is essentially a pattern of rationality in judgement. We sound down these patterns through both previous study and deconstructing our own experiences. So don’t loose sight of the patterns as you examine the pieces.
  • Embrace a positive attitude. Daniel Khaneman in the afore mentioned book also points out that positive mood, intuition, and creativity form a bottom up cluster. This makes sense from a neurobiological stand point as well. Dopamine in the brain is often related to positive moods and high engagement. Dopamine lowers the signal to noise ratio in our head’s there by increasing pattern recognition.
  • Respect the unseen. You can’t see a black hole. It’s existence is basically intuited by it’s effects on everything around it. Miles Davis said “Don’t play what’s there, play whats not there”. As an artist, I tend to categorize this as negative space. This really falls under pattern recognition but it helps to look at it independently. The examples are endless of our getting caught up in what is there that we overlook what is not there. We can train our intuition to be sensitive to negative space and the space between the pieces of whichever mental puzzle we might be looking at. Research Chinese and Japanese Art for great examples of balancing positive and negative aspects in a painting. Another great thought experiment is to imagine removing material (much as a sculptor might) to find your painting.

The Beauty of Non-Linear Thinking

I’ve used this term of non-linear thinking a few times in this post, it really is a term that resonates with me personally. It’s important to understand just what we might mean in discussing linear and non-linear thinking. A line is the shortest route between two points. But consider, linear thinking is not necessarily the shortest distance between two ideas. Consider an analogy:

Imagine a bird flying above a mountain highway, perhaps it makes sense to follow the highways course, good visibility, road kill ect… But, assuming the same destination, if the road hits a series of switch backs, the bird can ignore the roads course and take a straight line. It’s not restricted by the road. The road is a linear, sequential process. Step by rolling step. But if we think like a bird we are not bound by that sequential process. With greater perspective and mobility we can take shortcuts that a linear, sequential course would not allow. When were driving we of course don’t have a choice, but our thinking process is not so limited.

The Dark Side of Intuition

Setting aside my intuition cheer leading for a minute, there are some blind spots we might consider.

Intuition, once burned in is not always a one size fits all. If we spent years burning in rugby habits, these won’t all transfer over to playing football. Our intuitive footwork will be real good to us on a football field. Our intuitive ball handling will probably get us in trouble, perhaps even worse than if we didn’t have any rugby experience to begin with.

Josh Waitzkin had an interesting comment when asked about his consulting of elite individuals. ‘Most of that last 1% is about unlearning.’ His clients, highly trained experts in their field, had honed their intuitions to incredible degrees to reach 99%. But that last 1% was about unlearning. Things they’ve cultivated and burned in that they can perform intuitively, were great for the first 99%. But their intuitions needed some adjustments for that last little step to be the best of the best.

Another example. Looking at a huge series of dominoes, you see at the end a glass of water perched to tip over. You intuitively know this with out having to analyze each domino one at a time right down the line. Quick look and your spatial reasoning will see the projected outcome. On the other hand if you do a brute force systematic analyzation of each domino and halfway down the line see it split… one chain reaction turns into two? Clearly our intuition would of misled us, or only been half right at best. In this case, our intuition is based on our visual spatial senses. If there are factors outside our visual spatial view, then our intuition can be compromised.

Invest In Your Intuition

It’s not uncommon (more so in yesteryear) for martial artists to be credited with some mystical ability because of their preternatural movement. But whats the truth of it?

Intuition is a bottom up process, that is to say habits that we have burned in so deeply through practice, come back up automatically. We can invest in our intuition, that is to say train it up. Obviously some personality types are more sensitive to intuition, as Carl Jung is famous for elucidating. But we all have it.

Again, leaning on Josh Waitzkins book “The Art of Learning” what looks like magic to us in an exceptional martial artist, is actually years of training. As an onlooker we my see a move that appears to be 3 or 4 components. An expert may see 20 or more. We may see a preternatural movement but not realize the martial artist has spent years breaking the move down into minuscule components and then putting it back together.

Physical analogies are great as they are so easy for us to visualize, but even the more esoteric aspects of intuition can be trained. Intuition is a skill, the deeper we train it, the more it will give back.

Embrace the Deep Now

The Power of Sincerity

© The Power of Sincerity
© The Power of Sincerity

The Power of Sincerity

A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal. Oscar Wilde

I suspect that Mr Wildes context was different, but the point is clear, sincerity is powerful.

That’s a good way to ruin a painting.

When Robert Henri was asked by a student if their painting would pass a jury, he ignored the question and went straight to intent. Such thoughts, he showed, would not only ruin the painting (potentially), but cheapen the process. The more extrinsic factors influence your painting, the more insincere it becomes.

Creative process with out sincerity is like a BMW with out an engine. Looks all shiny on the outside but there’s nothing really there to move you

There is such a huge difference in the creative process between “I have to’ and “I want to”. ‘That juror likes that style so I have to paint to mimic what I think they’ll like. I want to sell more paintings so I have to paint like that Kincade guy. He sells a lot.’

If we’re painting what we think the juror might like, or in a style they have awarded to in the past, what exactly are we investing in? If the next artist over is passionate about what they are doing, pouring their heart and soul into the piece, what are they investing in? Themselves. The former is laboring towards an imaginary ideal of a juror they’ve likely never even met.

Competition jurors, just like art collectors, are sensitive to insincerity. It really does show through in the work itself. One artist is artificially designing a piece in accord with his perceived likes and dislikes of the juror or collector, and the other is chasing their own internal vision. Which would you choose if you were a juror?

Consider the rest of Robert Henri’s advice:

‘The object of painting a picture is not to make a picture – however unreasonable this may sound. The picture, if a picture results, is a by-product and may be useful, valuable, interesting as a sign of what has past. The object, which is back of every true work of art, is the attainment of a state of being, a state of high functioning, a more than ordinary moment of existence. In such moments activity is inevitable, and whether this activity is with brush, pen, chisel, or tongue, its result is but a by-product of the state, a trace, the foot-print of the state. ‘

Here’s the ironic truth, those who are interesting to themselves are interesting to others.

Anything that externalizes your engagement with your process, will ultimately dilute your footprint. Dilute whatever interesting things about you, that make you unique, that linger in your work of art. The more sincere your engagement with your process, the more your unique footprint will resonate with your viewers.

For example consider NC Wyeth vs Andrew Wyeth both famous artists, one spent time living the life of an adventurer and painting the adventerous the other living and ordinary life, painting ordinary(seemingly) things. One explored the outside corners of life, the other explored the inside corners of life. Sincerity is power.

Motivation vs. Inspiration

Our process over product discussion can be summarized so far in prioritizing internal (or proactive) motivations over external (reactive) motivations. But we need to be careful to not confuse motivation with inspiration.

Rich environment, deep embodiment, these are important environmental flow triggers. Whether painting from a live model, en plein air, or even from a photograph of your family trip to Yosemite, your inspiration to paint is external. But your motivation, your connection, mental engagement with your subject is internal.

Connecting the dots, we also see the stronger our external inspirations, the stronger our internal motivations, and the deeper flow experience we’ll likely have.

Hidden Dangers

We discussed the drawbacks of externalizing our relationship to our process. But a perhaps more subtle danger is externalizing our relationship to our product, our paintings or creative output.

I met one artist on a studio tour and got to taking about one of her beautiful gestural pen & inks that was being used in her advertising. The piece was sold. The artist mentioned how lucky the buyers were to get the piece and for an attractive price. It was clear the artist felt it was the best thing she had ever done. Sadly, in talking to her some more, it became evident it was the best work she felt she would ever paint. Though this occurred a few years ago, it still makes me sad how this aritst is creatively stuck because she externalized her relationship to this painting.

In contrast, consider some of your favorite masters from the past. Your favorite work of theirs, Da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, Bouguereau’s ‘Nymphes et Satyre’, Cezzane’s ‘Annecy Lake’, Sargent’s ‘El Jaleo’… Some universally considered the artists best, some just favorites, but all these artists continued painting long after their best works were created. They loved the process and couldn’t be bothered with ‘Have I painted my best work already’ thoughts.

If you fall in love with the process of self-expression, your sincerity will shine through. Annoying thoughts of ‘I wonder what if I’ve already done my best’ will fade away.

Process over Product

Externalizing your engement with your process will pull you out of flow and likely impede your results and your progress toward mastery. You are also, sadly, giving control of your creative work to forces outside your control. If we are not internally motivated, and then don’t receive loads of praise and accolades, we will dry up and blow away in the wind as an artist. We’ll become the victim of our own creative malnourishment.

Sacrificing process for product is like trading the milk cow for a pale of milk. It just doesn’t make sense. Invest in yourself emotionally and completely in the process and the product will shine of it’s own accord.

Enjoy the Process – Make Art Inevitable


© Time


What would life look like with out time? If it were never invented. Endless… depthless… now… So much we could do and accomplish. So many pressures and anxieties would disappear.

But it does exist and it’s always getting in the way. We are all susceptible to what sometimes is referred to as ‘mental time travel.’ This endless unhealthy rumination with “I wonder what if…?” or “Why did I have to go and do that…?”

Sure a thoughtful contemplation of lessons learned or principles to be applied is great. But what I’m talking about with mental time travel, is at its worst, thoughts that lead to anxiety (future) and resentment (past). At their best these thoughts still steal our attention from the here and now.

Time is a component quantity of various measurements used to sequence events. So says wikipedia. Consider how artificial that is. Time is more often than not viewed as a thing, a tangible part of life. Something we have, or don’t have and are running out of… But it really only exists in so far as we are looking at it. Using it to sequence something.

It’s interesting to note that in Einstein’s theories of relativity, time was not fixed. It was the physical world that was fixed and time adjusted to it, not the other way around. I think this space vs time dichotomy is interesting because of what it means for us. Whether we are chasing flow, more creativity or pursuing mastery, time has a way of getting in the way.

This dichotomy of time and space is more than just physics, it seems to extend to our heads.

There is a school of thought that learning styles of children can be divided between auditory/sequential( sequencing is essentially a time based linear activity) and visual/spatial. Dr Linda Silverman, who pioneered the concept, has outlined some of the differences. In her book she shows parents and teachers practical ways to recognize, reach, and develop visual-spatial abilities in children.

I bring it up here only show the validity of this dichotomy: spatial/visual vs temporal/sequential. Dr Silverman goes into detail about the differences, but the evidence doesn’t end with her. Roger Sperry, a neuropyscologist, even won a Nobel prize for his work in brain laterilization which coincides, interestingly enough, with a spatial vs sequential dichotomy.

Any right brain vs left brain discussion (which is what Sperry pioneered) is usually frowned upon in today’s findings on whole brain networks etc… But the dichotomy is still there in how we mentally process information. As seen in a more recent study:

Binding “When” and “Where” Impairs Temporal, but not Spatial Recall in Auditory and Visual Working Memory

No doubt most of us, even if we have a dominant mode, use both spatial and temporal reasoning and thinking. But notice this quote from Betty Edwards famous book: Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain:

On creative thought and unverbalized solutions: “That in all these sudden illuminations my ideas took shape in a primarily visual-spatial form without, so far as I can introspect, any verbal interventions, is in accordance with what has always been my preferred mode of thinking… Many of my happiest hours since childhood have been spent absorbed in drawing, in tinkering, or in exercises of purely mental visualizations. ~ Roger N Shepherd ~

Sounds a lot like a flow experience doesn’t it? Visual spatial processing is key. I think that as a visual creative we have a tendency to think that visual spatial processing is there by default. But is it? Are there things we’re doing to sabotage our deep now process? Time intrudes on most everything we do.

Before we go into the way time may negatively influence our visual creative experience we should acknowledge, as Alan Watts so eloquently put it:

“You cant have use of the inside of a cup without the outside.

Time, artificial as it may be, is part of life. In terms of flow experience, we see in sports that time plays a huge factor (eg: basket ball player driving for the hoop as time is expiring and feels as if time slows down).

It’s an interesting relationship but it seems time(or any kind of sequential process) needs to be made to take a back seat to the visual spatial experience.

One notable surefire example of this is risk. Albert Heim, a Swiss geologist of the 19th century, fell over 60 feet in a climbing accident. Fortunately he survived but the experience of time dilation and peace while falling affected him so profoundly he went on to study the effect in other survivors of near death experiences. For a modern day parallel check out Steven Kotler’s book: Rise of Superman. It goes in depth on high risk activities and how they induce flow states.

Flow is a scalable experience. I have personally experienced a variety of flow experiences from trail running to triple diamond snowboarding to painting. I’ve narrowed down the biggest factors regarding how deep into flow I can hit, and they are time and how many aleatory elements I can build into the experience. I’ll cover aleatory elements in a future post.

The connection between linear auditory, sequential and temporal seem to form a group that I handle very deliberately when planning my painting sessions. Words just have to be set aside while painting. Both internal and external, I don’t want any verbal influences. Noise canceling headphones are great for this of course.

I do listen to music, but absolutely no lyrics. Rhythm trumps harmony on my playlist (but I’m still exploring this). But considering musics large effect on arousal I try to engineer tempo to the equivalent mood of my painting process at the moment. So I can’t go too fast on tempo or it’s distracting. Too slow and my flow is not as deep.

Playlists are incredibly helpful if your working in a window. Looking at the clock is death to flow. But if I’m worried about being somewhere on time I can’t ignore the clock either, it’ll nag at me. Hence the beauty of the playlist. Set up 2 hours music and your done. Nothing nagging and pulling you out of flow. If for some reason you’re so deep in the now that the music ends and you don’t realize it, that’s OK too. At least for me. If I’m deep in a session, enjoying the now, it’s probably more important than anything I’m late for anyways (and you can always just set an alarm if it’s your wedding or something monumental).

Now time and any step by step sequential process’s seem to work together. How we handle these aspects is extremely important as they want to pull us out of flow. Another definition of flow is transient implicit-explicit synchronization. Implicit being unconscious/intuitive and explicit more conscious top down activities. We need to relegate time and sequencing to bottom up, unconscious implicit systems.

Like that basket ball player driving for the basket. Dribbling and footwork is all implicit. He’s trained it and burned it in so deep it takes no conscious thought. His conscious mind is free to handle the fluid and dynamic qualities of the other players on the court. Explicit, top-down.

As a visual creative we need to do the same. Personally as an oil painter, I sequence as much before hand as I can. Brushes,knives, and pigments same place every time. Always limit your options when possible (we can talk about the principle of scarcity in a future post). I premix piles of major colors. Once I’m painting I constantly keep adjusting my base mixtures, but if I have to keep digging and come up dry or I struggle for a color match (mental or in the real), I lose the flow. Plan ahead and prepare. Anticipate points of resistance and prepare around them.

The prep work is no fun, especially the long hours of skill acquisition and mastery. But the pay off is huge, as so many have noted:

He paints like a man going over the top of a hill singing! ~ Robert Henri ~

A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song! ~ Maya Angelou ~

Forget time and really bite down on the Deep Now.

Deep Think

Organic Abstract/Realist morph of deep thinking
© Deep Think

Deep Think

We are so bloated on everyone elses shallow thoughts, we’ve no energy left to explore our own depths.

We consume such massive amounts of TV, internet, and social media.  All stimulating and feel good for the moment sure, but leaves us a little empty after…And just like the slow inevitable effects of malnutrition,  we’re slowly wasting away mentally.  There is little left afterward to invest in those things that are really important to us.

Too often we ignore high value pursuits for the readily available low value but highly stimulating pursuits of social media and internet.

Step back from your emotional addictions and go deep.

Like junk food, we are systematically training our minds to crave novelty and the sensational.Which seems to be leading to our inability to focus or concentrate deeply.

A deep think is about stepping back from our mental addictions and emotional swirls. It’s about expanding the moment, creating some mental space in your head. Because if we’re going to bias our thinking towards depth as opposed to breadth, which I hope we all intend, we need to recover the silence. Recover the deep now. Trade low value activities for high value activities. Train our thinking like a magnifying glass instead of a search light.

To be sure, when I speak of silence, doesn’t mean thats where our heads stay. It’s about not hearing the music for the noise. Recover silence to take control of your thinking and direct your thoughts single mindedly.

Whats this mean for flow?

If your a flow hacker then you know it’s all about triggers. We may tinker and experiment but bottom line is we pile on as many of the flow triggers as we can. Even though there are rhythms and routines that help get us to that ‘trance of working’ it is by no means systematic. So we pile on every trigger we can discern, discover and determine.

As flow triggers go deep focus is a biggie. Long periods of uninterrupted intense attention are key to “action and awareness merging” and “distractions excluded from consciousness” aspects of flow.

What does this mean for creativity?

Scott Barry Kaufman & Carolyn Gregoires book “Wired to Create” is probably the most useful book out there on the ‘how to’ of creativity. There is hardly a chapter in the book (all themed under 10 things highly creative people do differently) that doesn’t speak to the importance of a deep think.

Especially as a visual creative, a deep think is about silencing the words we are surrounded by constantly and focusing on the visual. We are trained from childhood to verbalize everything. Most creative breakthroughs come through visualization ( excluding authors and haiku masters of course).

I am endlessly inspired and captivated by Einsteins thought experiments. Visualizing riding on a light particle leading to the theory of relativity. Einstein was trained in this kind of thinking as a child. As a visual creative the connection is even more clear. We need to spend time, to deep think visually, exploring patterns and shapes and rhythms.

According to William G. Allyn Professor of Medical Optics “More than 50 percent of the cortex, the surface of the brain, is devoted to processing visual information,”. We can use some of that same neural machinery to visualize. But we have to quiet the verbal intrusion first, the monkey mind.

What does this mean for mastery?

Deep now, intense concentration, razor sharp focus – it works.

Robert M. Nideffer, Ph.D writes: “With respect to learning, reviews of the experimental literature appear to indicate that one of the key differences between highly skilled performers and less skilled performers is their ability to “do more with less information.”. He goes on show how their expertise doesn’t allow them to deal with more information but to pay attention to less.

Looking under the hood, notice what Cal Newport in his book “Deep Work” shares:

“By focusing intensely on a specific skill, you’re forcing the specific relevant circuit to fire, again and again, in isolation. This repetitive use of a specific circuit triggers the wrapping layers of myelin around the neurons in the circuits effectively cementing the skill. The reason, therefore, why it’s important to focus intensely on the task at hand while avoiding distraction is because this is the only way to isolate the relevant neural circuit enough to trigger useful myelination.”

Go Deep

Face it we’re lazy. We always seem to err on the side of efficiency, minimum energy expenditure. Going deep requires more energy. Its harder and requires more deliberate focus and mental wherewithal. But it is a skill, it can be developed.  Anything less is just mediocrity. The deeper you go the greater the rewards.

Bite down on the Deep Now

The Art of Mastery

Organic Abstract Art
© The Art of Mastery

The Art of Mastery

If a man has the soul of an artist he needs a mastery of all the means of expression so that he may command them. ~ Robert Henri ~

Apprentice, journeyman, and master. An ancient system of learning that is almost universally understood. In the first two posts, Art of Flow and Art of Creativity, the subjects, though seductive, aren’t quite as tangible. We can not force flow, we can not make creativity reveal itself in our work. Mastery, on the other hand, is a well worn path. We can force it, we can make it happen. Through systematic hard work expertise can be ours. Interestingly enough, mastery plays a key role in the other two points on our little triad of human achievement, flow and creativity.

Pursuit of mastery, first off, puts your head in a growth mindset mentality. A fixed mindset is death to creativity and flow. Check out Carol Dwecks great book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success”

Next consider what is the key difference between a deep experience and a shallow one.? Expertise (ref Malcom Gladwells Blink). Flow, this completely immersible focused energy will flow (figuratively) deepest and strongest down those canyons most strongly established and entrenched. We strengthen these canyons (neural pathways and habit loops) through mastery. In studies of athletic flow, over learning is a frequent contributor. Consider this some what older and more sage advice:

As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make deep mental paths, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives. ~Henry David Thoreau ~

Mastery helps us develop these paths, these neuropathways. Charles Limb MD notes “Creativity isn’t something that happens on the first try”. Numerous studies have linked higher creativity to higher productivity, another result of pursuit of mastery.

Mastery – What is it?

According to Robert Greene in his book Mastery: “Mastery is not a function of Genius or talent. It is a function of time and intense focus applied to a particular field of knowledge”

So we see, mastery is about determined desire, not innate talent.

Another definition I favor, as a visual creative: Technical virtuosity in service of a visual power.

Flow and creativity, their greatest beauty is also their greatest frustration. They are non-linear. You may sneak up on them from the side but you wont get there through some sequential 5 step process. Mastery though, is all about a linear step by step process. It can certainly be optimized, not every road to it is non-stop and a straight line and we’ll dig into that in later posts. But it is sequential with an easily understood process.


Some, on that path chasing more creativity and flow in there lives, may resent the inclusion of mastery in this process. There is a sad tendency in the visual arts of the past century that you don’t see in the other arts and music, to regress. I don’t mean simplify, which is hugely important and will definitely be discussed in later posts. I mean going backwards.

As example lets take naïve art. When a trained artist emulates the style of a child, pretends that they are with out skill. Many examples of this in 20th century art, much of its influence even outside whats commonly referred to as naive art. It probably is not completely with out merit, I think experimentation is fundamentally important in the visual arts ( and key to flow and creativity of course). But let me share my concern with this type of thinking.

There is a lot to be learned with fresh (naive) eyes. There are numerous examples of high level performers and high level thinkers after reaching some kind of peak, will make a lateral shift in sports or subject just to look at the world again through fresh eyes, the eyes of a beginner. Some things can only be seen through beginner eyes. This is huge. In cross disciplinary pursuits, and fresh eyes, we are more open to break throughs we might else wise miss. But to just pretend your a new, naive artist? Is this lack of sincerity to process productive? Perhaps it makes for some interesting thought experiments, maybe even a very creative problem solving technique. But is there enough value there to hijack mainstream art? Then considering the money involved, how many insincere artists are attracted to using this insincere process to sell paintings? Are we moving forward or regressing?

Culinary experts don’t get food all over their face, emulating child like wonder when enjoying fine food. Musicians don’t mindlessly slam a bunch of keys on a piano in pretend child like glee. To remove sincerity and quality from the visual arts is a mistake.

Mastery should be a goal of any visual creative. Since the renaissance Art has been raised above the status of mere labor. In later years what is art started distinguishing itself from craft. But the next step is not removing craftsmanship from what is art. Craftsmanship or artistic mastery really was the biggest unacknowledged victim of our 20th century society.

In all three of our lifestyle enhancing triumvirates of flow, creativity, and mastery, I believe the maxim holds true: internal is proactive, external is reactive. But one internal motivation that often bleeds into external dreams is to transcend technique in your work. But any who think they may transcend technique with out first starting with technique are fooling themselves.

But what ever your view and artistic proclivity the next step, looking forward, is really what Henri so eloquently spoke about to his students:

The object isn’t to make art, but be in that wonderful state that makes art inevitable. ~ Robert Henri ~

Bite down on the Deep Now. History will surely take care of itself.

The Art of Creativity

Organic Abstract Art of Creativity

©  The Art of Creativity

The Art of Creativity

Oh the allure of reaching into the imagination and pulling out something tangible, useful, and then making it real.

“One evening, contrary to my custom, I drank black coffee and could not sleep. Ideas rose in crowds; I felt them collide until pairs interlocked, so to speak, making a stable combination. By the next morning I had established the existence of a class of Fuchsian functions, those which came from the hypergeometric series; I had only to write out the results, which took but a few hours. ~ Henri Poincaré ~

We want more of that in our lives. There’s powerful resonance there, just dreaming about it, let alone even doing it. So how can we get more?

Its easy to see why chasing creativity is such a concern in this 21st century. Feels good, rewarding and useful to others. Of course (cue in sound of distant shoe falling), it is elusive and almost never there when its made the goal for it’s own right. But we can find it.

“Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”. ~ Henry David Thoreau ~

You can’t force a plant to grow, but you can plant seeds. You can cultivate the soil. Then…growth.

So that’s what this blogs all about, how to tease out those little details and routines to cultivate a creative life of wonders. My take on this process is that creativity is one piece in a three piece puzzle of this ultimate human experience, the other two being mastery and flow. But now, creativity, what is it?

What is Creativity

I can think of no other word that has had as an organic, elusive definition. Current favorite among thought leaders: An idea that is novel, good, and useful. Some others:

  • Recombination of novel information and older existing ideas.
  • Pattern recognition and matching.
  • Find new solutions to a problem or new modes of expression.
  • Bringing into existence something new to the individual.
  • Thinking outside the box.

My personal definition is: the bridge between the imagination and the real. Which is really inspired by this statement by Ed Catmull about creativity: “there is a sweet spot between the known and the unknown where originality happens; the key is to be able to linger there without panicking.”

Why? Creativity in Action

Richard Feynman, perhaps one of the most unarguable manifestations of creative genius, after Einstein, in recent years is a great example. If your unfamiliar with him please check him out. Aside from quick wiki read you might also check our Feynman’s own somewhat whimsical autobiography(from quantum physics to how to pick up girls in a bar) or James Gleick’s quite thorough biography (which I leaned on heavily for the following story).

At a time when Feynman was at the top of his game as a scientist and professor Caltech asked him to teach introductory physics course. Something usually handled by Assistant Proffesor’s and Graduate students. Feynman, far from seeing this as beneath him, commenced a one year odyssey which was so successful that his audience was as much faculty and graduate students as it was first year freshman. Note Feynman’s perspective in tackling this, as Gleick writes:

He found that he was working harder than at any time since the atomic bomb project. Teaching was only one of his goals. He realized also that he wished to organize his whole embracing knowledge of physics, to turn it end over end until he could find all the interconnections that were usually, he believed, left as loose ends.

Genius The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick pg 359

At the end of the year Caltech, and other professors for that matter, begged him to do the same thing for physics year two. Stick with the same freshman right on into their sophomore year. The results are the famous Feynman Lectures. The complete reenvisioning of the world of physics through the unique and dynamic viewpoint of Feynman.

To really see why I’ve added this example, check out the popularity of Feynman’s lectures on Amazon and consider: this is a college textbook written (compiled) over 50 years ago! Not in a dusty garage box or in the attic but still selling…

Now another example, closer to home for us visual creatives. Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti. I won’t bore you with this well know renaissance artist introduction but cut straight to the story I love to share with people.

The year is 1501 and 26 year old Michelangelo is just returning home to Florence from some years in Rome where he received some small fame for a magnificent statue, the Pieta. But that fame didn’t necessarily transfer to Florence.

The powers that be were finally trying to have a huge 17 foot tall block of marble, that’d been laying around for 25 years, commissioned for sculpting and placement. But Michelangelo had to compete for it. According to Irving Stones Biographical novel “The Agony and the Ecstasy” the other competitors wanted to cut the thing in two. You see someone had already started carving on it, and left this big gouge in the middle. Only Michelangelo, who grew up staring at and dreaming what he could do with this block, saw the solution to leaving it whole. By ingeniously rotating the posture and moving the hips and legs, he solved the problem of the hole. So we have the giant statue of “David”. One of the most famous statues every sculpted.

I chose these two examples because what these men weren’t. The weren’t motivated by extrinsic forces. Glory, money, accolades, power… No doubt they were not completely immune to such influences but what was their driving force?

Feynman spent hours and hours of studying ants that intruded in his cupboard. He extensively and patiently studied their tracking and marking of their environment. How they communicated and passed on information. What systems they used and how he could manipulate those systems. In the end he learned an incredible amount about ants, trained the ants to leave his cupboard alone, and never had to squish one. He was insatiably curious and completely absorbed in his various studies. Intrinsically motivated.

Michelangelo’s father was middle class with Bourgeois ancestry and aspirations. An artist was the same as a laborer in those days. Michelangelo had a long uphill battle to pursue a life as an artist. But he had to make things. He was impelled from within to make things. He was proud having breast feed from a wet nurse who was a marble cutters wife, raised on marble dust milk! His connection to the marble was more powerful than any societal prejudices could dim.

It’s interesting that in studying creativity, they have found that those who state they’re more creative under a deadline, score lower on creativity tests. Creativity is such an inside out process. Too bad for corporate America, that this makes creativity very difficult to commodifiy. But great for us as nurturing the inside, planting the seeds and tilling the soil, makes a creative life so rich and enjoyable.

These are just a few introductory thoughts and be assured we’ll be digging in the details in some posts to come.

Bite down on the Deep Now