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 Flow

Organic abstract of flow experience

©  The Art of Flow

“There are moments in a day when we seem to see beyond the usual… moments of our greatest happiness… our greatest wisdom.”. ~ Robert Henri ~

We need more moments like this in our lives. More flow. When time melts away and clarity is profound. The Deep Now.

Henri goes on to note that allow though it is the nature of all people to have these micro experiences, it is only a rare few who can continue to experience it and find expression for it. This blog is about how we can be a part of that rare few.

We’ll start with the first triplet in this symbiotic circle, flow (the other two being mastery and creativity).

What is flow?

There are many definitions and I’ll try to add each on my vocab page as I find them. Really the better we map the outside edge of what flow is, through our individual experiences, the better we can tease out the details and triggers to get flow to fire on all cylinders for us. But first lets use Mihály Csíkszentmihály’s definition:

“Flow: A state in which you are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The experience itself is so enjoyable that you do it for the sheer sake of doing it. Consciousness is harmoniously ordered. Your attention is singularly focused like a laser beam.”

Csíkszentmihály, often considered the father of flow, is a Hungarian psychologist who coined the term after hearing it used multiple times in interviews on positive, feel good activities. The concept, of course, has been around for centuries. I myself chased flow experiences for years before I even found out others were experiencing the same thing, let alone the amount of literature and research done on the concept. Robert Henri, the painter and teacher quoted above, lived (1865 –1929) long before the flow was coined.

So we have a definition, how do I get some…

The following ‘essential points for experiencing flow’ are taken from reference material accompaning the book Flow: Living at the Peak of Your Abilities by Csíkszentmihály

  1. Clear Goal
  2. Feedback
  3. Challenges Match Skills
  4. Concentration
  5. Focus
  6. Control
  7. Loss of Self-consciousness
  8. Transformation of Time

You’ll find this list or hybrid of it peppered through out the web when talking about flow. They’re helpful, they add structure. Takes us a few more steps along on our journey. But consider this quote by artist Paul Klee:

“Everything vanishes around me, and works are born as if out of the void. Ripe, graphic fruits fall off. My hand has become the obedient instrument of a remote will.”

To compare these cold institutional bullet points with such a profound experience… Klee wasn’t following a list of bullet points.

Hard to believe Klee and Csíkszentmihály are talking about the same thing. But they are and the truth of it is there, in both perspectives. That’s what we will explore in coming posts. Tease out those details that’ll help us experience what Paul Klee wrote of.

As a creative though, we need to add other aspects to our pursuit: mastery and creativity. Truly symbiotic in their overflow effect with one another.

Effortlessly merging our creativity and mastery with flow for high octane performance. As seductive as that sounds though, it is misleading. The art of flow really is completely immersible focused energy where everything vanishes but for our vision and it’s accomplishment. But… mastery is hard work. Creativity rarely shows itself when we’re looking for it. There is a process. Ironically enough, it requires effort to get to the point of effortless effort, of doerless doing. But that’s OK too. Because once you taste the deep now, you’ll be chasing it the rest of your life, and find the cost of admission well worth it.

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