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Creativity; its a choice.

Updated: Mar 4, 2022

Norfolk Painting School's Martin Kinnear on the science and art of choosing to be more creative

Sketching incessantly to see what happens is part of my process

I have something important to say to you about creativity, well two things really; it turns out that it's possible to choose to become more creative and worryingly easy to loose the habit.


All of this matters because while creativity is self evidently a good thing for painters, it turns out to be a great thing for everyone's health and well being. I'm, no doctor, but it seems to me that if ever there was a time to think about one's mental health, the return to some kind post 2020 normality, then these days after the pandemic would be it.


According to a paper by Harvard, creative expression is strongly linked to reduction in anxiety, an increase in well being and - here's the killer, in the way it engenders a sense of accomplishment and purpose will go a long way to relieving depression and stress; two major factors in our long term health.


Non of this is really news to artists, and as someone who painted his way out of life changing disability I can honestly say that choosing to become a painter probably saved my life. But the other conclusions in the Harvard study about becoming more creative and losing ones ability to do it, caught my eye.


We may be born creative but being creative is a choice


Lots of non artists think that ' they weren't born' with some kind of elusive creative gene, and while the Harvard study confirms strong links between brain physiology and facility for creative thought it stresses that while we may - or may not be - predicated to be creative, by far the strongest factor in becoming more creative is simply repeated 'experience' of doing it.


In other words , the more often you think creatively, the more creative you will become. So each and every time you practice a new creative painting skill you're actively making it easier to learn more, and the more you become creatively engaged the happier, healthier, and less stressed you will become.


But all of this positivity comes with a warning : it's very easy to blow your progress to a creatively healthier less stressed life, by falling into two common ways of thinking, which I often see in artists.


Joan Mitchell's work challenged our students but was 'transformative'.


The Enemy of Creativity is..


According to the study, creativity is especially lowered by perfectionism and a fear of failure. This is what Keynes meant when he said 'The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.' It's the reason that great creative thinkers from Wilde, to Picasso, to Einstein emphasise again and again the importance of being childlike in our willingness to try new things.


I make my studio my creative space, not a gallery to impress visitors


A famous study by Dr George Land, commissioned by NASA to show whether some people were born with it or whether it was learned is one of the key sources we use in our Diploma.


Lands and his team tested 1,600 children at age 5. 98% of those 5-year-olds scored in the creative genius range, a finding they were shocked by. So, they developed it into a longitudinal test, retesting at age 10. At this age 30% scored in the creative genius range. They continued the tests a further five years, retesting at age 15. By this point it had dropped to 12%. Only 2% of adults score in this range.


It's Not Just Child's Play


The problem here of course is that despite Dr Lands' findings, very few under 5's, despite being predicated to be 'creative geniuses' design innovative computer systems, rocket engines for NASA, formulate new solutions for sustainable energy, or for that matter paint great and moving Art.



Creativity without Aesthetic judgement : artistic genius is different to creative genius

Creativity is one thing and successful innovation another. Anyone can have a million creative but ultimately useless thoughts, and one of the important Harvard findings was that successfully creative people learn the habit of cross checking what they imagine might be possible with what they know could work.



Simple isn't the same as easy : Picasso creating Guernica.


In other words the key to successful creative innovation is to learn how things work - whilst at the same time retaining an ability to question whether that can't be changed or improved. We must learn more than our 5 year old selves knew, but in learning we must retain the willingness to not routinely do what we know works, in favour of trying a new solution which is likely to fail - but might - just might, be new, brilliant and truly innovative.


Add Rembrandt's ideas about optics to abstraction and what do you get? The genius of Rothko.


Think of all the amazing ideas in Art - particularly during and after Impressionism, which were ridiculed as 'failures' by grown up art critics, before being recognised as amazing new ways to see and depict the world. Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, were all acts of creative courage bordering on professional suicide.



Impressionism: a decisive break from 'how it should be done'

Impressionism was the decisive break from learned and accepted process, and criticised for it: "Try to make Monsieur Pissarro understand that trees are not violet, that sky is not the color of fresh butter” adding “try to explain to Monsieur Renoir that a woman’s torso is not a mass of decomposing flesh with those purplish-green stains”.


This means that creativity takes courage, the courage to fail as a consequence of trying something new in the process of finding something better. Picasso put this well in his most famous aphorism 'Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.'


As an artist I've always had a love/ hate relationship with teaching and learning the craft of painting. I'm convinced that it's absolutely right to learn whatever processes we need to express ourselves creatively, but just as passionate in my belief that the point of Art is to create art, not simply become good at parroting any style or process.


As a tutor it is my job to teach a student how paint works, but it is the student's job to then do something new, original and creative, with that process. And I don't think for one second that I have the easier end of that arrangement; teaching is easy, doing is the hard part.


With that in mind I would like to pass on some of my habits for learning, and challenging 'how it should be done'.



Innovation is the heart of my professional process , not just classical oils


  1. Learn a good core process such as Ebauche so you have the ability to create what's in your head: nothing kills enthusiasm as quickly as not knowing how to start. You can learn that here

  2. Practice this until you can do it without thinking, StudioTalk is our weekly inspirational demo to encourage your to do just that. You can join here.

  3. Once the process becomes second nature, add things you can't control which will challenge your assumptions and surprise you

    1. Use your non dominant hand or randomising tools (such as rags rather than brushes) with your dominant hand

    2. Look away to relinquish control while you establish the work; use a 'automatic drawing' technique for example

    3. Build creative serendipity into your process, Turner's loose Colour Beginnings and Titian's 'Botizar' method (brought up to date by Richter) are examples of this.

    4. Use creative constricts such as Fauvism, Scientific Impressionism, Cubism or even simple chiaroscuro to transform the observed into something more creative. This process lies at the heart of all of our Masterclasses, and we cover lots of examples from great artists, check the forthcoming ones out here. Most of my courses are based around creative constructs and every significant artists developed their own favourite combinations.

Finally never wipe down, destroy of hide a work because it has 'failed'. Learn to see 'failure' as proof you are embracing change and the essential step on the progress to success that it is.




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