The Know-Nothing Zones
by Robert Genn, Canada, 2005
Have you ever wondered about those little mental lapses you have
while you're working? I'm talking about those times when the
brush keeps moving but your mind goes somewhere else. It's the creative equivalent of "taking your mind off the road." I've
never heard of psychologists examining the phenomenon in
artists. After a lifetime of being curious about it, I've got a
I've noticed that in beginners and less confident artists the
brush tends to drift with the mental drift--that is it re-sweeps
areas or repeats previous moves. An unconscious activity, it
can go on for some time. In beginners the tool-action generally
slows down and may wander to palette safety or paint rag where
it sweeps some more.
In more proficient artists an "automatic pilot" takes over and work continues. The work may actually speed up. It can be intermittent or fairly steady. The absence of conscious control
is recognized by many as a valuable creative state. Most
painters have made passages that seem to have painted
themselves. Several things occur here. Brush government is
supplanted by motor skill. Muscle-knowledge kicks in and has
the effect, if only temporarily, of neutralizing deeply held
fears. At the bottom of it all, what you think you know
(knowledge) together with what you don't know (fear) are two of
the main creative blocks. The absent mind knows no fear.
Active work-people know about and can attest to subconscious
productivity. Mature painters talk about "blind painting."
While the condition may not be fully understood, I've always
felt that within it there's the glimmer of a valuable secret.
We know that the conscious brush can be victimized by previous
thought paths and erroneous zones. The introduction of mental
loitering gives the creator a small state of meditation.
Unbidden, it evaporates easily. It's different from the longer-term state of "flow" as discussed by psychologist Mihaly
Csikszentsmihalyi. To be contrary, there are many artists who
dread these lapses because they feel work needs their full
attention. It seems to me that the yin and yang of thinking and
not thinking contributes to better work. Perhaps it's a self-delusion, but I've found that after a period of slipping in and out of consciousness, some of the good stuff has been done
in the "know nothing" zones.
PS: "If I think, I am lost." (Paul Cezanne) "In idleness, the
submerged truth comes to the top." (Virginia Woolf) "Everything vanishes round me and good works arise of their own accord." (Paul Klee)
Esoterica: Exercise: Prepare your support and palette and
prime yourself with a rough plan. Begin. When you find your
mind thinking about the task at hand, get into a dream-world.
Use fantasy, practicalities, or just turn off. Be dull. While
building the work, the idea is to make the work go away. The
idea is to go absent and to give yourself and your work another
form of presence. April Fools' Day is as good a day as any to
Thanks for the note. Please feel free to include the material in your
website section on art psychology. I'm honoured. Please give us credit.
I'll make sure you're signed up for the letter.
All the best and thanks for your friendship.
Sent: Saturday, April 02, 2005 5:13 PM
Subject: Fw: The know-nothing zones
Subject: Re: The know-nothing zones
> I would like to copy this letter about the thoughtless paintbrush in my
> site section of art psychology. I seek permission and add me to your
> painterkeys mailing list.
> Thank you,
> Rodney Chang
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