This is my brain on painting

Alastair with Jenni Newcombe

Instead of taking selfies in front of famous buildings, I paint them. It’s how I slow down on holiday. Whilst Jane sits in a café reading and watching the world go by, I try to decipher a Tuscan tower and put it on paper. But in recent years, things have started to change with the way I draw and paint. So, I spoke to Jenni Newcombe, who’s been exploring how brains work, particularly within the context of education. 

This is how my drawing and painting process has evolved. I now draw a building in pencil, correcting as I go along. This might take 30mins or so. Then I need to walk away, go for lunch, rejoin Jane.

When I return to the building later I see all the errors I made earlier. This results in much correction. I then take my glasses off (I’m short-sighted). This eliminates detail and fore light and shade, blocks of colour, contrast and in drama – what should I accentuate? Further corrections and changes ensue. I make a few notes on colours and then stop. 

Later on, I return to the drawing and ink it in, setting it in stone.

(Nancy Adler, talks about an artist-tutor who would take her on evening walks when the light was fading to get an essence of a landscape, its overall shape, before painting it the following day. It’s the same principle – stripping away detail in order to ‘see’.)

Once it’s drawn, I move on to other things. I might paint the picture the following evening. I tend to do a job lot, painting several pictures at the same time.

Here are Jenni’s thoughts about what’s going on.


Let me first talk about dusk walks and short-sightedness! What the brain does naturally, on its own, is edit. It’s called inhibiting. As you say, it’s stripping away the detail to enable you to see something without the cacophony of surrounding visual information as well as other sensory triggers that may distract you from seeing something more clearly. Minimalist music and abstract painting do the same thing. Both are examples of something being reduced to its essence.

When you describe your painting process, what your brain is doing in the breaks is being highly creative. It’s making loads of connections about what you’ve just seen, drawing on memory, past experience, other visual and sensory cues. So, when you sit back down in front of your Tuscan tower, your brain is in effect ahead of you. It has so much more information about that tower than the first time. This is why it’s easier for you to see where you can make your corrections or bring it more into proportion, or indeed distort it if that’s what you want to do.

As far as we know, REM sleep has the same effect of removing some of that visceral and emotional reaction to something and leaving our minds in a clearer state. We talk about “sleeping on it”, and there’s a truth in the clarity and more balanced view of something after a good nights’ sleep.

Another point I’d make is around conscious attention. Your brain determines how long you concentrate for and is distracted or goes off task when it needs to. So we use the idea of interleaving. This is the process of changing tasks on a regular basis in order to help us focus better. The timing is flexible but 20 minutes on one task should be complemented with 10–20 minutes on a completely different activity such as something manual, before returning to the original task. 

In schools, we have lesson lengths for a good reason. We know that children can only concentrate for a certain period of time. However, adult brains aren’t much different in this regard. After a while there’s only so much more information we can take in. It makes perfect sense to run shorter sessions with breaks. This is hugely important for all of us but especially for introverts and those who need to digest and reflect before responding. 

If you’re truly wanting to be a diverse organisation, you should bear this in mind to help those people who think differently.

“We live in a front foot world of instant answers and lightning reactions but not everyone isbuilt like that.”

And as we now know, all brains need to rest and then return. Great innovative thinking often occurs when thinking is slow. Neuroscience also shows us that brains at rest are just as active if not more active than brains that are focused. It’s an extremely effective way of working. Business is driven by time slots. Meetings are an hour. Why? Ideally, they should be no longer than 45mins. 

We’ve fallen into bad habits. What you’re discovering with your painting is what we all need to apply to our work. Allow people to ‘walk away’ and let the brain do some of the heavy lifting in-between sessions.

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