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Cultivating Creativity

BY PATRICE SCHELKUN

Though we may now live in the tropics where flowers and greenery abound throughout the year, those of us who came from a northern home traditionally view spring as the time for planting. It’s the time to finally get outside, to experience budding life around us.

But did you know that spending time outdoors is an invaluable resource for sparking creativity?

Researchers have been taking a serious look at how spending time in nature affects the human brain, psyche, and spirit. Everything about it suggests that we need to take advantage of quiet time outside more often than we do. And if you’re an artist or an aspiring one, this can be an essential tool.

The American Psychological Association says that research is advancing our understanding of how time in nature can improve our mental health and sharpen our cognition. One university study of twenty-six adults who spent at least fifteen minutes a day in outdoor reflection found that immersion in nature impacts the human spirit most significantly by providing a sense of connection, vibrancy, and awe. This sense of awe—or the feeling that the world around you is so much bigger than you can comprehend— can lead to “expansive thinking,” allowing us to consider new perspectives and innovative ideas.

Scientists sometimes refer to the state of mind you experience when you watch flowing water or view the sky through a canopy of trees as “soft fascination.” They theorize this has a measurable calming effect on an area of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, which is thought to be a gatekeeper of sorts in coordinating  communication with other areas of the  brain and plays a role in planning, long term thinking, and storage of memories. This calming effect seems to allow the  brain to access other active regions, leading  to new insights and ideas. 

TOP LEFT: Tara Funk “Towards Shore” TOP RIGHT: Barbara Groenteman, “We Can’t All be Stars” BOTTOM LEFT: Rachelle Meagher BOTTOM RIGHT: Deborah Martin

Many artists will tell you that the most  critical skill they’ve acquired in producing  great art is the ability to see. If you’re  looking at nature, really look—and take  your time doing it. Observe the incredible  range of colors that exist everywhere.  Notice the variety of textures, the way the  wind moves through the trees and grasses, the patterns of water, or reflections in its  complete stillness in the early morning.  Take time to observe even the tiniest  creatures as they go about their work of  weaving webs, building nests, or seeking  out a meal. Look at the range of colors in  the skin tones of a person’s face in sunlight  versus shadow. 

One of the reasons so many people love  paintings by the Impressionists of the late  nineteenth century is because they focused  on the captivating qualities of outdoor  light. For Monet, it was the colors of the  garden or fields at harvest, the reflections of water lilies in a pond. For Van Gogh, it was sundrenched  flowers or swirling starlight. For Sargent and Sorolla, it was the  myriad of colors that can be found in a white sunlit dress or in the  sparkles of waves as they break on the seashore.  

Andy Warhol, a twentieth-century painter, filmmaker, and pop  artist, famously immortalized what others have long observed as  the five patterns of nature: spiral, meander, explosion, packing, and  branching. Look thoughtfully and you can see these patterns again and again in creation. Some examples: 

In our own community, you’ll find over eighty-five artists now  populating the growing Naples Art District in North Naples (visit  naplesartdistrict.org for more info). Many of them have found  their artistic “voice” through the inspiration of the nature that  surrounds us here. Why not follow their lead and use some of your  own time outside as one of your best tools for boosting creativity?

As once said by the nineteenth-century French novelist  Honoré de Balzac, famously memorialized in bronze by  sculptor Auguste Rodin, “What is Art, monsieur, but Nature  concentrated?”

Patrice Schelkun is a contemporary realist painter working in oils and on glass. She and her husband split their time between Naples and Lake George, New York. Her website is www.patriceschelkun.com.