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Creativity And The Tired Brain

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

Ever felt #tired after attending a workshop or a full day of painting? Have you ever felt like you don’t want to #paint anymore? Welcome to the world of painting #fatigue. It can be subtle or it can be quite obvious but if you think you're immune to it, at some point #painting fatigue will no doubt affect you. I learnt in quite an extreme way years ago when I was writing practical art books. I was halfway through producing a large #landscape volume with a publisher, when a second proposal came from a different publisher, asking me to also write a book for them. It was a slightly smaller publication, but nevertheless an offer that had more or less the same deadline date, and one I felt I couldn't refuse. I thought about it for some time and calculated if I structured my days with time limits and goals I could do it, so I took it. What I didn’t factor in was the need for rest, the need for space away from the relentless #illustrating, thinking and writing. After eighty five thousand words and three hundred and fifty illustrations over twelve months, I burnt out. I knew I was burnt out because I never wanted to see a #paintbrush again, and two years passed by before I could even think about writing another book. Okay, so this is at the extreme end of creative fatigue, but tiredness can impact after just one day of painting.

Learning fatigue

The sensations of physical fatigue are easy to spot, but not so easy with #mental fatigue. Sometimes you might develop headache or begin to lack enthusiasm for your work through lack of #motivation or reduced #focus. In painting terms this can sometimes emerge as self sabotage. Have you ever spent a day on a painting only to lose patience towards the end, daubing poorly thought or destructive #brush marks over it in a last ditch attempt to somehow magically improve it? All this can erode your painting confidence and your own belief in your ability, when all you need is some rest. When we are learning new techniques or methods of painting there are many cognitive functions going on that we are not even aware of. Just putting paint to paper involves many motor skills, #handling, #dexterity, eye to hand #coordination, #judgement, #comparison, #focus, #memory, #application, #timing...the list goes on. Each time you paint, your brain is having a full body workout in the gym. Often we can have too many early expectations in this arena, but exercising and learning new skills is no different to a gym workout. Building those muscles takes time and a lot of effort, and factored into a proper gym routine are rests and breaks to allow your body to grow muscle and adjust to the new level of activity. When you’re learning to paint this is vitally important.

Applying paint to a watercolour painting

Controlling paint on paper, especially in watercolour involves many motor skills that put the brain through a full body gym workout.

The cycle of repetition leads to over sensitisation. The more you do, the less reward you actually receive, therefore the more you need to do, to receive the same amount of reward as when you started.

Beware of creeping addiction

‘Either the art goes, or I go’. It sounds a bit extreme but one area that can invisibly draw us into #overworking is #addiction or certainly behaviour that mimics an addiction cycle. Painting is exciting, sometimes it works out, sometimes it really works out and sometimes it fails. Have you ever started a painting feeling excited about how the result might turn out? Most times would be considered pretty normal. But if the painting doesn’t work as expected it can hit you hard with feelings of #disappointment and despair. If the painting works well it can have you dancing for joy. Oh for the moody pendulum of creativity. What is going on is a little squeeze of #dopamine in your brain, which is part of your reward circuitry. For the most part, creativity is fun and each time you hit that enjoyment button you receive another squirt of that reward chemical. Have you ever completed a painting that worked so well you felt amazing? So much so that you were driven to do it all over again? Even though it might be midnight and you need to be up at six am? Maybe you went straight in and painted a similar second subject, receiving another burst of happiness before crashing into bed. This is what drives us to paint more and it’s a process that works really well unless it gets out of #control. Think of gambling. It’s no big thing placing an occasional bet, but it’s the same reward circuitry that can develop it into a problem. 'Just one more time might be my lucky moment'. So how can painting addiction manifest as a problem? One area might be fatigue from #overwork. It depends on how much you paint and what you get out of it. If you are painting far more than you can #sell, you might step back to checkout what is driving that. Do you find yourself regularly working late into the night and waking up #exhausted? Maybe you feel like you don't enjoy painting quite like you used to anymore. Maybe you actually have a great balance and you're wondering why you're reading this. If you have a deeper problem with control, you might one day find your spouse saying ‘Either the art goes, or I go'. (I have actually heard of that happening!) The cycle of #repetition leads to over #sensitisation. The more you do, the less reward you actually receive, therefore the more you need to do, to receive the same amount of reward as when you started. The remedy is rest and time away from painting. At the extreme end of addictions can be found self neglect and broken relationships. I'm not suggesting that over painting always leads to this, but painting is a wholly immersive #occupation where others can find themselves shut out of your world for long periods. Finding a balance and putting in some down time, spending quality moments with loved ones away from painting is not just important, it is as important as the #painting itself, and is essential for maintaining a happy balance.

Repetition can dampen motivation

‘I’ve just got to keep doing it’. Repeating a #technique or #method will indeed imprint the #skill in your brain over time but it is important to realise that this will not be instant, and it also involves many of your own cognitive functions, which may give varied or different results from what you are aiming to emulate. Simply repeating and repeating and allowing your reward circuit to lead the #process can bring on fatigue, #boredom and disappointment. You have to factor in rests. There is nothing wrong with putting down the #brushes for a week or more and taking time out to think. Students often worry about forgetting a newly learned process, but once you have tried something a few times you won’t forget it after a few days off. In fact coming back to a technique after spending some time away from painting can be incredibly refreshing, #inspiring and #motivating. Give yourself space to allow your brain to rest and absorb the functions and learnt methods. The pleasure of painting after a break is always greater.

The image below is the result of three days of #demonstrating at an #art #festival. I was booked to demonstrate for forty five minutes every hour for five hours over three days. The result was fifteen #paintings - all very impressive right? What's not so impressive is I returned home buzzing but for the following two days I was wiped out. This level of painting would be almost impossible to maintain for more than three days.

fifteen watercolour paintings laid out on grass

Three days, fifteen paintings, all super focussed. When the session was over I slept for a day.

You have to factor in rests. There is nothing wrong with putting down the brushes for a week or more and taking time out to think.

Do I paint every day?

I’m frequently asked if I paint every day, generally with an expectation that I do, but no I don’t. Painting is my life and I’ve spent twenty five years #learning just part of it. I thoroughly enjoy painting, but I still experience fatigue if I’m busy and especially if I don’t remember to put in the breaks. I’d much rather savour my painting #experience, mix it up with writing and travel and create #consistent, high quality work interspersed with breaks than relentlessly churn out tired work through lowered #interest. One of the biggest killers for pacing yourself is social media. The pressure this exerts on people to constantly turn out and post work can take away from a true and well paced learning experience. Making #comparisons can also drive you to paint more, leading to fatigue and the feeling that you can’t keep up or that you’re just not good enough. If you’re scrolling away, saving images and constantly trying to figure out how to achieve a certain technique or keep up pace with your painting hero, it may be time to take a step back. Put down the phone, focus on yourself, take time to learn at your own pace and ignore external influences or competition. If you want some tips to develop your own style, you might find this blog post useful.

A painting of boats

Posting to social media is a great way of connecting with your customers and supporters, but keep things in control and try not to compare to others or get drawn into some sort of competitive streak. Focus on you and what you're doing.

Put down the phone, focus on yourself, take time to learn at your own pace and ignore external influences or competition.

Give new learning time to sink in

As I have mentioned, learning is #exciting due to your pleasure and reward circuit, and that excitement can motivate you to repeat the process. This is fine in the short term but repeating ad infinitum can bring about fatigue and a lack of motivation. It is vitally important to allow time for any new technique to sink in. Sometimes taking a week off or a month away from painting can work wonders for consolidating #information. This can feel like you’ve given up, but a rest is just as important as the learning. In this time, resist the temptation to check social media as virtually every other #post will seem to highlight your personal failures and this will ramp up the pressure to start churning out work.

A painting workshop environment

Learn something new, step out of your comfort zone but keep stepping back in and put in the rests.

Step out and back in to your comfort zone

If you are learning something totally new, for example, maybe you attended a workshop or course and the tutor showed you a new approach, method or technique, you might suddenly find yourself in the world of the #lost. If you’ve never experienced it, it feels like an outer body experience. Well, maybe not so extreme, but after a little while it’s like you can’t remember how you used to paint at the same time as not feeling comfortable with your #experimental approach either. Stepping out of your comfort zone can bring on greater fatigue and sometimes feelings of failure. If you find yourself in this situation it is vitally important to step back into your comfort zone until you’re ready to step out again. Each time you step out you will learn something new and when you step back in, you will take it with you. As a late friend of mine once said, ‘I come to you, not to learn to paint, but to pickup the ten percent that makes all the difference in my own work’.

Portrait photo of artist and author Paul Talbot-Greaves

Paul Talbot-Greaves RI, Artist, Author, Tutor

Paul Talbot-Greaves is a member of the Royal Institute Of Painters In Watercolours, and has been painting and writing for 30 years. He writes many articles for The Artist magazine (UK), has four practical art books published and has contributed to various others. He is represented by numerous galleries based around the North of England. He can be found on Instagram and Facebook where he regularly posts up to date pieces and inspirational stories.


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Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Paul, admiring your painting immensely (of course), it would be easy to overlook what a superb teacher you are. In your blogs the insight you demonstrate, not just in the processes of painting but also in the mindset of us learners, is frankly amazing. And you are so generous in what you share with us. Deeply appreciated.


David Milton Jones
David Milton Jones
Oct 30, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Wow, did I need this post! I haven't painted now for five months and wondering what on earth is happening to me. Thank you for this from the bottom of my heart. All I need to do now is find that comfort zone!


Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

So honest and insightful. Inspiring and reassuring!


Jul 18, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Thanks for writing so clearly and honestly about this Paul - I have had this kind of burn out myself, for quite a few months - wanting to hang up my brushes etc. However, I am back painting but trying to be more thoughtful, more careful with myself and my own creativity.


Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Thank you - such a timely blog for me

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