Dancing with the angels

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You know, I never thought much about what was behind the creation of those paintings that seemed to have almost painted themselves. I’ve had a few of them during my career, but sadly, not very many.

A few years ago, in this blog, I invited several highly esteemed professional artists to discuss the illusive condition of being “in the zone”…some also call it, “the flow state.” The phenomenon involves being fully immersed, fully involved with energized focus in the performing of an activity in which one is unconscious of time.

I’ve asked professional artists to contribute to this topic because I think, synonymous with being “in the zone” are the words: skilled, talented and able…being able to do something very skillfully and easily.

It’s hard to deny that something really special can happen when we’re in the act of creating…often unexpectedly. I call it “dancing with the angels”. I’m pleased to republish the comments on this intriguing subject by these award-winning artists. Thank you Karen Blackwood, Roger Dale Brown, Kathleen Dunphy, Marc Hanson, C.W. Mundy, and Romona Youngquist. (Click images to enlarge)

Top L>R:C.W. Mundy, Kathleen Dunphy, Romona Youngquist
Bottom L>R: Roger Dale Brown, Karen Blackwood, Marc Hanson


We’ve all heard the phrase “in the zone”, what does that mean to you?

Blackwood:  “The object, which is back of every true work of art, is the attainment of a state of being, a state of high functioning, a more than ordinary moment of existence.” – Robert Henri. “In the zone” is that perfect state of being I strive to be in while painting. It’s a state of letting the spirit within lead, working from the subconscious mind. Every movement and thought flows effortlessly.

Karen Blackwood – “Exaltation” – 12″ x 16″ – Oil


Brown:  Being “in the zone” to me means being in a more visceral region of my mind. Being made in God’s image, humans are inherently creative in one thing or another. When an artist creates, we go to a place in our subconscious that taps into the knowledge intuitively, and our emotions instinctively.

Dunphy:  Being “in the zone” means being able to paint without tremendous effort, much like hitting my stride when I’m running or nordic skiing. All extraneous thoughts from other parts of my life turn off and I’m solely focused on the task at hand. It’s finding that rhythm when my mind, body, and creative energy are all in sync.

Hanson:  My earliest memories of being an ‘artist’, were while sitting at my parent’s kitchen table with a newsprint drawing tablet and some pencils and crayons, making action drawings of tanks, soldiers and airplanes at war. Man, was I “in the zone” then, in a place of total imaginative, creative thought, where the question from my mom…”Marc, are you listening to me???”, didn’t even make a sound wave in that zoned world that I was in while the airplanes and helicopters flew overhead and the tanks rumbled across the impossible terrain, and while so many army men became ‘X’s and tanks went up in clouds of red and yellow flames.
That is what being “in the zone means” to me. Being totally absorbed in the act of creative activity, in a heightened state of awareness. Being so absorbed by the painting activity, that nothing else around me has meaning, and time evaporates. It’s letting your conscious mind go to where it needs to go to achieve complete concentration on the task at hand.

“In the zone” is a term used by an artist to describe being subconsciously carried along in the painting, making one creative move after another. You may not be aware of being in the zone. The painting experience has mesmerized the artist.

Being “in the zone” is like having a wonderful massage in which you’re conscious but asleep at the same time. It’s the place I want to be. It’s where I reach my optimal creativity and production and where I have the most fun.


If you believe in such a phenomenon, what techniques do you use to get there?

Brown:  It is important that I have an atmosphere that is conducive to painting. In my studio I have surrounded myself with inspirational things, including music. This comfortable space helps me remove the “world” from my mind so I can be more sensitive to the scene I am painting. Also, I problem solve. I imagine being in the scene, or on location again. I assign words to describe the scene, and finally, I visualize the finished painting. By approaching a painting this way, it helps me bridge the two elements of painting, the science of painting and the intuitive aspect of painting. When I have a solid image in my mind, I can start painting. All of this helps de-clutter and prepare my mind to paint so it’s easier to sink into that nice warm comfortable place…and create.

Roger Dale Brown – “Low Country Sunset” – 50″ x 60″ – Oil

  It’s easiest for me to get “in the zone” when I’m outside plein air painting. It seems like that direct communion with my subject matter helps me to more easily ignore that background chatter of non-art-related thoughts. I still can get in the zone in the studio, but it happens with more effort. I’ve found that certain music helps set the tone: classical baroque music, Italian opera arias, and most especially Gregorian chants.

It’s easiest for me to find myself “in the zone” when outside on location, painting ‘en plein air’. Almost every time that I paint outside, I’m there, in the zone. I think that’s partly why I feel that is the most honest place for me to be painting. Having the time constraint of plein air painting, and the lack of any outside interference, except for the occasional passerby, makes it the ideal situation for me to find myself in that zone.
In the studio, to help me move into that place of concentration, I choose music to listen to that will help me find the zone once I get a painting going. That changes from day to day, and according to where I am in the painting. At first I like music that is…loud and upbeat; music that sort of shakes the rafters. Then, as I am developing the painting, I turn to music that is softer and less intrusive that allows me to concentrate. Sometimes I need to turn it off completely and have a silent work zone to zone out in.

Problem solving should be the process before ever beginning the painting. The left hemisphere of the brain, the analytical side, is the problem solver. Preparedness in getting everything ready is hugely important. It’s like a surgeon who has everything on the table and ready to go. I also have found in the last six months, that I have more opportunity to get into the zone if I have no music, no distractions. Having the excitement to create, to take on the challenge of a new painting, is a key ingredient and a wonderful start!

The best way for me to get there is to be constantly painting. It’s like a snowball effect, the more I paint the more everything around me disappears (not good for housework)…and the ideas just keep coming.

Blackwood: To help me get “in the zone” or at the least, a higher level of focus, I try to approach my subject with great feeling. Taking the time to contemplate before brush touches canvas helps me to let go and paint from a more intuitive place, allowing the information to “flow” through me. In the studio, listening to music and looking through books of a master artist’s work can stir my soul and subconscious, which allows flow to happen. I have been known to listen to the same CD to an insanely repetitive degree. If it works for a particular piece I’m working on, I tend to want to keep that mood throughout.


When in the “zone”, are you more conscious and aware of what you’re doing…or less so?

Dunphy:  Both – I’m more aware of the idea and feeling that I’m painting and less aware of the technical aspect of it.

Kathleen Dunphy – “Wing and a Prayer” – 40″ x 40″ – Oil

Yes, I’m totally conscious of what I’m doing when in the zone. I paint without thinking about what I’m doing, but on a conscious level. My experience, training, skills, and desires as an artist become one fluid movement when in this place. Like I mentioned above, it’s a heightened state of awareness that I find myself in when there. Being in the zone is remarkably similar to being in a meditative state. I tried meditation as part of a yoga class I was taking once. I realized that when I’m painting…and in the zone…I’m consistently in a meditative place, so the meditation class was kind of pointless for me.

It’s a combination of both being conscious of what you’re doing, and less conscious. But if you really “let go”, it can lean toward being unaware of what you’re doing. There’s a connective interplay between both knowing and not knowing.

I’m less conscious and intuition kicks in. And that’s where the fun and passion happen.

Blackwood:  When I’m in the “zone”, I am more highly in tune to what I’m painting but less self-conscious of my process. It’s a more intuitive state where the painting seems to paint itself. I lose all sense of time, at least until my husband or daughter calls out for food!

Brown:  Even though my space is important at the beginning of a painting, once I am in the “zone” I am less conscious of my surrounding, or of time, and more in tune with my creative process. I would say I am less conscious when in the “zone”. Since I worked through the foundational decisions and possible problems with my painting early on, the decisions and process of painting are easier. This doesn’t mean it’s a “walk in the park” for there can still be struggles, and sometimes I still must wrestle that thing down, but I am less likely to get frustrated and angry. I stay calm and the painting proceeds at a nice pace and rhythm.


Are your best ideas and work a result of being “zoned in” or does it make any difference?

Hanson: This is a difficult place to be if you have interruptions by phones, other people, or errands to run for the day. My best work comes when I’m lucky enough to be able to find that level of concentration. Not because there’s anything metaphysical about it, simply because I’m concentrating and keeping a clear path open as I paint along. With too much interruption, I lose the ability to go deeply within myself and my creative thoughts. It makes sense that a painting wouldn’t get the full store of what I feel and have to offer it if I’m not there.

Marc Hanson – “Woody Edge” – 30″ x 48″ – Oil

Based on my own results, the best paintings can be painted either in the zone or not in the zone. Nevertheless, for creative explorations, every endeavor and experience are different.

Heck ya.

Blackwood:  I am personally more fulfilled when I am “zoned in”. It is invigorating, joyous and feels like a state of being more fully awake. Because the subconscious is flowing more freely, I think there is a deeper level revealed in the work for those able to read it, making it more successful for me.

All of my planned ideas and crucial decisions about a painting come prior to the “zone”. Once the decisions are made, and I have a clear image of my painting, I am free to de-clutter my mind, and go into the “zone”. The advantage of this process for me, is when I am in the “zone”, my right brain is in control. This opens up the opportunity for some fantastic ideas to arise during the painting. I can realize them and take advantage of these opportunities.

Yes, by far my best work comes when I’m in the zone. It causes a conflict for me because I can only be in the zone when I don’t have the distraction of other people around, even other artist friends. I enjoy the camaraderie of painting with others and need that human interaction, but I end up having to view those paintings days more as “mental health” days instead of times when I get serious work done.


Is it possible for a “zoned in” person to produce work beyond their normal ability or level of understanding?

Mundy: It is absolutely possible for a “zoned in” person to produce work beyond their normal ability. Retrospective thinking will prove it out.

C.W. Mundy – “Harbor at Mevagissey” – 36″ x 36″ – Oil

I think you still only paint to the level of your knowledge, but happy accidents happen. If only I can remember how I did it.

Blackwood:  Being “in the zone” is an active, high state of functioning that can propel me to another level. Provided I have acquired the necessary skills, the excitement brought on by a challenge above my current level of understanding awakens my spirit and allows me to reach the higher state within that my conscious self sometimes blocks.

For me, the only way this whole process works is to study and build my understanding of the fundamentals of painting, understanding what I see and my ability to see as an artist. I must train myself to see the subtleties of a scene and to understand perspective, atmosphere, quality of light, shade, value, and edge. You can’t paint what you don’t know. We are given talent, but passion is the driving force that will develop it. Without putting in the work the emotional part of art has nothing to draw from. Since being in the zone is being more visceral, I don’t think I can paint beyond my ability, but it does make it easier to work from the knowledge that I have collected over the years and it makes me more intuitive with my decisions and not over think and second guess myself.

Without a doubt. I call those works gifts that are given to me in order to let me know I’m on the right track and encourage me to keep going.

I’d prefer to say that it’s ‘more possible’ to create the work that you’re capable of making, if you are able to concentrate at the level that being in the zone brings to you and your painting.


When “in the zone”, are you aware of it?

 Youngquist:   It’s the same thing that happens when getting a massage. You’re aware but at the same time not.

Romona Youngquist – “Gaston Farm” – 40″ x 40″ – Oil


Blackwood:  I think on some level I am aware that I am “in the zone”. Everything feels so right. When I’m out of it, I still have that lingering “high” that makes me look forward to painting again. It is an addiction, isn’t it?

I am aware I can go to the “zone”, but I don’t always know that I am there, until someone or something interrupts me.

Not right away. Usually some time will have passed where I realize I’m in a great rhythm and not struggling so much. Then I try not to think about it too much in order not to jinx myself out of it!

I think this one was pretty much answered in question #3.

In most cases, I am not conscious of being “in the zone” although on the other hand, several times, I think that I have made the realization that I’m in the zone while “in the zone”.

For more on these artists:

Karen Blackwood 

Roger Dale Brown

Kathleen Dunphy

Marc Hanson

Charles Warren Mundy

Romona Youngquist


If you’ve experienced the phenomenon of being “in the zone”, I invite you to share that experience with us. Thank you, and special thanks to Karen, Kathleen, Romona, Roger, Marc, and C.W.

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