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In the Zone

by Ginger Whellock on 4/19/2014 9:31:35 AM

This post is by guest author, Ginger Whellock.  This article has been edited and published with the author's permission. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here. We've promoted this post to feature status because it provides great value to the FineArtViews community.  If you want your blog posts listed in the FineArtViews newsletter with the possibility of being republished to our 25,000+ subscribers, consider blogging with FASO Artist Websites.  This author's views are entirely her own and may not always reflect the views of BoldBrush, Inc.


Many artists speak of the Zone and I use this term frequently, too.  I have heard and read a lot of chatter about the meaning of “the Zone”.  Some artists flatly state that they don’t know what others are talking about when they use this word.  I have come to the conclusion that this term is not describable.  How do you describe deeply personal euphoria, meditation, out-of-body experiences, total absorption and concentration…?


But this is a fascinating concept. 


Years ago, I began to call this state, Alpha, which referred to the brain waves involved.  Don’t know if I was correct in this assumption, but it sounded good at the time.  Today, I would love to find a research scientist who could verify brain waves or anything else that changes in the brain while doing certain tasks.  These tasks range in their content.  I know mathematicians, artists, writers, knitters, composers, chemical engineers and listeners who experience something like the Zone. 


My Zone looks and feels something like this: 

  1. I am totally absorbed in what I am doing.
  2. I feel weightless because I am unaware of my body.
  3. All pain and discomfort is gone.
  4. I am aware of my surroundings but not in touch with them.
  5. I am neither cold nor hot.
  6. I am aware of heightened activity in my brain.
  7. I am able to access a great deal of knowledge and bring this to use in my activity.
  8. I can make decisions quickly and easily about my activity.
  9. I am wide-awake. 
  10.  I can hear.
  11. I can NOT speak.
  12.  I think of absolutely nothing but my activity.
  13.  I will no longer be in my zone if I am touched, some alarm or phone goes off or someone calls my name loudly.


When my children were very small, I would paint in our living room while the kids played beside me with their toys.  They understood that I was there if they needed me but, otherwise, not to interrupt.  These were always our quietest times together.  Always, the kids played happily and peacefully.  They would even put their toys away and once in a while they would nap beside me.  My daughter, the oldest, would occasionally tap me to get my attention – bathroom break, food, water or a question she needed answering immediately.


All of this was true, too, when I was reading a book.   As they grew older (of course, I didn’t grow older) it extended to when I graded papers, wrote lesson plans and studied for lecturing.  I always called this an Alpha state and it wasn’t long before both the kids also found themselves in Alpha states; first when listening to me reading to them and then in very individual play and in their own reading and learning processes.  I knew this because it was hard to get their attention - I usually had to touch them.


Once, I did a demo for my workshop and I warned my students that I could hear them but could not speak to answer their questions and that I would automatically back up as I painted and would just step on them if they stood behind me.


Recently, I have learned that setting out good habits for activities keeps me in the zone longer and with greater success in my activity.  In other words, I must have all my tools ready and in their correct place.  Translate this to my palette colors laid out in the usual order and quantity, brushes, palette knife and paint thinner available and in place, paper towel in the right position and my photo reference, too.  For plein air painting this is very important.  Breaking my concentration to gather up some missing item or if I haven’t squeezed out enough paint (heaven forbid!) is an absolute “no-no”.  Breaking in mid stride creates havoc in my brain and a re-start is awkward, at best.


I have always thought of the Zone or Alpha as a creative state.  Creativity takes a kind of non-analytical thought process; it takes an outside-the-box, lateral thinking process instead.  


I write frequently about my right brain/left brain activity and this is closely related to my Zone.  I have learned that my right brain (my creative side and the one that paints) is full of chaos and loves to be in the Zone BUT, I have to engage my left brain (analytical, organized and intellectual side) to access usable knowledge, keep me on target mentally and not wondering off somewhere in the chaos.  The left brain resists the Zone, probably for fear of chaos, but stands ready to assist subconsciously when needed (which is often!).  In the end, together they are creative, wise, knowledgeable and can paint for hours on end to produce some good paintings.


What is your Zone about?  I really am interested if you can speak its name with words.


Acknowledge and enjoy your inner, meditative, productive state when you paint, regardless of what you name it.








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Joyce Wynes
Great article about the Zone. You explained it so accurately. Fascinating. I often go into the Zone while I am painting and other activities like reading. But I have never talked about it and just thought that everyone had this happen when in their deeply absorbing activities. Hours would go by and when the switch flips back to conciousness, I am always surprised how much time has passed.

I also had the same experiences while my children were growing up and I was painting. Amazing isn't it? They both grew up to become artists. It is funny but whenever we are together and someone starts to doodle with a pencil, we always grab for the pencil too like it is a joint activity.

After reading your article, I feel grateful that I can get into the Zone. Thanks for sharing your fascinating and informative experiences with us.

David Randall
Oh Ginger, what a lovely topic. I have tried to explain this too. For me, it is spiritual as well as all you have related it to. I feel it's like prayer but more like talking to God (my word) others may call it something else. Talking is definitely not part of it. In fact I have difficulty trying to talk when interrupted while deep in that, "zone".
Time is suspended too.

Jana Parkes
Wonderful post, Ginger!
I enjoyed both your description of the zone and your stories around it.

For me, while it is implied in #1 of being totally absorbed, I would add that I have no sense of time. Without a clock, when I finish, I wouldn't be able to say how much time has passed.

And, even if, say, lunchtime comes around while I'm painting, I don't feel hungry.

Also when I'm in the zone, I easily receive inner guidance or hear that still inner voice on what to do.

Thanks for your sharing,
and many blessings, Jana

Diane Overmyer
Thank you Ginger! This is exactly what I needed to read today. I have recently been thinking about renting a studio space away from my I have considered it and prayed about what to do, the thought of uninterrupted painting time has been one of the best pros! I hadn't really thought about "the zone", but what you said about interruptions is so true. When my children were small, I gave up oil painting for a time, because I realized that I wasn't fully aware of their activities like I was when I was not painting. (We lived on a fairly busy street and I had three very kids!) Now my kids are in their 20s, but they are all with us at the moment once again. They all work different shifts and one is in college as well, so there still a lot of activity within the house. One additional comment about the zone. I have found that under certain calm circumstances I can engage in casual conversation, but only if the subject is unrelated to what I am doing. It is when my students start asking about my brushes, paint colors, techniques, that my concentration gets really messed with.

Donald Fox
Our creative expression begins as subjective experience like the experience of being in the zone you describe. My experience differs from yours, but I would agree that there is focused activity. There has been research done on meditation, a mind-body state akin to the zone experience usually ascribed to peak performance athletes. That can easily be found with a little online searching (compare alpha, beta, and theta brainwaves).

A somewhat related study of brain activity in artists that pokes holes in the outdated left brain-right brain theory can be found referenced here:

carol grigus
Thanks, Ginger, for this timely article...this morning I was discussing this "zone" idea with a friend and fellow artist...There have been several books written about this phenomina? which is possible in many fields...!!my husband, the physicist, is in the ZONE much of the day!...The research he does requires that he be in that creative place...
A 1990 book FLOW, I would recommend..Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi!!!...a noteworthy psychologist, has been studying the psychology of optimal experience for more than 20 years!!!!.....the Japanese have a word for this moment/zone..
I believe there is recent research using MRI technology that can actually pinpoint the areas of the brain that this activates!!! the meantime, enjoy!!!...I do each time I pleinair the woods, along a stream...on a snowcovered meadows!....mmmm....I call it my ahha moment!!

Susan Holland
I do get derailed as Ginger has so perfectly described, and I have learned not to hear the phone, which is something my family just cannot abide.

But I have tuned it out. Just as I tuned out the busy train line running close to several different places I lived and painted in. And the broken easel that sagged so that I had to hold one side of it while painting with the other hand.

Along the way I realized that reaching perfection in setting, soundproofing, training the famiy was not going to be a realistic expectation, I adopted these environmental snafus into my studio "noise" and painted right through. Or called it a day and had a go at it another day.

Carol, my thoughts went to plein air immediately. The noise in a plein air location is surprisingly loud. Sit for a moment and hear the stream, the airplanes, the wind, the bird concert, dog barking, squirrels chirring, and the canvas trying to fly away. The cold making one's nose run,and the sand flying into wet paint. Favorite brush falling into the sand. You know the drill.

I painted at the Pont Neuf in Paris. People stood around watching.

How do you zone with such a world of distractions?

You accept the surrounding racket as part of the ambiance of what you are painting, part of the music of the place. You include it or block it out, just as you remove that annoying ugly bush or the bizarre color of that one house.

Head for your goal and begin the intensely private marathon. That necessity has produced good strong results for me.
Or not, depending on how I embrace the whole and choose what to use and what to discard.

carol grigus
I recently gave a pleinair oil painting demo at our local forest visitor's was a challenge to paint and discuss what I was doing....Definitely NOT in the ZONE!!
Thank you, Donald, for that link..I'll check it out!....happy trails to all! HAPPY EASTER!.. ...carol

Joyce Wynes

Aha, that is why I don't like to have people watching me while I paint. Never realized before but it is because it interrupts me getting into my zone. I just never thought of that before and now it makes complete sense.

carol grigus
YES!! Joyce......but I LOVe to discuss painting to folks just starting on their own artistic journey...not sure how to handle this...
..another reason I shy away from all these "pleinAir" events on the west coast.. I definitely do NOT do my best work at these events.....any ideas about how to handle demos and instruction are always greatly appreciated!

Susan Holland
I think sensory training may be how to do this. Actors have to do it every time they are up in their glass houses onstage. How do you go into an emotional soliloquy with all your skill with a huge house of onlookers? You do it a lot of times, and you train yourself to be "in the character" so much that you don't notice the wall of eyes out there in the dark.

People ask when you paint in the urban or suburban places. I did an 8x10 gouache of a point of land from a park in Seattle. I had spilled my water, so went to the waterline and borrowed some salt water, not being sure it would work with the gouache, but I was desperate!

While I sat on a concrete ledge painting a couple and their daughters came behind me and looked over my shoulder. After a time the woman said something to me in broken English. They were French, I learned, and we had a nice visit with my seriously limited facility in French.

It is a part of that painting, that conversation. But I chose it to be.

I might have also just nodded and gone back to my work. The people would have respected that, I know from having talked to them. Think of this French family finding one woman painting on a beach! It was bound to be good, whether I let them into my zone or not. They wrote my contact info down.

Self consciousness will tell on itself in tensions in the painting. Why were the lines uneasy, or the colors too bright? Perspective off? But it's a record of a real moment in time. That's pleinAir. I think you must receive the whole experience as a gift and use it in your painting.

Sharon Weaver
I also do demonstrations and find it difficult to talk and get into the zone but have been practicing and now realize that even with talking I can attain it but only barely. It is a challenge. I also teach a plein air class and am constantly interrupted so that is another tough situation. I agree that it is a state of total awareness with the ability to make easy and accurate decisions about your work. Time is meaningless when you are in the zone and I am exhausted afterward.

Brian Sherwin
'The Zone' is def' a catch all term. It can certainly mean different things depending on who you ask -- the connecting factor seems to always be about having heightened focus while working. Oddly enough, I have also met people -- including fellow creatives -- who have no clue what it means... even to them. People work in different ways though -- so perhaps that plays a role as well.

I have to be absorbed in my creative pursuits -- be it writing, painting... whatever. I know others who can just as easily stray away from the work in order to grab a slice of pizza. Ha. I lose track of time and hunger when I am in that space...

Ginger Whellock
Good Morning! Thank you for all your comments. A busy weekend kept me from answering, but today I will respond to each of you in turn. I love all your comments and can't wait to sit down and write each of you. Later...Ginger

Ginger Whellock
Joyce, You are very welcome. I agree, time flies when you are in the Zone. I miss meals and never realize what time it is. I am not sure everyone has this experience, but mostly people are just unaware. Being an artist is a blessing - we get to go to this wonderful state often!

Keep on working in your Zone!


Ginger Whellock
David Randall, Yes, I understand how one can relate it to some religious experience, well said. It can feel like going somewhere where time is suspended and returning to our normal world is difficult and very interruptive. Thank you for your profound comments.


Ginger Whellock
Jana Parkes, Thank you for your wonderful comments. Time does disappear and perhaps does space in a psychological sense. Hearing your inner voice means you are completely engaged and your accumulated knowledge is available. Perfect!

Keep painting!


Ginger Whellock
Dianne, Great to hear from you! I think everyone has a slightly different Zone. I simply cannot talk at all while painting in the Zone! It breaks my concentration. I can hear though and when I choose, I will stop, come out of the Zone and answer questions or make comments on what I was doing. Sometimes, I simply am not in the Zone and I will talk while demonstrating; always a bad move as I make awesome mistakes and have to back up. All very embarrassing to say the least. Keep painting and using the Zone to engage all your knowledge thus increasing appropriateness of your brushstrokes!


Ginger Whellock
Donald Fox, Great response and help. I clicked on your link and found immediately that I had recently read this article on BBC! It is interesting and related, but aiming for different information in comparison. I will watch for more info on this as I think many are seeking answers. The article poo-pooed right/left brain activity. Who understands themselves enough to recognize which side of the brain is creative and which is more analytical and if there even is such a thing? It is just convenient to use right/left to relate to what we recognize as some imbalance in our thinking process. I could continue, but don't want to bore anyone!

Thanks, Ginger

Ginger Whellock
Carol Grigus, Thanks for all the additional information - interesting. I use "ahha moment" too but that relates when information suddenly becomes available to me that I couldn't quite grasp before. It's more like an awakening as the connections in the brain finally work and give me answers! This can actually happen when I am in the Zone and I am fully engaged. All interesting and fun things to think about and try to explain.

Painting while other watch will be answered later in other posts. Keep checking.


Ginger Whellock
Susan Holland, Thanks for writing about your experiences. I understand the difference between those who need absolute quiet and those who can have trains, music, kids shouting, people asking questions etc. while they try to remain in their Zone. My husband (chemical engineer) needs absolute quiet; I need life in all its glory of noise, except for very interruptive sounds like phones, sirens, crashes etc. I plein air paint, demonstrate, teach, host a group of artists who frequently chat and I have no trouble getting in the zone. I can't say I actually block it out; I certainly can hear! I am aware of people near, but because I am without speech, I simply carry on until I choose.

We are all different and no one's system is better or worse than anyone else's! Practice with loud music may help you accommodate if you need silence.

Just keep painting!


Ginger Whellock
Sharon Weaver. Thanks! You see, we are all different. Sharing our experiences in the Zone, or whatever you name it, as we move through our painting journey is fascinating. More similarities than differences, I think. Most of us must learn to enjoy people watching, learn to demonstrate and plein air paint in a crowd of noise and write and speak about our art without self-consciousness. This is about confidence not about getting into the Zone. In the Zone, confidence is automatic.

Believe in yourself!


Ginger Whellock
Brian, thanks for your addition to the conversation. Yep, I know artists who haven't a clue what I am talking about. Maybe I should be jealous? Does it just come naturally to them, can they talk while painting? Wish I could go there!

How can anyone eat in the zone? I don't even think of food - then again if someone offered pizza, I just might turn away from the Zone and be a happy satiated painter when I returned.

Keep painting and writing, Brian.


carol grigus
THANKS to all the wonderful comments about being in the "zone" however we each define it!!
My one caveat while painting outdoors is to make sure you know your terrain....I've come very close to slipping off some pretty steep edges while painting!I also appreciate having my dog along while out in the wilderness!! painting alone!ahhhhhaaaa!!!...carol

Susan Holland
Ginger and all. I found a couple of paintings in my storage last weekend that reminded me of a zoned-in place and time that was aided by refreshments. I would go up and paint when I was very angry...with a bottle of wine in hand. Dedicated, yes, and unleashed by alcohol to be very free and very emotive. If you want to see some results, I can post some photos of two of these paintings. I really like them, actually...they are part of a life I don't "do" any more, thank goodness. But they are truth!! [scroll down one]


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