The Value of the Blank Canvas


From the Brooklyn studio of artist Nathan Dilworth.

The title of this post isn’t meant to be symbolic – I literally mean the value of standing in front of a blank canvas, ready to be painted.  It is a wonderful feeling to sense the potential of the untouched space – the untrodden field of newly-fallen snow.

It is also a bit (quite?) scary to begin something from nothing.  Why?  Because the process that ensues from the first brushstroke (or the first sentence of a book, or…) can feel like walking over coals – or quicksand.  We can’t help but have a vision for what we want this blank space to look like, but we know from experience that what we envision in our heads is virtually never what results – it is simply a starting point.  Getting to the completed product takes work; it takes slogging through cruddy, muddled thinking and execution; it requires a willingness and patience to spend the time to make the work feel right.

In other words, it is akin to what the teacher feels each day as she stands in front of a classroom full of new students – or a site leader opening up the first staff meeting of the year.  Excitement coupled with some anxiety for what lies ahead!

Richard Diebenkorn, the late painter who spent an important chunk of his career in my native Bay Area, put it this way: “I don’t go into the studio with the idea of ‘saying’ something.  What I do is face the blank canvas and put a few arbitrary marks on it that start me on some sort of dialogue.” Diebenkorn is one of my most cherished inspirations in the realm of thinking and creating – not only because I love his paintings, but also because of his methodology: approaching new work with an open mindset to the journey he was undertaking and understanding that the final result would not resemble in any real way the initial image or spark that guided his first movements.  He was also brave in not succumbing to art market pressures that would have him reproduce early successes to guarantee his collectors stayed happy.  His paintings had to be right by him to leave his studio.

This blog purports to be about leadership in education – so what is the connection between oil painting and leading a school?  I believe the connection comes down to a question of confidence: Do we (as painters, as leaders) have the confidence to embark on a journey whose destination is not fixed?  Where failure is always a possibility?  Are we secure enough in our own skin to engage in the struggle of creation on a public stage?  Ultimately, the painter and the leader are comfortable with uncertainty. 

Being a leader doesn’t mean having answers; it means thinking about the convergence of the myriad elements that comprise the work of the organization and creating opportunities for people to contribute (and belong) to a larger purpose.  Good leaders attend thoughtfully and efficiently to the technical aspects of their organization; they also understand that organizational health (and success) depends on tapping the experience, wisdom, and beliefs of their staff.  Leaders have the incredible opportunity (and responsibility) to set the tone for how people feel about their work; they can model a mindset that sees opportunity and possibility in even the most challenging of circumstances (see Shackleton’s loss of the Endurance as evidence).

So what role can creativity (painting is just my personal medium of choice) play in creating a high-functioning, innovative, and brave organizational culture?

1) Creativity is valuable in and of itself, regardless of the work produced, or if it is work deemed worthy of keeping.  All painters have painted over (or thrown away) their fair share of work – even if the finished piece is a “failure,” the process of creating it will inform better work in the future.  It is important to note that everything we do isn’t always good!

2) Allowing time for creative play is healthy for the spirit, for morale, for esprit de corps.

3) Creative work is often coupled with the desire to share – to communicate (medium unimportant) how the creator experiences and filters the world through their unique lens.  What professional/psychological disposition is more important to a school staff than the desire to share work – to be vulnerable enough to seek dialogue and input about ideas?

4) There is a lot of talk about the “Genius Hour” – one example is the 20% of work time that Google gives its employees to do “blank canvas” work they are passionate about (voila Gmail, amongst others).  If we lead from a belief that our staff is comprised of learners, of people who are not fixed vessels of knowledge but curious explorers, then opening up time and space for educators to create new things (rather than make iterative adjustments to what exists in the form of curriculum, assessment, etc.) seems to be an incredibly cost effective way to grow a healthy, collaborative culture and nourish an innovative working environment.

5) Human beings are uplifted by beauty – and newness.  What if we turned our schools into revolving galleries of student, staff, and community art?  An earlier post of mine explores this.

What does the blank canvas look like to the leader?  It can be something big – a new team-oriented process for problem solving – or something very small, like reaching out to a colleague you have noticed has been quiet at staff meetings.  The “canvas” can be a relationship; it can be a structure.  Like most painters, the school leader is working on multiple canvases at once.  Starting something big can have modest beginnings.  In fact, I think that is usually the case.

The most wonderful part about creating something is witnessing it unfold – all the decisions made that, layer after layer, eventually result in something that feels complete (one could argue that nothing is ever “finished”).  Painter Robert Motherwell calls it the “10,000 brush strokes.”  This is an intensely personal experience – unique to everyone that makes something of nothing.  The excitement – and challenge – of being an educational leader comes from orchestrating this process on the ever-changing canvas of a school.

60 thoughts on “The Value of the Blank Canvas

  1. The blank canvas is laden with possibilities. It is the moment of the most hopefulness where anything is possible. Which quickly fades when I’m overwhelmed by all the possibilities. Slap on a quick ground and I’m back on track. Great post about education.

  2. I enjoyed reading your post – as a fellow painter I can only celebrate the pleasure, and the tyranny, of a blank canvas!

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