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. What is nice about a blank canvas is that is that absolutely no artistic skill or technical ability is needed to be successful. The canvas can be the start of your masterpiece of work! Thanks for sharing this art and creative piece.

  2. “…to begin something from nothing.”

    It is impossible to begin from nothing. To metaphorically stand before a blank canvas is already a world teeming with success: you have a canvas, paint and brushes to use, space and time set aside for creativity, the bold decision to stand there, a potent combination of desire and imagination, and most important of all–the belief that you are an artist. These are not random manifestations, they are a natural culmination of everything you are. Art can’t NOT come of that.

    No matter where you stand in the world, there was an entire life that led up to that moment and there is an exciting Universe of possibility on the other side of it.

    Just pick up your brush.

    1. I love all these thoughts and agree wholeheartedly – when we do something it is the result of a lifetime of decisions, experiences, contexts, influences…To create (in any medium) is innate – I think it stems from an ancient survival instinct, the need to communicate to better understand the world.

      I think my mention of “nothing” here is simply the idea of the uninitiated space (canvas, paper, wall, interlocutor awaiting our next words…) awaiting those potential decisions – the “art” that comes forth when we decide to commit to its creation (even a sentence or thought fragment we pronounce). Thank you for reading and for your thoughts.

  3. A new canvas is intimidating but exciting right! I personally find a half painted canvas way more intimidating though, almost crippling if I’ve done a good job so far, it’s terrifying to have spent so many hours on something and know you could still screw it up! 🙂
    But your point is still valid for me, you just have to pick up the brush and do it! 🙂

  4. If I’m honest the blank canvas, and everything it represents both literal and metaphoric, scares me. Not just because of all the effort and commitment I have to put into it, because that’s really the fun part, but because of the possibility I could mess up. The blank canvas itself is a work of art, the epitome of purity and sinlessness, if I am to stain it I am bound by duty to do it perfectly, else I end up spoiling both my art and the natural beauty of the canvas. This petrifies me, and yet I must do it, for the purpose of pure creation, to construct the universe as I see from my own perspective with my own materials. Sadly the limitations of the english language stops me from being able explain it fully, however I’m sure the many artists reading this can empathise with my plight.

  5. This was an awesome post! I am a Graphic Designer/Studio Artist and can definitely relate to this whole-heartedly. Thank you for your encouragement.

  6. I love that feeling. You are in charge of whatever you want to do. How often does that happen?

  7. I agree with your professor’s process to approaching artwork, love the idea of a Genius Hour and playful exploration. The blank canvas idea resonates some truth to me. It’s exciting and overwhelming to have the potential to create. Great reflections and I am jealous of all that paint you have!!!!

  8. I love that tingling feeling of antisipation and of what might be, as the blank canvas pulls you into the endless possibilities……and agree it is at once thrilling and a little scary. One mark on the canvas and the journey begins. Thank you for the post 🙂

  9. Great article. Thank you for your insight! I’m not sure I’m responding to an ancient survival instinct, maybe flinging paint at a saber-toothed tiger? 😉 A blank canvas is invigorating, and demands attention loudly enough that I’ll forgo all household tasks to answer its call.

  10. I really love this fealling .. when you have a lot of space waiting for you, and you can drow or write or put wathever you whant for me thats the best thing you can do in your life you can express yourself without fealling scered

  11. Beautiful! A canvas is a platform beaming with opportunities, inviting yet threatening, free yet constrained. Waiting for the brush tinted or generously swished in colours to bring in the hues, the sights, the sounds, the emotions.

  12. A black canvas; something we can fill with endless ideas, though it is somewhat daunting in ways, is a beautiful thing. Creativity must always come from deep down inside and following a “pattern” or someone else’s “method” for creating your own work, is never a good idea. We must always be true to ourselves and simply allow the tools we use to lead the way. It’s like those who wish to write a novel — there are authors who prefer to outline a plot prior to writing anything at all, so they know which direction they are headed. I could never do this; I think jumping into what’s in front of you and being taken on that journey, as those who will later admire your work are taken on the same journey, is beneficial toward achieving something unique. This is a very interesting and encouraging post. I look forward to browsing through your blog.

  13. Thank you for this very inspirational post. I feel it can be, no, should be applied, to all aspects of our lives. Each day is a blank canvas to create the best day possible. I want to start writing again.

  14. Hey, great post! Creativity for creativity’s sake is so important. As a musician, I understand that when expectations are attached to the end result of a project (school grades, winning an audition, getting hired, etc), it’s easy to become too worried and stressed during the preparation to remember why you’re an artist in the first place. I’m going to try to get back in touch with this weekly- just a few minutes at a time- so that I never lose site of why I’m working towards something in the first place.

  15. I have never looked at a blank canvas in a Philosophical light, though I am aware of the metaphor. In my case inspiration and the challenge let me decide the canvas size. Now I am reminded of the blank slate, which may be the metaphor I was referring? I am envious of your neat layout of tubes of paint, nice blog. I will contemplate my next blank canvas with your blog in mind. Thanks.

  16. This was a good read, thank you. I remember my art teacher back at school said to me once ‘there is no such thing as a mistake when creating a piece of work. That mistake may actually create something far better than originally planned.’

    1. I appreciate this thought very much. As Diebenkorn said: “Mistakes can’t be erased but they move you from your present position.” I would say that we should revisit the whole concept of a “mistake” to hopefully recalibrate it away from its negative connotation. Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts.

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