Hi, I’m Dr. Nancy Hillis

An Abstract Artist, Author and Stanford Educated Existential Psychiatrist

 The work of my life is to guide artists and creatives to believe in themselves.
I foster the creative process as I give artists and creatives the psychological tools to nourish their creativity.

My Story


When I was four, I would color the bricks of our fireplace and ledge (which my father had beautifully built by hand and which took up an entire 24 foot wall) with my favorite colors: red and purple.

My parents could never catch me. They knew it was me and I knew they knew it was me.

I left clues.

I colored most of the rocks in our backyard, and even the tree bark. I made marks on every clean sheet of paper in the house.


Photo courtesy of Sidharta Pascual

I never had an art class growing up.

I desperately wanted to make things, so I began sewing crazy quilts at four or five…especially when I’d visit Granny and Papa in Tomahawk, Arkansas.

Granny made quilts from the clothes she and her family had worn. She adorned every bed with her quilts. She kept her family warm with her quilts. She lived with her art.

As a child, I’d stare for hours at reproductions of Rembrandt’s Young Woman With A Broom and Man With A Gold Helmet that hung in my home.

I’d study from every angle the sculpture of a warrior that stood in the living room.

I’d pull out a ‘Paint By Numbers’ set, transfixed by the smell of oil paint and turpentine and the magic of the emerging picture.

The recurring concern for my parents when I grew up was that I would never be practical. The deeper truth was that I was dreaming of a life that didn’t yet exist but that I believed was possible.

In seventh grade, I announced to my mother that I was going to be a psychiatrist. 

Years later, I became a physician and at 25 accepted a residency in radiology at Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Radiology was very visual, reading shadows on films and recognizing patterns, but it felt too logical and linear.

Returning to the Bay Area, I was invited to a poetry reading and tea ceremony at the San Francisco Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farm. Something about that stormy night in the tea house was transformative.

I realized that I was missing art and beauty. I needed more than medicine in my life.

I shifted course.

I called up Stanford and got a position in psychiatry, at which point my mother reminded me of my 13 year old proclamation that I’d be a psychiatrist.

Only then did I remember!

For me, psychiatry is relational, intuitive, and creative. The nuances, the unknown are similar to painting. It’s the only part of medicine I can live with.

Choosing psychiatry was an act of coming back to my own self.

Most of my work in psychotherapy is exploring the mysterious, unknown parts of the self. In this work, I realized that un-lived, orphaned off parts of myself had been patiently waiting to be rediscovered.

I am reminded of Camus’ words:

A person’s life purpose is nothing more than to rediscover

Through the detours of art or love or passionate work

Those one or two images in the presence of which

His heart first opened.

At 36, I was brought to tears when I finally saw original Rembrandt drawings while on a painting trip in southern France. Reaching across four centuries, I felt the aliveness and meaning of Rembrandt’s work.

I found my way back to my art. Back to making things, making marks, making colors. Back to investigating the unknown, ineffable aspects of myself and others.

My parents no longer worry about my dreaminess.

When I left radiology, John Shillito, MD, the eminence grise of neurosurgery at the Brigham said: ‘you went from shadows to nuances’.

My reply now is: I’ve come full circle, back to shadows again, back to my art.

I’ve come home.

My Vision

My vision and the work of my life in art and psychiatry is helping others to trust themselves and to create meaningful lives.

I’ve been an existential psychiatrist and artist for over 20 years.

In 2000, I developed Creativity and Consciousness’, a television program where I interviewed artists about the creative process.

I learned that the secret to creating alive, meaningful art is by trusting yourself. 

You have to trust yourself to find your way as you go. Only then will you engage in big risks and bold experimentation.

The Artist’s Journey® & The Adjacent Possible®

Courses & Workshops

I’ve led experimental painting workshops at Stanford Sierra Camp since 2011 exploring the expressive language of mark making, automatic drawing, and intuitive painting.

In my first offering The Artist’s Journey®: 3 Secrets of the Masters online course my goal is to teach you 3 concepts that make 90% of the difference in a painting so that you can consistently and confidently create work that is authentic, mysterious, and alive.

I invite you to explore my blog for articles on painting, creativity, and cultivating your studio practice. 

Your artist’s journey is about saying “yes” to your dreams of creating your deepest work as an artist

The Artist’s Journey® Psychotherapy Program: 

Psychological treatment and counseling for artists


In this program, I work individually with artists in psychotherapy to overcome creative blocks and uncover the unconscious reasons, the sources of fear, that stop them in their creative work.

In 1999 I created and hosted a television program Creativity & Consciousness where I interviewed artists about the creative process. We explored the inner landscape, the interior psychology, the mindset that affects creativity and the psychological and mental blocks that stop artists from creating their deepest work.

Nancy is featured in the New York Observer (Should Artists Fear Therapy?) about my work counseling artists, as well as in The Registrar of the Royal College of Psychiatrists (The Artist and  Psychiatrist: Interview with Dr. Nancy Hillis) and the Stanford magazine Bench & Bedside (Art and Soul: Medicine Meets Creative Expression).

Nancy is also featured in Jeanine Blackwell’s book: The Expert Called You as well as in Inc. magazine.

To learn more about my psychotherapy program for artists,

Download the Brochure HERE

My Programs, Offerings, Exercises & Processes

  • The Artist’s Journey ® 3 Secrets Of The Masters
  • The Artist’s Journey ® Masterclass
  • The Artist’s Journey® Live Workshop
  • The Artist’s Journey ® Creativity Immersion Program
  • Studio Journey ™ Course
  • Studio Journey ™ Masterclass
  • Activating The Canvas ™ Course
  • Experimenting With Color ™ Course
  • The Giant Organic Library ™ Program
  • The Adjacent Possible ® Creativity Program
  • The Adjacent Possible ® Creativity Coaching
  • The Adjacent Possible ® Course
  • The Adjacent Possible ® Workshop
  • The Adjacent Possible ® Exercise
  • 100 Paintings In Your Portfolio ™ Program
  • From NO To Flow™ Cultivating The Artist Within Program
  • The Six Maquette ™ Exercise
  • The Value Maquette ™ Exercise
  • The Color Maquette™ Exercise
  • Combinatorics & Re-Combinatorics ™ Exercise
  • Two Color, Four Value Palette™ Exercise
  • One Color Palette ™ Exercise
  • Zero To One ™ Exercise
  • The Ugly Painting ™ Exercise
  • The ISEE Creativity™ Methodology
  • The Rhythm Maquette™ Exercise
  • The Rhythm & Combinatorics™ Exercise
  • Story Maquette™ Exercise
  • Variations & Constraint Prompt™ Exercise
  • Combinatorics & Alphabetics™ Exercise
  • Alphabetics Quad™ Exercise
  • The Big Momma Alphabetics Duo™ Exercise
  • The Adjacent Possible® Integrating the Canvas™ Exercise

QUIZ: What's Your #1 Artist Archetype?


Some artists create amazing art with ease, while others struggle year after year to express themselves.

What's going on? Could it be about how you approach your art?

Take the Artist's Archetype Quiz and find out.