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The Artist's Journey- Experimental Painting and The Adjacent Possible- Nancy Hillis MD

The Artist’s Journey- Experimental Painting and The Adjacent Possible | Nancy Hillis MD | This post, our first post on this blog, originally ran on May 20, 2015.

The Artist’s Journey: Experimental Painting & The Adjacent Possible


The Artist’s Journey: Experimental Painting Workshop



Activating the canvas with automatic drawing and painting

Activation of the paper with automatic drawing and painting


I teach experimental painting workshops every year to physicians and doctoral students from Stanford Medical School and Medical Center at Stanford Sierra Camp. It’s located at Fallen Leaf Lake near Lake Tahoe, California.

This workshop is about deep exploration and experimentation. It’s about opening creative channels. It’s about accessing the adjacent possible.


The Adjacent Possible


The adjacent possible is a concept from evolutionary biology described by Dr. Bruce Sawhill and Dr. Stuart Kauffman and others at the Santa Fe Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico in the early 1990s.

The idea is that any move you make, any decision, opens up a set of possible paths that would not have been possible beforehand if you had not taken that step or made that move or that decision.

These possible paths were not only invisible but didn’t exist before you stepped into action and decided to move forward.

Your action changes the environment you are in.

It’s co-evolution.

To me, it’s close to but different than the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

In Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle the act of observing affects what is observed. In The Adjacent Possible, your act of creating affects existence itself.


An important component of creating is realizing that with every step you take, every brushstroke, every mark you make- you are making decisions.

As artists we are continually deciding what to do next in our art even as we do not know where the painting is going. There’s a deep element of trusting yourself in order to take risks- to  be willing to explore, experiment, and make “ugly” art.

You are not going to love every painting you create.

And that is ok. In fact, it is wonderful!

Our “ugly” art is vital to our unfolding as artists.


Being an artist is about stepping into the unknown, allowing “not knowing” and accessing the adjacent possible. It is about continually evolving your art.

Nancy Hillis, MD 


May you continually evolve your art.


With gratitude from my studio to yours,



P.S. If you’re loving the concept of the adjacent possible, you’ll love our series of Award Winning books: The Art of The Possible.

Get your Art of the Possible books HERE. 


The Art of the Possible Book Descriptions



Testimonials from Stanford Sierra Camp The Artist’s Journey workshop:

Nancy’s workshop was phenomenal! I have always had a hard time getting started with a painting project as I would stare at a blank canvas. What will I paint? Will it look like what it should look like? These insecurities often led to passing up on the opportunity to paint for another day. What I’ve learned from Nancy’s workshop is that I don’t need to necessarily know what I want to paint. Simply activating the canvas makes starting much less intimidating. The abstract pieces I created in the workshop will serve as a reminder and inspiration to me that I can paint with confidence.  Julie Huang, Palo Alto, California


I wasn’t sure what to expect from the experimental painting workshop, but I really enjoyed it. I have very little experience painting, but Nancy made it easy to get started. I learned how to separate the action of painting from its evaluation, and after a short time I felt much more confident about​ diving in and​ “making my mark.” Whether you’re an experienced artist and simply want to explore abstract art from a personal perspective, I would definitely recommend working with Nancy! Daniel Sprockett, Palo Alto, California


The acrylic workshop was a great introduction to abstract painting. Nancy guides you through each exercise regardless of your skill level or prior painting experience. I left the class feeling more at ease, relaxed, and excited to paint more.  Afaaf Shakir, Palo Alto, California


Nancy Leigh Hillis has empathy for human suffering, and the forces which hold us back from our creative expression. She teaches her painting workshop with a sincere, calming, generous, and warm spirit. I found that learning her process of intuitive painting can heal, by bringing one into the present. Taking her workshop was  a joyous adventure.  Ira Batra Garde, author and poet, Orinda, California


Dr. Nancy Hillis combines a deep professional experience in psychiatry with an intuitive, creative, childlike approach to painting. Magical insights come out of this wonderful mix. Through her own personal art journey, she has thought and lived deeply the process of moving beyond fear.  She teaches playful intuitive painting workshops with such heart and enthusiasm that even people who think they can’t paint begin to remember that they can! Tammy Pittenger, founder of Lighted Life coaching, Santa Cruz, California


I’ve had the privilege to work with Nancy Hillis as an artist. She paints with great passion, boldness, and spontaneity. Her enthusiasm and childlike playful freedom in the painting process is infectious. This is one infection I’d like to catch!  Annette Crosby, abstract painter, Valdosta, Georgia





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