Creativity Is Like A Tree

Feed the roots and the crown will shine

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Photo by David Vig on Unsplash

The urge to be creative can sometimes seem like a mysterious force. The beginnings are not like the endings, and sometimes the best results seem too easy to reach whilst the hardest work goes into the parts we throw away.

Creativity, in other words, is worthwhile partly because it is risky.

Many have warned against over-analysing the creative instinct, for thinking too much can threaten to kill the moment. The author Ray Bradbury put it like this: “Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy.”

Still, it helps to have a model, some paradigm of creativity that — at the very least — offers reassurance that the creative act has a reliable structure.

The artist Paul Klee, in his book On Modern Art (1924), suggested the image of a tree as a way of picturing the creative process.

The roots of the tree are like the artist’s senses, taking in nutrients. “From the root the sap flows to the artist, flows through him, flows to his eyes.”

The artist is like the trunk of the tree.

The ultimate outcome, the work itself, is the crown of the tree. “In full view of the world, the crown of the tree unfolds and spreads in time and in space, so with his work.”

One of the more effective aspects of the simile is that, as Klee explains, the crown of the tree need not be a mirror image of the roots. For the roots have a different function to the crown: “Nobody would affirm that the tree grows its crown in the image of its roots.”

For Klee, an artist who painted semi-abstract works often with obscure hieroglyphs and childlike doodlings, this explained why a work of art might depart from the regular forms of everyday appearances. “Between above and below can be no mirrored reflection.”

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Insula dulcamara (1938) by Paul Klee. Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern. Source Wikimedia Commons

So the simile of a tree ought to free the artist from the expectation that the initial creative urge should look like the final outcome of the work. Instead, we should be free to let the sap rise through us, taking in nutrients from the ground and letting them unfold into a new form in the crown. Gathering and passing on what comes from the depths, as Klee put it.

It hardly needs saying, therefore, that of the more important aspects of a healthy tree is its roots. For Klee, the roots of the tree are related to the artist’s fundamental interaction with the world: the places we visit, the influences we take in, the ideas we form, the sense of identity we establish, a “sense of direction in nature and life, this branching and spreading array.”

And so the inner flow of creativity is fed by a worthwhile interest in the wider world. This means remaining curious, fostering a willingness to learn new things, and living life with your eyes open.

Have deep interests, become absorbed, stay inquisitive. In other words, feed the roots and the crown will shine.

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Christopher P Jones writes about art and culture. Sign up to learn more about me and my writing.

Art historian and art critic, writer, artist. Author of “How to Read Paintings”. Website:

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