Paul Klee’s Theory of Creativity
“May I use a simile, the simile of the tree?”
Paul Klee was a Swiss-born painter. His deep engagement with colour theory along with his experimental approach to his working materials gave rise to an extraordinary array of images that range from surrealist landscapes to expressionist self-portraits.
Klee was profoundly interested in the laws that underpin the natural world. He took the world of phenomena to be a series of processes, ratios and forces, and carried these principles over to the idiom of drawing:
“Every snowflake is born of the same underlying principle, though every snowflake is expressed as a different modulation of this principle. I myself, as the artist, I am the modulating effect on the natural principles of drawing.”
In his book On Modern Art (1924), Klee gave his clearest description of the creative process, suggesting the image of a tree as a metaphor.
The over-arching notion is that when an artist makes their work, they exert a modifying effect on the world around them — gathering and passing on what comes from the depths, as Klee put it. In this way, the roots of the tree are like the artist’s senses, taking in nutrients from their environment. “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.”
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, the artist should be free to let the sap rise through them, taking in nutrients from the ground and letting them unfold into a new form in the crown.
It hardly needs saying, therefore, that one 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.
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. Klee’s metaphor also reminds us that an artist ought to remain curious and engaged with the world around them. In other words, feed the roots and the crown will shine.
Would you like to get…
…A free guide to the Essential Styles in Western Art History, plus updates and news about me and my writing? Get it all here.