Creativity: Views of Klee and Hofmann

I am looking for ways to better express myself visually. I have been studying the work and teachings Paul Klee and am just now beginning to study Hans Hofmann’s philosophy and art.

The library came through with my copy of Hans Hofmann by William C. Seitz,(1972 Reprint edition, Published for The Museum of Modern Art, by Arno Press). The most exiting thing about this volume is the discussion of Hofmann’s philosophy.


In discussing vision, Hofmann explains that the Impressionists reduced a natural scene to a pattern of colors that would be presented to the retina of the eye. Hofmann didn’t consider this color patterning to be a valid portrayal of three-dimensional space. According to him, it only served to reconstruct a two-dimensional pattern on the retina, not the three-dimensional natural scene.

Appearance and reality

Hofmann did recognized that the appearance of a natural scene is, in reality a two dimensional image on the retina. He posited that ‘expanded’ perception adds a third dimension. In other words, the observer’s brain adds to the retinal perception to construct three-dimensional reality.

All senses

Hofmann went further and stated that we ‘see’ with all of our senses. He called this enriched perception, “inner vision”. Beyond the perceptual senses, Hofmann included emotion, past experience and empathy in inner vision. The artist, through the act of ‘seeing’ fully, becomes a contributor to the creation of reality.

Klee and Hofmann on creation


“Creation is dominated by three absolutely different factors: first, nature, which affects us by its laws; second, the artist who creates a spiritual contact with nature and with his materials; and third, the medium of expression through which the artist translates his inner world.” (See Seitz reference above (pg.15))

While Hofmann concentrated on the appearance of things and the values added by filtering nature through the eyes and ‘inner vision’ of the artist, Klee used a bottom-up approach. Klee theorized about the origin of the universe and the forces involved in the creation of form.


“In all likelihood it [creative power] is itself a form of matter, although it cannot be perceived with the same senses as the more familiar kinds of matter. Yet it is in these familiar kinds that it must reveal itself. It must function in union with matter. Permeated with matter, it must take on living, actual form. It is thence that matter derives its life, acquiring order from its minutest particles and most subordinate rhythms all the way to its higher articulations.” (Paul Klee Notebooks, edited by Jürg Spiller. Volume II: The Nature of Nature, translated from the German by Heinz Norden London: Lund Humphries Publishers (1973) pg. 63)

Similarities and differences between Klee and Hofmann

While Klee was talking about creativity in nature, his principles could very well be applied to the artist. His statement, “It must function in union with matter,” seems equivalent to Hofmann’s third factor of creation, “the medium of expression through which the artist translates his inner world.”

Klee doesn’t explicitly mention the role or “inner vision” of the artist in looking at nature, as Hofmann does. However, Klee noted the major role the artist plays in creating form. He once said that drawing is the same as ‘taking a pencil point for a walk.’ Its path depends on the motivation of the person guiding the pencil. Klee described an experiment in which he draws a violin bow across the edge of a thin board upon which sawdust is sprinkled. The energy that activates vibrations in the board causes patterns to emerge in the sawdust. Klee says, “We are the bow, we represent the expressive impulse, mediated by the substance, with the [sawdust] figures as the final formal result.” (same reference as immediately above, pg 45)


Paul Klee and Hans Hofmann have very different approaches to art. Both recognize the role of the artist in the creative process. Klee is more concerned about the process of creating form rather than the form created as a result of the process (pg. 67 same reference as above). Hofmann’s approach to creativity is from the top down. To him, the artist is an observer of nature, who brings physical senses, emotional experience and empathy to bear in its portrayal.

This discussion is just the beginning of a comparison of two different approaches to creativity in the visual arts. In further discussions I hope to further distinguish between the philosophies of these two artists and, by gaining a better understanding, improve my own sense of creativity and expression.

Today’s Experiment:

To tell you the truth, I’m a little mixed up at this point. The watercolor doodle below was intended to be a mix of line and color, since Klee was concerned with line and Hofmann with color in relation to space.

It’s just a doodle.

Watercolor Sketch - Abstract Expressionist Doodle

Unrelated Doodle
5″x7″ 140# Rough Watercolor Block



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