Most of us, at one time or another, have tried a shot or two while painting. Joe Blodgett does it all the time. He says it steadies his hand and helps him to be more confident. A shaky hand is what I get — my confidence becomes both deceptive and temporary. Disappointment arrives like a mobile doctor with a stomach pump in the cold grey light of dawn.
There’s no question that some sort of altered state is useful during the creative act. Speaking of altered states, Washington State has recently voted to legalize recreational marijuana. Will the northerly waft of secondhand smoke improve our work up here in British Columbia?
After a lifetime of studying these matters, I think the idea is to cook up the intoxication without imbibing or inhaling substances. Fresh air is okay. A few quick charges around the driveway often does it. You feel heady — kind of aired out. Fact is, unless your work thrives on negativism, misery and error, artists need to be drunk on life — and cardiovascular exercise helps. Then there’s that wonderful return to the creative distillery — the studio. Many emails that come my way tell of euphoria in the home studio. For many among us, every studio hour is happy hour.
With any sort of inebriation comes self-deception. Both mental and medical opiates have been mankind’s enablers for millennia. Theoretically, as mankind evolved, so did his enablers. The Art Spirit that Robert Henri talked about was a form of self-medication superior to the intake of liquid spirits. Here are a few self-medications you might consider:
I can do this.
I have a remarkable imagination.
I am a perennial student.
I have the patience to overcome.
I have the capacity to work.
I get high on my work.
Yep, it’s the work that lets you know you’re alive. It’s the work that makes you brilliant. It’s the work that gets you better and better. It’s the work that gets you silly. “Work,” said Noel Coward, “is more fun than fun.”
PS: “When the artist is alive in any person… he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressing creature.” (Robert Henri, 1865-1929)
Esoterica: Robert Henri advocated a clear vision and a steady purpose. Face down in the broadloom didn’t cut it for him. In my experience, vision and purpose come from the state of being aware. Vision and purpose can come naturally and intuitively — but in most cases they have to be coddled and developed. Habits are both masters and servants. Positive habitual self-guidance requires sobriety. The result is a wholesome and rewarding kind of inebriation. “The object isn’t to make art, it’s to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable.” (Robert Henri) “Bibens post opus” said Kjerkius Gennius (36BC), “Do your drinking after your work.”
High on art
by Lorine van Voorst, Pemberton, BC, Canada
I have the privilege of being in Paris right now, on six week classic drawing study programme, with nine other students from all over the world.
We are charged with drawing sculpture and had been in the cast hall drawing Michelangelo’s statue, The Bound Slave. When we found out that the hall was established as a teaching tool in 1668, we both had shivers, thinking of the many and talented students who have studied in this space, just as we are doing now! What could be more intoxicating than saying “See you at the Louvre” and going there to draw four days a week.
I will always remember the first three-hour life drawing session I attended in Vancouver, after doing the two-hour sessions in Whistler for about a year. I had been so intensely in another world that when I came out, it took ages to “come down” to reality again. Yes, I know it is possible to be high on your art. The universe gives us wonderful gifts if we have the time to accept them.
The Morning After
by Alex Nodopaka, Lake Forest, CA, USA
Drunk art sessions I remember only through hazy memories of another long ago time. That’s how I got engaged 37 full moons ago after such a Vodka-photo-session performance.
During the shoot every single shot was a masterpiece… until I saw the results the following day when everything went in the trashcan! Though, I must say, during the event the feeling was divine as I floated on cloud nine fanning myself with a stiff Nobel Prize certificate. The only thing left from that photo-shoot was my model-fiancée of then who became my wife to this day.
Stay clear of debauchery
by Garry Gray, Ganges, Salt Spring Island, BC, Canada
At 38, I have been painting and selling paintings for just over 20 years. As a painter of watercolour I have to say that yes, I have tried a ‘shot’ before painting. But I can assure readers that drinking only leads to sloppy work. Never will I consider a drink before painting. Part of our uncanny ability to do what we d, I believe, comes from our natural ability, most of which was nurtured and developed as we were nurtured and developed while growing up. Our subtle skills and co ordination are a gift — not to be muted by alcoholism. As for the follow up on Marijuana — my opinion remains the same, don’t do it! Robert we should always be promoting a safe and healthy art form. Druggies and alcoholics will always find their own way to debauchery. Let’s keep our art form pure – as we like to keep our watercolour brush-water clean and clear, untainted.
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Stupefaction or spontaneity?
by Brian Care, Toronto, Canada / San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Since alcohol is a depressant and tends to dull the senses rather than enhance them, it would seem rather counter-productive to our goals as artists to even consider trying to be creative while “under the influence.” My intent has always been to try to move into a state of heightened awareness in the hopes of being able to be inspired to express an idea or represent an image in a highly-intuitive and original manner. I have always attempted with my students to raise their levels of perception to a point where creative problem-solving becomes a natural and fluent behavior. It would seem that the stupefaction that comes with imbibing would hinder attaining that state where originality and more in-depth “seeing” could occur. On the other hand I have seen some very uptight attempts at painting that might have been improved by a looser hand. Perhaps we should not rule out the use of alcohol altogether if it would help some artists experience a spontaneity and lack of inhibition that might result in something more innovative and expressive than their usual highly-controlled efforts. I’m not purporting this as a natural way to paint… just saying. As far as other drugs go… they may result in amazing things created in an altered state. I’m just not interested in experimenting.
High on creative self
by Barbara Davis, Charlotte, MI, USA
I served 24 years as a “coordinator of programs for the talented,” also known as education of “gifted, talented and creative.” During that time (1989), I once took a week off to try to finish a novel I had been working on for years, bit by bit. I wrote 100 pages in five days! I had rented a cabin by a small lake, during the fall. Not a drop of alcohol! Not a cigarette or mind altering drug. I was high on my own creative self.
Now, after having retired, I draw and paint, write, play piano, and listen.
I am just starting on my artistic journey and I cannot imagine boundaries, other than physical. Now, with fibromyalgia, degenerative joint disease, and the debilitating pain that accompanies these conditions, I have a way of lifting myself higher and higher! I am alive! I am growing and changing! I am learning!
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by Susan Holland, Bellevue, WA, USA
If an artist does paint drunk, I encourage him or her to paint a self-portrait, or two or three. First of all, as long as you don’t err and drink the medium instead of your chosen alcohol, you will have a great time messing with the paint, and you may, if you are like me, think you are having a deep and significant experience. But the best thing about this practice is that you will present to yourself a pretty memorable souvenir, or two, or three.
I have some. There they are staring at me with certain looks on their faces, and with eyes that tell the tale. I’m keeping them. I am so glad I won’t be making more!
Happy hours making art
by Terrie Christian, Plymouth, MN, USA
I so agree with you that using substances to alter one’s state is a form of self-deception. In 1984 I was living with an actively using alcoholic. It was so painful that I almost did myself in. Instead, I got help, and quit using all such substances myself. He quit then, too, and we have been a sober house since. People in the recovery group that I was attending were recommending meditation. I could never seem to achieve what they were describing. I am sure now that it is because I have PTSD from childhood abuse, and was on alert all the time as a part of my survival. I did not know that yet. A couple of years later someone recommended a book, Original Blessing, by Matthew Fox that had a chapter in it called “Art as Meditation.” I have always considered myself an artist and noticed that when I was making art, hours could go by and I would be so happy and the hours seemed like minutes. I had gone several years without making art and, since that time, I have been making sure that I get some of that time. I believe that it has been an important part of my recovery. We are both still sober 28 years later and helping others recover. Art is not my only tool, but it is a very important one!
Don’t preach — all good work may not be sober work
by Jean Wilson, Des Moines, IA, USA
It is hard to picture any profession or pastime where being drunk enhances the experience or improves the quality of the work being done. It is kind of you to offer art as a much better mood-enhancing choice. I completely agree that art is the best *drug* there is. I would even say that my *addiction* to making art sometimes lures me away from things I should be doing. So, the goal should be to find some balance, eh? What do you say about the artists, including writers and musicians, many of whom are notorious for being unbalanced but who have managed to put forth some very compelling work? It’s entirely possible that some good work has been made while under the influence. We can’t assume that the only *good* work is sober work. I agree that self-medication is generally self-destructive. It seems a little preachy to just announce… you shouldn’t drink and paint.
Yes, artistic expression is a wonderful alternative… but, a person suffering with substance abuse usually needs help understanding what caused their situation. Then they need good coaching to learn some practical alternatives. It’s a hard road. Life is complicated. Let’s all be more gracious with those who suffer from addiction.
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The best drug is ‘brush in hand’
by Alana Dill, Alameda, CA, USA
I did a ton of art as a kid and into my teens. As I got into substance use, my creative spirit did not in any way dry up — but my confidence, motivation, skill, and my creative output sure did! I thought mind alteration would make it easier to feel comfortable with others, but the people it made me feel comfortable with… they weren’t so good for me. I slowly died inside. Getting sober was a long haul. Really getting back to my art and making it a central part of my life was a longer haul. I’m now grateful for every moment and all the help I’ve had along the way. The detour was tough and I can’t help wondering what I’d have done with my life had I “started” earlier.
Last night I went to an art jam. I’m a body painter and my model didn’t show up, so I had to paint on canvas. This is fine, because I was working on a cartoon for a large piece. It’s easiest for me to work when inspiration strikes, but sometimes inspiration gets shy or crabby. Frequently, before I work on art *when I’ve set the time aside for it* I get fraught with anxiety and will just noodle around trying to find the mood. I finally realized I just needed to put the brush in my hand. So I brushed the words “JUST START. DAMMIT.” on a piece of sketchbook paper and laughed at myself, and that was the only loosening up I needed. All in all, it was a satisfying practice session, and I can certainly see what I need to do differently to make this project come out well.
Smoking while painting: a tough act to quit
by Bill Hogue, Dallas, TX, USA
There’s an association factor you have to throw in with drinking or any addictive habit. The hardest thing I ever did in my entire life was to quit smoking. At the time I quit, many years ago, I was smoking four packs a day. It was back when “everyone smoked” and I associated smoking with everything I did. It was so bad that a year after I quit, I was still addicted. As I recall, it took at least three years until I didn’t think about having a cigarette.
I love red wine and usually have some every night, but never when I’m painting. But this is not a rationalizing for drinking and I admire those with a clear sober mind who never touch alcohol. I’m just not one of them… and neither was Picasso; no comparison intended.
New method of categorizing art
by Doug Mays, Stoney Creek, ON, Canada
The big debate about what constitutes art has been recently raised in your letters and it comes up daily in the art world. There is never agreement, rarely consensus and certainly no solution. Until now. Why don’t we all just agree that it’s all art (of some sort) and do what Dmitri Mendeleev did in 1869 when he invented the Periodic Table of Elements in which he pragmatically reserved a spot for each element known in the 19th century based on their atomic number and electron configuration?
Ours would be “The Periodic Table of Art,” composed of alpha/numeric squares unique to each other and based the tools, equipment and materials used. When an artist completes his or her work they would assign the Universal Standard alpha/numeric identifier to each piece of art. Also, invitations for juried exhibitions, etc., would define the types of art acceptable for the exhibition based on the alpha/numeric identifier.
Since this is my idea I would want the Table to be named the Mays Chart, of course, and I wish to reserve a square for my favourite medium — ‘watercolour on paper.’ I want it to be A1.
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Got the free book
by Rose Desnoyer, Cornwall, ON, Canada
Today I received a wonderful gift in the mail: The Painter’s Keys, A Seminar with Robert Genn. What a pleasant surprise. I never dreamt I would be among the first one hundred to respond to your invitation. I read your letters every week and many of them I collect for further reference. Thank you for this gift of sharing.
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Rocky Mountain Spring
acrylic painting 36 x 18 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
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