Yesterday, Catherine Stock wrote, “I wonder if you have any thoughts about channeling negative energy into creative endeavors. The other day, one of my most valued friends and I parted company. I was pretty upset by his obviously calculated quarrel, and went over to my studio and picked up and attacked an old unresolved painting. I’m quite happy with the results. Another time I was irritated with the monitor of a life-drawing class to the point that I almost left, but instead focused on my drawing and did some powerful sketches. Nice to know that good things can come from an upsurge of choler.”
Thanks, Catherine. Creative prowess comes from two main sources — love and anger. Surprisingly, anger works just about as well as love. Trouble is, it’s not as much fun and it kills you sooner.
Accepting and channelling anger, even if used only in a small portion of our active creative lives, is an art worth learning. And while some artists simply can’t work when they’re angry and suffer consequent lack of production, excellent lemonade can be made from some lemons.
Some observers have noted that artists may actually need stress and anxiety to get the best from themselves. Subscriber Bill Cannon wrote, “Mozart, Vivaldi and Van Gogh stretched their genius on struggle, stress and survival.” When we sit down to work with concerns like this, perhaps it is the fresh hope that we know the creative act will give us and the fear that this fresh effort may not work out. “Minds that are ill at ease are agitated by both hope and fear,” said the banished Greek poet Ovid more than two millennia ago.
I’m one of those annoying people who appears to have a perpetually sunny disposition. But stuff happens, as it does to us all. My antidotes may appear simplistic, but here they are anyway:
Plan work zones regardless of mood or conditions.
Through thick and thin, learn to be steady and strong.
Know that relationships are fluid and not everyone fits.
Lose yourself to the empowerment of the creative act.
Be philosophic in misfortune and disappointment.
The big dirt-nap is coming anyway, so keep busy.
Esoterica: It’s always been of interest to me that siblings from dysfunctional or negative family environments can turn out in so many different ways. One may be mired in inappropriate life-decisions and repeated failures, while another may rise above it all and happily thrive. Self-esteem is crucial. I’ve made a lifetime study of the nature of self-esteem in artists. It seems to me that developing self-esteem relies on a combination of tangible evidence and gentle self-delusion. For people of imagination, self-delusion may come easily, and this ability is not to be sneezed at.
In the grip of strong emotions
by Margot Hattingh, South Africa
I adore the live comments — I can almost hear the voices shouting to be heard as if in a great lecture hall, or in a wonderful cafe on the Left Bank in Paris.
With regards to this letter — I believe all emotions, whether negative or positive, are fundamentally pure energy which can positively fuel the creative process like nothing else. Slashing the paint on in anger or stroking it on with love gives material form to invisible energy. Energy is always energy and therefore power, whether it comes from rage, grief, excitement, wonder or love. It is how we use it that makes it negative or positive. Using it to fuel creativity is always positive. My very best paintings, in my own opinion, are those done while in the grip of strong emotions. They generally tend to be the paintings I am most reluctant to part with as well as being the ones that sell first.
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Frustration has a silver lining
by Jack Dickerson, Brewster, MA, USA
We do not always need “positive” things going on in our lives to create terrific paintings. We cannot control much of what goes on around us, and we are bound to have “bad” days, caused both by our own challenges and issues as well as those of others. The worst of all is getting into a rut and becoming very frustrated with a painting that will not work. However, my experience has shown me that when any one, or all, of these things happen, it is usually when I am able, in spite of the frustration and blockage, to create a really good piece of work. It often takes longer but there is a silver lining — I always learn something new in forging ahead through my frustration. Ninety percent of the time I produce a good, solid piece of work. We just have to stick with it and keep at it. This painting, although not finished, was the result of such one of those frustrating times.
by Dolores Ewen, Saskatoon, SK, Canada
I stick by Gandhi. Anger is a marvelous form of energy that seems to have deeper tanks of electricity than love. Love tends to pacify, sooth, and put one in lullaby mood. Now if you get angry because someone or something you love is threatened, you possess continuing power. I have done electric paintings which only I love because they are so abstract. I keep them to remind me of the power I can use. I have written whole songs, whole three act plays, and numerous letters using the juice of anger. The thing with the letters is to let them sit for two or three days. Then, when the first explosive carbon is gone, you can compose out of the diamonds that coolly remain. I am sometimes suspect of “Anger management Workshops” because they intend to render the emotion dead. They should aim for insight and the power to accept oneself as angry, with control.
Emotional Freedom Technique
by Theresa Bayer, Austin, TX, USA
I simply cannot paint when I am angry or depressed. I have to be in a good mood from the outset, otherwise I will not enjoy painting, nor will I paint very well. For dealing with negative energy, I use the Emotional Freedom Technique, an energy healing system developed by Gary Craig, which combines acupressure with psychology.
The necessity of intensity
by Jean Sonmor, Wolseley, SK, Canada
Anger, or any strong emotional reaction, basically opens the glandular taps, injecting chemicals to stimulate and arouse us to action. Flight or fight.
This surge in energy is useful when controlled. Actors, even the great ones, do not stop being nervous about performance. They learn to channel their nervous energy into the intensity that carries past the footlights or through the lens. It is this contained emotional intensity that we as audience see and interpret according to the context of script, plot etc.
Perhaps, for the artist, being aroused to strong emotion like anger can provide the raw material (intensity and raised energy) that one can then channel into the deep concentration and action that helps us to focus on the work at hand.
Bad paintings often lack intensity, just as bad dramatic or musical presentations lack intensity. Intensity is a quality that only the artist/performer/composer/writer can apply, and once applied it remains part of the finished work. Art of any kind endures because it is intense enough to elicit an intense response from the viewer or listener. Thus ‘good art’ can disturb, calm, uplift or make us laugh. ‘Great art’ has depth and intensity that is transcendental and lasts for centuries. Even through vast cultural changes it remains art for the ages.
by Carole Ann Borges, Knoxville, TN, USA
I used to use my anger to fuel all kinds of creative efforts. My rage was like a pipeline directly connected to the dark depths of my being and what was brought up after being scanned for the universal rather than the personal was recognized as art. The raw edginess and the honest strip-tease-like showing of parts of me that others could relate to were highly encouraged.
As I moved to higher spiritual levels, it no longer felt authentic if I only expressed dark images. This caused some people to like my work less. I have to admit there was a transition period during which my vision faltered and I never thought I would be strong again. It took a lot of faith to pursue totally different perspectives, totally new emotions and subjects and attitudes, but one day there it was! I am now capable of moving fluidly through many ranges as I am a very complex person. Anger alone at one time inspired me, but it was joy that lifted me into realms beyond limitation.
Channelling holiday stress
by Peggy Guichu, Phoenix, AZ, USA
Getting together with family isn’t my most anticipated endeavor. I’m the one in my family who always wants to make nice. But during the holidays I’m put to the test. Two years ago I did a painting between Thanksgiving and Christmas. My husband finally begged me to take it down. He felt so much anger coming from it that it was distracting and depressing to him. I tried everything I could to cheer it up, but the drama just wouldn’t go away. Gesso was my only option. I do think that stress and conflict can produce some powerful work. Perhaps, for many of us, painting is our way of escaping reality. During times of high stress, the strength that it takes to shed it comes out in our work.
Bring on the anger
by Susan Burns, Douglasville, GA, USA
I would go so far as to say we could use a lot more anger. Anger is what makes change. Anger doesn’t take us by surprise if we know and are aware of ourselves. We rejoice that anger is here to give its message. It is great if we can put that message into art or into marching to protest prejudice. The problem comes when we turn anger into adrenalin and become addicted to that, because it makes us feel powerful. Then we choose not to actually look at what we are angry about! Adrenalin will shrink each and every organ in your body if used improperly, and eventually kill us. Psychologists no longer tell us to conquer anger out by beating pillows. It causes a rise in adrenalin levels. Our awareness of ourselves is all that matters. We can not help others to do this. Everyone must inquire for themselves. This is an inside job. Our responsibility to the world is to be aware of ourselves. Period!
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Anger with dealer fuels work
by Georgeana Ireland, Irvine, CA, USA
It is true that anger has fueled some of my best works. The adjacent painting was created after an important gallery partner failed to cancel/reschedule our appointment and I showed up to meet the unprepared and unexcited (about my work) “other” owner. You can guess how that went. I went home after more than 2 hours of commuting and painted furiously to Flowbots’ “No Handlebars” on repeat for about 3 hours. I was going to name the painting #$%^ you #%% Gallery but instead I created Flight. More often my works are created in love.
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Painting for sister’s short life
by Lesley Humphrey, Houston, TX, USA
Four years ago my young sister Elaine passed away after a rapid, tragic battle with M.S. I found that paintings of horses (my bread and butter at the time) or jaunting around the countryside looking for images to paint seemed frivolous. I was bereft of images; completely and utterly incapable of painting. Mourning the fact that she had not had the four seasons of her life, I decided to paint them for her. First was winter, when life seems lost beneath the frost, yet the earth is pregnant with new life, hidden from sight. She lived the springtime of life, was married, and had three lovely children of her own. I feel she was robbed of the summertime: In middle age, while many of us bask in the sunshine of our accomplishments, here she is leaving the bounds of earth toward something which we all hope is there.
The fact is, these were extremely difficult to paint. Not so much from an application point of view; from a pain point of view, for I went through all of our memories, hopes and fears. In the end, even though several people wished to purchase the series, I felt they were truly not mine to sell. A price tag seemed terribly wrong. All four (fall not shown) now hang in the foyer Women’s Center at Tomball Regional Hospital, as a gift in remembrance of Elaine Margaret McHugh. It’s amazing to me that not only does everyone enjoy them, they all prefer the summer, which was agony for me as I let her go. After all this, I could paint again. Only better and from a deeper place than ever before.
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by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
Regarding your interest in siblings coming from dysfunctional families and turning in different directions of success, I think that the family influence is often trivialized. Families are considered “bad” if, let’s say the dad is a drunk or “good” if the parents stay together and didn’t fight. Actually, families are the most complex social environments, running 24/7 with subtleties and oddities. There are “good” parents that are angels to one child while sabotaging the other. The “bad” dad may be the most supportive of child’s talents. One child may turn out to look like everyone’s least favorite aunt and is difficult to love. I am simplifying because there might be countless reasons why siblings’ lives end up very different. My point is that the family is not the same for every child, and the parents are not always to blame — they do as they learned from their parents.
Rediscovering art through misfortune
by Sara L. Fisher
Due to a drunk driver auto accident, I became unable to work. I was now “disabled.” That word was too hard to contemplate, terrifying. I was an Interior Designer with a business to run, a Mom with a toddler, forever in the Rush mode. I did not know how to do disabled. Finding myself with a lot of time on my hands, I finally picked up whatever paintbrush and paper I had in the house and began to paint. I had been longing to paint for several years but never had the time to indulge myself; now I did. The loss of my marriage, career, and finally my house, acted as a catalyst. And so with a 20-year-old paintbrush from my college days and a piece of drafting Mylar I created my first Painting, Abstract Floral. It was exciting beyond words.
When painting, I can lose myself — I am transported, surrounded by the brilliant sunlight of South Florida, observing all the infinite majestic details of nature, the magic of the pigments, the glowing colors. Physical discomforts of the present melt away. There is a peace and joy unparalleled: It soothes and calms the spirit, mind and body similar to meditation, giving me the strength to deal with life’s daily challenges.
Ironically, misfortune brings with it some good: it forces us to re-evaluate our priorities. For me, I rediscovered art, my passion. I hope my paintings bring others the joie de vivre I feel when I am painting, and remind them of a simpler time in their life when the wonders of the world were huge, and their troubles small.
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Those who wait
oil painting by Rebecca Thompson, Arkansas, USA
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.
That includes Claudio Diluca of Rome, Italy, who wrote, “Your letters are full of useful technical hints, psychological and cultural aspects. Many thanks. If I’m allowed, especially as a resident in Italy, I would like to remind that Ovid was one of the most important Latin poets!”
And also Carole Pigott who wrote, “I agree that agitation does stir up the creative juices, but when the solitude one needs to create drives the agitation to a point that it becomes obsessive, I listen to the tapes of Echart Tolle’s The Power of Now to calm it down to non-invasive thoughts to at least a manageable roar.”
And also Janet Morgan of Brooklyn, NY, USA, who wrote, “I worked as an Expressive Arts Therapist with adult cancer patients for 18 years, and always told them that you can paint in almost any mood or state of mind, except nausea — nausea stops a lot of things!”
And also Claudio Ghirardo of Mississauga, ON, Canada, who wrote, “One of the great things about anger is that it can be a source of great strength. It can literally ‘push’ you being your boundaries and if applied to art, it can force you to go being yourself to new horizons. Elvis Costello, said it best, ‘There is something wrong with you if you don’t get angry about something.’ ”
And also Helen Zapata of Phoenix, AZ, USA, who wrote, “This is also why I do my best housecleaning when I’m annoyed at my husband.”
And also Steve Koch who wrote, “I wonder if perhaps at another time you might wander into the arena of the worthwhileness of putting a watermark on work that is shown on the Web.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Channelling negative energy…