The anticipation response

Dear Artist, Feelings of pleasure are triggered in the brain by food, sex and illicit drugs. Dopamine, a “feel good” neurotransmitter, is released into the bloodstream from several parts of the brain. Researchers at McGill University in Montreal have now determined that the sound of music releases dopamine, too. It’s that nice tingly feeling you get when your favorite music is playing, and it doesn’t matter what kind of music you like — jazz, classical, rock and roll. The tests were done with music without lyrics — they wanted to make sure it wasn’t the words that were turning people on. Curiously, the most dopamine was released just before what people thought to be the best parts of their favorite music. That’s often the part where the composer is building up to a theme — you know what’s coming, and then it does, like the anticipated arrival of a haunting melody. Further, there is a parallel to the prior excitement generated in other experiences. For example, we often observe the condition of looking forward to eating, being oblivious while eating, and being satisfied after. The menu’s the best part. If you think this might apply to painting, you’d be pickin’ up what I’m puttin’ down. With no anticipated excitement before, there’s no great art after. We have several ways of building anticipation at the easel. One is to always have something on the easel where the next bit of work is potentially pleasurable. In other words, put temporarily stuck or vexing paintings to the side and display only workable ones. Another ploy is to really steel yourself prior to beginning a new project. The prior mental caresses may well be so delicious that you are propelled to get on with it. However, don’t be in a hurry. Take your time to enjoy the most pleasurable parts. Also, and this relates to the first idea, always leave something unfinished on your work so that it will be easy to pick up and get started again. To get the dopamine flowing, you need a relationship with your work that is beyond obligation, expectations of perfection or cash flow. Profound creativity and steady work habits need a state of genuine desire. Aging, we may begin to lose some of that desire. But the dopamine flows for anyone who primes the pump. Anticipate. Best regards, Robert PS: “Ten to 20 seconds prior to the maximum [musical]pleasure there was a different dopamine response in a slightly different place in the brain.” (Robert Zatorre, brain researcher, McGill University) Esoterica: Another way of encouraging dopamine flow is to avoid the stuff that inhibits it. Talking about what you’re going to do is one of them. Keep your pleasure a private event between yourself and your canvas. Also, watch out for static. Just as it interferes with music, cares and woes inhibit creative flow. Further, there’s always the tendency to just start. I’m always recommending that ploy. But just starting includes a short interval, perhaps ten or 20 seconds, of anticipatory meditation. Then the nicest parts are even nicer.   Too much talking by Nader Khaghani, Gilroy, CA, USA  

“Fields and Farmhouse”
acrylic painting
by Nader Khaghani

Got to tell you my friend, your Twice-Weekly Letter does release dopamine for me. Something I anticipate and enjoy. Wisely you suggest: “Keep the pleasure response, the anticipation, the game plan to yourself.” I can appreciate that since talking about it neutralizes the energy, cheapens and chips away from the experience. Why else? I have a problem with wanting to share too much — talking too much of what I want to achieve in my artwork with wife, family and friends. The thing that really needs to be shared is the finished work.   Meds depress dopamine circuit by Susan Burns, Douglasville, GA, USA  

original painting
by Susan Burns

Our brain also rewards us with dopamine when we are in love. This is what keeps us together while we raise children. In USA last year, over 100 million prescriptions for antidepressants have been written. These antidepressants are going generic and around the world. More and more people are taking them long term. These drugs raise the levels of serotonin and depress the dopamine circuit. This kills the sex drive, and kills orgasm, and possibly affects how we make art. The flood of dopamine in our brain — whether we are creating art or having an orgasm is part of our natural state, and we are destroying that on a global scale with antidepressants. Visit and listen to Anthropologist Helen Fisher tell us why we love and cheat.   There are 5 comments for Meds depress dopamine circuit by Susan Burns
From: Darla — Jan 18, 2011

I’m sure antidepressants are over-prescribed, but sometimes they are necessary. Depression also kills the sex drive, creative drive and can even be fatal. Until we come up with a better way to treat depression, and for someone to make a profit from it, antidepressants are here to stay.

From: Georgia Mason — Jan 18, 2011

Your elk painting is so beautiful!

From: Anonymous — Jan 18, 2011

I love the textural quality of this piece. Well done. Todd Bonita

From: Liz Reday — Jan 18, 2011

Great painting! Nice to see an artist treat wildlife in such an original way. I agree that the serotonin re-uptake whatevers kill creativity, however everybody is different. For folks in serious depression, my heart goes out to you.

From: Irene Angeles — Jan 18, 2011

For those suffering from depression, I have heard or read that vitamin D actually has been proven as effective or more effective than antidepressants. Ask your doc…

  Music and study by John Tryon   Your letter reminded me of something my instructor in college told me. He said, if you play music with no words while you are studying or creating that it opens the right side of your brain. This is your creative side. Since the right side of the brain controls the left side of your body, why not use your left hand as much as possible. I can’t swear that it works but I used it for four years of school and graduated on the Dean’s list.   Start writing by Virginia Andrade  

“Acid Rain”
original painting
by Virginia Andrade

One of my own ploys in my writing is anticipation. Subject; What is my intention when I enter the studio? What am I thinking about? What seems to be bothering me? etc. After a bit of writing I find myself eager to begin.             There is 1 comment for Start writing by Virginia Andrade
From: Victor Anonsen — Jan 18, 2011

Great painting!

  Apprehension by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada   (A poem that we learned in school by Desanka Maksimovic, Translation by Dragana Konstantinovic)

“Hourglass Lake”
acrylic painting
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

No… don’t come to me! I want to adore and love your two eyes from far, far away. For, happiness’s beau just while waiting for — when only allusion comes out of its way. No… don’t come to me! There is more allure in waiting with sweet apprehension, fear. Just while seeking out everything is pure; It’s nicer when just foreboding is near. No… don’t come to me! Why that, and what for? Only from afar all stars spark and glee; Only from afar we admire all. No… let not your eyes come closer to me.   Bringing on the state of mind by Barbara Andolsek  

original painting
by Barbara Andolsek

Music is a must. Also, the sounds of birds, waves, breezes work quite well outdoors to induce an effective dopamine flow. Museum visits, viewing other artist’s works that I am particularly fond of also rev up that delicious ‘can’t wait’ emotional response. As for the studio, the music, the preparation, the concept, particular support used, removing skins from oils if there are any. The renewal of fresh gobs of paint and the smell of the oils as well as premixing produces an anticipation of diving into an Alla Prima go at the easel literally bringing a painterly and childlike state of mind.     There are 3 comments for Bringing on the state of mind by Barbara Andolsek
From: Janet Mohler — Jan 18, 2011

Great painting of a dog, I love the way you captured her expression.

From: sittingbytheriver — Jan 18, 2011

love the painting of Romie!!! wonderful simplification. thank you.

From: Anonymous — Jan 18, 2011


  Painting with father by Randall Cogburn, Alvin, Texas, USA   I’m not a big fan of listening to music while painting. When I paint I have to focus on what I’m doing and any distractions distract me. But then again I don’t mind them it makes for an interesting challenge. For example I take care of my elderly dad who has dementia, a tumor and to round it all out he’s legally blind. Not a good package. Sometimes when I’m doing a plein air he sits in the car or in a chair while I paint. On most occasions something pops up either he thinks he’s somewhere else or just gets confused and well I get rushed whether I like it or not. A challenge indeed. I love him though. Him being with me just makes it all worthwhile. We have been to all sorts of places together and I have lots of fun memories and some not so good. I take them as they come. Next time I paint I’ll play some music for him and me. He likes music too. There are 2 comments for Painting with father by Randall Cogburn
From: Kim — Jan 18, 2011

What a lucky man your father is, to have you….

From: Diane Artz Furlong — Jan 18, 2011

I very much admire you.

  Art not about dopamine by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA  

“The Modest Monk”
original painting
by Peter Brown

I eat, have sex, and I enjoy myself quite frequently. I think that I make my art for a completely different reason. I think that making art is an intellectual game that we humans have been enjoying for 35,000 years. I think it has little to do with dopamine, and much to do with just being a human being, and being intelligent. The cave walls of my Neolithic past speak to me. Those cave people were great artists. I am sure that they told stories, and likely sang songs. To accomplish this, these folks had great knowledge about edible plants and hunting skills. With a full belly, they made art. No hungry person makes great art. I grew up as a very poor person. I was poor, but I was very smart. I built my entire life around art. Art was no cheap thrill to me, ever. Art was a conscious, calculated step into a viable way of making a living. It was my way of being rich, without having money. I never had the luxury of painting for a dopamine high. I was painting to survive. I was painting American flags and eagles, to sell at my local flea market, in 1967. I was 17. That summer I made more money than my dad who worked in a steel mill. Art is not about dopamine. Art is about intelligence. Human intelligence. We, humans, are just creatures that make art. We should make images, paintings, drawings, etc. We should also make music, and sing on key and loudly. That is the stuff that makes a civilization. There are 3 comments for Art not about dopamine by Peter Brown
From: Kelly McChesney — Jan 17, 2011

I enjoy the anticipation so much, I hate to begin the work!

From: Cynthia Rey — Jan 18, 2011

Yes, I agree with you that it is an act of intelligence, a game, perhaps, where we may study numbers, and geometry; we might reach a certain understanding of colour and also how it affects our emotions, which is where the dopamine and otherlike substances take part in the creation or production of the pieces, because they alter the emotions, similar to the anticipation method or chanting (singing) or praying. It is endless, that is all I know, and the beginning is also uncomprehensable. I would like to see your work.

From: Peter Brown — Jan 18, 2011

The item reproduced above is a COLLAGE.

  Copyright clarity by Louise Drescher  

original painting
by Louise Drescher

My husband is a copyright lawyer in Canada so I asked him about your mention in the previous Esoterica about commissioned art not copyright by the artist. Here’s what he said: “That would be right only if the work was a ‘work for hire,’ ie, a work done specifically for pay. A classic ‘work for hire’ is the work one does as part of one’s job where copyright would belong to the corporation paying you. But, it isn’t so easy as that. “First, in the situation you describe, the patron had better have a written agreement in which the artist expressly transfers and assigns all copyright in the work to the patron. In other words, it isn’t automatic. In all cases the artist, as the creator, would be deemed to own the copyright unless there were such a written agreement of transfer and assign. “Second, even in the common corporate setting, if the ‘author’s’ work is ‘beyond the scope of his employment’ the author, (ie, artist), would own the copyright in that portion of the work. So, bottom line is the patron would only own copyright if it was a ‘work for hire’ as expressly stated in a written transfer and assignment of copyright from the ‘author’ (artist) to the patron.” (Tom Drescher) (RG note) Thanks, Louise and Tom. And thanks again to all of those who wrote in to set me straight on this one.    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The anticipation response

From: Marvin Humphrey — Jan 13, 2011

Those dopamine juices kick in every time I see great art at the museums.

From: Tinker — Jan 14, 2011

Music is my “drug of choice” when painting indoors. Simply being in a great place with birds, breezes, waves sounds or waterfalls, when “en plein aire”. Thats my “dopamine” .Works every time

From: Stephen — Jan 14, 2011

It’s agreeable that natural dopamine is fundamental to our positive outlook. Foods that help promote such is soybean protein, frozen tofu, dried and salted cod, shellfish, lean meat, organ meat, skin-free chicken, cheese, milk, eggs, many seeds (watermelon, fenugreek — the benefits are substantial , roasted soybean nuts), and chocolate. Equal artificial sweetener also contains Phenylalanine. The body can turn Phenylalanine into Tyrosine or you can just eat the foods where Tyrosine is found such as almonds avocados and bananas. From there it will convert into L-Dopa and thus into Dopamine. Enjoying the basic’s – live love laugh and … “Give the paint a chance. Give the brush a chance.” (John Marin)

From: Marilyn Kousoulas — Jan 14, 2011

Background music, contour drawing until “right brain” kicks in, then draw or paint anything you want. That works for me.

From: John Berry — Jan 14, 2011

Ernest Hemmingway said, “Always quit for the day when you know what you want to do next.”

From: Suzette Fram — Jan 14, 2011

What a great idea! Anticipation might be the antidote to procrastination. Getting all excited about getting to the studio might be just the thing to make us stop finding excuses not to do it.

From: Doreen Flanagan — Jan 15, 2011

Thank you for reminding us about the importance of music to enhance the creative process. In an earlier letter we spoke about your emphasis on expanding a theme, so that our work can be identified by the viewing public. I hope you were joking , but I seem to remember you said “do a hundred”! Thanks to you I took a particular theme and have enjoyed developing it , calling it my “Lane Series” pictures painted in lanes. My reason for writing is to point out that musicians/composers do just that when writing their music. Beethoven’s music is full of variations on a theme and many composers have made an art of it. My favourites are the Haydn Variations of Brahms and the Goldberg Variations of J.S. Bach. The only difference here is that the composer is working with notes and sound, and we are composing with paints. Do keep on stretching our minds

From: Carol Barber — Jan 15, 2011

I thought you were going to say something about how our art can elicit the dopamine effect in our patrons. Anticipation built from promoting an upcoming show then the climax: the show, with something extra that is not expected. Maybe a good reason to have yummy food at the show? But locally we are getting away from that because people were coming to the show for food and wine and not the art. Or anticipation in one single piece of art, building up and climax within the painting?

From: Brian Fox — Jan 15, 2011

It is encouraging to read, as I work on approx 10 paintings at once (often at least four feet tall). I can sometimes get caught up in trying to get the work done and deal with the business end of things. You article is like a reset button in my head, resetting my mindset to what I am painting for in the first place. he love of it. Great practical advice as usual, thanks!!!

From: Bob — Jan 15, 2011

Excellent analysis of creativity and satisfaction….for more than just art.

From: John Berry — Jan 15, 2011

Ernest Hemingway said, “Always quit for the day when you know what you want to do next.”

From: Margaret Henkels — Jan 15, 2011

The dopamine aspect reminds me of inspiration. Inspiration is always welcome. So where does that leave the Chuck Close quote that inspiration is for amateurs? I find it really helpful to let myself go into a dopamine mood and foster inspiration. Creativity seems to be about flow, talent at work and the delight of the unexpected resolution. Allowing the unexpected can’t work with a fixed “day job” point of view.

From: N. C. Bloch — Jan 15, 2011

Bringing sensuality, expectation and tactility to our art is very valuable. I’ve always been interested in the proximity of sexuality to the desire to create things. Perhaps they are two branches of the same tree. This art blog is informative and stimulating for serious artists like no other on the net.

From: AprylZA — Jan 17, 2011

As usual, you’re absolutely right, Robert ;0) What I wrestle with is the guilt of creating. Shouldn’t I be revising my website or finding a new gallery? That familiar feel-good feeling of doing the real work (that I LOVE) must mean that I’m playing before the chores are done. What’s wrong with me?!! Too damned virtuous for my own good…

From: Susan Skove Skovsilk — Jan 17, 2011

I love reading your letters, especially the postscripts. The following particularly touched me. “Talking about what you’re going to do is one of them. Keep your pleasure a private event between yourself and your canvas.” I was amazed to read this as I have found that if I get too enthusiastic in describing some aspect of my work ( or anything else really) that I pay for it by feeling a bit depleted afterwards.

From: Rodney C. Mackay — Jan 17, 2011

Dopamine keeps the elderly lively? If a canvas sits too long in the studio (more than three months) I trash it! That’s the advantage of having a senile view of the art world. This has been a very good Yule for me and mine thanks to patrons! Would you care to comment on patronage? One of my best patrons has been a Scot, but then the clans do stick together when they are not killing one another.

From: Norah Bolton — Jan 17, 2011
From: Hugh Cooke — Jan 17, 2011

It’s not something I ever think about because I’m just so wired up and excited to paint all the time. Does this mean I’m a dope?

From: Terrence Holm — Jan 17, 2011

It’s the two “Ds”……….. Dopamine and Discipline.

From: Gavin Logan — Jan 17, 2011

“It has been hypothesized that dopamine transmits reward prediction error. According to this hypothesis, the phasic responses of dopamine neurons are observed when an unexpected reward is presented. These responses transfer to the onset of a conditioned stimulus after repeated pairings with the reward. Further, dopamine neurons are depressed when the expected reward is omitted. Thus, dopamine neurons seem to encode the prediction error of rewarding outcomes. In nature, we learn to repeat behaviors that lead to maximizing rewards. Dopamine is therefore believed to provide a teaching signal to parts of the brain responsible for acquiring new behavior. Temporal difference learning provides a computational model describing how the prediction error of dopamine neurons is used as a teaching signal.” In art, the continual teaching reward of a job well done stimulates a person to keep on making the art and getting the reward.

From: LaVonne Tarbox-Crone NWS — Jan 17, 2011

My 26 year old son was klilled in a helicopter accident 20 years ago. Needless to say at first my grief seemed bottomless. But after a few weeks my painting became a way to keep his spirit alive…I still carry his name on my artwork. I hope Adrianne can heed your words…I know my son was proud of my work…and I still dedicate it to him.

From: Patricia O’Hara — Jan 18, 2011

Many years ago when I was completing a Master’s Degree at Hunter College, I had who, I guess, it was a distinct honor to have as an instructor~ Robert Motherwell~ week after week for a semester. All I really remember was that he assigned Giorgio di Chirico to me for a paper and critique. It was not a memorable experience for me~ especially the negative marginal comments he wrote on my paper. My personal experience as a painter were portraits which I painted of Beverly Sills in the various operatic roles she portrayed which I then gave to her backstage. Now THOSE were memorable moments which lead to a great friendship with the great singer.!!!!! Sincerely, Pat O’Hara

From: Scharolette Chappell — Jan 18, 2011

Thanks for the turn on to and Helen Fischer, enjoyed very much. There is a beauty in that Acid Rain.

From: Beverly Wolsey — Jan 18, 2011

Your collages are very beautiful and would inspire anyone who was grieving. I hope your love for your grandfather will inspire you to return to them.

From: sittingbytheriver — Jan 18, 2011

1. There is a book called “happiness”, i forget the author. It says “happiness lies in the waiting room for happiness”. 2. when i am making art, I find music to be incredibly distracting and annoying. I need silence. but when i start really getting into the painting, i begin to hum to myself. go figure.

From: Lynn Arbor — Jan 19, 2011

Robert, I really enjoy your posts. Do you like writing as much as painting? In high school (a really long time ago), I was torn between art and writing. I find I’m back there, loving writing my blog, and still loving painting. So much to say, so little time. How do you manage?

From: Mimi McCallum — Jan 24, 2011

How I enjoy your thought s and musings!!!! I just “passed you on” to a workshop I had this past weekend. This letter especially touched me. The joy we find in painting is wonderful. Today I felt what you wrote about. The absolute joy and pleasure of painting something we look forward to. My style is changing after doing plein aire and working from live model at life draw sessions. It is exciting. This may be a topic you want to address. Thank-you for ALL our letters. They are great and I relate to so many.

From: Dominique Delay — Feb 23, 2011

I am a self made artist. I started with oils,made some mix media pieces, touched sculptures and Iam working on a blue jean type quilt in the form of a bear skin to be ornemented. I love your approach to Art and really enjoyed your story of your grand-father. The inspirationnal quotes were most uplifting! True to the mind, the flow that you get being absorb in a art progress seems to take away all the sins of the world including your own, misery and all. Keep on creating and please do inspire me, well done! Dominique Delay New Dundee

     Featured Workshop: Heli-painting with Robert Genn in the Bugaboos
011411_robert-genn Gaye Adams at Cobalt Lake (left) and Dennis Faribain giving it a go (right) Heli-painting with Robert Genn in the Bugaboos   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order. 


oil painting by Arsen Kurbanov

  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 Brandon Haley of Liverpool UK, who wrote, “Anticipation: When my ship comes in I’ll be at the airport.” And also Edward (Scissor) Hands who wrote, “So true in love, art and wine: The first sip is always better than the dregs.”    

Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

Subscribe and receive the Twice-Weekly letter on art. You’ll be joining a worldwide community of artists.
Subscription is free.