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.
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
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
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 TED.com and listen to Anthropologist Helen Fisher tell us why we love and cheat.
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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.
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.
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by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
(A poem that we learned in school by Desanka Maksimovic, Translation by Dragana Konstantinovic)
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
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.
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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.
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Art not about dopamine
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
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.
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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.
Enjoy the past comments below for The anticipation response…
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.”