Anxiety creativity


Dear Artist,

At exam time in university I used to notice a curious burst of wild creativity. Due to the pressure — when I ought to be buckling down and attending to study — my mind somehow overflowed with inviting new projects. It was at that time I invented a method of applying paint to canvasses from great distances with the use of a hot-air balloon. Another time it was an idea for a series of paintings based on microscopic examination of a campus quad. I call this phenomenon “Anxiety creativity” or “AC.”


“Separation” 1896
painting by Edvard Munch

It’s particularly prevalent around show time — that time when an artist is preparing for the sudden-death experience of one-man shows or other exhibitions. The mind wanders every which way, perhaps as avoidance activity for that which truly needs to be done. That’s just one reason I like to call shows “Recent work.” There’s nothing worse than planning a show a year in advance called “An Examination of Worm Holes in Central Africa,” only to find that in the final few months the worm has turned and the real show is about aardvark teeth.

Even the pressure and anxiety that surrounds the mundane acts of daily living — economics, jobmanship, interpersonal relationships or child-rearing can induce AC. Brilliancy rattles her cage and the artist feels trapped in the fecundity of her imagination, in a place of no outlet, unable to find enough hours in the day to manifest her will.


“Anxiety” 1894
painting by Edvard Munch

What to do about it? It’s valuable to make notes and not necessarily go to work on the new in the heat of the moment. Life balances out and time eventually frees up for the great ideas that need to happen. Sundays, or other days of relative rest, are good days to take stock and prioritize. In my chronic and probably terminal case, I’m so glad that a percentage of my ideas have fatal flaws that are discovered in less hectic times. Consider putting your anxiety creativity in a plain brown envelope and tacking it to the wall of the studio. Its time will come. Consider crossing your AC ideas with others. For the aware artist, the brain-acid that goes with anxiety is there to be harvested. At this valuable time the spores are spread and ideas breed like crazed mink. It’s part of the business. Let ‘er rip.

Best regards,


“Ashes” 1894
Edvard Munch (1863-1944)


PS: “Anxiety is the essential condition of intellectual and artistic creation and everything that is finest in human history.” (Charles Frankel) “Creative people can live with anxiety, even though a high price may be paid in terms of insecurity, sensitivity, and defenselessness for the gift of ‘divine madness.’” (Rollo May)

Esoterica: There’s a simple reason for this type of behavior. Artists are often “contrary.” A contrary nature, made more bold by the success that rugged individualism often brings, promotes an “I know better” approach. The behavior is not suitable for those who work on an assembly line. In artists, it’s their secret weapon.

This letter was originally published as “Anxiety creativity” on September 19, 2003.

The Private Journals of Edvard Munch: We Are Flames Which Pour Out of the Earth

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“A work of art can only come from the interior of man. Art is the form of the image formed upon the nerves, heart, brain and eye of man.” (Edvard Munch)




  1. “The behavior is not suitable for those who work on an assembly line. In artists, it’s their secret weapon.”

    Lol….truer words were never spoken!

  2. For any challenging task a certain amount of anxiety is necessary.In sporting terms this is positive arousal.Too much anxiety results in the individual being overwhelmed.Simple breathing techniques enhance right brain activity and involuntary/ inherent abilities result.

  3. Yes I agree AC works. I used to write poetry at work as a means of counteracting stress. Once retired the poetry magically dried up.

  4. The most troubling anxiety is when a painting is going well and I develop fear that I might “ruin” it. Objectively I know that’s not realistic, that I can fix whatever “errors” bother me. But it still becomes a time for separation from the piece and delving into unrelated artistic choices whether reading, observing nature, experimenting with a new recipe or an original concoction. I would like to avoid the delay that fear imposes. But it seems to be part of the resolution. Subconsciously I’m still actively painting.

  5. Contrary? Me?
    Next show opening January 12 2017. Reception Friday January 13th. The North Gallery @ Spark. Denver CO.
    5 months notice. Almost finished with 1 big new piece- have a second close to done- and am working on the third. Almost finished with 2 small pieces. Have multiple new pieces from earlier this year- plus several others from the recent past that remain applicable. Already have more than enough work- with more than 3 months left to go. Deciding which piece to set up next to finish. Still contemplating building something I haven’t even cut out the parts for yet.
    As a maker of labor-intensive work- I can’t ever leave anything until the last minute. To do so guarantees it will not get done. So there is no procrastination. And there are never any “wet-paint” pieces- like I know many painters find themselves with- even if yes- I’m still working on something- the week before install. And why should anybody care?
    Because “anxiety” as a motivating force in your creative life indicates you’re still an amateur. I chose mastery.
    Of course- I also market myself as insane- but so what?

  6. This letter really hit home for me. Anxiety? Me? After a year’s fight with cancer, my husband of 52 years and one day (I MUST include the one day because he managed to stay with me for our anniversary) died last month. Yesterday would have been his birthday. During these past 6 weeks, I have produced more work than I usually produce in 6 MONTHS! My friends and patrons tell me that it’s some of my best work, ever. As a potter, I picture him behind me, much like Demi Moore in “GHOST”!

    And thank you, Sara, for carrying on for your dad.

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