Art and stress


Dear Artist,

There’s no doubt about it, stress in the life of an artist can contribute to the diminishment of the art. Not only the amount created, but the quality as well. Simply put, daily stresses block the clear flow that exemplifies the artist’s life. Apart from that, stress over a period of time can lead to high blood pressure, stroke, and a host of other disorders that greatly interferes with the quality and duration of life itself.


“Figure on a Porch” 1959
oil on canvas, 57 x 62 inches
by Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993)

That’s not to say that some stress isn’t valuable. Here’s something that may surprise you: Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine have found that when baby monkeys are subjected to a lot of stress, they become less clingy and more adventuresome as adults. The doctors surmise that this goes for all primates. The thinking is that stressed young may be better able to put their fingers on the early sources of stress and thus learn skills to reduce stresses in later life.

When an artist has stress — either from interpersonal problems, creative frustration, or other studio nags such as bank balance or dealer pressure — a self-education with the highly regarded Stress Inoculation Training (SIT) might just be useful. The idea with SIT is to focus on specific stress triggers — one at a time.


“Interior with Doorway” 1962
oil on canvas, 70 5/16 x 59 1/2 inches
by Richard Diebenkorn

Identifying (and more or less understanding) the source of the stress leads to a careful examination of the evidence in each particular stress zone. Very often we find we are generalizing, magnifying or making cognitive errors in our judgments of situations. Whether the trigger is genuine or exaggerated, the stressed artist needs to play the role of the calm, objective observer — “The Perry Mason Role” — even when “calm” is farthest from the mind. This role-playing is vital — it’s my experience that artists can be particularly good at the game. By reframing the source, a chronic stress is reduced to a recurring annoyance. The script has been rewritten.

Other stress-reducing ploys are well documented. Watering plants, tending goldfish, reading, meditation, yoga, exercise, journaling (no whining), music, lavender and herbal tea may tame the beast, but they do not neutralize the source in the way that SIT seems to do. Unfortunately, creative people in particular are moving targets. For example, as most of us know, sitting at an easel may salve stress one time — at other times it may stress us out even more.


“Seawall” 1957
oil painting
by Richard Diebenkorn

Best regards,


PS: “You build up resistance to stress by learning, acquiring and practicing skills needed to go forward and cope.” (Dr. Donald Meichenbaum, University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada)

Esoterica: When all else fails there is always work. Someday I’m going to write a book called “The Easel as Avoidance Activity.” After a period of time a committed artist can come to the conclusion that the easel solves everything. While keeping the stress-bearing wolves at bay, it is its own panacea and its own dominion. As Louise Nevelson said, “At my easel I’m as happy as a cow in her stall.” There’s definitely something about the easel and the stuff that goes around it. Outside the studio, the moles making a “World-War-One-Landscape” out of our lawns have been reduced to a “natural phenomenon.”

This letter was originally published as “Art and stress” on September 29, 2006.


Sara Genn: New Paintings runs until November 2, 2018 at Voltz Clarke Gallery, 141 East 62nd Street, New York City. If you’re in the neighbourhood, we would love to see you there.

“My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful, the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles.” (Richard Diebenkorn)



  1. Life happens….stress is an integral part of it. I have to wonder how no sales affected Van Gogh’s work….how living in a shed coughing up blood affected Modigliani”s? Some of us live under constant stress and no amount of herbal teas and meditation can alleviate the core problem….and I’m not talking about moles in the garden. At least art offers transcendence while being created….a curse and a blessing.

    • Claus Schneider on

      Though it’s often told that Van Gogh didn’t sell one painting, the contrary is true. He sold every painting to his brother, who owned a gallery. Vincent recieved for his work 450 Franc every month. His brother died two years after Vincent. His wife and Vincent’s sister made the buck.

  2. VERY good article. I like the “stress inoculation technique,” and I intend to learn about it and use it!

    Some observations: For me, when I’m painting, the world around me disappears, and whatever stress I feel in the art dance is just about paint. Challenge if I do it when I’m supposed to be talking, like at a booth show or teaching, or stomping ants when I paint outside, but a relief otherwise. The vacation from outside stress it gives me allows me to be better at handling the stress when I do get back to it. Having said that, I know many people are more social and more verbal while painting, and I congratulate them! Wonder if they are as able to handle stress?

  3. “Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine have found that when baby monkeys are subjected to a lot of stress,” This part of the sentence stresses me out. What constitutes ” a lot of stress”? Who willingly participates? Yikes. I know this is off point but I don’t know what gives us the right to do this type of thing.

  4. I believe that without stress, nothing would get done. On the other hand, the say nowadays kids are going to be healthier if allowed it do nothing for certain parts of the day…. because of overscheduling.

  5. I’m a part-time oil painter, I main do commission paintings. When one is completed and I start another. I try to paint 4 to 5 days a week. I use to paint with regular ‘Winsor & Newton Oils, I now paint with W&N, Water Mixable Oil Colour. I love painting with Water Mixable oil paints. I’m never stressed when I painting away! Grant.

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