You may have noticed the odd times when something is irking you, putting you into a bad mood, and you sit down at your easel and do good work. While it’s not as pleasant as when you’re in a good mood and everything is coming up peonies, it works to your benefit in another way. In my experience, a bad mood helps the attention span and the critical faculties — not necessarily to be more creative — but with a wider vision and a sharper focus.
Before you start to rub me out as a certified nutter, I have to tell you that Professor Joseph Forgas at the University of New South Wales in Australia has now produced research that shows people in a negative mood are more critical and more attentive than regular happy folks.
Sadness, he found, actually promotes information-processing strategies best suited to dealing with demanding situations. Other bad-mood benefits the professor found included less gullibility, improved assessment of others, and memory improvement.
In my case, as a kid I might have been “blessed with a sunny disposition,” as my mom used to say, but it was in my quieter, reflective moods that I made my art. Darker moods came and went, and I remember doing the odd decent thing while in them. Fact is, I still do. I’m wildly curious to know if anyone else might have noticed something similar.
Perhaps the good-work-in-a-bad-mood syndrome has something to do with the simple realization that when all else fails one can still paint. It’s as if art is a sanctuary and a safe haven from life’s inevitable disappointments. All humans need some sort of escape from whatever irks them — drudgery, boredom, failure, penury, barking dogs, unpleasant companions — a mighty long list if you decide to think about it. Personal art-making, with its complex creative demands of audacity, application and focus, as well as its perceived nobility, fills the bill.
No human life is all joy, none is all pain. It may be necessary to have a bit of one to gain more of the other. Surely, all moods are worth exploring. While a good mood is way ahead of whatever comes next, this is where I tell you to joyfully jump into your bad moods, watch yourself, and see what happens.
PS: “Whereas positive moods seem to promote creativity, flexibility, cooperation, and reliance on mental shortcuts, negative moods trigger more attentive, careful thinking, paying greater attention to the external world.” (Joseph Forgas)
Esoterica: Bad-mood guys like Beethoven are no shirkers when it comes to turning out the work. Whole schools of poetry, art and music have been founded on anger and misery. “Sunny dispositions” might be missing out on something. Bad moods are, on the other hand, bad moods. You don’t want to stay in them too long — maybe just enough to be focused, attentive and a little extra critical. A bad mood could be good for you.
by Shirley Peters, Putney, NSW, Australia
I used to play doubles tennis on Tuesdays with a local ladies competition. We had a saying: “Beware the injured player.” If a player was in pain and hurting, i.e. with a freshly sprained ankle, they would concentrate on their game. They watched the ball, hitting low and hard. They anticipated the ball movement more accurately, so as to reduce their own movement on the court. Inevitably they would win. We healthy players could not “dig as deep.” This must be the same principal as your bad mood producing good works idea. You are more focused, less distracted. Able to dig deep.
Exorcism and ambush
by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA
In my case I notice two different aspects of this. Sometimes when my life is totally in the toilet I’ll get an image — and it will be an image of my despair. Painting this image seems to work as an exorcism. It may be as you say, “When all else fails one can still paint.” Sometimes being an artist is the only thing that seems to justify one’s existence. At other times when I’m depressed, I’ll be ambushed by something that catches my eye, usually something I’ve seen a thousand times before but never until that moment as a painting. These images have nothing to do with my despair. It’s as if the Muse (even though I know rationally that she is a part of me) is living a completely separate life from mine and has no interest whatsoever in my petty miseries. “Paint this!” she says. And I do.
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Art as play
by Ernst Lurker, East Hampton, NY, USA
We escape through play, and the way I see it, painting is a form of play. Not only painting, but all of culture, according to Johan Huizinga, the Dutch historian (Homo Ludens 1935). The play mode liberates us from the treadmill of the survival instinct, and its opposite, the play instinct, is the source of creativity and art. Huizinga provided the foundation of the PlayArt philosophy. PlayArt is my own and many other artist’s interactive art form that requires active participation of the viewer, the touching and manipulation of the artwork.
(RG note) Thanks, Ernst. The PlayArt site can be found here.
by Petra Voegtle, Denmark
I have clearly made my best work when I was deep in pain. Art always has been some kind of escape or valve although I’d rather paint in a cheerful mood the deep pain has made me a “better” artist. When I was very young still I wrote poems and short essays when I was deeply hurt. The words then came easily and effortlessly as if something strange had taken over. After the work I have always felt and still feel some kind of relief.
The mystery though is that I often cannot remember any more why I have been in such deep pain, sometimes even physically. This applies specifically to a work on silk, called the 7th Sign. I can remember that I was in deep desperation while I was painting that silk scroll but I cannot remember any more why I felt this way. It always seems that somehow everything dissolves when brought to paper or canvas, as if the origin of the pain disappears when realized through a piece of work.
What shuts off in the brain?
by Anne M. Huskey-Lockard
I had to comment on this letter, as my husband and I both realized (we discussed this exact thing the other evening) that when we are mad or in foul humor, we get much more work done of better quality, and as you wrote, I have found I can zero in on what I need to do and fix it without feeling bad about it. ‘Happy-time’ produces nominal work; down and dirty, grumpy or totally furious, I can produce good work like a demon.
Is it the extra adrenalin? Is there something that shuts off in the brain — blocking out distraction? Is the inner critic shut up when the brain is focusing on some outside source of displeasure? What precisely causes this to happen?
I totally agree with you; now come make me good and mad because I have a deadline looming and need some mad-working-time to get it done!
by Debi Bradford, Huntsville, AL, USA
Photography is my art. I have found that when I’m frantic with computer work, overwhelmed by family situations, and required time out in the field has been minimal at best – I need to run away. And I do. Usually mad or miffed or out-of-sorts, I’ll throw the camera (gently) into passenger seat, drive blindly down the road with music blaring, seeking something. If I think of it I’ll take a road not taken before just to see something that’s not normally in my world of thinking. My best work has been in that state of mind, in a new spot. Something happens deep inside, sort of like “ah, I remember this joy” kind of feeling. My shots are fresher, I shoot until the tension fades, then I go back home. Downloading the images I’m usually delighted with the results, much more so than the usual ho-hum.
All emotions should fuel art
by Judith Veinot, Toronto, ON, Canada
I have always done my best fibre art works when I have been under the influence of negative emotions. I find these feelings fuel the creative fire. When I am happy and content with life, creativity comes more slowly and the work becomes a prettier reflection of my vision. The colours and textures used while angry tend to be darker, more vivid or bold. My artwork seems to aid in the diffusion of negative emotions, being extremely therapeutic. Of course, if the cause of the negativity is close and constant, too much of a bad thing can stop me in my tracks and make it impossible for me to work at all unless I distance myself somewhat.
Many successful comedians are actually not funny when not on stage. They use the angst of life to fuel their wit, as if making jokes about it helps to relieve the pressure. During a particularly difficult part of life, I would make companions laugh hysterically with my redirected anger turned jokes about family members and coworkers. Once life became peaceful again, the dynamics of the group changed as I no longer felt the need to disperse any negativity and they asked what had happened to my ability to make them laugh. I can still make people laugh, I just use different fuel, but I also have different companions now.
I firmly believe all emotions, good or bad, should be used to fuel our art, all in balance. It keeps our work from getting stale and improves personal growth.
The necessity of bad moods
by Jacqueline Colozzi
I found it quite amusing that you addressed the fact some people might consider you crazy for linking bad moods with incredible art — I think that the art heaps of history do much to support that theory, and anyone who tries to argue the opposite is truly the insane one. In fact, it could probably be proven that of the so-called “masters” of art, the majority of them were plagued by negative feelings at least during part of their lifetime (and same goes for all other creatives). Sadness, anger, despair and melancholy are amongst the most powerful emotions, and all are heady inspiration to our expression. The very process of creation can be more than just an escape, even the opposite. It can be a full-fledged immersion in our sentiments, allowing us to explore them, to capture them in a more tactile form. And so for some, our art can be our therapy — I know of many artists, musicians, actors and writers who perform in this manner. It is certainly important to heed your advice and take note that they are “bad moods” — it is not advisable to welcome and promote such feelings for the sole sake of inspiration. But honest feelings dealt honestly (i.e. expressed in art, for the artist) is the most honorable way to handle such negativity, I think. And why we gravitate and herald such artists — beyond an agreed-upon quality of their work, perhaps many of us are also drawn to the emotions we sense their art emits. It soothes our souls to find another in pain, to know we are not alone in our darkest hours. And we ought to take their cue, and come to terms with emotions we may have been squashing in a denying, unhealthy manner. Perhaps with that very knowledge and purpose in mind it can be even easier to conquer our daemons, something many artists are not able to do.
Pain in a relationship
by Ken Jackson, London, ON, Canada
In The Art Spirit, Robert Henri talks about how your mood and who you are at the moment of each brush stroke, translates something into the paint or paper for all time to have an opportunity to see.
I was having an on again — off again relationship. Images of a weekend away resurfaced in a drawing of this lady in an interior. I was annoyed at her but really liked what was happening on paper. I was working late and got into the homemade wine and my feeling got more pronounced in my drawing as the early morning hours approached. The next day I saw my enthusiastic attempts and corrected some of the more obvious strokes and finished the drawing. It was framed and presented to the world. Almost all that saw it liked it and I thought it was one of my best drawings to date. About a year later at a major art event my drawing was on display and a lot of people remarked in the positive. On the last day of the show, I noticed a lady standing in front of the drawing looking for the longest time, but I was busy with customers, and then she was gone. This happened 3 more times. On the fourth time back I said to her, “You have been back four times, you must like this drawing” and she responded, “No I don’t, there is so much pain in it,” then she walked away. I was left speechless and went for a walk.
That was the first time I had confirmation of the truth of Robert Henri‘s words. In my almost 30 years of full time painting, I am now convinced that there is more in the making of art then the transfer of pencil lead or paint to a surface and it has to do with the spirit or energy of human beings. It has to do with the focus of energy mixed with intense passion. That energy translates our state into the focus of our intentions, to all observers, for them to translate in their own way.
Surmounting the rock wall
by Ron Stacy, Victoria, BC, Canada
I often feel like I’m on a plain with a rock wall right in front of me which represents what I’m incapable of, so I work hard to overcome that wall. All of a sudden I’ll realize that I’m on top of that particular rock wall, but there’s another right in front of me again, but a bit smaller. My goal is to keep working at these recurring rock walls until they’re so small that I can just step up on them. Then I’ll be able to use all my faculties to express my vision using all my skills without compromise. Mind you, I’ll probably be 145 years old by then, so I might be a bit feeble.
I admire my Mother, who, when she was a young girl taking accordion lessons, was told by her music instructor that she would never be able to play a particular complicated piece because she didn’t have the necessary talent. She worked on that piece until her demise. She never got it, but she was determined to overcome her lack of talent with hard work. Me too.
Storming off for real winners
by Suzanne Ecclestone, Shelburne, ON, Canada
My daughter Kelly was an avid little figure skater. Always before a competition or test we would get into arguments over her hair or her skating dress, or that her skates were hurting her. There was always something, and the more upset she got, the better she skated!
Later, I ran painting workshops where I invited numerous art teachers to give a course of their choice. Over 15 years, we had many different students, some placid and some very anxious. Frequently I noticed the students who got most upset would storm off into the countryside and come back with real winners. It reminded me of my daughter’s behaviour years before. I guess a good shot of adrenaline helps to get the juices flowing!
Painting inspired by the Hubble Space Pictures
original painting, 24 x 30 inches
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 Ken Toffaletto of Vancouver, BC, Canada, who wrote, “I remember my wife saying that I no longer did much painting… and I replied that she made me too happy. That there were fewer demons to come out on my canvases so my paintings no longer had bite and definition.”
And also Gail Allen of NH, USA, who wrote, “Rilke said, ‘Be patient towards all that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms….Live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then, gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.’ ”
And also Mark Rue of San Antonio, TX, USA, who wrote, “I have a normally cheery disposition. In fact on several occasions friends have told me to “cheer down.” But there’s something to be said for getting in touch with your “dark side.” Some of my most powerful work was done was I was in a bad mood. The energy is different.”
And also Carl Nelson of Carnation, WA, USA, who wrote, “I’ve found that if I write when very depressed… while it seems awful that day, the next day it often is the best thing I’ve done in a long time: more grounded, more real, more present.”
And also John Deckert of CA, USA, who wrote, Please note the recent article in Scientific American: Depression’s Evolutionary Roots. Two scientists suggest that depression is not a malfunction, but a mental adaptation that brings certain cognitive advantages. By Paul W. Andrews and J. Anderson Thomson, Jr.
And also Barbara Keir of Edmonton, AB, Canada, who wrote, “Your comment about joy and darkness in every human life reminded me of a passage from William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence :
Man was made for joy and woe
and when this we rightly know
through the world we safely go.
Joy and woe are woven fine
A clothing for the soul divine.
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.
Enjoy the past comments below for Good news for bad moods…