Dear Artist, Catatonia isn’t the name of a Cunard liner or a Welsh rock band. Catatonia is a kind of lethargic stupor and a sense of “why bother?” In extreme cases a patient may sit or stand for hours in the same position. Even when physically moved or adjusted by someone else, these folks often retain whatever position is given them. Recent studies with laboratory rats have shown a link between catatonia and the neurotransmitter dopamine. Normal rats, when introduced to a small hurdle, quickly climb over it and get on with their business. Rats injected with dopamine blockers tend to remain on the hurdles for longer and longer periods. Proper amounts of dopamine facilitate positive motivation — like an addictive drug that may temporarily stimulate action. Dopamine is active in conveying the good feelings that arise during creatively satisfying events — including events of praise, adulation and monetary reward. Some artists find the whole idea of cash flow repugnant, but a cheque in the mail can propel some of us to get on with our business. Curiously, the opposite reaction can occur. In previous letters, I’ve mentioned the kind of post-partum depression that sometimes takes place when artists have successful shows, give talks, demo in public, or receive acclaim. While dopamine may kick in during and at the immediate end of such an event, the boost provided may quickly diminish and the opposite and negative effect may become permanent. As Sir Isaac Newton noted in his Laws of Motion, every action has its opposite and equal reaction. How might artists structure their lives for a maximum of dopamine flow? It’s my experience that being creatively excited is an art in itself, often self-generated, and largely a matter of habit. In other words, active and perhaps successful artists are masters of their own dopamine. Catatonia, stupor, lassitude, unproductive dreaming, chronic procrastination and the so-called writer’s block may be best defeated by managed or forced interaction with the work itself. In place of the need for public adulation, peer approval or green feedback, the evolved artist has a philosophical outlook, high levels of focus, and higher than average feelings of creative arousal. A cheque in the mail helps, too. Best regards, Robert PS: “If an animal’s dopamine is blocked, it will just sit there. It’s not that these animals can’t move; they’re just not motivated to move. It seems that you need dopamine to engage in the environment.” (Richard Beninger, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario) Esoterica: When we do something well, meet someone nice, or have any sort of pleasant experience, dopamine is in play. This chemical connection makes it easier and more desirable to repeat similar positive experiences. As people age, the volume of connective dopamine may diminish. “If we are repeatedly exposed to stimuli with dopamine reduced,” says Beringer, “we lose our ability to respond to those particular stimuli.” We all know of older persons whose reaction to life is one of grumpiness and displeasure. Sitting still and watching the world go by is not the artist’s game. We artists need to maintain our lust for life.   Winter blahs by Sharon Knettell, Woonsocket, RI, USA  

pastel painting
by Sharon Knettell

Catatonia is exactly how you can explain my post Holiday stupor. I am ‘interviewing’ painting models at present. I want to do a nude which makes the task even more difficult. So I post advertisements and wait for the perfect specimen to show up. Most of them never read the requirements. And I wait and wait. I post incessantly on my blog, clean my studio, check my paper stock, insist maybe that this is the time to do a landscape (too cold) try a still-life (they put me to sleep). So I am the perfect image of the female catatonic artist in winter, a heavy lidded, ratty haired, baggy clothed vision of loveliness.     There are 3 comments for Winter blahs by Sharon Knettell
From: Susan Prentice — Jan 11, 2013

Sharon, I just looked at your website. Stunning portraiture! I am one of your new fans…

From: Sharon Knettell — Jan 11, 2013


From: Rachel — Jan 16, 2013

So true, all of it. But how do you fight that “walking through water” heavy feeling as you try to force yourself to be creative, in an effort to shake off the catatonia? THAT is the part I dread the most.

  Carpe diem-Seize the day by Peter Trent, Hawkesbury, ON, Canada  

“South Nahani River”
original painting
by Peter Trent

Your comments come at a most opportune time as I am just now coming off an extended period of lassitude and “couldn’t care less” — in itself, very distressing as I know damn well what is going on but have not, until today, had the energy or desire to do aught about it. Maybe it’s the season, like, why aren’t I hibernating like the bears do (at 0600h I really feel it !) or my age (the 9th decade) or something: whatever the reason, I have to get going as, much as I hate to say it or even (shudder) think it, time is, inexorably, running out! So, thanks for the wake-up and, as the motto goes, “Carpe diem.” There is 1 comment for Carpe diem-Seize the day by Peter Trent
From: Nancy — Jan 11, 2013

I looooove your painting – try not to have too many periods of lassitude when you could be producing those beautiful works. But, as an artist myself, I know what a painting can take out of you and how you sometimes have to restore your creative energy bank!

  Managing your breathing by Cyndie Katz, New Boston, NH, USA  

original painting
by Cyndie Katz

One way to turn off the chat is to concentrate on your breath and to say in your mind, “I am breathing in, I am breathing out.” Try this while you’re looking at anything — your artwork or the landscape — and you will notice that you see more deeply, more objectively. Practice while you’re taking a walk or being driven in the car or waiting in line at the grocery store. You’ll be amazed at what you see.     There are 2 comments for Managing your breathing by Cyndie Katz
From: Cyndie Katz — Jan 11, 2013

Hi! Thrilled to have my comment used, but this is a comment I wrote in response to a different letter, not the one I wrote regarding dopamine. Nice to be included regardless.

From: Alan Briggs — Jan 12, 2013

things go better when there’s cows around

  Blowing out the cobwebs by Willa Dee Maltby, Wayne, OH, USA   I’m a new subscriber, a would-be artist and author, and mom and wife of a very creative family. I received some of your quotes this morning in my daily “Quotes of the Day,” and forwarded them to some family members. I’ve had several favorable responses, and one quote especially struck home with me, and with my daughter. It is: “Pushing yourself to extremes blows out the cobwebs of trusted habit. It shakes up what you know to be reliably safe, and substitutes the miracle of insecurity.” — Robert Genn My daughter is an actress in the NYC area, and she thought that was exactly what is needed to grow in the art of acting, as well as the other artistic endeavors you mentioned in your letter.   Immersed in the now by Janet Summers-Tembeli, Samos, Greece  

“As it was in Eden”
watercolour painting
by Janet Summers-Tembeli

The down after the high! That can’t get going again, don’t feel like doing anything, down the tubes, under the weather, hide under the covers, down in the dumps, it’s all over blues that follow a big event, exhibition, completion of a fine work, or even post holiday excitement. Yes, even positive things bring stress with them; it’s hard to maintain a balance. Richard Pousette-Dart, with whom I studied, said, “When the slump hits, prepare, organize, clean up and get ready…” so that when the next wave of creativity hits, you are ready to ride it! Personally, I go out, commune with nature, travel if possible, change gears, explore something different, get lost in a seashell or read a book that allows me to mind travel. What I don’t do is worry about when or what I’ll paint next. I love to snorkel and this summer I had a revelation about why I love it so much — because, when I’m snorkeling, I am completely immersed in the moment. If we can maintain being immersed in the now, only this moment, no matter what we are doing, it somehow allows the creative mind to take a deep breath or two, and when the creative surge does come, I feel refreshed, mentally invigorated and the work flows, my soul sings.   The dopamine meter by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada  

“Bugaboos Giants”
acrylic painting
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

The problem with dopamine is that just like anything else that our body produces, there is only so much dopamine it can create. If you use it up too rapidly, there is no more to go around for a while until the production catches up. So the good news is that your body has a mechanism to make its self productive. The bad news is that splurging it means heading into a drought period. Many big artists have been prolific and created masterpieces in this agony and ecstasy mode — pumping up and draining their dopamine and then barely enduring (or not) the down time. We are not all made the same. Some people work best in a serene mode while others prefer a rollercoaster. It must have something to do with dopamine tolerance. For example, I don’t handle euphoric situations well. I can’t paint all day and all night despite the flooding ideas. After 4-5 hours in the studio the energy and inspiration are still churning, but I start feeling nauseous and have to take a break. Too much dopamine for my metabolism, perhaps? It would be interesting to have a dopamine-meter and run an experiment over, say a year and determine our personal dopamine profile. I bet those meters would sell like hotcakes.   Taking positive steps by Betty Lantana, Tampa Bay, FL, USA   As someone who is struggling with what I believe is low-grade depression (mainly because I can’t seem to get a good start toward returning to making art) I recognized myself. But I think I am having some success this week. I resolved to neglect housework (which never goes away, anyway) and just-do-it. I have immersed myself in returning to a once-loved medium — pastel — by reviewing educational and inspirational resources I have to refresh and renew the excitement I once had for it. In addition, I am resolved to discipline myself to be more consistent in getting regular exercise through my walking program. I have, sadly, become lax in following a schedule. Something which always elevates my spirits and gives me time to think and plan. I have some excellent DVDs that inspire me to try new, different approaches to the medium and have designed a list of small practice exercises to try each one out. All this without aiming for a finished piece to expose to my inner critic. I keep telling myself this is “just for fun” and it works. My waste basket is getting full of the grubby stuff but I do have some successes propped up on the wall that lift my spirits. There are 5 comments for Taking positive steps by Betty Lantana
From: Jackie Knott — Jan 10, 2013

I am posting this for “Anonymous” below this entry as there is no means for “instant comment.” You see, yours is the kind of determination to triumph over adversity that inspires. From your words I doubt you feel inspired at all right now. But you are looking at your situation full in the face and you may not think so, but I like to think of you as not blinking. You acknowledge, you are striving, you stumble forward. There are some in life who fight for every tiny bit of progress they make. Applaud yourself. You will persevere. You will make it.

From: Janet — Jan 11, 2013

This is also for anonymous below. If you think your meds are at fault try not taking them for a day or so. Sometimes instead of anti-depressants we are prescribed tranquilizers and told that they are for depression. This happened to me I was a zombie. As for being down about nearly everything, take a long, long walk outside, look at the miracle of nature, in detail, name the colors in the sky, how many shades of green, how you would mix these colors,how the light changes,compose the landscape, immerse yourself. When you return make a list of all the positive things in your life, good health, imagination, creativity, etc. and know that you are special, to have a desire to create. Think about all those who never notice the sky, the light, the colors, those who don’t have thier health, those who are only driven by money. You are sensitive, but don’t allow yourself to be fragile, your strength is your wealth, and everyday is a new beginning. Nurture strength of spirit, be kind to yourself.

From: Sharon Knettell — Jan 11, 2013

For Anonymous I have taken anti-depressants- all my young models are on them- I think we live in a culture that makes us feel somehow guilty when we are down- the troughs are actually important as the depths of our soul are just as important as our highs and middles. One day, while I was in my forties, after spending weeks taking care of my terminally ill mother, having just enough money to feed my cat (I found a coupon in the grass)and finding no hope of impending income- I found myself sliding down a wall, on a major street in Providence wracked with tears. That pain, though I did not realize at the time, connected me to all those who were suffering and in pain in the world.

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Jan 11, 2013

In response to Sharon…I think your surprising breakthrough of grief universal. I had one, on a bright sunny day in DC, while walking through the beautiful FDR memorial…I rounded a corner and came across the words, writ large, “I HATE WAR”. It burst through all the repression of deep feeling that being a “war orphan” required. Like your experience, mine was a surprise and later seen as a gift.

From: Anon — Jan 11, 2013

When everything fails I think of a ray of morning sunshine and growing plants pushing up through the soil. It all happens regardless of what I do, but I want so much to feel and witness it. To just be is a wonderful thing.

  A difficult situation by Anonymous   Please don’t publish my name as I am under care and entitlements and don’t want to dislodge what is going on at the present time. I am down about everything, my weight, my sales, my work, my constant relentless poverty, the general hopelessness of my situation. I can only concentrate for about an hour a day (it may be the medication) but I can see the beauty in your idea of letting the work pull me out of the mud. This is so hard, but I do appreciate being a member of the Brotherhood and Sisterhood. That one thought and the idea that there are others suffering gives me the feeling that what I need to do is to quietly and efficiently show more character.   Perfectionism by Julie Eliason, Royal Oak, MI, USA  

“Fertile chaos”
acrylic painting
by Julie Eliason

Do you have any letters on perfectionism? Is your book indexed by subjects? I’m giving a lesson on the creative block of perfectionism. I would like to be able to offer some solutions. Do you have some suggestions? (RG note) Thanks, Julie. The Letters (often referred to as the “Fat Book”) has an index of 82 pages that took two editors two months to compile. Previous letters where we’ve dealt with perfectionism are The plight of perfectionists and Hyper-perfectionism. And you can check out some interesting quotes in Resource of Art Quotations, under the Category Perfection.    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Catatonia

From: Marvin Humphrey — Jan 07, 2013

Those of us who feel compelled to do things and make things are very fortunate. Our attitudes may be catalytic to dopamine production. Oh, and good quality dark French Roast doesn’t hurt, either!

From: DM — Jan 08, 2013

The down times are for cleaning up the studio after the chaos of creation. Just be careful what you throw out, at these times. It’s a lot like sex, isn’t it?

From: Len S. — Jan 08, 2013

Degree of libido may have something to do with keeping on keeping on.

From: Jackie Knott — Jan 08, 2013

We all strive for that optimum mindset that produces creativity. What amuses me is we think a particular set of circumstances can magically pluck inspiration from new paints, a good nights sleep, or whatever. With any triumph we try to reproduce the same happy accident. But when it doesn’t? No person can have mountain top experiences layered one upon another. We reach the heights and descend to the lows with regular frequency … that is the human experience, and some have suffered crushing misfortune. It is those artists who persevere over debilitating circumstances that inspire me. It is those who never won a juried show, never were applauded for their skill, those who regardless of criticism continue to create and serve their calling as artists. The only difference between a winner and a loser is when one quits. It’s getting up over and over and refusing to surrender. Now that is a life long dose of dopamine that will never be in need of a fix.

From: Mark Perry — Jan 08, 2013

Thank you so much for this post. I have gotten off anti-depressants after taking them for fifteen plus years. I have my ups and downs but for the most part things are stable. I really enjoyed reading this and realize that I am fortunate to have the tools to feel better. I experience all the feelings that you express before and after a show or sale – so textbook. Anyway, all the best, things are looking up.

From: Lisa Garness Mallory — Jan 08, 2013

Thanks Robert, this is a great letter. My mom passed away in December. It’s knocked the wind out of me doing my art. But she was an artist and would want me to continue my artist journey. So your message here will give me the boost I need to carry on.

From: Barb Baxter — Jan 08, 2013

Five girlfriends, from four different states have created the monthly “Tutti Fruitti Challenge”. (We somehow got the name Tutti Fruitties???) Each month, one of us picks a subject and we all paint our version of it. Then we compare on line. It’s amazing, how that gets us going on our art work, and also painting subjects we might not otherwise choose to paint.

From: Shane Conant — Jan 08, 2013

As complex creatures we never know the full extent of our interaction with our enviroment. Pinpointing the particulars of our motivation involves the realms of time and space that can not be reproduced. The eastern mind looks for repitition that creates patterns while the western mind strains to see the outcome or ending of the story. Creativity understands the fleeting moment and cherishes it as a history . The future cycles not to a beginning but rather an ending. This creates a scense of urgency and leads to an awakening of creativity!

From: Nora McDowell — Jan 09, 2013

I thought catatonia was another word for January. I have given myself permission to hibernate in January for some years now. It seems to work better that way.

From: Elle Fagan — Jan 09, 2013

As both a red cross responder and two time burnout victim….catatonia is sometimes nothing more than the normal need to be “absobluminutely still” after a high demand period. Those who can honor that logic last longer, better and more happily. Something happens and our minds and bodies are not dumb – they know when they’ve gone farther and harder than is prudent and yet, like a racer, cannot stop till the finish line. But then….. or else. I love modern medicine and fitness – part of my life ! But there is the temptation taken by the poorly skilled to NOT allow the bodies natural miracle to BE. To dance in jubilation at extraordinary good news is logical and right for the best human experience – but even King David had to fight for his right to dance naked in the street in victory when the war was won. I promise you, that we will exterminate ourselves one day by failing act out the basics in happiness, sorrow, discovery, resolution, focus, discipline, intimacy, and pure celebration and more. ….and catatonia , when the logical thing is to just cool it and let the psyche restore itself. If, after a bit , restoration fails ….OK then do something, but in the meantime, honor the soul.

From: Nils Nilsen — Jan 09, 2013

Where’s the old spirit? “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again.”

From: Robert P. Britton Jr. — Jan 09, 2013

I know what it’s like to get a boost from art. There’s the boost from self-admiration for some work you’ve created that moves you. There’s the boost of the ‘likes’, kind comments and positive feedback you receive from others. There’s the boost from selling a piece and having the client truly be moved by the acquisition. More’s the case for me, however, that it takes sheer discipline to keep on painting in the face of self doubt, fear, anxiety, or those quiet times when your art business is as quiet as a lonely fall leaf drifting on the forest winds. It takes an inner struggle and effort to take actions to overcome those moments. Turning on the radio, fiddling in your studio, doodling, sketching or seeking a subject / design for your next painting. Anything that gets the heart pumping and the body in motion is key. A body in motion tends to stay in motion. Even if all you can to is take small steps, do anything you can to keep on keeping on and stay positive!

From: Geoffrey Curran — Jan 09, 2013

If you’re not excited, you’re not excited, and any amount of faked enthusiasm won’t make it happen and it doesn’t fool anyone, but there is something you can do that in its own sneaky way primes the pump–it’s physical exercise–in all its forms, always good. Just do it!

From: Jarman Tartini — Jan 09, 2013

The plein air painter who hikes to his or her locations just naturally does fresher, more vigorous and inspired work.

From: Dr Ananya Mandal, MD — Jan 09, 2013

Dopamine was first synthesized in 1910 by George Barger and James Ewens at Wellcome Laboratories in London, England. In 1958, Arvid Carlsson and Nils-Ake Hillarp, at the Laboratory for Chemical Pharmacology of the National Heart Institute of Sweden, discovered the function of dopamine as a neurotransmitter. Arvid Carlsson was awarded the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for showing that dopamine is not just a precursor of norepinephrine and epinephrine but a neurotransmitter, as well.

From: Norman Hedges — Jan 09, 2013

Our word “dope” comes from dopamine. Whatever it is, it feels good.

From: Jeanean Songco Martin — Jan 09, 2013

Whenever I experience “Catatonia”, which I certainly due from time to time. I usually find myself walking around, sighing, mumbling, cleaning the house, wondering if today is the day I should organize my closets, weed the garden, anything anything but paint or even think about painting. I will set up a still life and stare at it. Attend a life drawing class and look at the model in horror wondering where in the world to start? Drive around in circles trying to find some place to paint that will give me the boost that I need. Luckily this state of inactivity does not last very long. I usually end up picking up old art magazines, thumbing through a good art book, surf the web, or even reading a book usually accompanied by a nice cup of tea. I don’t pressure myself to be “productive”. I feel like this “daydreaming” is par for the course. It is preparation for the next big painting venture. If I am feeling particularly energetic, which usually doesn’t happen in the state of catatonia, I will get in the car and “ride around”. Sometimes I will go to my old haunts that have provided so many wonderful days of painting or try out a new road that might take me to a secret undiscovered hideaway just perfect for the next painting. I think the important thing to realize is that we are not machines. Our habits are formed by good studio practice but even the best of painters have off days or even weeks. Just relax, and keep poking around, take yourself to a museum that usually does the trick for me. I visit my favorite paintings which are like old friends. I always feel motivated and uplifted after seeing beautiful artwork that is a treat for the eyes and heart and soon I feel motivated to paint again.

From: Mike Barr — Jan 09, 2013

We easily set ourselves up for depression and disappointment by bundling all our hopes in future events designed to impart happiness. Mainly, lasting happiness is not found in any destination, whether it be a physical place or a destination of achievement. As has often been said, the joy found in traveling the road, whatever that maybe, far outweighs the fleeting happiness of the destination. In art, enjoy the journey with others as well as yourself. Share in the successes of others as well as your own. Looks for paintings in everything we see and revel in things that only artists can appreciate!

From: Vladimir Hornyansky — Jan 09, 2013
From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Jan 10, 2013

You’ve got my address. Send me a check.

From: Sarah — Jan 11, 2013

Current neuropsychiatric research clearly demonstates that one’s production of dopamine is to a large extent genetic. I love your letters, but in this one instance believe that our ability to produce adequate dopamine is complicated.

     Featured Workshop: Alan & Libbie Soffer
011113_robert-genn Alan & Libbie Soffer workshops Held in Fort Myers, FL, USA   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order. 

Metallica 2

acrylic painting, 18 x 24 inches by Marilyn Harris, Okanagan Valley, BC, Canada

  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 Peter Fischoeder of Boston MS, USA, who wrote, “I don’t think that Cunard ever owned a liner called Catatonia; the one close to that name was the Caronia, which my wife and I sailed on her last voyage under Cunard colors from Southampton to New York before she was sold to new owners (Yugoslav at the time, I believe).” And also Elle Fagan of Vernon Rockville, CT, USA, who wrote, “A check in the mail really works.”    

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