Channelling negative energy


Dear Artist,

A subscriber wrote, “I wonder if you have any thoughts about channeling negative energy into creative endeavors. The other day, one of my most valued friends and I parted company. I was pretty upset by his obviously calculated quarrel, and went over to my studio and picked up and attacked an old unresolved painting. I’m quite happy with the results. Another time I was irritated with the monitor of a life-drawing class to the point that I almost left, but instead focused on my drawing and did some powerful sketches. Nice to know that good things can come from an upsurge of choler.”


“The Starry Night” 1889
by Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)

Creative prowess comes from two main sources — love and anger. Surprisingly, anger works just about as well as love. Trouble is, it’s not as much fun and it kills you sooner.

Accepting and channelling anger, even if used only in a small portion of our active creative lives, is an art worth learning. And while some artists simply can’t work when they’re angry and suffer consequent lack of production, excellent lemonade can be made from some lemons.



“The Sower with Setting Sun”
oil painting 1888
by Vincent van Gogh

Some observers have noted that artists may actually need stress and anxiety to get the best from themselves. Subscriber Bill Cannon wrote, “Mozart, Vivaldi and Van Gogh stretched their genius on struggle, stress and survival.” When we sit down to work with concerns like this, perhaps it is the fresh hope that we know the creative act will give us and the fear that this fresh effort may not work out. “Minds that are ill at ease are agitated by both hope and fear,” said the banished Greek poet Ovid more than two millennia ago.

I’m one of those annoying people who appears to have a perpetually sunny disposition. But stuff happens, as it does to us all. My antidotes may appear simplistic, but here they are anyway:


“The Red Vineyard” 1890
oil on canvas 75 x 93 cm
by Vincent van Gogh
(the only painting sold during his lifetime)

Plan work zones regardless of mood or conditions.

Through thick and thin, learn to be steady and strong.

Know that relationships are fluid and not everyone fits.

Lose yourself to the empowerment of the creative act.

Be philosophic in misfortune and disappointment.

The big dirt-nap is coming anyway, so keep busy.


“The Wheat Field, Sunrise” 1890
oil on canvas, 72 x 92 cm
by Vincent van Gogh

Best regards,


PS: “The greater the tension, the greater the potential.” (Carl Jung) “Anger controlled is a power that can move the world.” (Mahatma Gandhi)

Esoterica: It’s always been of interest to me that siblings from dysfunctional or negative family environments can turn out in so many different ways. One may be mired in inappropriate life-decisions and repeated failures, while another may rise above it all and happily thrive. Self-esteem is crucial. I’ve made a lifetime study of the nature of self-esteem in artists. It seems to me that developing self-esteem relies on a combination of tangible evidence and gentle self-delusion. For people of imagination, self-delusion may come easily, and this ability is not to be sneezed at.

This letter was originally published as “Channelling negative energy” on December 12, 2008.

vincent-van-gogh_three-sunflowerDownload the new audio book, The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“Whoever lives sincerely and encounters much trouble and disappointment without being bowed down is worth more than one who has always sailed before the wind and has only known prosperity.” (Vincent van Gogh)



  1. I love this. Showing steady consistency has made a big difference for me. I don’t wait for my mood to strike. Eventually, a habit builds and I can deliver; whether happy or angry or whatever. I think emotions help with our adrenaline and energy output…if we aren’t motivated to work, perhaps we need to seek energy via a healthier diet, exercise and getting enough vitamin B12 and D. Recent blood work showed I had a severe deficit in Vitamin D (which most people DO!) contributing to my symptoms of depression, extreme fatigue and lack of motivation. In conjunction with medication I am taking a ton of extra vitamin D and have seen a huge difference in my mood, energy, and willingness/ability to work.

  2. Absolutely! Art doesn’t come from nowhere. It comes from emotional reactions to life. Love produces some lovely paintings, but anger, distress, hate, produces stronger works–Judith With The Head of Holofernes Raft of The Medusa, Guernica, The Scream come immediately to mind. I don’t think there would be any art if we all lived in the Garden of Eden.

  3. I especially love the reference to ‘developing self-esteem relies on a combination of tangible evidence and self-delusion’. Perfect.
    I suppose a lot depends on getting the balance ‘right’ if there is such a thing. A certain amount of arrogance is essential: that is, the belief that your work is worth something even when you’re the only one that thinks so! A good definition of an artist I read years ago sticks in the mind: ‘Being an artist means total commitment to an activity that everyone else thinks is a complete waste of time.’ Well, not quite everybody, thank goodness.

  4. Such a wonderful essay in the gloom and doom of weather and politics! Somewhere, somehow, I learned to channel angry energy early. Perhaps it was Carl Jung, as he helped explain so much chaos in the world way back then. Art, poetry and writing have always been the outlets I seek when fired with energy, no matter the source. Some of the most beautiful moments come from the darkest despair, or the flash of anger.

  5. Catherine Stock on

    I believe I was the subscriber who wrote that original post to Robert.

    I have an addendum. I worked as an illustrator most of my professional life, and always looked forward to the day that I could throw off the reins of small minded unimaginative editors and art directors and just let loose my innovative brilliance.

    Well, that day arrived a few years ago and things didn’t quite go as planned. I found that without the sometimes combative interaction with a critical sounding board, my creative energy just withered. I now spend most of my time gardening, hiking and kayaking, cooking, reading…anything but painting! Hopefully this is a temporary lull, but I’m not so sure.

    • Sharon Inahara on

      Wow, I surely can relate to doing anything but painting (or drawing). The fine art of procrastination, guised as housework and errands. I’m also guilty of having a clean house and a stocked cupboard. My son tells me I need to practice one hour/day (at the very least), but thinks it’s more beneficial to put in the daily hour than to work in occasional blocks of time. I read over and over that ‘just showing up’ is the best way to alleviate the block. So, here I am, writing when I should be painting! But I’m 5 minutes from getting my paints out, now that I’m feeling shameful about my only creative efforts being in the kitchen so far today…

    • Nan in Victoria on

      Hello Catherine,
      Try doing a Jackson Pollock style splatter painting to get going. You may find a new love in a genre that has no right or wrong, no points of comparison. Abstract simply ‘is what it is’. Nobody can say ‘that apple is too small, the banana is not yellow enough’. Abstract is simply colour and shapes, and evidence of someone exploring the joy of the medium. Let the paint depict your mood and emotions, rather than some tangible thing. And do it just for YOU, with no thought to even showing it to someone else unless you really want to. Let the painting process be your pleasure, not the product or the feedback, as your commercial art experience has trained you. You may now find the joy of art again when the critical, comparative art director in your head is silenced, and you paint for you, not them. Enjoy your retirement! I hope abstract will prime your pump! I heard somewhere that representational art is like music, with lyrics that tell the story and describe the visuals for us. Abstract is like classical music- no lyrics to limit or confine our experience, it produces a pure emotional response in the artist and viewer, who is lifted above the level of logic and analysis- of whether or not the apple and vase is painted correctly. Instead there is the pure pleasure of swimming in a sea of colour and shape that take each artist and viewer on a journey of their own- and it is never right or wrong, accepted or rejected, it just IS! I think commercial art is like a “lady of the night” who sells her beauty for money, compared to the art that is the true and abiding love that comes from the heart, and she is the love of our lives that we will always return to, indeed she lives within us, though sometimes she sleeps. Every child with a crayon in her fist is making her acquaintance. Some will remain lifelong friends, even lovers. I hope you fall in love again, Catherine!

    • Alex Katz said that one must go into the studio everyday, and I added.. even if it’s only to clean up. Your innovative brilliance is still there and is waiting patiently. Discipline is a human weakness and oh so necessary !

    • Big life changes are traumatic. When I moved to a new county and married nineteen years ago my inner artist reacted like she’d survived a car crash (she froze in shock). Almost overnight I fell out of a super-creative period and landed in an artistic desert that lasted several years. Which causes it’s own trauma! I think our inner artists are often more delicate than we realise – mine is like a snail, withdrawing into a very protective shell (no doubt cursing me for messing up her fun) whenever I upset her norm. Julia Cameron’s The Artist Way dragged me across that horrible desert, though deep down I’m probably still recovering. It takes time to heal big shifts. I think the best advice I took was to let my inner artist play…to let myself play, whether that’s taking photos, arranging stones on the beach, buying music or books or even toys for my inner artist/child. This week I bought myself some of my favorite drawing pens (which happen to be shaped like syringes that look like they’re filled with blood – fun!). I wouldn’t be surprised if your inner artist is enraged by being ‘retired’…so she’s sulking in her shell. It might be worth letting her rage…onto the drawing board or in a daily diary. Ask her what sort of of adventures she’d like to have. It’s probably something you’re earning for. A couple years ago my writing froze and it was a friend who pointed out that as I was compulsively reading in a different genre, maybe I should try writing something in that genre. She was right! Maybe your artist doesn’t want to paint. Maybe she wants to sketch the woodland you kayak through – or maybe she wants to write songs about nature…or maybe she wants to stack river stone sculptures and or take photos of gardens. Whatever you’re interested in…that’s probably where she wants to be too. :)

  6. Today I am sorting through countless tubes of half used oils, taking stock of my brushes, canvases and ordering fresh ones. I do this every spring. Opening a fresh tube of paint with the feel of a new brush in my hand gives me such excitement. Looking forward to another year of backyard inspiration and exciting journeys and adventures in painting across the world with my artist friends! Join me in 2017!

  7. Anger recognized for what it is isn’t my greatest obstacle to productivity. I know my greatest obstacle is frustration…when I’ve seemingly tried everything whether structured or not, with an open mind and heart “fought the good fight” so to speak, yet the hoped for resolution evades my best efforts. That is when I shut down. Some may call it meditating; some may call it staring into space. As one American humorist put it, “Sometimes I sits and thinks, and sometimes I jes sits.” Eventually (actually not that long) I switch gears and decide it’s the best time to clean the house, take a walk or do anything else that will clear the cobwebs.

  8. You are right about self-esteem being critical when facing anger. An artist who is angry but has no self esteem cannot create; but one who does may find anger or other “negative” emotions a temporary stimulus.

  9. ANGER!! The banned emotion in Middle Class life. Closely related, fear! I love it but does make me hard to live with. Think, ‘Twentieth of the month the rent is due in ten days so The Project MUST be out the door in ten days and a supplier does not deliver’ Or reading the paper with breakfast and reading about someone in public life saying or doing something really stupid. Or a client short changing you on a project you sweat tears over. Calm is difficult, I do not feel alive. Studio, it is a job, show up, go to work and watch it happen. Keep a list of things which need doing ‘when you get around to it’. If you are not carving, painting, drawing do something!!!!

  10. Rembrandt created some great masterpieces after his commissioned painting THE NIGHT WATCH was rejected by the group that commissioned it and it turned out to be a Masterpiiece. . Edvard Munch created great works because of his anger . Francis Bacon created his masterpiece Painting 1946 out of anger, portraying evil in the world .

    ANGER : On the other hand, I HAD a friend who was one of the top illustrators in America, Won 100 Gold Medals for his illustrations Won the Prix de Rome in Painting Yet———-no New York Gallery would represent him BECAUSE his illustrations appeared in Playboy and Penthouse magazine, He began to start drinking and drug use and ODed

  11. Thank you for this refresher!
    The “irritating grain of sand causeth the pearl to grow”. Sometimes, though we mainly hang ourselves up stupidly, seek out and jump into quicksand up to our knees, ON PURPOSE , then feel stupid later because it did NOT provoke a miracle of creation. Sighhhhh….

    Childbirth – since most of our favorite topics source , like the mandala , in some distant time/place human experience – childbirth teaches us that beauty and miracle and life itself can come from the beauty and loverage of mating, thru the mystery and silence of fertilization and on thru the thrill of growth of the fetus, to challenge the wrenching , bloody business of childbirth and the miracle !

  12. More than once when I’ve been maligned, rebuffed, or made a fool of myself, I have taken to the easel. Usually the fastest way to make the strong feelings disappear is to use my hands! To paint with the hands like a child, quickly and firmly, without thinking. Put your anger in your strokes. The result is not important. What matters is the release of the emotions, the translation onto paper or canvas. Later, it may become a workable piece of art…..usually not!

    • Great advice, and I usually use these as underpaintings. In fact, often, when beginning without inspiration or goal, I usually just say, ‘this is just an underpainting’. Works a charm, either something usable emerges, or I have a varied and interesting background on which to begin another painting, often letting the energy, rhythm and colour of the first layer shine through.

  13. “The big dirt nap is coming anyway, so keep busy.” Priceless and great advice!!! I used to work off of negative energy until I realized what it was doing to me, shoulders tense, stomach tight, and had the realization that it is all energy and I could approach it from a more positive angle, relax and use a more consciously positive form of energy to achieve my goals. It helps to keep me going when times get tough and I find it a huge challenge to step into my studio or have lost all perspective about what I am dong. We all have those negative feelings and they can be a powerful force, it just works better for me to transform it. Thanks so much, as always, for these wonderful, insightful postings.

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