Operant conditioning


Dear Artist,

In case you haven’t heard, “operant conditioning” is the use of consequences to modify the occurrence and form of otherwise voluntary behaviour.


E. L. Thorndike

For example, rats, cats or dogs that perform a task are more likely to repeat successfully if they’re rewarded quickly after the behaviour. Sitting at my easel this morning, I was wondering how operant conditioning might apply to creative folks. Activities of the easel variety have built-in consequences, some subtle, some obvious, some immediate and some delayed — and, admit it, some are negative as well as positive.

Most of us will agree that the consequences often take the form of satisfaction. It’s satisfying to do something well, to work things out, and to be appreciated for the performance. Some of us also get satisfaction in the outright pleasing of others — and being financially rewarded to boot.

Curiously, in the research of psychologist E. L. Thorndike, positive consequences given for every performance were not as effective a motivator as intermittent or infrequent rewards. Apparently, satisfaction by reward wears off when it happens too often. Rats can take only so much sugar. That thought caused my brush to pause.

Consequences are of three main types: “Reinforcement” is a consequence that causes a behaviour to occur with greater frequency. “Punishment” causes a behaviour to occur with less frequency. “Extinction,” or lack of consequence, also causes behaviour to occur with less frequency. Thorndike found behaviours and their consequences to be measurable.

Here’s where the fun begins. Even though a lousy performance is a form of punishment in itself, the rat can fool himself into thinking he did okay. Humans, much more sophisticated than rats, cats or dogs, can really do a job on themselves. However, self-foolery, with all its nuances, may still be the key to persistence and even happiness. Yep, we artists depend on our illusions. The illusion of potential perfection, riding as it does on our fragile egos, is the juice that keeps us running our mazes. That being said, one of my more successful dealers recently doubled his business by paying his artists every week.

Best regards,


PS: “Everything exists in some quantity and can therefore be measured.” (E. L. Thorndike, 1874-1949)

Esoterica: No reaction at all — extinction — wears away on the individual until eventually the behaviour grinds to a halt. This is a danger for artists who struggle in a vacuum. Joining clubs, exhibiting online, sending work away to distant galleries, inviting trusted friends to come over and crit goes part of the way, but it doesn’t always ring the bell. Art is a rare pursuit where participants have to learn to ring their own bells.


Repetition in art
by Ray Johnson, Aventura, FL, USA

Did you ever get the feeling that you are painting the same thing over and over? Isn’t there a certain desire to do something that you or no one else has done? I believe this is the real life of an artist, to create. But many times, alas, money wields its ugly head. We are dictated to by our own creations. We do the same work again and again. The landscape artist moves the trees and water to a new place on the canvas, so does the seascape, portrait, city or country painter. We are really controlled by the means to eat and survive in the hard world of the artist. I lived by commissions and color schemes. I was told by the reason of sales. So are we not the dog, cat and rat of the art world, fighting for reward. I always believed that the final critic is the one that pays for your work.


Replenished by sales
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA


“Trip with Tom III”
pastel painting, 8 x 10 inches
by Paul deMarrais

It seems a bit of a paradox. We need to be hungry in order to push on. If we are starving we shut down. If we are fat and satisfied, laziness is apt to settle in. I favor that system of periodic rewards that you speak of. It is like a marathon runner in the big race. Helpful assistants occasionally hand out water or Gatorade to replenish energy the runner is using. Fans cheer along the way shouting encouragement. For the runner there is the hope of finishing and perhaps even prize money, adulation and other spoils of victory. Selling a painting is the Gatorade we artists need to replenish our energy and galleries would do well to keep money flowing our way. When this nourishment ends, that is the beginning of problems in the gallery/artist relationship. Both sides tend to make excuses and, if pushed, blame the other party for the lack of success. Usually though, confrontation is avoided and both sides settle into a grim mood of failed expectations, like many married couples. A bit of success and both the artist and gallery raise from their slumber like the plants in early spring and a new cycle of life begins!


Accepting failure
by Lenny Niles, Lincolnshire, UK

Trial and error are usually the prime means of solving life’s problems. Yet we remain fixated in negative attitude because of failure and henceforth are afraid to further experiment for fear of repeating past errors. How many of us are mistaken into thinking that failure is a total disaster and heel to the temptation to fix all our effort on what seems to work easily and quickly — then look no further. The truth is failure is life’s learning curve. It is both helpful and necessary; failure of a project provides the feedback that points the way to success. Simply, we learn by our mistakes, and it is by our mistakes that we put together new and better trials. Maybe they will inevitably lead to more bad judgment and more error, until finally we find viable and creative solutions. We should face failure with the same enthusiasm as we embrace success. Ultimately, time-out experiences will ensure that in the end we do not fail, but take one more step on the path to our ultimate goal. And later, maybe with gradual success and continued exploration, we will once again revisit the processes that we earlier aborted, pushing on to find much better solutions. In fact, one of the greatest mistakes we all commit early is being too impulsive or hasty to succeed — expecting it all to happen straight away — yet this, too, partially contributes to success.


Nurturing the artist in the child
by Elsie H. Wilson, Fitchburg, WI, USA

As a recently retired elementary teacher, after 43 years of teaching and a master’s degree in child development, this article spoke right to my heart. Many parents and teachers have no idea how effective or damaging what they say and do can be to the future development of their child/student’s confidence and development in creativity and art in general. At a very young age, children are very aware when they are getting put down, or patronized, or encouraged. The two first things people often do when viewing a child’s first art efforts is to chuckle, and poke a little fun or ask, “What is that?” To the child, it is obvious what it is! When you focus on “What is it?” they get the message that art is not of value unless it is rendered representational. Or… people will go overboard with praise that primes the child to need immediate praise of all their efforts. The best thing parents and teachers can do to encourage creativity, risk-taking, and continuation of creative thinking and art is to show a genuine interest in and respect for the child’s art. Rather than the “What is it?” question, a better approach is to say, “Tell me about your picture.” Then listen intently as the child says any thing they want to share with you about the work of art. One of the first and best ways to encourage creativity and art effort is to respectfully exhibit the efforts. Those “one kid shows” on that great first gallery, “The Family Refrigerator,” ala magnets, is sure to show your budding artist that art is valued. I remember friends telling us they loved to come to our house and see the children’s latest creations. We would choose a few to mat and frame. Grandmas and Grandpas love these as gifts! Take a moment to put the date on the back of these little creations. Select those items to keep in a representative collection for your child as he/she grows up, and involve them in the selection process.


Moderation in criticism
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA


“Sleeping Beauty II”
original artwork
by Rick Rotante

It’s worth stating that whatever one does, if it’s not tempered with failure, dissatisfaction, struggle, reward, there is a tendency to find little worth in the doing after a time. We become numb to it. When we pursue a career or endeavor to produce art, we seek reward for our efforts. It’s a natural behavioral trait to abandon the process if we continually fail or receive negative feedback. On the other side of the coin, too much praise can also lead us to lose interest. The process seems too easy and thus not rewarding enough. I strongly believe we have to be honest when dealing with our ego but we must temper that honesty. Whenever I critique someone’s work, I always start with what is good about it. This allows the listener the ability to stay with me. I’ve seen artists make negative comments on another’s work and you can see the light go out in the other’s eyes. There is strong tendency for us to flaunt our intelligence and knowledge at the expense of someone else and this, done repeatedly, will cause anyone to start to rethink their efforts. Some will not be strong enough or have the wherewithal to continue and will eventually abandon what they attempted. Reward is good. Criticism is good, all in moderation. Everything in life should be in moderation.


Thriving on negativity
by Valerie Norberry, Kalamazoo, MI, USA


original artwork
by Valerie Norberry

I went to WMU in the ’70s, when Psychology was required. Here’s a conundrum for you to ponder (and pause your brush): What about people of other faiths who have been burned at the stake, beaten up or imprisoned? Some people actually thrive on persecution. Here’s a good example: What about the kid who experienced rejection and criticism growing up in an alcoholic home? Do you think this person is comfortable with praise or peace and contentment? No, read some Melody Beaty or Claudia Black or Solomon about the Children of Alcoholics (COA) and you will find that they (we) are comfortable with chaos, comfortable and familiar with rejection and quarreling, etc. Therefore, in our lives, we often sabotage ourselves in order to feel “comfortable.” Pretty stupid, huh? Tell that to the gal who has married her third alcoholic in an Al anon group.


Enthusiasm in the unknown
by Patricia Ryan, Beavercreek, OR, USA


“Burnside at Park Avenue, Portland”
acrylic on canvas
by Patricia Ryan

A year later now, I look for those fear moments, whether it’s while I’m making art, or while I’m facing a career or life choice. If it’s art, I simply refuse to allow myself to not choose the unknown. In my life, I’m not always so brave, but I’m working on it. Doing this has brought a lot more joy to my painting process, because I’m always happy with myself for being bold, for being free. Now I’ve expanded that practice to rejecting all sorts of self-generated negativity: You’ve run out of ideas; you can’t paint straight enough lines; you can’t do detail work. And every time I know I made the bold choice, the positive choice, I reward myself with the joy of self-satisfaction. And then it’s time to get happily back to work.



The key is tenacity
by Vianna Szabo, Romeo, MI, USA


“Anna and Roses”
pastel portrait
by Vianna Szabo

For years I have been working as an artist, specializing in portraiture, and entering local shows. My reception on the local level was not that encouraging. I began to think of jury fees as “rejection fees” and when I did get in I was usually not a prize winner. I was feeling pretty discouraged but felt that whatever I lacked in talent I could make up with tenacity. A friend mentioned that it was just as easy to get into national shows as it is local ones. So I felt I had nothing to lose and funneled my rejection fees there and found I did quite well. The odd thing is that the same paintings that were rejected around my home made it into some very prestigious shows and I even took some nice prizes. This brought me to the realization that I could not depend on what others thought about my work too seriously. It is up to me to raise the bar for what I want to achieve. I no longer take rejection or winning to heart (although I prefer the latter). I am very lucky to live a life where I can afford to spend my time painting and in the end that is award enough.


Rite of passage
by Nancy Davis Johnson, Durham, NH, USA


original watercolour
by Nancy Davis Johnson

One of the best “conditioning” events for the beginning artist trying to get recognition is the submission of her work to a juried show. The first rejection slip is a devastating blow to the ego, but an often necessary plunge into the cold world of competition. If she’s lucky, she’ll have support and condolences from her peers, who explain that this is a normal initiation process (and what do those judges know anyway?). An artist needs to decide how to react to this setback. I’ve found that rejection slips, and I’ve had many, can have a similar conditioning response as an acceptance notice has, though admittedly without the immediate sense of euphoria accompanying the latter. I am encouraged by both to paint more. Unfortunately, I haven’t experienced how repeated acceptances bring on that “extinction” reaction.


Exhibiting online
by Sheila Caim


original photograph
by Sheila Caim

I had an experience that leaves me wondering if it’s a good idea to exhibit online. I won an award of “special recognition” for an image (I’m a photographer) at an online competition and gallery. The picture was exhibited on the online gallery for a month and then in its archives for a year. A couple of years later, because of a weird email on my website, I searched my name on the Internet to see where the writer got his so-called information. I was dismayed to see that picture being displayed in dozens of sites, some very questionable, some in languages I don’t know, some giving me credit, and others not. But in following the links backwards, I found that they had stolen it from that online gallery. After that, I have stopped doing anything online except for my web page, which, I realize, can be stolen from also. My question is, do you think, given what I’ve discovered, that online exhibiting is something I should still do? Or, in general, is a good or bad idea for artists?


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Operant conditioning



From: Judy — Dec 03, 2007

A young lady (just 17) that I’ve been mentoring shocked me yesterday. She looked at a major project I’d just completed and said “You did this? I’m so jealous!” I couldn’t believe her words. It made me realize that there is so much more to do. Technique is important, but I don’t know if she gets it yet that it’s a PROCESS acquired only thru work, failure and persistance. We’ve only just begun.

From: Brad Greek — Dec 04, 2007

It amazes me on how much energy we use worrying if we are doing it Right. LOL How, What, Where, When, How much, Who, What colors, Trends, Techniques Etc., Etc., Etc…… And to think that we only are doing it right if we are rewarded for our efforts. Hmmmm. I just know that, myself, will create what ever I’m inspired to create, and could care less if anyone likes it or not. I’m rewarded by knowing that I’ve freed another image from that canvas. That would otherwise never have been. And if by chance, in my life time or in the future, it gains recognition, then great for my family and those who have seen it’s potential. I say just create and let the chips fall where they may.

From: Dar Hosta — Dec 04, 2007

Bravo to Ms. Wilson for her wonderful response! I wish more classroom teachers felt similarly, though, in my experience, they sadly do not. They are more like those aptly mocked by Brad Greek, constantly harping on whether the children are doing it right. I am a visiting artist who spends time in over 25 different elementary schools every year. The first thing I notice in the hallways is always the cookie-cutter “art”–miles and miles of the same cut-out owl on a branch, the same snowman painting, the same tree in a sunset sky pastel. Why do we insist, in an art class no less, that things need to look a certain way and that everyone’s art should follow these patterns? Certainly guidelines help children understand artistic principles and mediums, but to my eyes, there is a lot more going on than just a few guidelines. Two years ago I spent a couple days in a second grade classroom. For anyone who has never worked with second graders, they are marvelously creative creatures. Fluent with language and brave in expression, they will all enthusiastically raise their hands when I ask, “Who here is an artist?” because they all still believe that being an artist means loving to make art, which they do. One of the teachers who brought these second grade children into one of my workshops immediately pulled me aside to point out a boy who, she wanted to let me know, was a troublemaker and a behavior problem. She told me that I should keep an eye on him because he likely wouldn’t be participating, but disturbing others. It was, of course, the very opposite that happened and, once I’d given the guidelines, this boy worked on his piece with an enviable focus, never once so much as talking to another classmate, and obvious enjoyment. One of my guidelines was to try and use the whole piece of paper. We were doing collage and I often witness the less confident kids getting frustrated with the pieces that they have cut too small. They frequently begin by placing tiny, little pieces in either the lower left or right of the page while the rest of the paper remains untouched. The smaller the pieces, the more difficult to cut and glue. The more confident children generally create large pieces that fill the page quickly. So this boy makes a small turtle in the lower left. He works on it for 30 minutes, adding water next to it, a sky above it, some leaves and plants around it, and when he is finished he goes to his teacher, pride in his eyes, holding his art like it is a treasure, smiling and eager to show her what he has made. While I watched this “troublemaker,” I also felt proud. But, when she took the artwork, she looked over it and then looked at the boy and sternly said, “What is this? She said to make things big! This isn’t what she said to do. This isn’t right.” The boy grabbed the art like it had turned to garbage, held it down next to the floor while he sulked back to his desk where he slammed it face down and put his head into his hands. One moment changed a treasure into trash for this kid and I could not believe what I’d seen. Most upsetting was that the teacher didn’t even realize what she had said and how it had impacted this boy. This is what Ms. Wilson is talking about when she refers to the impact that an adult’s reaction can have on a child’s creative spirit. Repeated over and over, it’s no wonder that by the time they get to even third grade, only a small portion of kids think of themselves as artists when posed with the question, “Who is an artist?” It has all been slammed out of them by then. While I do not usually interfere with the dynamics of teacher and her students, I did go over to this child where I squatted down next to him and said, in my most honest talking-to-a-kid way, “Your teacher doesn’t know anything about art. Your turtle is great.” Did he believe me? I hope so.

From: Rick Rotante — Dec 04, 2007

To Vianna Szabo – I’ve entered pieces in shows and won first place or best of show only to enter the same piece at a later date in another show(s) and didn’t get even an honorable mention. So, don’t worry about it. It has little to do with your work. I personally believe art should never be competitive. There should be shows to exhibit artwork with no awards attached. Artists are not in competition with each other. I know it’s the American/Canadian way- to compete, but art should not be a part of this process. We need to re-think this process. Art is for everyone without stigma of the awards. And one person’s loser is another person’s winner. I still own one or two “first placers” and have sold many “losers.” Keep painting

From: David Blanchard — Dec 04, 2007

In general, we learn from our failures and gain confidence from our successes. What we have to do is study and compartmentalize our failures. For instance, rejection is not necessarily a failure of the work, but more likely a failure of timing, marketing, venue choice, etc.

From: Tinker Bachant — Dec 04, 2007

Hooray for Ms Wilson and Dar Hosta! I have an “art” correspondence going on with a 3 year old during her chemo treatments for Medullablastoma. I sent her a portrait of her dog, whom she misses and she sent me a “color study” which is framed and hanging on my dining room wall. It really is good and I treasure it. I’ve never met this child but look forward to it when she is well and finally able to visit her grandparents near my home. I post to her CarePage and receive answers via Mommy, who is recording this journey. I believe that nurturing a child’s potential, whatever it may be, is absolutely necessary and may be the reason both my daughters got degrees in art (even though one had a double major and chose to post graduate in historic preservation). RE: Vianna Szabo, Our local gallery features shows with no judging attached, as does the one teaching classes. And I too have had pieces turned down for an judged exhibit and won a prize for that same piece in a different venue. It’s all in the eye of the beholder!!

From: Tatjana M-P — Dec 04, 2007

I wish there were more people like Elsie Wilson who is trying to educate the educators. Unfortunately bad educators are most often allowed to carry on doing things their way and making more damage. Children’s well being is sacrificed to avoid conflict. I remember being frequently and undeservingly disciplined by a teacher and years later being told that “this teacher was a terrible person”. If so, why didn’t the people who knew she was terrible, do something about it? I am not picking at teachers, I had a few great ones too.

From: M. Browett, Victoria B.C. — Dec 04, 2007

I was ‘fortunate’ that the first juried art show I entered accepted one of my photographs. Not my drawings but the photograph. So the next year I submitted three photographs, which I thought better quality than what had been accepted the previous year — only to have all three rejected. I was devastated. And it took some time to get over it — but the next chance I got to enter a juried art show I did so with the same three photographs and one was accepted and sold. A month later I again used one of the rejected photos and that one was accepted and also sold. So I learned that ‘beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder’ i.e., the judges, and that I had to develop a thicker skin and trust my instincts. And, by the way, as a photographer I get comments like — “I could have taken that” and I just smile and say “I guess I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time.” But to be honest, it often isn’t luck.

From: Esther J. Williams — Dec 06, 2007

Compliments to your art when you are young does go a long way. My dad, as drunk as he was all the time kept complimenting me about my art until I couldn’t stand hearing it anymore. I actually wanted to stop doing art just to shut him up. Now, with my dad gone for 30 years, I thank him for all of those mumblings. He saw something and tried to instill the belief in me. However I resisted. It has paid forward countless times whenever I am down and out about my striving to become recognized. I hear his words of encouragement and smile. Thank-you Dad, you were a great father despite your condition. I have paid it forward to kids in elementary school since I was a helper in the art classes with Meet the Masters program in So California. The joy you get from seeing the light of their eyes shine when you praise them is priceless. I just complimented my own daughter the other day as she is showing the gift with her drawings at 14 years old. It amazes me how realistic she can draw without copying or using a tracer. I told her that she is great and to keep up the good work after I heard her say to a friend that everyone is making fun of her drawings at school. I told her they are just jealous and she should tell them to try and draw, let’s see how they can do it. She wouldn’t cut down other’s work, I know she has a soft sensitive spirit. So, when the chips are down, those words you once heard many years ago have a way of echoing in your mind. I am grateful the ones I heard were praise, so grateful it makes me teary eyed.

From: Helen Opie — Dec 14, 2007

If it is true, as Adela Hubers writes, that “most clinical psychologists gave up on OC (Operant Conditioning) as a therapeutaic framework years ago”, that may only mean that it is no good for therapeutic purposes, but that we tend to use that strategy in relating to ourselves and our art. Praise is a tricky thing — if you’ve had too much & insincere praise as a child, you may suspect it — or if it was a lead-in to a verbal head-slammer that follows, then that person probably won’t ever take to praise as a motivator until their history is laid to rest by close and supportive examination. Does she mean something different from what Elsie Wilson & Dar Hosta refer to? I found A.H.’sthis terse comment puzzling. And if “fooling” ourselves gives us the result we are looking for, is that any crime or sin? If it works, don’t fix it. When it doesn’t work, don’t keep doing the same thing only harder. I understnd that this is a human trait; that other animals will try something different if their first plan doesn’t work.





Dusk on the Hike and Bike

oil painting
by Adan Lerma, New York, NY, USA


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 Paul Kane of Bloomington, IN, USA who wrote, “As Agent Smith said in The Matrix, a human being needs some misery to go with his or her happiness. That, I guess, is part of what keeps us raising the bar, or at least continuing to move and change in some way.”

And also Katherine Harris of Italy who wrote, “From what I have learned, rats are much more predictable (and practical) than humans. For example, rats will send the oldest member of their group to test, by eating, a new food or bait. Then they wait to see if that old rat survives or dies. If it dies, the rest of the group will never touch that food.”

And also Adela Hubers who wrote, “Most clinical psychologists discarded OC as a therapeutic framework years ago. You do artists no service in trying to resuscitate it.”

And also Margaret Heuges of Del Haven, NJ, USA who wrote, “I was once in a family gathering and I told how I have conversations with myself when I paint in which I say, ‘This will be the finest painting of all time,’ and believed it. A member of the group criticized me saying he wondered why I had to fool myself like that. Another member of the group who was a psychoanalyst came to my defense saying that if that was my means to the creation of my work then I should definitely do that.”




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