Good news for bad moods


Dear Artist,

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.


“Sun and Life” 1947
oil painting by
Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)

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.


“Self-portrait as a Tehuana” 1943
oil painting by Frida Kahlo

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.


“Roots” 1943
oil painting by Frida Kahlo

Best regards,


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.

This letter was originally published as “Good news for bad moods” on November 6, 2009.

frida-kahlo_self-portrait-with-necklace-of-thornsDownload 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.

“I tried to drown my sorrows, but the bastards learned how to swim, and now I am overwhelmed by this decent and good feeling.” (Frida Kahlo)



  1. I find that bad moods work in my favor. I am more intense and tend to block out everything else except the project I am creating – it is an escape but a very productive one for me.

  2. Darkness and light each play an important part in our interior and exterior worlds. Its good to appreciate the qualities of both while they are happening and not get stuck in either one. Since I’ve been feeling a lot of sad and frustrated lately painting has been a saving grace where I can get completely lost in the process and encourages me to try different techniques and ideas and ultimately allows me to flow into the next whatever it is. Thanks again for a reaffirming and informative post.

    • Some of my better paintings have happened after I tried (and missed) the first draft then went back in with an attitude of being a little angry with myself, and even a feeling of not Caring how it turned out. That has sometimes been the point at which I took chances I wouldn’t have taken when I first ‘cared’ about the outcome.

  3. How uncannily timely for me! A few days ago, I came in from a very contentious meeting with my “girl” friends. I felt so very low. Not knowing what to do about the sadness I was feeling, I picked up a painting that had been in progress over several years. Over the next few hours, I had found what it needed and brought it to “finished” and being ready for a frame. Since I had wondered about that little episode, I found the article most interesting! Your dad, and you, bring so many good thoughts and information our way. I truly thank you for sharing.

  4. ‘Yes.. sad to over the last few years have changed my painting greatly..I look at the old work which is fun and almost my painting is much more focused , sharp and serious!

  5. There is so much fear and negativity lately in our world, and it’s been weighing me down, but this weekend while painting I completely forgot about all that and did some good work! I was more in tune and critical but all in a good way.

  6. Thank you for posting this good advice. I think that being creative and immersing yourself into a painting or any other work, can help to lift you out of the bad mood. The problems of the work help you to forget some of the bad clouds hovering. The work itself may not always be so special, but you may have produced something that did not exist before.

  7. Bridget Syms on

    Oh yes, nothing like a bad mood to make me all the more determined to salvage something positive from the day. It really is the point where I become a harsh taskmaster and I can clean up my act and get the critical results I need. Bad moods dont visit often, but I do like to make the most of them.

  8. For me,moodiness is daily,either dark or light,I have noticed that darker ones are more motivating some how,as if I need to express myself better through my art.

  9. I can’t say that I have been in a ‘bad mood’ when I have begun to paint. But I do know, that when I do paint I feel so much better! And … I do get lost in my work most of the time, hours can go by, not eating, drinking or doing anything but painting. Thanks for this insight letter from your Dad and for keeping him alive for us.

  10. I find in my life when sadness occurs, i am able to paint out my pain. At the end of the day i may still be sad about a situation but on the inside there is a calmness that holds onto me. At this point in my life I have learned to lean into the pain and let it express itself in my work. On the flip side i am in a joyful space and am able to still express the inside out…

  11. Janet Cutler on

    Hi .
    Yes I agree when my Daughter passed away i painted all he places she had walked [she was walker ]
    and passed while on one of her walks .
    So it helped me very much .
    Cheers janna

  12. In 2015 my wife and I traveled for 15 days in northern Vietnam. Strangely, I never came back with a clear idea of paintings I wanted to complete. I was flat- in fact I was a very low due to some family issues. But a fortnight after arriving home I decided to let loose and within a fortnight completed nine abstract paintings that represented key elements of how I saw Vietnam. Each painting took between 30 and 90 minutes (approx). If you look on my website you can see how these so called “Experimental Works” differed from my normal detailed and controlled works. ( see ) Afterwards I wondered whether they were actually my most creative works completed in dark times. The artists melancholy is a most affecting thing.

  13. I find that I paint best when I’m in a good mood and I can also paint when I’m feeling sad… But I can’t paint at all if I’m angry! If I am feeling this way for any reason, then I just have to save painting for another day. Mind you, I can imagine it might be a beneficial emotion for an abstract painter!

  14. It has taken me many years to realize that depression and grumpiness are the just the precursors to a new adventure in creativity. So now I am more patient and kinder to myself and accomplishing and completing much more artwork than when I allowed adversity and mood to deter me.

  15. I learned this very important lesson many years ago, in my twenties when I went through a difficult divorce while struggling to make art and freelance illustration. I discovered that I could work “through the tears” and then became focused as I kept working. It felt like art was saving me, in a way. It also helped that I had goals and deadlines to stick to. Not much “floundering” or indecision, just moving forward. I other words, I had clear purpose and accountability to keep me on task.

    Years later, problems in life are always there. Now I have new goals about making paintings to deliver to a gallery or online shop. If I have a realistic reason to keep making my art, it helps me stay on task. Once the simple, realistic goal is there, I can “lose myself” in the actual painting process, which helps me forget the problems of life.

    Yes, art is a sanctuary for we artists. We are wired to create, and learn to get past the barriers so we can continue to do what we best are meant to do. I’m still trying my best to make more time for art making in my ever-changing life, and have a commitment to do it! Not making art at all is far worse than making art while in a grumpy mood!

  16. as usual – spot on!

    However, there is a “scale of one to ten” on mood….. three deaths sent me with a fever to bed, because of the “who” in it . From that kind, I focus: clean house – boil stuff for health – do fitness – go shopping for more health and delcious light delight – and then and only then put brush to easel. If the mood is really dug in or , since I am aging, the sluggishness at times rules….for that I put on my POMODORO and time the work…walk away for long break and then back with new eyes and new energy and I almost always catch that error I was missing from sorrow or fatigue . “Walkaround walkaround walkaround” and then at the easel or board or camera once again…what a dance!

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