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.


“The Murray and the Mountain”
1930 oil on canvas, 64 x 102 cm
by Arthur Streeton (1867-1943)

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.


“Sunset Landscape” 1909
oil painting
by Arthur Streeton

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.


“An Impression from the Deep” 1889
oil sketch
by Arthur Streeton

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.

This letter was originally published as “Operant conditioning” on November 30, 2007.


The group exhibition Winter Wonderwalls opens at Kimoto Gallery tonight, Friday, November 30th, 2018 in Vancouver, BC from 6-9pm and continues until December 22nd. Happy Holidays! https://kimotogallery.com/

“It is an ironic habit of human beings to run faster when we have lost our way.” (Rollo May)



  1. I first saw Streeton’s paintings in a book called “New Worlds From Old: 19th Century Australian and American Landscapes“. I believe it was published in conjunction with a joint exhibition of the Wadsworth Atheneum and the National Gallery of Australia, and is a wonderful overview of art that I’d never seen before as well as my more familiar US painters. His works are stunning, thanks for more views. (Just checked, book is available online, the usual sources.)
    As for rewards, I’ve been working on a set of oil landscapes and now have enough done to be rewarded with a sense of satisfaction, they’re framed woo-hoo! Now I can take these to galleries. It’s steady progress. Money would of course be just dandy too.

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https://painterskeys.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Zidonja_Magnolia-Joy-wpcf_300x217.jpgMagnolia Joy
11 x 14

Featured Artist

I am a self taught artist, I work in oil, Acrylic and watercolour also in Pastels. Started painting In Ashcroft with Mr. Campbell. I taught my self how to paint by studying professional artists’ work through reading, TV programs, educational DVD and work shops.


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