Painter’s high


Dear Artist,

Recent studies of “runner’s high” — the well-known euphoria that kicks in when humans run or jog — seem to show an evolutionary base. Apparently humans have traditionally enjoyed running for its own sake — even when avoiding predators or going after game. Humans rate a 2.6 on what the researchers call the “endocannabinoid” (sort of like endorphins) scale. We humans were beaten by some other “cursorial animals” (those who chase things), particularly dogs, who rate 3.3. Dogs, as we all know, love to run, particularly in large areas like beaches. Some of the tested animals, like ferrets, rated zero. They feel good when they are hiding and sleeping.

Composition of Circles and Overlapping Angles, 1930 by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943)

Composition of Circles and Overlapping Angles,
Oil on canvas
19 1/2 x 25 1/4 inches
by Sophie Taeuber-Arp (1889-1943)

Wondering whether there might be an evolutionary base to the kind of high we sometimes get from painting, I consulted six painter friends. Five said they definitely got it when they painted. The other one said he became depressed because he was always progressively disappointed. He said he felt rather like hiding and sleeping. Interesting. One fellow, a much-in-demand demo-doer, said he got the biggest charge “from painting a good one in front of a lot of people.”

Several painters followed up on the exhibitionism angle. We discussed the business of demonstrating prowess, particularly to members of the opposite gender. “It’s a survival thing,” said one. “For those of us who are not very good at running, our demonstrated creativity makes us desirable.” I made a note of that.

Relief rectangulaire, cercles découpés, cônes surgissants, 1936 by Sophie Taeuber-Arp

Relief rectangulaire, cercles découpés,
cônes surgissants, 1936
Painted wood relief
by Sophie Taeuber-Arp

This last thought brought up the problem of painting in a vacuum. How do we show off our prowess if no one watches us or sees the stuff we make? “It’s a fall back to our atavistic self,” said another. “We get satisfaction from our art whether anyone sees it or not.” This certainly sounds like a built-in instinct that we can’t do much about.

Another artist, an elderly one, said it has to do with the fear of death. “Throughout history, man has tried to dodge death’s door,” she said. “Many religions are built around this principle. Apart from the immortality we get through our children, art is a reliable means of leaving something of ourselves behind. Defying death gives us a giddy high.”

Marionette, 1918 by Sophie Taeuber-Arp

König Hirsch: Wachen
(King Stag: Guards)
Oil paint on turned wood, metal
21 7/8 x 7 1/8 inches
(with arm)
by Sophie Taeuber-Arp

I was doing my survey on the telephone while painting. I was thinking about cave art as an early manifestation of individual expression and how we’re all just an extension of this evolving impulse. When we paint, we say, “Me, me, me.” Feels good, doesn’t it?

Best regards,


PS: “Art is man’s distinctly human way of fighting death.” (Leonard Baskin)

Esoterica: University of Arizona anthropologist David Raichlin, one of the researchers in the running study, noted that “Inactive people may not be fit enough to hit the exercise intensity that leads to the neurobiological reward.” This finding might lead us to conclude that it takes a fair degree of proficiency to get a “high” out of painting. I’m not so sure about this. Many amateurs and incompetents seem to get their thrills, too. Maybe evolution is dictating that art is a democratic turn-on where all comers have an equal opportunity to get “blissed out.” I’d like to extend my study. What do you think?

Sophie Taeuber-Arp, with Dada-Head, 1920

Sophie Taeuber-Arp, with Dada-Head, 1920

This letter was originally published as “Painter’s high” on April 20, 2012.

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“If painting weren’t so difficult, it wouldn’t be fun.” (Edgar Degas)




  1. I definitely know the feeling of a “painter’s high.” On the best days at the easel, I sometimes feel as though I’m a conduit; where the thing I’m making becomes more than the sum of its parts and takes on a life of it’s own. There’s no better feeling in the world.

  2. I really enjoy your posts, Pinters’ Keys, very much. As an artist one does work in splendid isolation, unless there is that high of teaching,. Of course, in these strange times there has been almost no teaching but lots and lots of time for painting. Most creative times and I , personally, have felt ablaze! But, back to the high, when I am starting a painting of a bird, I always do the eye first, for without a successful eye, the painting cannot live If I get it spot on, I am pleases and then the sky is the limit. Which, for a bird, is rather fitting. I do hope that the letters continue. Thank you for the constant ‘companionship’ tht my fellow artists give. i am from a city on the west coast of Canada, and we have some fine painters here, and I wonder if i have some colleagues on your page. Once again, merci beaucoups. Bryony

  3. I agree that humans are wired to feel a high having achieved some goal not experienced before or not very often. I think it is the same thing as ‘being in the zone’. Formula 1 race car drivers get it. Paleontologists probably get it when they discover a new species of dinosaur. Doctors probably get it after a particularly difficult but successful diagnosis. It is rarified air to be sure…which is why we are constantly working to get there again. I also agree with the ‘esoterica’ comments. Proficiency is not a primary mover. It is a goal however, because the high comes from having reached a personal level of proficiency


    I can relate to this – I call it going into flow. And my brain lights up and colours become more intense and tiredness drops away. And I fall in love with the current painting. So possibly other neurochemicals are stimulated in me apart from endocannabinoids!

  5. Somedays I too like to hide and sleep after painting, disappointed at seemingly unsuccessful painting sessions, but the times that my exuberance or a certain impulse is expressed almost effortlessly is a great feeling.
    What seems to keep me going in my painting marathon is knowing there is an audience that may enjoy my work and painting for my YouTube has been one way to accomplish this (along with my workshops). My Youtube link is here: :
    I am not so sure I am defying death by making paintings – they may outlive me but I feel I am connecting to something that is not only to be experienced individually but has meaning for someone else and a purpose beyond the joy of making it.

  6. Hello, I’ll keep it short and sweet. I’ve been vigorously practicing mindfulness this year, and realized the common thread that runs through a runner’s high, a cyclist’s high, and a painter’s high, is mindfulness. Focused on the NOW. Immersed in the NOW. ☮️

    • I completely agree. I have experienced all three, and I’d add a high that comes from sailing, particularly a small sailboat, though I’ve felt it helming a 50 ft ketch in a stiff breeze. It’s Zen, it’s glorious and it’s the happiness I seek.

    • i agree with your comment about Mindfulness focusing on the NOW. being at the present moment which is life more enjoyable and exciting. There are lots of distractions around us.

  7. Raymond Tony Hawkins on

    Painting, drawing, illustrating, sketching, doodling, watercolor, and ink give this ‘creative’ a high. It is ideal for clearing the doldrums. It’s inspirational. Simply put, it feels good. Some folks rarely leave home without a sketchbook. I feel like the sketchbook is just as valuable as the iPhone and I am a ‘baby boomer!’

    Sarah, I have been a fan of PAINTERS KEYS for over 15 years. Like your dad, you are an excellent writer and present wisdom that is valuable and a joy to read. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    • Although cats sleep a lot, when they get into their “cat crazies,” and zoom around the house and do back flips in the air, they are definitely “in the zone!” As a sedentary artist, I envy them even those short bursts of creative energy…

  8. It’s definitely an act that brings on both highs and lows. I’ve often pondered how extreme the mood swings hit during focused time at the easel. Every painting I do has moments of being near the slash station, but they somehow make it through to their final destination. I often think it’s not for those highs that I paint, it’s because I am determined to solve problems and not give up. All different kinds of highs happen, the adventure of a new painting, the excitement of how well the brushes feel, how the paint glows, how the threads in the canvas seem to be thriving with what is laid onto them. All those highs, they keep the drudgery of the ugh moments manageable. As for painting for an audience, that’s painfully exhausting for me, no thanks. I have much admiration for those who thrive on teaching and painting for an audience. As always, great letter, thank you!

  9. Eileen Sakal on

    My high when painting comes from the colours as I mix them and apply to the canvas. I use the glaze method with oil sometimes I apply a different colour glaze on top, then wipe it off to reveal a fabulous resulting combination . Pure joy!

  10. Gerard Madden on

    I do get a type of high, but it comes in the days after finishing a painting. It like a burden has been lifted off my shoulders. I’ll fall into a deep sleep and it takes days for me to come round. But it’s not a High, it’s not a euphoria….unfortunately.

  11. I get a kick out of the fact that I can pull something creative out of my own mind – whether it’s painting or writing. Always amazes me – where the heck did that come from? I AM wonderful!

  12. As a high realist painter, much of my time is spent in grueling hours of paint application on canvas (usually a minimum of 40 hours but sometimes up to 120 hours over the course of weeks to months) to solve the image I’ve chosen to realize. My highs occur at the conceptual stage–when I decide which of my ideas has reached the time-to-paint phase; and the end stage when I have finished a piece to the best point I can get it to and call it finished–and have put it away for a short while, then come back to observe and appreciate and, maybe even, languish in my accomplishment. Then, of course, the highs of positive feedback and appreciation from online posting and hanging in shows–be they solo or group/juried. And over the past few years I have been curating and organizing group theme shows that I’ve placed in regional public spaces; and, most recently, 5 virtual theme shows (plus one more in the works) I have organized and posted on Facebook during the course f the COVID 19 pandemic. Feels fabulous to put the works of up to 50 of my fellow artists on the web for others to enjoy; and for the artists to engage in works they likely would not have created had I not called them to participate.

  13. In my art group, we describe this as “being in the zone”, a state of existence where time doesn’t exist, one is in the now, and in a type of meditation and concentration on one process. External sounds only enter if they are part of the process, like birds singing or a nearby waterfall. I feel at peace, happy, and confident in the zone and almost always a high after leaving.

  14. I guess there are almost as many reasons why we paint as there are artists. I am not among those who say, if they don’t paint they don’t feel alive, it is as necessary as breathing to them. During lockdown I completely lost my ‘mojo’. Its crazy, all that time, and I avoided the studio like covid was in there. Over a year later I began my crawl back and discovered it took about 10 or so really bad failures before something began to spark (very depressing). The ‘in zone’ gradually revealed itself with some reasonable success at the easel, then more and more. I do find each and every painting a struggle, solving visual problems, finding the right colour harmony etc. Weirdly, I have also known times when a painting ‘falls of the brush’ and jolly near paints itself. So whats that all about?

    • Robert, I feel your pain! That must have been awful. The anxiety of this Covid lockdown, pandemic, political upheaval and gradual awakening have affected everyone differently. I myself went on a marathon painting spree in 2020 but now that the vaccine is here my urgency in the studio has petered out as well. The zone comes and goes as it pleases. Spring is here and the garden beckons. I’m seriously thinking of going back to plein air just to be outside and give myself a break from pulling weeds.

  15. I experience a lift while painting. Not all my efforts are successful of course. But oh my, especially when painting in the field, when I step back for the n’th time and see my painting coming to life, I feel a rush. In fact, I have been caught doing a two-step to the jazz floating from my car radio when I believed that no one was watching.
    After many years painting plein air I have learned to avoid copying exactly what I see. I settle on a narrative and try to rearrange things to develop a composition. I purposely paint in a circuitous way so that good things may happen on the canvas unintentionally. Sometimes I surprise myself.
    Back in my studio, the euphoria has worn off. The challenge is to rekindle the inspiration with minor adjustments while preserving the moment. The final step in the process.

  16. well, i think that, perhaps, the painter’s high, has to do with the intensity of emotion, so the degree of high you get could be related to your intensity of emotion and (granted some degree of satisfaction with a bad painting) not related to proficiency…

  17. i do run .. i understand ” a runner’s high ” . once you decide to do it no matter how you feel or think , for that first 15 minutes, or so you are in that Zone ! So does my Painting, I don’t ask my self I feel it or not , JUST DO IT ! put something that motivates ex.. upbeat music .. Just do what you can do than do nothing .

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oil 12 x 16 inches

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