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.
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.
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.”
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?
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?
First abstract euphoria
by Annette LeBox, Maple Ridge, BC, Canada
I’m a new subscriber to your letters and I really enjoy your philosopher stance on painting. I’ve run for more than 35 years and I’m familiar with runners’ high. I’m also a writer and have experienced a high when I’ve written a particular moving scene in a picture book or novel. That usually means I end up crying. But although I feel sad, I also feel euphoric because I know if I’m crying then my reader will respond in the same way. By the responses from my readers, I know I’ve seldom been wrong. I’m also a beginning painter and although I’ve been painting a relatively short while, I felt this sense of euphoria when I painted my first abstract on a very large canvas. With no particular idea in mind, other than reveling in color and shape and the enjoyment of interesting textures, I felt released from the effort of trying to perform with the technical skills I knew I didn’t possess. I felt like a child again.
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Art addiction sublimation
by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA
I think the guy who told you that “creativity makes us desirable” and the woman who said it is a way to survive our own death are both right. In The Speciation of Modern Homo sapiens, Tim Crow thinks the first man who spoke was very popular with the ladies so that his genes would have spread rapidly through the population. This was the sexual selection component, which was Darwin’s theory. But language leads to self-awareness (consciousness) and the knowledge of one’s own mortality. That’s the group selection component, because culture tends to keep a group together and create a group identity which can span many generations. I think art and music can also be included in that scenario since, like language, they too seem to emerge from the bilateral nature of the human brain. (A great book examining the interplay between individual and group selection is Edward O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth. But this doesn’t quite explain the high, does it? For me, that doesn’t require somebody watching (in fact, when somebody’s watching I find I’m not really painting, just pretending to paint) or maybe even the knowledge that people are going to see and hopefully buy the thing I’m making. In any case — even though I think that all artists are exhibitionists — at the creative moment, no matter how many people may be around, the artist is alone with his or her creation — this thing that is unfolding in front of us as if by magic. The high seems to come from that moment alone, somehow independent of our expectations for the work. Remember that those Paleolithic cave paintings are mostly in the deepest, darkest holes, some accessible only through tunnels barely wide enough to squeeze through. They were not done in living quarters; no sign of human habitation in the galleries. Giorgio Morandi, the great still life painter, lived and worked in a small room with one window and some bottles, and turned down all invitations to exhibit his work. Sometimes the high itself is enough.
P.S. A recent study found that the vasopressin gene AVPR1A is correlated with both creativity and sexuality. And we all remember what Picasso said he painted with. Maybe our art addiction is some kind of sublimation…
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The higher evolutionary journey
by Deborah Darnell, Egypt
Level of talent or proficiency in a creative/expressive endeavor and pleasure derived from engaging in it may be linked to some degree, but certainly not in such a way as to exclude all but the most gifted from transcendent enjoyment. I would even say that in some cases, the opposite may be true (e.g., some of what I do well, I actually dislike doing…) I am neither an artist nor a musician… but once, when an intense longing to be in Egypt flowed into the paint I was playing with, and I was surprised to see the essential elements of a date palm captured on paper, I nearly did backflips. My non-ability was trumped by my love of the subject and a little piece of an oasis had materialized. And when I play the piano… alone, for myself… certain parts of certain songs (Cole Porter tunes especially) never fail to send a shudder of primal delight through my core. The fact that I can generate those soul-buoying sequences of notes and chords at will leaves me truly awestruck. Satisfying the need to play music feels almost exactly like eating a delicious meal after working up a ravenous hunger. The joy we receive from the creative and expressive arts must indeed be a gift of humankind’s higher evolutionary journey.
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The timeless and happy ‘now’
by Margot Hattingh, South Africa
Your dig at the end of the letter — “When we paint, we say, “Me, me, me,” made me laugh. It certainly isn’t how it is for me, or that of many other artists I know. The process has absolutely nothing to do with ‘me.’ It’s a truly wonderful break from ‘me.’ When physically painting, ego, self-consciousness, as well as conscious thought is all lost, and I live in a timeless and really happy ‘now,’ no matter the realities of my life at that moment. Unexpected interruption is a real shock — like being woken up suddenly from a delicious dream. Sometimes, when the thing I’m working on is finished, and, at least for that moment, my vision and the thing I’ve made from it truly seem to connect, I go on a real painter’s high, for an hour or sometimes even a whole day. A very addictive feeling, the memory of which sends me back again and again to the easel in the hope of feeling it once more.
The product, the finished image — the painting, sculpture or whatever — says ‘this is my view, love, interest, concern, about something at this particular moment’ — so it could be argued it says ‘me,’ but at very much one remove.
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Rewarded by the act itself
by Mel Zeoli, Maine/Florida, USA
The ultimate high for me over the 20 plus years has been those few that are painted in a state where unquantified time passes, you the painter are an active participant, there seems to be nothing else but you, your thoughts, your actions, and the result is a good one. One in which you feel there was some help from somewhere. Perhaps all those years of reading, learning, trying, failing, trying again, all coming together at one time to produce an easy winner with seeming no effort on your part. Those are also the first to leave as sales. Great High. Rewarded by the act itself and the kick that someone else saw “something” right away in that piece. I wish there were more but I’ll take the thrill of the few I’ve had.
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by Lynne Bryant, Hartville, WY, USA
In her book, Amy Chua talks about threatening her children until they mastered a piano piece. When the child would state that practicing was not fun, she would tell the child the fun was not in learning, the fun was in mastery of the task at hand. There is truth in that.
When I was in art school 30 years ago, I remember painting being an extremely draining and frustrating activity. When I graduated and married shortly thereafter, I gave up on my art… for 26 years. It was easy to give up. It had not been a wholly satisfying part of my life. I started painting again about three years ago, fully expecting that same frustration and drain, but not finding it. What I knew and could do came back to me rapidly, and then I started to grow even more rapidly. I was finally working in the medium I was always meant for, but had never had much exposure to (watercolor). What I discovered was a path to competency and some small level of mastery, and that was when it became a great deal of fun, fulfillment, joy and a huge rush I had never known 30 years ago.
What I feel when I paint is a great deal of euphoria. I forget that I am hungry or tired, and in fact, an hour of painting will give me the same restoration as a three-hour nap, energy wise. What I am painting or when doesn’t seem to make any difference. The rush is absolutely addictive, so much so that I have given up a lot of other things in life to have more time to pursue it. The soul demands it.
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by Patricia Katz, Saskatoon, SK, Canada
I can recall just one painting experience that ended with an adrenalin rush. It was at the end of a full day in a week-long watercolour intensive. We’d spent the whole day with two live models — one nude, the other in period costumes. At day’s end the young woman who had been modeling the period costumes agreed to strike one last 15 minute pose in her funky street clothes.
This model had a spunky, lively spirit, and her own outfit reflected that. I was totally determined to capture the attitude and with only 15 minutes to do it, attacked the painting with a vengeance. No time to over think the lines or colors — only me, the paints and the pose. At the end of the 15 minutes, I do recall throwing down my brush in much the same way I had thrown down the paint. I may even have thrown my hands in the air in victory. It was my first experience in knowing that painting could be so engaging and energizing.
Mostly, I would characterize my experience as absorbing, which is great, too. But I do know that it can also be something else entirely.
By the way, your reference to cave art, made me think of this cartoon that appeared in our paper last week. Thought you might get a chuckle out of it, too.
Portrait painting project
by Dan F. Gray, Errington, BC, Canada
This effect was a large part of a project to paint 2,010 portraits from life in 2010. The stress of setting up (in various settings) and enticing models to pose for two minutes at a time, painting them while their friends watch and having the model come around the easel to see themselves in the lineup as I started the next one. The attractiveness of all who posed and the stories that were exchanged added to the excitement. After some of these sessions I would find it hard to sleep, still visualizing my models at the end of the day. Among my models were Bob Genn and many other artists, neighbours, all who attended my Aunt and Uncle’s 60th wedding anniversary and strangers from all walks of life. Because of the repetition of the project, endorphins would kick in after about 10 portraits, making it hard to stop. Last weekend I revisited the project with painting at an 80th birthday party, 41 attendees (including me) in 2 hours or so, no endorphins but a bit of stress as it had been a year or so since last painting one of these. I could not stop when I reached 2,010 portraits but carried on to 2,500. I had to stop at the end of 2,010 because it became like having a birthday every day — too exciting! Attached from a Venetian Carnival in the woods of Errington which ended in fire dancing!
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The limitations of ephemerality
by Alana Dill, Alameda, CA, USA
I’m a face painter and body painter. While face painting is more often thought of as something like a craft — “You want a butterfly or a superhero mask, honey?” body painting is different. It’s a whole subculture of art that is sometimes dismissed, which is a shame. While there’s certainly a level of kitsch in some artists’ work, that is not the whole story. It can be strongly conceptual, wrapping the art around a 360 degree live canvas. Body painters have to deal with the limitations of ephemerality — we have only a few hours, at the most a day, to make a statement that will only survive in photographs. The flip side of the coin is a satisfying immediacy; there’s no time to second-guess oneself. Many painters do practice runs and work out concepts well in advance; but the idea must be adapted to suit the model at hand. We never deal with the same “canvas” twice because every day is different for every model. I tend to find myself bored and frustrated with regular canvases now. Too flat, too white, too cold.
Fine-art level body painters whose work you may want to explore: Craig Tracy, Luci Brouillard, Brian and Nick Wolfe, Trina Merry, Yolanda Bartram… there are many others.
Ever seen the movie Quest for Fire? Remember the girl with amazing many-colored patches of mud on her body? Of course it probably started out as a sunscreen… and then one day, someone realized they liked having interesting colors or patterns on their skin. There’s archaeological evidence that Neanderthal and Cro-magnons were decorating themselves…
Feedback whipped away
by Angus McEwan
Interesting idea. As someone who has run every day for the past 5 years, I still don’t get the same kick as I do from finishing a painting successfully. As far as exhibitionism goes, I think you need to be a natural extrovert, unafraid of making a complete clown of yourself in public. I’d much rather make my mistakes in private even though demonstrating is a part of my job as an artist and lecturer.
As an introvert I get my gratification as it were at the opening of an exhibition. Seeing people enjoy your work and perhaps even buy it is more of a “high” than running or demonstrating can ever achieve (at least for me). It’s a pity therefore that the current trend for galleries to do away with openings takes away that special moment. I have two shows lined up this year (amongst others) where the galleries have deemed it unnecessary (for monetary or other reasons) to hold an opening. It comes as a massive anticlimax after slaving away for months on end in solitary, to have your “day” whipped from under your feet.
Apparently buyers are more interested in buying from catalogues or the Internet rather than walking into a gallery and purchasing their chosen item. It’s taken away the traditional focal point for any exhibition and in return our ‘feedback’ has been wiped away. A sad turn of events I think you would agree?
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High on effort
by Verna Korkie, Canmore, Alberta, Canada
Though ready for bed, I just read your today’s letter (for tomorrow). Earlier, I was weepy and angry over a painting I had agonized about as a result of a recent workshop with Collie Whisson. It just pissed me off because I couldn’t get it. I was supposed to be painting like Monet and Renoir after those 4 days! So today for about the 5th time, I slapped on some paint and called it a day.
Still angry, I decided to block in an 18 x 24 inch linen canvas by smearing the whole thing with a combo of an alizarin and phthalo green combo that I had discovered. Damn! I’ll bet I’m not the first to make that discovery. Anyhow, I had taken a photo at the Biltmore in Phoenix last week en route home to Canada after a nice warm winter. Not much I hate but I DO hate pigeons! So interestingly enough, they provided me with an image I couldn’t wait to try. I looked at the clock — 2:35. Next thing I knew it was 7:10! I was high, high, high and the only one to share my enthusiasm with was my husband – who, it turned out, was preparing a fresh lobster dinner! Although the painting is not complete, a few more strokes and a couple of corrections tomorrow, and it will be. At least as much as I care to do. In the meantime, I forwarded the incomplete painting photo to the couple with whom we had shared that lunch at the Biltmore. And then I was still so high on my effort that I forwarded the photo to my 3 sons and God knows who else! It had to do with the fact that I was painting irrespective of how I was “supposed to” — but rather what made my heart sing. Endorphins! You bet!
Enjoy the past comments below for Painter’s high…
watercolour painting, 10 x 14 inches
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 Norman Ridenour of Prague, CZ, who wrote, “I used to run and knew the high well. It kicked in about 4 km and it was like I was floating without touching ground. Now, I can be beat, down, half ill and I walk in the studio door and it vanishes. I do not even have to pick up tools. I often have English students after they finish work. I had to buy an alarm clock so I remembered to stop work and go to class.”
And also Brian Young of Forres, Scotland, who wrote, “I think the converse is also interesting – painter’s low. I have been unable to paint all week because of ongoing alterations to my house that require supervision. Consequently I’ve been feeling tetchy and irritable.. Painting is an escape into the deep and joy-filled canyons of the mind.”
And also Brian Clute who wrote, “I get my painting high by slowing down. My process is very methodical and meditative. A Buddhist idea — the more discipline (not punishment) the more joy.”
And also Janet Spreiter of Lahaina, HI, USA, who wrote, “The rush I get from painting a masterpiece is about the same as the rush I get from running to the bank to cash the check. This double rush is the best of two worlds!”
And also Murray Van Halem of Victoria Harbour, ON, Canada who wrote, “I am sharing with you an eloquently written line about painted portraits by the protagonist in the novel The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton, 2008: ‘Long-dead men leered at them from heavy gilt frames and Eliza thought how ghastly it must be to have one’s portrait painted, to sit still for so long, all so that a layer of oneself could be left forever on a canvas, hung lonely in a darkened corridor.'”