Potholes on the mesolimbic pathway

Dear Artist, My last letter about getting euphoria from painting raised a few issues. Some folks were positively giddy reporting on the giddy positiveness they got from making art. Others told us the “pleasure centres” of their brains were too clogged with painterly problems to get much joy from the act. There were other acts that excited them more, they said, like eating, smoking, skydiving and you know what. One said his “mesolimbic pathway” didn’t go through the art field. Just to put us all on the same trail, the mesolimbic pathway is one of the dopaminergic routes in the brain. The pathway begins in the ventral tegmental area of the midbrain and connects to the limbic system via the nucleus accumbens, the amygdala, and the hippocampus. Now you know. It’s all about what causes us to get our kicks and how those kicks get passed around. Some subscribers pointed to the “add-ons” like “quietness in a noisy world” and “the happiness we give to others.” Several mentioned the making of art as a branch of giving, an area that’s fascinated me for some time. Knowing that a certain work is going to a worthwhile charity as a fundraiser turns my tiny crank. Subscriber Gerda Hook of Greenville, South Carolina reported on altruism studies by the US National Institute of Health. “Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology,” she wrote, “researchers gave 19 subjects real money ($128) and asked them to make choices about keeping or spending the money. They were given 64 popular charities to choose from. When they performed the act of giving, two areas of their brains, the mesolimbic and the subgenual, lit up. The mesolimbic is associated with the release of dopamine, a ‘feel-good’ chemical linked with life-affirming activities like reproduction and eating. The subgenual part of the brain is implicated in behavior involving social relationships and familial attachments — for example, this area is activated when we look at our babies and at romantic partners.” What’s interesting in these findings is that both centres play key roles in the evolution of the human race (procreation and family bonds) as well as the daily sustenance of the species. Giving not only feels good, but is also associated with the survival of our species. Best regards, Robert PS: “The fragrance always stays in the hand that gives the rose.” (Heda Bejar) “Man is never so happy as when he giveth happiness unto another.” (Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton) Esoterica: Catharine Compston of Edmonton, Alberta pointed out that a finished work of art as it marches out into the universe transforms from the pleasure of the artist to the pleasure of others. This thought alone might be the stuff of happiness and high excitement, she figures. At the same time, a few folks wrote of the fear that their art might be substandard and not give pleasure. Along with our “feel good” brains, we of the Brotherhood and Sisterhood are subject to nagging negative thoughts, maybe even neuroses. How do you feel?   Artists dispense magic by Sigrid Tidmore  

“The Present”
watercolour painting
by Sigrid Tidmore

Sometime ago I became fascinated by the transfer of energy from the artist to the recipient. Following in the steps of our aboriginal ancestors, I believe artists are also magicians, able to transform moods, ideas and sensations in others by the spells of their imagery. It’s easy to get focused on technique and forget our real job is creation of a new reality. I consciously focus on the emotion I want to give to the viewer while I paint.   There is 1 comment for Artists dispense magic by Sigrid Tidmore
From: Rose — Apr 27, 2012

I like this concept… Thank you.

  Our chosen purpose by Jaana Woiceshyn, Calgary, AB, Canada  

original painting
by Jaana Woiceshyn

As the conceptual species, we do not operate merely on the sensory level of pleasure and pain. We paint (or teach, or build bridges, or design computers and other products, or give haircuts) because we have chosen that as our central purpose and derive all kinds of spiritual and material benefits from it (read chapter 5: Productiveness, in my book). And forget about altruism: if you were painting for altruistic reasons (which would be impossible in the first place, because the creation has to come from you, not from others), you would be giving your paintings away for free (and not increasing your prices every year). You paint because you have chosen it as your purpose, and you benefit from it, spiritually and materially. Painting is in your self-interest. And, fortunately, people’s rational interests do not conflict, so your painting is my interest, too! When you create a beautiful painting, we can simply trade, value for value: you give me the painting that I love, and I pay you for it (see chapter 7: Justice, and more specifically, Justice as Trade). P.S. The human species does not survive because of altruism but because of division of labor and trade — and the collaboration and competition that go along with that. We survive and flourish to the extent that we think and produce — and leave others free to do likewise. There are 4 comments for Our chosen purpose by Jaana Woiceshyn
From: Sharon Cory — Apr 27, 2012

Wow, they must love you in those oil company boardrooms!

From: Anonymous — Apr 27, 2012

An artist is driven to sacrifice time and attention to the creation of beauty. A good painting is a gift to the world. It is the only pure act, really. Inherent in it is the other, the viewer. I call that a concrete expression of altruism in its truest form. Everything else is political, economic or sociological drivel. Art and the art making process is beyond “reason” and possibly beyond the understanding of idealogs. The left brain is always trying to corral the right brain. Good luck with that!

From: Leila — Apr 27, 2012

Jaana, you are an art collector from Heaven and every artists should thank God for people like you!

From: Tatjana M-P — Apr 27, 2012

The way I read this is that artists who have chosen art as their profession can’t afford to rely on altruism as their only driving force to make art. I would agree with that. Their livelihood depends on the interest of their audience and on the rules of trade. The act of creation is motivated by ideals, but placing art in the market as a bread-winning product puts the artist in the playing field that Jaana describes.

  Activation of art gratitude by Damaris O’Trand, CO, USA  

original painting
by Damaris O’Trand

For anyone who is interested in the connection between giving and art, check out the book, The Gift of Thanks by Maragaret Visser. Also, a fun way to feel the activation of art gratitude is to participate in an Artist Trading Card group. We are in the process of uploading our online gallery in time for the Lyons Studio Tour, the weekend of June 2 and 3, 2012. We will have an open house for the Art-4-Art Trading Session at the Lyons Depot Library. Here is a link to our gallery.         The inexplicable magic by Betty Brooks   Artistic flares, like solar flares, come out of the same pot, the molten pot of dynamic energy. For an artist it’s all about the mojo and the magic at work in their work. Some days it is simply working in the magic. Other days it is feeling the magic in the work. Whichever, it is the ultimate carrot on a stick offering all kinds of rewards running the gamut from giving to receiving, of being connected to the world outside yourself, or at other times finding your internal world connections are singular and complete. Everything we think and feel is processed through our brain but that does not speak to our consciousness. To me it exists beyond the finite. It is a precious thing that brings us our wings. Today the scientists are at work trying to explain it. And I wonder why. Let it be inexplicable. I like it that way. Don’t you?   Passing along beauty by Susan Hay, Benmiller /Haliburton, ON, Canada  

“Birches Along Rail Fence in Winter”
acrylic painting
by Susan Hay

I read your column with interest and the comment about passing along a thing of beauty into someone else’s hands resonated with me. I can’t tell you how wonderful it makes me feel to hear that someone else is enjoying what I have created. Here are a couple of examples: “Thank you for our talent and gift because it enriches our lives, too. There are times that… one of your paintings stops me in my tracks, makes me take a deep breath and makes me smile.” and from another customer: “We both admire the painting for many reasons and particularly love the textured canvas; it adds a whole other dimension to your art. It seems we have found an artist who sees exquisite beauty in the very same, simple things that we love. That in itself is very special. You’ve made two people very happy because of your abilities. What a gift!” These comments are just as, if not more, important than the payment to me. My “dopaminergic routes” are positively aglow, knowing that someone else is enjoying my creations as well. There are 2 comments for Passing along beauty by Susan Hay
From: Betty Newcomer — Apr 27, 2012

I too, take more pleasure from someone saying how much they enjoy a painting I gave them, or sold them. Their enjoyment of something I did,and the thought of it in their home, gives me much more pleasure than the sale of a painting/.

From: Helen Opie — Apr 28, 2012

Yes, knowing I give people happiness feeds me through the long times between sales, and also keeps me going. I work hard (in any field) with a bit of praise or thanks now & then!

  Artists with selfish motives? by Robert Long  

oil painting
by Robert Long

I think I have noticed in a number of your posts reference to artists producing their work for mostly selfish reasons. In the last one, “Painter’s high,” you elude to this when you state, “When we paint, we say, “Me, me, me.” I think any endeavor at which a person gets extremely adept likely produces a high degree of personal satisfaction. If nothing else, across all higher level organisms, brain chemistry rewards behavior that yields personal satisfaction or gives nourishment to the body. But I don’t enjoy hearing my time spent painting is somehow a selfish activity on my part. More and more I have come to believe those who produce art are among the dwindling defenders of humanity. We work hard to get good at what we do because we are driven — that’s true. Learning what we do in the process, climbing the learning curve can be uncomfortable or even painful physically, emotionally, and requires perseverance. But by our achievement and production we show how much human beings can achieve by hard work, leveraging only personal will and imagination. We help keep alive the idea that humans are innately creative and visionary, a precept worth preserving in an increasingly technological world where the race to automate and boost productivity mostly factors people out of the equation, leaving them without meaningful work or creative outlets. Advances in technology have their upside, but in many areas they also cause a deterioration of the human condition. My own feeling is, if more people painted or did other creative, rewarding activities using their hands and minds, the world would have found a remedy for much of the hostility and selfish behavior that prevails and is increasing. We keep that idea alive by doing the work we do. There are 2 comments for Artists with selfish motives? by Robert Long
From: Angela Treat Lyon — Apr 26, 2012


From: Debra LePage — Apr 27, 2012

Yes, a lot of truth here. Especially in your last paragraph. Well said.

  Act of painting produces joy by Veronica Funk, Airdrie, AB, Canada  

acrylic painting
by Veronica Funk

No matter how I feel once the painting is complete, I always feel the most joy doing the work. A number of years ago I tried to give up this life as a professional painter and got a ‘real job.’ The work was good and the environment was wonderfully supportive and encouraging, and yet I still managed to fall into a depression — bursting into tears for no reason; either sleeping too much or not enough; daily restlessness, negativity and anger. When I spoke with my doctor, she asked what had changed in my life prior to these experiences and then told me to return to painting (as did my family). And I haven’t been unhappy like that since. So, those times when I begin to feel anxious, I know all I have to do is head back into my studio and pick up a brush and then all is well. There are 2 comments for Act of painting produces joy by Veronica Funk
From: Sharon Cory — Apr 27, 2012

I feel exactly the same way.

From: Anonymous — Apr 27, 2012

You are very lucky to have a supportive family. Without support one presses on with an unhappy job.

  Will ‘they’ like it? by Anonymous   Yes, I get huge pleasure out of the pure act of making a painting, and can forget all my troubles while doing so. Even when it’s not going well, the mere effort to solve the problems takes me away to the place I like to be. Finishing one, and feeling that it “works,” is the ultimate high for me. But I do always wonder, even while painting a picture, if “they” will like it. That matters to me. If I manage to sell a picture, or win a prize, this is affirmation, vindication for the hours I spend in the studio, definitely a pleasure, which allows me to relax for a bit from the anxiety about my work. If, after finishing one that “works,” I enter it in a show (or many shows) and it is rejected by all, the pleasure disappears. Then I realize that I simply don’t understand painting at all, that what I thought works simply doesn’t, in the real world, and that there is something gravely “wrong” with what I made. Still I hang on to the ones that I believe “work.” My studio is full of them. I think “Maybe someday…” It is always nice to be able to sell the occasional work — but I’d have to do better than that to feel myself of the Sisterhood of “real” painters.   Collector ‘returns’ by Michael S Bryant, Rockford, MI, USA   As a clay artist I have been enjoying your letters for a couple of years now — thank you! I propose you do a ‘piece’ on gallery sales of fine art and whether they are more often than not considered nonrefundable/nonreturnable. Is there a trend out there that our art work is now deemed nothing more than retail commodities? It is very disturbing to me that a gallery owner would allow a patron to return a work of fine art after a week or so. Am I naive? (RG note) Thanks, Michael. I don’t know whether it’s a trend or not, but refunding money for art is a good idea. Works of art are frequently large purchases where a family will often hold a work for generations. The collector deserves the right to get it right. Galleries who offer the option to return (within a reasonable length of time) make lasting friends and loyal customers. I think this gesture of goodwill should apply to all commodities with the possible exception of food and underwear.    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Potholes on the mesolimbic pathway

From: Marvin Humphrey — Apr 23, 2012

Whether the painting is sold or given, the belief that others will get enjoyment from seeing it, is satisfying for me.

From: Susan — Apr 24, 2012

Finally after twenty some years of painting my art work is starting to speak to me. O! the pleasure that comes with that. “You need to gray down that tree, it is calling to much attention to its self.”Is your center of interest the focal point?” “Do you really need that in the painting? “Kiss”keep it simple stupid”.”Watch out for those hard and soft edges.” “Remember Warm colors come forward and cool recede.”I could go on and on. I love that Iam finally starting to see,it is awesome. Peace, Susan

From: Christie Zwick — Apr 24, 2012

Recently I have been doing memorial drawings of people’s dogs. I enjoy the challenge of trying to capture an image that I cannot see in life. That gives me a feeling of accomplishment and then I get the joy of handing off a drawing that makes someone happier where they were previously sad. To me, it seems to be a win-win situation.

From: Glenn Penner — Apr 24, 2012

It takes a long time for me to enjoy looking at my art.It’s not a state of anguish so much as feeling suspended until i move past the roadblocks.To be able to see the whole of it. It’s my process,no studies,searching for reference that may free the image that i’m wanting to create. The enjoyment of making art for me, is at the end.It’s completely liberated.Getting there is another story.

From: Anon — Apr 25, 2012
From: John F. Burk — Apr 25, 2012

What in the world is everyone talking about? I thought creating artwork was all about looking hard at your subject, making your choices and looking critically at the dabs you put on the canvas. If you’re any good at it, you are apt to be pleased with the experience and the outcome. If you’re pretty good at it, over the course of several paintings, you will have learned some new tricks, even if it’s just a better way to clean your brushes. If you are really good at it, which I aspire to, you figure out what galleries get what paintings, and have a little spring in your step when you go out to find some anticipated checks in your mailbox. I’m pretty sure a furniture maker feels the same way about the chest of drawers he just turned out. My point, I think, if I’m reading my mesolimbic pathway correctly, is if you love making art, make it with an active mind and a certain pleasure over how well you are doing it—and an expectant joy over how much better you’ll do it in time. Giving is good. Painting is better.

From: Darrin Davis — Apr 25, 2012

I just wanted to say thank you so very much for doing this great work. It matters, big time. I feel super-blessed and blissed every time I read your emails.

From: Beth Greer — Apr 25, 2012

I may not understand the question as I WAS very enlightened and life was a breeze with art and everything I needed just flowing for about 15 years. I took my art as a curse more than an enjoyment (like I had a choice NOT to be an artist) because its all I could do well and had kids to support. Now I am in my senior years and with time but little inspiration. The euphoria is merely a lack of time consciousness and being there with your creation. I feel and know creativity cannot be halted, like a great earthquake or breath. Allowing oneself the space to not do a commission or piece for a show is very humbling. I await that space again when I must create a vision or piece for my inner voice.

From: Jan Ross — Apr 25, 2012

I’m serious when I say that providing your website to other artists who later tell me how much they’ve enjoyed it REALLY provides a high for me but starting and finishing a painting comes close!

From: Rick Rotante — Apr 25, 2012

When one starts the process of learning to paint little thought is given to the happiness of others. It is enough each day to try and make sense of this process. As we progress, we move into being happy personally with the results, then, for some, making money and/or gallery representation. From there International fame if at all possible. Primarily, from this point, ego is central in all matters. We need the acceptance to justify doing this. Money and fame are our barometers of the success we have reached. Once those needs/impulses are satisfied, then and only then can the “satisfy others” idea enter into the equation. Not to sound too selfish, only when our needs are met, do we bother to think about the needs of others. Really, how can we think of feeding the world, if I can’t feed ourselves. Right? In all fairness, this is not a bad thing in humans. Survival, after all, is paramount in all of us. We can think of the needs of others, for whatever mesolimbic pathway results are acquired, only when we have satisfied our own needs. There are two sides to the process of creating art. One is personal expression; an artists need to comment on the world as he sees it, and the other idea is others may get vicarious pleasure from viewing it. These two views are mutually connected while at the same time totally exclusive. While it is pleasurable for the artist to be appreciated, it is not necessary for the creation of art. Pleasure is derived solely from the act of creating. Pleasure, if there is any to be had, comes only after the act of creation for both viewer and creator.

From: Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki — Apr 25, 2012

For me, there is giving and there is “giving”. The hippocampus in my brain definitely get’s high by giving money to charities and “giving” art to collectors. My hippo is a bit suspicious about art transactions since art’s value is so hard to define and appreciation to trust – so it likes to get a payment in order to be convinced that the receiver’s hippo really enjoys the “gift” at least as much as other stuff that he/she pays for.

From: Cy Hundley — Apr 25, 2012

As a former Kick Boxer and current Boxing sparring partner I experience, after every work out what I call a fighters high. Same as a runners high, a very physical feeling of euphoria. Conversely as a professional Pet Portrait artist I also feel a Painters high except it is more of what you must be talking about here, more in the mind and ultimately in the soul. I get pleasure from the act of painting, but mainly get it first from seeing my clients pleasure as they witness their pets portrayed on canvas, and mostly I get the good feeling from knowing that I have helped cheat death for the animals I paint! They will live on and will not be forgotten. THIS is my painters high!

From: Patricia Dimsdale — Apr 25, 2012

I gave my best watercolor painting to a friend. A couple years later, I saw it was still packed away somewhere. I feel devastated that she didn’t hang up a painting that I loved and enjoyed doing. I wish I could ask for it back. I’ve noticed over the years that people do not appreciate gifts of art. I want all that art back! Then I could surround myself with paintings that remind me of places in nature where I felt the presence of a Higher Spirit. On art itself, I find doing colored pencil paintings is relaxing, unlike doing acrylic where the technical problems drive me crazy. I am doing a 4 foot square as my part in a school mural. I am happy to do my part, but I really wish acrylics weren’t so nasty – they quickly turn into Alberta gumbo, the kind of mud where you lost your rubber boots as a kid.

From: Diana Wakely — Apr 25, 2012

The best compliment I ever received was that my paintings “evoke emotion” to me that is how I paint and it was great having someone feeling what I was painting.

From: Yvonne Trussler — Apr 25, 2012

I agree with you. I am euphoric and anxious but like you giving, turns my little crank.

From: Chuck Beisch — Apr 25, 2012
From: Elle Fagan — Apr 25, 2012

I do like all parts of my artwork – the ideas, the inspirations, the gestation and birth of a project and the serious art-making and roundup of it all , such as sale to a client, posting at my site, donation to worthy cause. I truly delight in sitting with a client and doing it to their specifications as much as possible without losing my art in it. It’s about life and my art is a medium in the communication and generation of the best life exchanges. My family, including me, used to run to the rescue with red cross and other groups, and when I was hurt and no longer really apt for ground zero responses , I discovered the art-with-heart thing to do with my art and have been euphoric ever since because I help with my art much more than I could with my physical response and its lots less dangerous.

From: Rolf Raecker — Apr 25, 2012

Art is an inclusive institution….maybe becoming the most important.

From: Wes Giesbrecht — Apr 25, 2012

I have at times been reprimanded for my lack of interest in politics, world events, the news in general. As though I should be made to feel guilty about my lack of so called participation. As tho following the news on TV or reading a newspaper is somehow contributing to society. Personally, I find news addicts to be just as boring as sports addicts, but that’s not my point. These folks overlook how much joy my work has brought into the world. Hearing that a piece I’ve donated, brought in the highest bid for a charitable event is a definite high. Getting paid for works and knowing that they’ll be enjoyed by their new owners for many years to come, feels pretty good too.

From: Neil Frankenhauser — Apr 25, 2012

When do you have time to paint? This is way too much cerebral stuff for me. I try not to complicate or over-analyze.

From: Viktor Presse — Apr 26, 2012

What amazing, intelligent fun for those who are open to it.

From: Joseph Jahn — Apr 26, 2012

All very nice, but RAGE is the prime mover in what some call REAL art, Robert. I use rage to move to that higher level of productive canvas attacks, and like many Abstract expressionists before me find that soft fuzzy feelings have no productive outcomes when it comes to strong, elegant work. I save those feelings for petting my cat and enjoying the outcomes from a day of pure rage in the Studio.

From: Linda — Apr 26, 2012

When I started this artistic journey, many, many moons ago, at a local Midwest community college, an instructor stated in a lecture that people in the Midwest buy tvs and beer coolers. And that if we wanted to make a living selling art, we needed to move. Well, I never moved. but I’m still painting and still fighting the tv and beer cooler mentality. We’ve have to band together as artists. And we’ve worked hard. But things are looking up. Even in this economy there are tons more opportunities for artists than were out there twenty years ago. So we need to take advantage of everything we have going for us (websites, blogs, YouTube, Facebook, etc.) to reach out, spreading our enthusiasm for art and artists that we love. By the time we have them converted, I’ll be really, really, I mean really good!

From: Edna Prevost — Apr 26, 2012

I think the making of art is all about altruism. I make art because I love giving. I give my best to it, and while it is not always easy, it is perhaps that difficulty that makes it worthwhile. And then there is the fine gift I am able to give to others. Whether they pay for it or not, it is still a fine gift from me to them.

From: Joseph Jahn — Apr 27, 2012

footnoting my comment: Hahaahha, well the use of the word *REAL art* was a bit harsh :-) Let’s just say SOME art……..

From: Jan Milner Cole — Apr 27, 2012

I am fascinated by your work Nikolay. I would love to learn more about it. I am constantly drawn between my love of photography and my love of painting and keep thinking there may be a way in which they can more satisfactorily come together. I love the layering of complex textures overlayed with simple images. An I especially like the ‘tongue in cheek’ of ‘Musical lesson’. I would love to learn more about how all this is done.

From: Anon — Apr 27, 2012

I had a few really nasty months in the studio. Bouncing between feeling blocked, frustrated, desperate. Somehow I managed to make a few new paintings, poor tortured things that I didn’t dare offer to my regular gallery. I offered them to a new (to me) gallery and they took them and sold them in a matter of days. I was amazed and my mood brightened up a bit and I made a couple of new pieces that I thought were awesome and offered them to the same gallery. They said they didn’t want those. This kind of stuff can really mess you up.

From: L — Apr 28, 2012

Anon’s comment: ..pieces that I thought were awesome … to the same gallery. They said they didn’t want those. This kind of stuff can really mess you up. I don’t know why I find this comment so funny, but I laughed out loud. Isn’t that just life! Go figure! Perhaps the first batch filled a previously known request. Once when my messy, off-kilter works were chosen for a show, and the ones I preferred were turned down, a wise artist was kind enough to help me see the difference by asking me questions about how I felt, and what I was thinking about when I was creating them, .. until the light went on. Emotion was lacking or stiff in the technically correct ones I liked. Too static somehow. The ones chosen had mistakes and visible corrections, but they also had personality, style, movement and were a lot more interesting. We need to look at our own work with fresh eyes, and as though it was a stranger’s work. I pretend that some evil nemesis painted mine. MUCH easier to critique. Ha! But on the other hand, …maybe it’s just the weather or mood in the gallery on that day.

From: Anon — Apr 30, 2012

Thanks L, your thoughts reflect mine. What bogs me down, and why I wrote that note for other artists to read, is that I had tied my thoughts and expectations to a gallery when I made that art. I recommend to everyone not to do that. The reasons something will sell or not has absolutely nothing to do with our reasons of making it. If we try to make it so, something is bound to go down, sooner or later. Making and selling can happen to one person, but there is nothing else in common between those two events (except that they are both very desirable). It is essential to keep oneself genuine. I guess we can all learn from other’s mistakes especially when they can mess up your mind and get you in a strange unproductive mood of self-questioning. Or maybe we all have to make our own mistakes in order to learn from them…

     Featured Workshop: Michael Chesley Johnson
042712_robert-gennMichael Chesley Johnson workshops   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order. 

Station to station

encaustic painting, 18 x 24 inches by Victoria Wallace, Canada

  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 Richard Gagnon of Knowlton, QC, Canada, who wrote, “I am bothered by the comment in the Esoterica section about painters/artists feeling that their work might be substandard. Substandard to whom? If I compared myself to George Stubbs I might never paint again. Basically people will not take a painting if it does not please them.” And also Jim Feeley of Norcross, GA, USA, who wrote, “You never really own something until you give it away.”    

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