Artists go to their studios for a variety of reasons. These can include a desire for wealth and fame, a deep-seated passion for art, a need to communicate ideas, the love of process and play, a sense of societal obligation, the fear of having to take a regular job, prior failures or incompetence in other professions, distaste for conventional work, a feeling of comfort and sanctuary that comes from private creativity, trying to get away from someone or from people in general, a need to explore one’s own potential, avoiding domesticity or less-than-challenging pursuits, familial, parental or peer expectations, etc. For many creative folks, the need for garden-variety cash flow may be rather down the list.
Recent research seems to show that a small but significant subset goes to work because relaxation stresses them out. Apparently some “driven” folks may just have a need to be busy. They have what psychologists are now calling “relaxation-induced anxiety.”
I’d appreciate if you didn’t mention this to anyone, but I have it. When I was in grade five I gave a show-and-tell called “Bobby’s Hobbies” in which I explained my drawing, painting, bird-watching, woodland exploration, collecting of stamps, seashells, beach wood, mechanical gadgets, mushroom spore-prints and broken clocks. I was as busy as a one-armed man using dental floss. Our teacher, Miss Ayliff, a certified joy-denier if there ever was one, told the class, “All work and no play make Bobby a dull boy.”
Christina Luberto, head of a current relaxation study at the University of Cincinnati, thinks that the paradoxical increase in anxiety as a result of relaxation is more common than we might think. In her study, individuals were asked to fill out a questionnaire called The Relaxation Sensitivity Index. It turns out that people with high relaxation sensitivity were also high in anxiety.
That was me in grade five — anxious. Relaxing gave me the unpleasant feeling of losing control. In later life I’ve come to see control as a mixed blessing but also key to generating creativity and finding success.
The Miss Ayliffs of this world have got it quite wrong. As studio proprietors, we learn that work is play. With no boss, no committee and no band of demanding customers in the waiting room, it’s a dream of a job. And I’m not sure, but I don’t think it makes you dull.
PS: “We wanted to develop a test to examine why certain individuals fear relaxation events or sensations associated with taking a time-out just to relax.” (Christina Luberto)
Esoterica: In my studies of artists’ motivation, I’ve found that the reasons given are not always the real reasons. Artists need to find and understand the primal truth of their own motivations. The more I look at it, the more I realize that habits do more to form success than perhaps any other factor. If you happen to be one of those artists who regularly avoids lethargy and laying about, you may have been blessed with the habit of work. Don’t be anxious about it.
Love your job while you’ve got it
by Peter Zirpke, West Vancouver, BC, Canada
Being too much in a non-productive mode can be stressful. I am a retired guy, having worked in construction all my life creating legacies that will outlast me and future generations. I now feel frustrated to be without a daily schedule and a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. I do a bit of ‘painting’ but that doesn’t help! In my active years I had enthusiasm about work and felt that work was actually fun and therefore psychologically satisfying. With that feeling, one cannot help but succeed in one’s career. I just wish more people in their younger years would have that attitude towards their daily ‘grind’ and thereby enjoying the fruits of their labor. Apparently 92% of people hate their job!
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Lost in la-la land
by Vivian Sathre, Tucson, AZ, USA
“Unproductive” relaxation seems like a waste of time and time is precious. (I’m thinking TV, computer games, etc.) When I was a writer I read many, many books, enjoying every minute of reading. It was research in my field of work. I needed to do it so plopping on the couch with a good book for hours wasn’t at all sinful. As an artist, taking time out to sit for long periods to read a novel makes me feel like I’m being lazy and wasting time. Instead I could be spending that time painting. Artists know that being an artist is work. But most people in the arts enjoy their jobs. I enjoy getting messy and asking myself questions that lead to thinking differently than other folks. What color should I make that grass? Not green. Not gold. Hmmm. Would purples and blues work? And in that instant I’m lost in la-la land. Hours will pass while I’m there. Then suddenly I’ll surface like Alice coming out of the rabbit hole and realize it’s time to cook dinner. But I decide to paint for another fifteen minutes and that leads to dropping down the hole and getting lost in la-la land again. What a fabulous way to relax!
The greatest of blessings
by Makiwa Mutomba, Pretoria, South Africa
If this so-called “relaxation induced anxiety” is what you describe, then I too “suffer” from it. While those around me somehow look at me with pity me for what they regard as “working too hard,” the truth I never say is that I find “working to be more relaxing than relaxing.” If I do not paint for a few days I feel physically sick.
When this crazy addiction called painting took over my life 13 years ago, leading to my dropping out of an Electronic Engineering Degree Course to paint full time, I initially tried to fight the “relaxation induced anxiety,” but over the years I have come to accept this as the greatest of blessings. We artists have the best job in the world!
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No 12-step program for this addiction
by Warren Criswell, Benton, AR, USA
Art is our addiction. If we’re kept out of the studio for very long, withdrawal symptoms set in. Or even sometimes in the studio, when nothing is coming down, the muse is not singing, and I’m puttering around, cleaning up, working on the website, etc., a strange feeling of guilt comes creeping in. I pick up a brush like an alcoholic picks up the bottle. The difference is, nobody has yet come up with a 12-step program for our particular addiction. For us — even though for some of us it might be better to go out and get a job like a normal person — the only happiness is off the wagon. The paradox is–we can relax only when we’re working!
But I have my doubts about one thing you said: “Artists need to find and understand the primal truth of their own motivations.” Even though finding out that dark secret probably wouldn’t cure us … it might be better not to know.
by Pat Merriman, NC, USA
For the first time in my life, the time in the studio is relaxation; a sort of meditation time creating — sometimes when I look at the creation the next day it is awful, but the process of creating is one where I lose all sense of time, day to day hassles, etc. I think for a type A personality (me), time in the studio creating is bliss. Now the details of framing, making labels, measuring, inventory are not creative and don’t have that “feel” of timelessness. As a retired psychologist, I don’t like the label of “relaxation-induced anxiety.” Maybe those researchers need to define what they call relaxation. I read the newspaper for about an hour, dive into mysteries after 9 pm and I call that relaxation, not the creative process.
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Blame it on a driven father
by Deborah Kutch, USA
I love this. I think I have it. It comes from a driven father. We were never ever allowed to sit idle for long even when we were little. We were required to be doing something constructive unless we were asleep. As a result I am constantly busy. Painting has been a great gift to me. I do not work out of my home; my painting is my work and I have a daily schedule, with two 20- minute breaks included. I can never complete the twenty minutes. I am usually back at the easel after grabbing a quick cup of tea. But I feel good, as if I am really working and accomplishing, and not wasting my time doing something that has taken many years to learn. So he was right, stay busy, relaxation an anxiety or not. Thanks Dad.
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The value of big, ambiguous problems
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
In your letter you mix what I call work with mission. Too much work makes me immensely dull, but my mission is what keeps me alive. It is my most unique contribution — it captures my attention and makes best use of my abilities.
When I am alone or in a good company, all the chores are done, and the vibe is good, the only enemy can be the internal doubtful overachiever. I’m finding out that as one gets older, this annoying personality is easier to quiet down. But in worst cases, one sure way to knock it out is by diving into some outrageously tedious activity, like detailed drawing or making color swatches. Examination of stamps or needlepoint would work as well. This creature thrives on big ambiguous poorly defined problems, but it takes a hike as soon as you pull out a (real or proverbial) magnifying glass. It might be that our healthy ego doesn’t like to feel very small.
Prints as adjuncts to paintings
by Robert McCormick, Ashland, PA, USA
Can you share your thoughts on the issue of making prints of your paintings. One friend says it’s better to make prints because more people come to recognize your work, thus, increasing the value of the originals. Another suggests that it’s a bad idea. First of all, it can become expensive; secondly, why should a potential customer pay for the original if he can decorate his space more cheaply with a good print?
Personally, I (like many) don’t particularly enjoy the business end of making art. Yes, I like providing folks with affordable copies of some of my work, but more and more I find that I just want to paint and send the piece on its way…come what may…and move on to the next challenge. The printing, matting, framing, packing, pricing, delivering becomes too time consuming, and I don’t want to do it.
(RG note) Thanks, Robert. I agree with you. While I’ve made a few prints, reproductions and giclees in my life, it has always struck me as a redundant commercial adjunct to the daily joy of painting. I am relatively happy, however, with the hundred or so hand-pulled serigraphs I made over a twenty year period. They were all low edition, multi-screen efforts that I couldn’t have done without the help of similarly joyous assistants. The serigraphs have retained their colour, are representative of periods of my style and will continue to be reasonable investments for those who collect them.
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Art is about wondering
by Catherine Nash, Tucson, AZ, USA
I find that almost everything I have pursued as an adult I either explored as a child or made a focused promise to myself to do “when I grew up.” I also was a major overachiever (my Girl Scout badges completely went around the back of the sash back up to my shoulder…)
Starting with announcing that art was my profession at five, I decided would someday live in Japan when I was seven and at 14, committed to living in Paris to study art. I drew and painted every free moment, studied wild edible foods and native plants from 12 on and began to study French at the first opportunity in 7th grade. With my old salt of a father, I sailed at every opportunity and camped out of doors wondering at the night sky. My first job at 15 and those thereafter ’til age 25 were working in greenhouses, nurseries and designing perennial flower gardens (I put myself through my BFA working with plants.)
I bought a one-way ticket to Europe and managed to live in Paris for 2 years; Studied woodblock printing and papermaking (made of plants!) on my own steam and design in Japan twice and have now as a specialist in paper made from native plants, have taught Japanese and Western papermaking/contemporary sculptural paper in 8 European countries, Australia, Japan and across the U.S. I teach many facets of plein air mixed media drawing as a faculty member of the AZ Sonora Desert Museum Art Institute. In this economy, my need to “do,” flexible problem-solving, an ability to juggle smaller jobs and commissions, not to mention a consistent creative output have served me well.
My art is about my wondering (still) at the sky and space and the sheer beauty of nature. And, as a landlocked sailor living in the dry southwestern Arizonan deserts, my sculptural work often incorporates mythical boats that sprout tiny leaves.
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A blessed event (with art)
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA
Last week, Hunter Smith walked into my studio and shyly asked if I knew of a way to use a painting as part of a marriage proposal. While I’d never done anything like that before, it was an intriguing idea, for sure. And there was not much time to come up with a plan. Kali James would be here in a few days. After kicking a few ideas around (Hunter suggested that I might paint the words “will you marry me” onto an actual painting) we finally decided on attaching a note to the back of one of my paintings. He came by yesterday with his handwritten note, sealed in an envelope, which I taped to the back of a small painting he liked. He wanted his proposal to be a complete surprise, and since his girlfriend loves art, he figured it would be easy to suggest they step into my studio on their stroll around downtown Gainesville. His plan was flawless. They arrived around 6:30, on their way to dinner, and he picked up a few small paintings to show her before finally handing her THE painting. I’d attached a big white bow to the back of the envelope, so she couldn’t help noticing. I can’t imagine what she thought, discovering a note addressed to her on the back of a randomly selected painting in a quiet storefront studio she’d never visited before.
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Enjoy the past comments below for The stress of relaxation…
watercolour painting, 13.5 x 18 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 Claudette LeeRoseland of Grafton, WI, USA, who wrote, “Could it be that we are all hyperactive adults?”
And also Richard Gagnon of Knowlton, QC, Canada, who wrote, “I didn’t see the fear of being alone with one’s thoughts on the list, although I see the advantage of allowing a creative mind to wander, but perhaps not too far.”