The artistic personality


Dear Artist,

This week, after hearing from all my HSP friends and receiving confirmation from amused non-HSPs, I thought further about my Dad’s remarks on how the rates of HSPs amongst artists are much higher than the 15% tracked in the general population. I wondered, “is there such a thing as an ‘artistic personality?’”

 Yogurt (from Emoji series), 2018 Screenprint in colors on Arches 88 paper Edition of 50 33.25 x 28 inches by John Baldessari (1931 – 2020)

Yogurt (from Emoji series), 2018
Screenprint in colors on Arches 88 paper
33.25 x 28 inches
by John Baldessari (1931 – 2020)

I remembered the special dispensations I was given by my teachers at school for infractions like a paint-splattered, rumpled uniform and non-regulation shoes (for studio), for being late, or overly demonstrative. These exonerations – these recognitions – made me feel special at the time and I suspect I took them as a cue to lean into some traits I believed would help me embody the artist I wanted to become. My Mum, up until her death, loved to retell a favourite story of how I once met her and my Dad at a fundraising gala wearing a snappy red dress – and my hands stained up to my wrists with phthalo blue. A few years into adulthood and professional life, I cottoned on to the notion that being late, being rumpled and being blue were going to have nothing to do with the success of my campaign in visual art. After all, I was only barely a garret-dwelling urchin of La Belle Époque, and, mostly, not a modern-day enfant terrible. Like starving or being a sociopath, these tropes of the artistic personality, if I could help it, were not going to be me, and I did not want to become them.

Prima Facie (Third State) : Inconsolable / Exuberant, 2005 Digital photographic impression and acrylic mounted on linen 47 x 75.9 inches by John Badelssari

Prima Facie (Third State) : Inconsolable / Exuberant, 2005
Digital photographic impression and acrylic mounted on linen
47 x 75.9 inches
by John Badelssari

Recently, a staff writer for the Atlantic named Olga Khazan launched her own campaign of personal, personality improvement. A self-proclaimed neurotic introvert, Khazan wondered if she might be happier and healthier if she could raise her personality test scores in the areas of extroversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness and openness. At the time, she was only really hitting it out of the park in neuroticism. After consulting with brain and happiness experts, Khazan took an improv class, downloaded a meditation app, started a gratitude journal and became the only non-court appointed attendee at a clinic for anger management. After three months, she retook the test to see if her scores had budged.

It turns out, according to current scholarship at least, while between 30 and 50 percent of our personality traits are inherited, the rest is mostly circumstantial – mutable depending on our environment, and even what’s comfy. We also all possess something psychologists call, “free traits” – out of character traits we can use when in special situations, or that we fall back on when stressed. Think of the introvert who skillfully presents at a talk, because it matters, or a fearful person who lashes out, unexpectedly. “Everyone is always and everywhere, more or less consciously, playing a role,” wrote early 20th century sociologist Robert Ezra Park. “It is in these roles that we know each other; it is in these roles that we know ourselves.”

Studio, 1988 Colour Lithograph and Screenprint 25.5 x 34 inches by John Baldessari

Studio, 1988
Colour Lithograph and Screenprint
25.5 x 34 inches
by John Baldessari



PS: “Grumpy, taciturn, impatient flight attendant isn’t going to last, nor is a sweet, engaging, and forgiving bill collector. But a person who is not biogenically suited to a certain role may still desire to fill it. So to survive in their fields, they become site-specific free-trait adopters.” (Brian Little, from his 2017 book, Who Are You, Really?: The Surprising Puzzle of Personality)

Esoterica: Personality tests like the 1962 one written by Isabelle Briggs Myers and Katharine Cook Briggs – fiction writers with no formal training in psychology – are these days, falling from the throne of being corporate steak towards being completely meaningless. It turns out, human beings cannot and should not be broken down into types, when they more accurately move between personality realms depending on conditions and life stage. On top of this, when used to assess students or workers for hireability or competence, these quizzes become ableist, racist, classist and sexist. Today, I find myself blue again. Research on grief tells me that it is all, simply a part of the experience of being human. I have not lost interest in painting; in fact, painting is more engaging than ever. Apparently, being human, well, includes understanding that sorrow and joy can exist simultaneously. Personality psychologist Brian Little says throwing around our free traits, while doing wonders for fitting in or advancing goals, can, if overused, be harmful. The result can be burnout, resentment and cynicism if one starts to feel like they cannot be their authentic self. “An artist,” wrote Charles Baudelaire, “is only an artist on condition that he neglects no aspect of his dual nature. This dualism is the power of being oneself and someone else at one and the same time.”

 What This Painting Aims to Do, 1966–1968. Acrylic and oil on canvas 67 7/8 × 56 9/16 inches by John Baldessari

What This Painting Aims to Do, 1966–1968
Acrylic and oil on canvas
67 7/8 × 56 9/16 inches
by John Baldessari

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“What the artist does is jump-start your mind and make you see something fresh, as if you were a visitor to the moon. An artist breathes life back into stereotypes.” (John Baldessari)






  1. Sara, there’s a lot of food for thought with this one! So sorry you’re feeling blue, but just the realization “that sorrow and joy can exist simultaneously” may help. The story about your other ‘blue period’ with your blue stained hands and your red dress–a perfect foil for a conversation starter: “You’re an artist aren’t you? (Answer: whatever gave you that idea?!). It can also work as a form of free advertising as a way of letting people know you’re an artist out in public. This happened to me when I was painting outdoors with two other women artists, and we took a break to run to a convenience store for snacks. The only one of us who was assumed to be an artist was the woman whose entire paint-splattered white outfit, from hat, T-shirt, and pants to sneakers caught the attention of the store clerk. Before we left the store, this artist had already received an order for a painting from the clerk!

  2. first of all, I don’t know what an HSP artist or friend is! I’ve been a reader of your Dad’s blogs and his books. I fear that I am being left behind with all of this neuro-psychological nonsense. I was hoping that this letter would relate.

  3. So much food for thought. Thank You. I don’t know if just having blue hands makes you an artist – but knowing to have them, of course along with the red dress – does.

  4. Interestingly enough, this article is sooooo timely. Every since I was a child, I made things, drew things, and simply “did my thing.” I even got in trouble for daydreaming. I still look for Santa flying in the night and believe in magic. Yeppers, a big weirdo. I actually painted with asphalt to get a certain look for a standing, kinetic structure. My friend told me, “Charvet, you have been wearing Cargo shorts before they were a thing.” I told her, “I like all the pockets for my stuff.” So now that I have learned to be “sophisticated,” I had to take a Gallup Strength Finder Survey for my current job. I had 20 seconds each for 177 questions to determine my strengths to build team synergy, yet I am an independent contractor working remotely. And, the questions were geared with, e.g, “Do you like horses ? and the other side “Do you like dogs?” Well, I walk my dog by the horses and I love my dog, and I also love the way the horse comes galloping to me when I whistle. I kept telling. myself, “You know sometimes I feel like this and sometimes I feel like this.” I more so go with how the universe makes me feel. So, as the article states to pigeonhole someone into “this is who you are and how you do things” well hit home with me because I kind of always have done my own thing and love life with all its glory.

  5. In a “past life” in the corporate world, my employer mandated all employees take a personality test. Then they applied an actual label to the employee like “doer”, “controller”, “analyzer”, etc. After receiving my label, I found myself viewing my work and actions through the lense of that label. Makes me feel dirty to think about it. Now I need a shower. Lol!
    Thank you for the thought provoking article! Have a terrific weekend everyone!

  6. When I was in university studying dance, I wanted to express myself so badly, but did not yet have the knowledge to do it. I cried every day after class. An instructor of mine told me if I didn’t stop, she was going to make me go to counselling. Another instructor just laughed and said, “ You’ll grow out of it when you are better able to express the way you want to.”
    When I told my Dad this, he said “You have always been an emotional human being. There is nothing wrong with that!”
    I did grow out of it, and became a professional dancer, often being called “Wonderfully transparent on stage.”
    Now I paint and have gone through this same learning curve once again, but I understand and completely accept the HSP thing now and the same drive to express through movement drives my paint brush! Cheers!

  7. I’m surprised no one on this forum has asked if Olga Khazan’s personality test scores changed after her attempt at a personality makeover. That was the first thing I thought of. So Sara, did they change?

  8. I decided to paint 30 years ago as a hobby for retirement. I was looking for a new interest and challenge that would last me for the rest of my life. It has been a voyage of discovery of my true introverted HSP personality. I mostly paint landscapes to express my love of nature and the Universe. Painting in my studio with my favourite music playing provides a time of solace and peace from the busyness of the world. It has become an avocation for me with the additional benefit of meeting wonderful people along the way through Art clubs, Shows and classes.

  9. Alicia Laumann on

    I learned the meaning of HSP through the last Painters Keys blog. Now I know why it bothers me when I hear people talking loud or when I hear neighbours or passers by when reading a book. Same thing doesn’t affect my husband. Regarding personality traits, it is important for companies to determine the applicant’s traits as you can teach people many things but you cannot change their personality. I found that we can try to change certain aspects of our behaviour but it is not easy to do so. Always looking forward to Painters Keys.

  10. Interesting article, with many points to ponder.!
    Like some above commentators I had no idea what an HSP was ( you may want to edit in an explanation in future versions of this excellent article.) Also, unless I missed it, at the end, we are left wondering what DID happen after Olga Khazan “retook the test to see if her scores had budged. ” If you do disclose that, I am missing it somehow! ;-)
    Despite these reading bumps, I really relate to this piece, how we build out identity and how it builds us! Thanks

  11. I do like how you follow the threads of thoughts from one newsletter to the next on here. Even your Dad’s letter reposted and commented on often brings a follow up newsletter from you with further contemplations on the original idea. Reassuring to come here and feel like we are part of something and it’s not all just a coin toss of algorithms. :) ANYWAYS… this topic is something I keep replaying all the time in my mental audio. Who am I? What is my story? Age brings new views of past dances in life where I can’t understand why I put myself through experiences I was not enjoying at all. At least, I don’t feel joy in most of those trigger moments. I feel the gut ache of anxiety and pressure from trying to be something I felt I “should be” because I wanted to fit in. I don’t know if it’s anything to do with art at all. I think it’s more social acceptance and success in others eyes. I wish I stayed home more and burned my Super Woman cape because what I was doing had nothing to do with me making art. I miss my mom, too. But thank goodness I remember pretty well every conversation we ever had, the arguments, the philosophical ramblings, the hilarious moments, everything. So Mom is still guiding me along the way. Only now, I am listening more and have stopped arguing with her. :) Thank you for your words, Sara, always look forward to them!!

  12. Really good letter, especially when coupled with the previous one about HSAs. And grief does come and go, doesn’t it? My husband died suddenly two and a half years ago, and while my life has moved on tremendously, my grief has only moved slightly, though happily, it is not with me All The Time anymore – which does make it even more surprising when it returns.

    Did the Atlantic writer’s personality change at all???

    Thank you for these letters. They offer help, inspiration, insight and companionship.

  13. I’m not a believer in personality tests (ugh, phony) and thought the HSP test had way too many questions that were essentially the same. I do believe there’s something to switching between facets of our personalities as needed. I often find myself struggling with the opposite of the “sensitive” label … other artists think that I’m too analytical or think too much instead of just doing my work intuitively. Probably left over from my career in advertising, where ideas and words had to be clearly and creatively executed within 30 seconds. Because I started painting later in life, I feel a lot of pressure to figure out exactly what I’m trying to say, how to say it originally and how to execute it perfectly … asap. I don’t have the luxury of decades and youth to develop skills or find my way. All that focus does occasionally lead to burnout, so it’s a tricky line to walk.

  14. I’m new here and thought I’d add my 2 cents.
    Besides being a life-long painter, I spent 30+ years as a counselor, art therapist, and psychotherapist. There are a lot of personality tests designed for different purposes. To me the test that has value for the person tested is one that provides new understanding and validation of oneself. It can be an “a-ha!” moment.
    Many of us artists grow up feeling different. From a very young age through my adult life I had that feeling. I wanted to be average and fit in, yet I held on tight to being unique. There can be a yo-yo effect of resistance and conforming.
    A few years back I read a book , The Gifted Adult by Mary-Elaine Jacobsen and it was profoundly validating. The idea of being “gifted” rubbed me the wrong way because I hated any hint of an idea of being superior. I just want everyone to be treated equally. Once I delved into this book and took the self-assessment it explained a lot of the various intensities that have characterized my life. I realized that I needed to let myself shine in the world, to stop hiding my gifts, and to let go of trying to fit in.
    Having an understanding of oneself that’s grounded in self acceptance is a valuable tool, no matter what test or reading or feedback informs us. In the studio we get to engage with our gifts, whether it’s an intellectual analytic ability, a passionate and spontaneous expression of feeling, or a visually perceptive sensitivity to colors, forms, and light. And we also get to put our art out into the world for others to see. Like, here it is, like it or not.
    Being an artist is really something to be grateful for and celebrate!

  15. Hi Sara, Thank YOU!

    so many wonderful comments to reply to…so little Time. Thank you for THIS! THIS article was so awesome (as I used to work with
    special needs children- (aren’t we ALL?)

    I am “naturally messy” but “not really” as I am always on time, well organized and such. …My art is , when it’s done, quite “controlled” looking, in its wildness-feeling…

    and when a collector comes by (I just sold 4 pieces yesterday! YAY!) the house is swept, my hair is washed and I put on “good” jeans, new boots and even mascara ha ha.

    My outward personality shines and everyone is left feeling like (to quote a fellow animator friend from the 1997- ies) “Prozac with out the side effects” :)

    Oh and one adult waiting for her child over 20 years ago, had asked “are you the art teacher?”
    She had (correctly) noticed me for my orange (yes cargo pants!)

    -yes I agree, they have great pockets (Rick Charvet’s comment) and I had them since the 70s (“male army pants” ) before they were a thing) I had forgotten that “orange” may have been a dead giveaway at the time most people wore black white and grey . cheers to knowing & experiencing ourselves fully! xox KAREN DUPLISEA ‘s comments – I relate !

    It’s almost Spring. Yay. Paintings by Julie Northey on Facebook,

  16. Dear Sara,

    I missed the passing of your mother in the summer… and appreciated hearing her story now. I wonder how you are doing with your grief now…? I lost my mother in 2017 and she still whispers in my ear. Likely will forever.

    I appreciate you and your letters very much… somehow magically on point almost every time.

    Be well.

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No Featured Workshop
16 x 20 inches
Acrylic on canvas

Featured Artist

The way that I interpret what I see

is my Way.

I paint, because it’s the most satisfying way that I’ve found

to be myself.

Fish swim.

Birds fly.

I paint.


On canvas,

with acrylics.



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