The power of frustration


Dear Artist,

Zorana Ivcevic Pringle, director of the Creativity and Emotions lab at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, recently surveyed artists to learn what emotions they feel when working. While love, happiness, sadness and nostalgia were heavy hitters, the top and most consistent answer, she discovered, was frustration. Adding to this, when Dr. Pringle expanded her survey to the general population, frustration fell down the list behind things like boredom and anger from people in non-creative fields while it remained, alongside happiness, at the top for people who were highly creative in their jobs. It seems when it comes to creativity, “frustration,” as Elizabeth Gilbert wrote, “is not an interruption of your process; frustration is the process.”

Smoking II, 1973 Oil on canvas 39 1/2 x 67 3/8 inches by Philip Guston (1913-1980)

Smoking II, 1973
Oil on canvas
39 1/2 x 67 3/8 inches
by Philip Guston (1913-1980)

What I’ve noticed about the daily frustrations in my own work is that they’ve forced me to release my attachment to any immediate outcome for my ideas. I just can’t get there efficiently and instead must make a few stops along the creativity trail.

These interruptions might almost make me a Buddhist. During the wax-on, wax-off motion of staple extraction, unrolling, cutting and restretching, for example, something happens inside; I call it, “reappraisal.”

In psychological terms, reappraisal is the act of re-evaluating one’s thoughts in response to a situation. When a desired outcome can’t be reached, says reappraisal, one can identify alternative ways of thinking and manage unpleasant feelings more… manageably. In this way, this letter is a form of reappraisal. The irksome disruption of an otherwise creative good time can, instead of ruining everything, spark the contemplation of better ways to make better art.

The Street, 1977 Oil on canvas 69 × 111 inches by Philip Guston

The Street, 1977
Oil on canvas
69 × 111 inches
by Philip Guston

Here, while perhaps obvious, are a few tested and proven ideas for moving from frustration to reappraisal, from a bona fide expert:

Find yourself a welcoming chair. Stop the work at hand and sit across the room.


Switch to another work. You’d better have something else  going on.


Untitled, 1971 Oil on canvas by Philip Guston

Untitled, 1971
Oil on canvas
by Philip Guston

Clean, tighten or swap out the tool you’re working with. I like a fresh flat brush, springy and straight from its packaging.


Declutter your work area and decrease the visual and audible noise in your space. Just clean up your space.


Take a 10-minute walk, drive or ride. Breathe while doing it.


Drink a glass of water. “When things are shaky and nothing is working,” wrote Pema Chodron, “we might realize that we are on the verge of something.”



The Hill, 1971 Oil on canvas by Philip Guston

The Hill, 1971
Oil on canvas
by Philip Guston

PS: “Frustration is one of the great things in art; satisfaction is nothing.” (Philip Guston)

Esoterica: “Where you stumble, there lies your treasure,” wrote Joseph Campbell of his Hero’s journey. Reappraisal is less about examining the work to see how it can be improved than allowing the mind to focus on another task while it digs into the subconscious for new, less obvious and therefore more imaginative solutions. Your frustration is just a way of reminding you to go there. During reappraisal, I burn a large, English pea-sized blister into the palm of my hand with the handle of my yellow staple gun. I don’t know it’s happening because I’m meditating. Staple removing, while excellent for reappraising, also produces, eventually, freshly stretched canvases. “No pressure, no diamonds.” (Thomas Carlyle)

The Studio, 1969 Oil on canvas by Philip Guston

The Studio, 1969
Oil on canvas
by Philip Guston

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“All the trials we endure cannot be compared to these interior battles.” (Saint Teresa of Avila)






  1. As usual, this letter is so timely as I have 3 paintings on the go and a deadline of May 1st, to get them finished. I started them with loose abandon but am now at a place where the refining threatens to eliminate the spontaneity.
    Sitting across the room is exactly what they need.
    I confess that my go to strategy, of late, has been to go to my iPad which impedes creativity instead of helping. Thank you for always being on the mark!

  2. I remember a letter where your dad suggested leaning a painting-in-the-crossroads against a wall for a bit. That way you come upon it in a different setting. He recommended sneaking up on it, maybe giving is a little side-eye. Thus, you get a different point of view.

    I just change the music. Literally. Philip Glass never disappoints me in the studio.

  3. “A winner never quits, and a quitter never wins.” Frustration is a process of creation, as is doubt and experimentation, but I cannot agree with Philip Guston when he denigrates the power of satisfaction. To me, nothing is quite as satisfying as nailing it….especially after a prolonged period of frustration.

  4. When I first heard the words, “Learning only happens in the hard places,” my knee-jerk reaction was , “That’s not fair!”
    Acknowledging the wisdom in the phrase allows you to embrace chalenge and move ahead.
    Surprisingly, water seems to move those brain cells, too.

  5. Dear Sara,

    This is such a timely message for me to read today. I have been so frustrated with my painting lately that my mind keeps wandering to “Maybe I am just not cut out for this” and “This is too hard for me. Maybe I should give up.” My husband, upon seeing me so upset for much of the past few weeks and also with the best intentions for me, suggested something must be wrong if my art feels so upsetting. After all, shouldn’t doing our artwork make us feel happy?

    I needed to read these words to give me a deeper understanding and realize that this IS the process. It is encouraging to hear other artists out there who are in the same boat and who find the inner strength to fight the battle despite the uncomfortable feelings involved. This was just what I needed. Very grateful to you!

  6. Another wonderful and insightful article by Sarah – thank you!
    Please remember, everyone, that what you just read about frustration has the added dark cloud of covid these days. Be kind and patient with yourself, knowing that when the cloud lifts, your outlook and results may improve.
    Any thoughts on that?

    • Patience is not the coolest of words, there is something old fashioned about it, something non active and wimpy. But patience is vital. There will always be something. Covid is only one thing. When that is passed there will be another thing, another frustration. Patience is accepting and it is a strength. Patience is about faith in ones self, others and life. Patience will get you there without breaking yourself on the back of frustration. Patience will help you wait for your mind and body and energies and to align. Easy does it. When we are patient, we all things to catch up with us.

  7. I forget the “unseen” ones all around me while I work. When a crippling frustration takes hold it is always at some important juncture while working hard on a painting. During those dark moments I hear a gentle voice, “keep working”, as a direct admonishment. I do as told, remembering to give thanks once again. My mind forgets my fear and allows me to no longer be tied to future outcomes or past mistakes. My guidance comes from within and from the unseen ones around me. I could not do this without their help. Let go, let G..

  8. Corinne McNamara on

    Thank you for your insights, Sara! My usual methods for dealing with frustration have been to walk away for a while and/or reorganize my workspace. I tend to stay with my original idea way past its usefulness, which increases my frustration. As I started a quick sketch this morning, I couldn’t figure out how to manage the scene in watercolor. When I stopped and sorted out the sketching space, I saw my colored pencils. So much easier for my subject (white stems, gray foliage). At first, I felt guilty for not continuing with watercolor, but the solution was good enough and only took 10 minutes.

  9. yes yes YES… LOVE THIS!!! I never truly understand myself when it comes to the act of making art. I know my work is decent. I know I am an artist. I know I have years behind me of learning the mediums and getting good results with what I have learned. So why am I constantly having moments of feeling like I am skating on thin ice with every painting? Why do I fear failure? Why the constant voice telling me… you can’t do that, Mary Ann… that won’t work… why? Frustration is huge with every piece. Not entirely, a roller coaster of emotions, the lows of frustration, to the highs of YES, that worked better than I thought it would. Now with my current living situation and painting time limited to less than two hours per stint, I’ve learned to believe this situation is better with dealing with frustration. Less time to over think and over work, more time to reappraise things. Good tips, Sara, love this, thank you!

  10. Great article, Sarah. While I do think some satisfaction from creating art is good, at least in the short term, I agree that frustration is what drives me to continue to experiment, create, and grow as an artist.

  11. Interesting that frustration and creativity seem to work together…At certain times we need to step away, and yet at other times creating in these states of frustration become the fuel for the next breakthrough. Painting is not without its battles and it helps to know we are not alone in them.
    There are ways through blocks, frustrations, uncertainties, fears and doubts…I have found them at the end of my brush as it meets its canvas for yet another dance.

  12. Mª Teresa Dominguez Adell on

    Precisamente ayer 23 de abril me sentí totalmente frustrada. Un cuadro grande de flores y pájaros tropicales me volvía loca y tenía otro encargo del mismo tamaño y parecido tema. Tenía intención de cambiarlo y hacer uno más sencillo, pero tu carta me ha animado. Seguiré. Gracias Sara y a todos por vuestros consejos y opiniones.

  13. let the creativity flow, put it away for few days or tone a fresh canvas. take a walk outside , breathe and ideas will come.
    it will speak to you clearly what to do next.

  14. Pingback: Julie Holmes, Fine Artist, Oil Paintings, Drawings, Still Life, Dreamy Figure Paintings Fleeting Moments - Julie Holmes, Fine Artist, Oil Paintings, Drawings, Still Life, Dreamy Figure Paintings

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