Understanding studio stress


Dear Artist,

These days there’s a growth industry in what has been called the “modern epidemic.” Stress-related disorders affect 80% of the population. Funny, you’d think that there might have been more stress in the old days when folks were regularly eaten by wolves. Apparently not. Nowadays we are cooking up our own stress. “Stress is the body’s automatic default reaction to perceived threat,” says stress management guru Eli Bay. His Relaxation Response Institute in Toronto, Canada, offers deep breathing, nose-breathing focus, positive affirmations and other techniques to bring the body and mind into a state of calm. “You don’t have to believe in it,” says Bay, “You just have to do it. What’s real is what you experience.” Eli and other therapists offer what sounds like an artist’s wish list: More energy, calmer disposition, more control, clearer thinking, improved memory, increased productivity, enhanced creativity.


“Artist in his studio” photographic self-portrait
by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)

Many artists find that confident attention to a doable process is in itself the therapy that reduces stress. While it’s been my observation that beginning artists often have “art stress,” this is another matter and comes with the territory. Art stress tends to dissipate as confidence grows — until that wonderful day when full competency appears and the artist works joyfully and stress free. Only one problem — that day never arrives.

But in a world of tranks and Prozac, what is called the “Relaxation response” is a valuable creative tool — the creator slips into a languid “joy mode” where work flows relatively freely and almost unconsciously. Like deep breathing, there’s value in deep creativity. Getting into this state, artists ought to take a look at their body language and posture. Focus on what the back, legs and arms are actually doing — and, if necessary, correct them. Properly configured, art making reduces stress.


“Self-portrait as a sick person”
painting by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

Something else to consider is the sensible replacement of ordinary life stresses with noble stresses. Like a lot of engaging, absorbing activities — stamp collecting, bird watching, canoe building, art making takes the edge from the stresses of life and provides a sanctuary from them. Probably wrongly, I’ve always thought that art was the highest calling.

Best regards,



“Double Self-portrait”
painting by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

PS: “Unfortunately, it’s much easier to pop a pill, than it is to develop a skill.” (Eli Bay)

Esoterica: Some stress managers for the studio are RPS, OSPZ and MAD. “Relaxed Pressure Scheduling” (RPS) is a laid back, self-generated plan where work-pressure is gently moved from external demand to internal government. “Off-Station Play Zones” (OSPZ, Say: “I’m going for some osspeezee.”) means outside-the-studio activities, including non-creative hobbies, social and physical interests. MAD is the simple and basic solution for the stress caused by the drooling wolf at the door: “Make A Delivery.”


This letter was originally published as “Understanding studio stress” on May 21, 2004.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was a leading figure in the early-20th-century German Expressionist group Die Brücke. His art was labeled as “degenerate” by the Nazis in the 1930s, and he would commit suicide in 1938.

kirchner_-_die_amselfluhDid you know you can sign up to be a Premium Artist for $200 a year? Many artists have found this beneficial. Sign up here.

“I go to great pains to mask the agony. But the struggle is there. It’s the invisible enemy.” (Richard Diebenkorn)



  1. Well- you may hate this- but so what. And you can judge my comment as much as you want- but I won’t care.
    Ya wanna relieve your stresses? Clear your mind? Access your creativity? Open to greater inspiration? Completely relax? HAVE SEX.
    Have it with yourself. Have it with a partner. Have a lot of it. Have it everyday if you want. If a partner isn’t interested- or worse- if a partner only causes more stress- fix that problem. Keep your sexual self clear- and most of the rest of your life will be clear too. Have relationship problems? Figure out your dysfunctional sexual self. Why? Because- like survival and a connection to the earth- your sexual self is a root problem. Want greater clarity in the entire rest of your experience? Make sure your sexual self is healthy. If the energy that is your sexual self builds up- then move it. The rest of your life will be better. Pleasuring others reduces external stress. Pleasuring yourself removes internal stress build-up.
    Now if your religion suggests otherwise- you “believe” in a dysfunctional religion. And if your relationship (with somebody) doesn’t accommodate a healthy sexual self- then get therapy- or a new relationship that does.
    I’m a full-time working artist- who does many other things too- but who doesn’t have a “day job”. I have only one hobby. And that hobby- is sex.

  2. Painting for me can be extremely stressful at times. I reach a point where it seems nothing is working in the painting I am doing. When that happens, and it almost always does, I lift my eyes for a moment and I listen carefully to the “unseen” ones. “Just work” they almost always tell me through my tears of frustration. With such demands of encouragement, I plod on. I am no longer thinking about the outcome, when suddenly I can hit a stride. I find my thoughts wandering now, and I no longer struggle with every brush stroke. I forget I am painting. The dreamlike flow of creative consciousness carries me swiftly on wings of glistening color, as hours go by and then suddenly I stop, and there on my easel in front of me is what I was needing all along. Now, calm and joy-filled again, I take a brisk walk, and give thanks, till next time. :)

  3. Stress can arrive in many forms. What I liked about Robert’s post, is the need to pay attention to your own posture while working. I never really gave it much thought; but I realize our body needs physical breaks just like our mind needs quiet breaks. I started a restorative yoga practice recently and have really enjoyed the quiet meditative inward process of my being. Stillness, helps to be connected with God in a most contemplative way. The result is less stress coupled with inner peace and a knowing of what to do next in creativity. Thank you, Sara! This post came to me at the right time!

  4. Yesterday I was painting with a nagging suspicion I might be on the edge of “over-thinking” this piece. The color was bugging me, hence, stress lurking in the back of my mind. Then I realized I had to wrap up to get ready for students coming for a class, and I quickly made some broad color changes. Suddenly I had my new direction and stress evaporated. I often tell myself to “trust and proceed”, to borrow a phrase from my daughter’s mentor. Sometimes our answers are only a few brush strokes away. Trust brings peace, and stress diminishes. Deep breaths are good!

  5. HELPFUL – stress IS.

    But take heart – as we age, some kinds of stress do diminsh –
    – we get good at what we do and the pathways to success in the painting get friendlier
    – we learn to stop forcing paths that will NOT open up if we live to be a hundred
    – we learn “work-pressure is gently moved from external demand to internal government.” thanks for that great point.
    – we learn that you CANNOT force some creative moments and we simply put the brush down and go do something else
    – we learn to get physical – the breathing things. Getting up and jumping around for a minute, or doing a body check to see if we’ve been tuning out that neck pinch or back cramp that was freezing our brush hand.

    Many blocks , mental and physical will yield to a sip of water.

    Thank you again RGENN and Sarah for upholding his super and easy-listening insights.


    p.s. he criticized your work, though? no … he would never do that. :-) Your things are the proof of “every generation better” e.

    • I almost forgot the “God factor” – if you are a believer in any Source of Life – it can help with Conceit-based Stress.

      One of the sisters was helping us win a competition – not by pressuring our humanity but by acknowledging it and the divinity. We’d put a cross at the top of the paper and remember to think, “NOT me – but God THRU me” – then it’s easier. The stress remains to be a good instrument for the Source of ALL Life – whether it be the Genome, or a life force or God , in your belief system…..but , if nothing else, it liberates us from dumpster thinking on the subject.

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