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How Much Emotion Should Go Into Your Art?

How Much Emotion Should Go Into Your Art?

Eric Maisel

Dear Dr. Maisel: I’ve experienced a lot of pain in my life and I’m not sure if I should try to heal from all that pain or keep it alive and use it in my painting? What do you think? Marcia S., Savannah

Hello, Marcia:

Thank you for your question. The answer is: both.

It goes pretty much without saying why you would want to heal from the pain. But why “keep it alive”? Because whatever pain and suffering you’ve experienced in your life has been a blessing at least in the following regard: you now know some true things that you couldn’t have learned any other way. When you paint, you can let in anguish if anguish is called for. When you paint, you can pierce your viewer’s heart. You didn’t ask to experience the pain you felt, but now you can make use of it.

But what if you’ve decided, consciously or out of conscious awareness, to keep your painful feelings and real experiences out of your creative efforts? Many artists do just that. They see what they are doing as an artist as being more about rendering or producing pleasant images or making beautiful things. They feel in the lineage of the youthful Monet whose lakes shimmered rather than the elder Monet whose bridges burned. They prefer a muted palette to the “terrible” reds and greens of a Van Gogh or the Fauves. For them, art is not a place to bring up painful subjects. What if you are one of these artists?

Well, I would suggest that you change your mind, at least for the sake of a little experimentation. If you won’t shed your blood right into your art, don’t you fear for your process and your products? Maybe your reply is “I’m a color field painter and all I need to concern myself with are the relationships of colors and shapes” or “I take an intellectual approach to collage and deal with formal abstraction, not feelings.” I can’t argue with you—but I do wonder. Don’t you think you are both losing something and missing something? Don’t you suppose that a desire to be all brain or to be all pleasant feelings must have ramifications, both in your personal life and in your creative life? Isn’t the unacknowledged pain that you may be trying to bury away—about a relationship failure, not getting that gallery show you coveted, not being loved in childhood, or the envy you felt at a colleague’s success—likely an anchor keeping your art from soaring? Isn’t it possible that if you acknowledge your pain and allow yourself a new freedom to feel you might liberate your best work?

If you want to unleash some feelings and see how that affects your art-making, consciously decide to recollect a painful episode in your life and paint while recollecting. You do not need (or want) to actually feel the feelings; just acknowledge their reality. Acknowledge that you have bled in the past as you work in the present and see what new art arises. Consider this an experiment that you decide to engage in for the sake of your creativity and for the sake of your humanity.

Maybe you will find yourself bewildered at the canvas, unsure of what to paint or what to do with your recollected thoughts and feelings. No one likes to feel bewildered. I don’t like it and I’m sure you don’t either. But disliking that feeling and avoiding it at all costs are two different things. The Sufi poet Rumi said it beautifully: “Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment.” A creative person ought to make an effort to embrace bewilderment, even though she dislikes and even dreads the feeling, because it is out of such “not knowing” that great work appears.

Still, most people, artists included, prefer to avoid feelings like bewilderment. What do they do to avoid such feelings? They may do something easy, someone rote, something repetitive, something formulaic, or something safe. They make a painting like the painting that sold last week or include imagery they find easiest to render—their signature horse, dog, and barn imagery—or employ designs that can be laid down with rulers and compasses. They do not sweat as they paint, as they are encountering no dangers … and taking no risks.

Next: Better to Sweat. Better to Risk →

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