Emotions & Art: Do they mix?

Image: Kathe Kollwitz Self-portrait, 1937. The artist at work.

A work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art. – Paul Cezanne

Are you an “emotional artist”? Being a human who makes art and has feelings qualifies you. To confirm it, I think we’ve all had the experience of *wanting* to work on a project, but at the same time not really being “in the mood”. Emotions can be a help or a hindrance; let’s talk about harnessing them to fuel, not foil your art.

The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place… – Pablo Picasso

As artists, whether professional or hobbyist, beginner or advanced, young or old, I believe we SEE more and subsequently FEEL more. Do we need to separate our lives from our art-lives? Keep our artwork free from all “emotional contamination”; feelings like stress, silliness, sadness, anger, love, heartbreak, happiness, frustration, excitement, etc?

An art which isn’t based on feeling isn’t an art at all. – Paul Cezanne

After reading these quotes by Paul Cezanne and other famous artists on the matter I wondered, are they right? Are emotions not a hindrance but rather an essential ingredient to art? I’m sure these artists weren’t encouraging a soap-opera-like existence. Perhaps they were just acknowledging that there are a lot of different emotions in life. Rather than letting positive or negative emotions make it a challenge to pick up a pencil & paper, why not walk your emotions to your easel and put them to work?

Speaking with artists about the topic before writing this article, quite a few said that their best works have been the result of an emotional response. Some artists use artwork to display, further explore and dissect their emotions. Others want to use their medium to display the opposite of what’s going on, as escapism to visualize the ideal. Next time you’re not feeling creatively motivated due to emotions, consider….

For what you’re feeling, ART can be:

An Enhancement: an increase or improvement in quality, value, or extent.

Meditation: deep focus for a period of time, in silence, as a method of relaxation.

Therapy: treatment intended to relieve or heal.

Cathartic: releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions.

A Memoir: a historical account from personal knowledge, an essay on a learned subject.

Expressionism: a style of art in which the artist seeks to express emotional experience.

I had just lost a friend the day before a week-long session I signed up for with a model.  I needed to cancel but a thought stopped me “I’ll be sad here or there, either way, I’ll be sad. There I will at least be doing something.” It was a good decision for me. I look back on that drawing and I don’t know how I did it, but I did. And I’m happy I did.

Mournful and yet grand is the destiny of the artist. – Franz Liszt

Have you ever created art while you were mad? It’s an experience. I change my music. My aesthetic choices get more decisive. I work faster. And before I know it, I’m having fun! Now I’m not encouraging you to go get in a bad mood- I’m just saying when you do, go make some art! It’s a release, like how people go to the gym and use the punching bag.

I love traveling. And nature! So naturally, I’m happy when I’m out somewhere. What better way to catch that overflow of joy than to capture it in a painting? I was on the Hudson River Fellowship in New Hampshire years ago. Looking out onto a breathtaking mountain range, I pulled out my little Moleskine notebook and pen. As simple as my scrawling was, I was gleefully taking notes on something I wanted to remember.

Without emotional content we make pictures; with it, we create art. – Gerald Brommer

Almost every emotion that can keep us away from our easels can actually be rocket fuel for our next great piece. What if you don’t “feel” anything? And that’s a great condition to do art in as well. We can’t be dependent on emotional highs or lows to get creative, especially when art can add so much enjoyment to our lives.

Do you think emotions help or hinder your art? What’s the easiest emotion for you to create with, and what’s the most challenging? Please leave a comment below. I’m curious to see what you have to say.

Artist, DNY Instructor and Author
I love painting faces, flesh, and fabric. The more tactile I can make a painting feel, the more I’m satisfied with it! I feel blessed to make art every day and look forward to the next day to continue my projects. Traveling to teach workshops is also something I can’t believe I get to do.
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Kelly Foss Author
I love painting faces, flesh, and fabric. The more tactile I can make a painting feel, the more I’m satisfied with it! I feel blessed to make art every day and look forward to the next day to continue my projects. Traveling to teach workshops is also something I can’t believe I get to do.
2 Comments
  1. Trying to create art, in itself for me, creates a very strong emotion.; Frustration. I wish I was a talented artist to place my emotions onto a canvas or sketch. I have experienced moments of, what I call, breathing pure oxygen when I let my emotions sink in with singing or writing poetry or lyrics. As the words flow from feelings I can envision strokes of bright green, passionate blues and radiant reds as if a Van Gogh painting in creation. My mother asked me to sing for her on her birthday and I was having a rough day. I let that emotion come out in my voice. I entered a trance letting the emotions consume me. when I came to from that moment, my mother said it was the best I had ever sang. I wish I could be an artist to draw, sketch or paint my emotions. It’s my biggest frustration but thankful that artists can do so to create such beauty in masterpieces.

  2. I haven’t written any poetry in a while, but I have made a pun or two.
    Being able to make people laugh, and groan, can be a fun experience. As it was said by Steve Allen, “Tragedy plus time is comedy”.

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