Does making melancholy art make you sadder?
May 10, 2016 10:49 PM   Subscribe

I put away my pencils, paints, and Wacom tablet a couple years ago due to intense depression. The work wasn't going well and I had nothing to say. I'm still intensely depressed and I still have nothing to say, but I decided to waste a few hours with some portrait sketches yesterday. But everything I make wants to be sad, and I'm not sure that sadness art is good for me.

Before I gave up on all creative endeavors, I was making truly vapid sci-fi/fantasy character art or intensely sad (and wholly uninteresting or original) portraits with some fantastical elements. Fast forward to Christmas when I got some premium coloring books as part of the adult coloring craze. I dusted off my Polychromos and Prismas and started coloring. I'm the weirdo who does light sources, shading, complementary color schemes, all that. No flat fields of color for me. And I was enjoying putting color on paper and the freedom of not having to come up with my own subjects. But over time I found myself frustrated with anatomical errors and poor perspective, low quality paper, that sort of thing. I'm still coloring, but I decided it was time to dig up the Wacom to see if I could remember how to paint in Photoshop. But less than 24 hours later I feel dejected.

See, when I am in control of the subject, I just want to make sad things. Gone are the brilliant peacock and jewel-toned color schemes on display in my coloring books. It's all half-finished monochromatic value studies of depressed looking young women with no bodies, and no other subject seems to inspire me. I can't tell if it's worth my time to keep making these things. I'm not progressing, I'm too depressed to learn how to do anything else, and while I get some satisfaction out of spending hours painting melancholy women with unusual hair, I'm not sure that it's a useful experience. And, last but not least to someone with low self-esteem who is obsessively hypercritical, there are other artists (Jennifer Healey, Marco Mazzoni) who do beautiful melancholia much better than I do. So the subject isn't even interesting or unique and I am comparatively terrible at it. I didn't even bother uploading any of the works I was doing before I quit because they'd just be poor knockoffs of people who do it better.

Some people will tell me to try different subjects, and it's a valid point. But before I quit art a couple years ago I tried out the mixed media journaling thing. Unfortunately, the whole intended message behind the process feels inauthentic to me. I can finish a 2 page spread that has some positive message in fancy lettering, but I hate it when I'm done and I feel like I'm doing it for someone else. But I'm also not sure that journals and digital sketchbooks filled to the brim with depression and hopelessness aren't self-reinforcing in some way.

So I do nothing. Except color in frustrating coloring books with terrible paper and anatomical nonsense that seems like it would be at home in Vogue. Sorry for the long ramble, but I guess I'm looking for some thoughts on whether making depressing art is self-reinforcing and any ideas or suggestions people have for improving my experience with painting. I miss my hobby and I don't like being in this rut where I can't start anything due to depression and concerns about my chosen subjects and I can't finish anything due to perfectionism, low self-esteem, and crippling self-doubt. (Yes, I've read Art & Fear.)
posted by xyzzy to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (26 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Not sure exactly what the question is. But I have a suggestion. (It's a loooong time since I art-ed.)

Embrace the sadness. Your specific type. And create art for a character that is experiencing that sad. Feel the sad and make the art for them. So your art reflects the sadness but doesn't absorb the sadness. And when another day your sadness has a different cloak on, make art to fit a character that wears that cloak. If you can imagine the art you would make for someone who was very cold and wet...perhaps pictures of refuge and warmth with water around it...that's what you would do with the sad. Does that make sense? Not a cheery "Here's a happy clown to cheer away the blues!!!!" kind of expression. But a picture made for, not of, the sad.
posted by taff at 11:00 PM on May 10, 2016 [8 favorites]

Some people will tell me to try different subjects, and it's a valid point. But before I quit art a couple years ago I tried out the mixed media journaling thing.

There's quite a leap between these two sentences. I'm not sure why you think different subjects == mixed media journaling. It sounds like a cognitive distortion to me.

I'd suggest forcing the issue of different subjects. Go to life drawing sessions or go draw or paint buildings or strangers at cafes. And get away from the computer! It sounds a little like the absolute freedom of the computer is allowing your brain to travel down the same paths over and over. The constraints of the coloring books proved valuable — go find other constraints.
posted by wemayfreeze at 11:09 PM on May 10, 2016 [6 favorites]

Here's another perspective on that: you've gotten quite good at drawing melancholy women (this is objectively true, your brain's disgust for your work notwithstanding), but you're frustrated because they're still not good enough for you and also your brain has attached a ton of negative associations to the work.

New subjects, blank slate. Youre not going to be amazing at it because you're new to it. It's not a Thing that needs to be in the World, it's you trying some new stuff for your own satisfaction. What does your brain have to say about your neighbors house or that one tree at the park or 2 minute sketches of naked people? Well probably lots of negative stuff still, but it'll be different and might give you the tools to start navigating the negativity.
posted by wemayfreeze at 11:17 PM on May 10, 2016 [4 favorites]

This is the depression. Making sad art isn't going to make your depression change any more than making happy art will. Making art whatsoever might be a great way to start finding an approach to treat your depression, though.

I know it's incredibly frustrating to hear this.

But from my own lifelong experience with the interplay of depression, perfectionism, and artistic drive, the idea that sad art can make an artist sadder is a bunch of hooey. It's just that the purpose of art - to communicate something to the viewer - is effective, and when a not-depressed person sees that sad disassociated hopeless art? They freak out because whaaat is that what it's like in your head? Yes, yes it is, and the freak out really doesn't help me feel good about trying to communicate that, you know? And sometimes that freaked out person can be yourself! And then it's a whole cycle. But the sad art isn't really making yourself more depressed, it's the depression warping your own response to your work. If you can treat the depression, the sad art can get reframed as processing and practice and keeping something going in the face of a serious illness.

From your ask history it appears that you have a lot of experience with illness and pain in many respects. I think it's completely valid to express your experiences visually and to find yourself revisiting the same kind of subjects and mediums all the time. It's how you react to your own work that needs to change. True, this is a topic that's been done by numerous artists at a very high level. But they're not you and you are not them, and nothing you make will ever be made by anyone else. So don't compare yourself to them, and when you catch yourself doing so, try to redirect those thoughts. Depression responds strongly to routine. If drawing doesn't physically hurt you, just doing some every day can be a great boon to reframing negative thought patterns. You can look at your sketchbook and instead of saying "look at this derivative crap" you can say "I stuck to my guns and drew in this every day for a month! look how much more confident my linework is in the more recent pages."

If you're able, drawing the same stuff in different physical locations can help more naturally snap you out of a rut, subject and style-wise. Can you draw in a coffee shop, or in a park, or just in a different room of your house? Libraries, the houses and yards of friends, even bars if you're comfortable in them. Museums of course are fantastic places to draw, too. You can practice drawing from life, but don't pressure yourself unless there's a really arresting subject. Just draw what you normally would, but while you're in a different place, and be open to that changing the content of your art over time.

I think it's a good sign that you're trying something that's given you pleasure in the past. Treating depression is not hopeless. There is a path for everyone.
posted by Mizu at 11:22 PM on May 10, 2016 [5 favorites]

I was enjoying putting color on paper and the freedom of not having to come up with my own subjects. But over time I found myself frustrated with anatomical errors and poor perspective, low quality paper, that sort of thing.

I have the opposite problem: I am intimidated by too good coloring books so I go back to Zoe de las Cases' super wobbly lines or Johanna Basford. But there are artist quality coloring sheets, Floribunda by Leila Duly if you like botanicals or anything published by Pepin Press.
posted by sukeban at 11:25 PM on May 10, 2016

Each piece isn't gonna be a masterpiece — Picasso made 50,000 ARTS and how many of them do you know, ya know? Someone's always gonna do it better.

Why does your experience have to be useful, joyful, inspiring, interesting, unique or authentic?
Fuck that. Make bad, terrible work that's vapid, repetitive, overblown, underthunk and totally depressing.

The only important thing is to do. Draw the picture, make the work.
If you keep going long enough, eventually you'll dig yourself out of one hole into a new one. And that's progress.

Take any hook and grapple with it.
posted by fritillary at 11:29 PM on May 10, 2016 [4 favorites]

I'd like to answer longer but I've got to get to bed. Do you have an iPhone? Come join me on Sktchy app. It's been extremely helpful for my depression and advancement as an artist. Great community and great resource for portraits. I love that work you posted, would love to see more. Let me know if you join.
posted by Rikocolin at 12:17 AM on May 11, 2016

You've seen this, probably, but leaving it here just in case.
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:18 AM on May 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Another useful Ted talk that I sent to someone just the other day - Elizabeth Gilbert on how to try and stop your creativity making you depressed.

It boils down to the idea that it's useful not to think of your creative expression as something that comes from within you, that's within your control (and thus becoming depressed when it doesn't do your bidding), and seeing it instead as something extrinsic, which may or may not decide to visit you.

Don't know if it will help your particular quandary, but in combination with some CBT on some of the cognitive distortions alluded to above it might.

FWIW, I think that piece you linked to is beautiful and am green with envy at your talent.
posted by penguin pie at 12:37 AM on May 11, 2016

Far from making depression worse, making miserable art is a good way to express yourself and vent the bad stuff. Art therapy is a thing, you know! The one example you provide is very interesting and well-executed, and I could easily imagine it in a gallery show. It would be a real shame to waste talent like that, not making art. But if you feel like you're stuck in a rut, there are all kinds of things you can do to get out of it! Try illustrating a scene from your favorite book. Paint an abstract, or take something totally abstract and try to give it shape. Paint one of your dreams. Try creating a comics page. Try painting in another style completely, using colors you would never use. Sculpt. Make puppets. Put on a show!

Try drawing coloring books that look like you think coloring books should look, and then put them online for people to color. Or draw the coloring books, then put them away for a few months, dig them out and color them yourself.

Anyway. It sounds like you're chronically depressed, and the depression is sapping the enjoyment from your art-making. Make treating your depression the priority. Maybe making sad art can be a part of feeling better, or maybe you can learn to have fun with art. But do keep making art.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 12:45 AM on May 11, 2016

Making sad art will not help your depression. If it's not cathartic, it's just what it is.


Keep drawing melancholy women. I know many artists who have made a career out of this (Audrey Kawasaki, I'm looking at you. . . ). Keep going with it. If you want to push your art, do Mucha inspired framing, do crazy abstract backgrounds. Your skill at portraiture is impressive, and something to be proud of.

Do more. Make more. For many of us, art is something that just happens, regardless of external circumstance. It's not a way out or a path to anything. It's like breathing. Make what you feel when the muse moves within you, and try not to judge it to harshly.

Art doesn't have to have a positive message. Sometimes it doesn't have to have a message, you can just make it because it feels right. It doesn't have to be a therapy tool. You have talent. Please keep going with your art.

Don't believe everything you think.
posted by ananci at 1:59 AM on May 11, 2016 [4 favorites]

I think with drawing expressions we sometimes mirror and emote what we're drawing. For someone predisposed to depression this is a particular trap you may want avoid sometimes, if you see it happening; which means exercising mindfulness of your emotions, CBT-style.

Some science may back me up on this, primate mirror neurons and stuff.

I don't know if this is happens in this case or if it is you engaging in toxic self-talk when the art isn't yet going where you want it to go. You might want to work on this in a deliberate and mindful way, perhaps with a counselor.

The coloring books encourage a zen-ish flow state and the monkey mind stops chattering. But in some cases when we make art we're noodling in our comfort zone and we are later frustrated by it.

But I'm also not sure that journals and digital sketchbooks filled to the brim with depression and hopelessness aren't self-reinforcing in some way.

It sounds like it; rather than only expressing an emotion one can rebroadcast like a speaker and microphone feedback loop, and your journals can do that. And parallel with this is toxic self-talk because you're frustrated that the art isn't yet going where you want it to go.

So the subject isn't even interesting or unique and I am comparatively terrible at it.

The piece you showed us had merit.

Prudhon kept doing monochromatic academics studies, as did Ingres, Davide, and Bargue. Jennifer Healey and Marco Mazzoni have not strip-mined the subject or approach. There are still meaningful and moving pieces to be done there.

Try doing master copies from the Charles Bargue book (context) or Prudhon, or Michealangelo's red chalk pieces, probably after the Bargue book.

And maybe work on other emotions, like vengeance, erotic ectasy, and so on.

The Charles Bargue plates are tough. But fair. And will work your art muscles and move you forward.

And putting down tone for an academic finish is a lot like the adult coloring books.

You may want to find a local atelier that can give you some instruction in sight-size measurement and comparative measurement.

And, crucially, working in the academic process one knows where the next step is so one don't stew in one's own juices when the work isn't going where one wants it to go. It's still fucking hard, but instead of a raw cliff face it's a cliff face where you have climbing gear and a guide.

Joining a lifedrawing session would be different but would be also good, and would broaden your focus in a good way.

Some people will tell me to try different subjects, and it's a valid point.
Yes. But no. Brightly colored affirmations and so on, no. Blegh.

Instead something like Gerrit van Honthorst’s The Laughing Violinist or that Portrait of Henry VIII, or so on.

Ludwig Deutsch's Orientalist Paintings of Moorish Chiefs.

Either do mastercopies or some pieces with some element of color or ornament or warmth in it somewhere; not just only melancholy faces.

Or Japanese woodblock prints of ravens or other birds with some spot of color in them, or Kabuki actors swordfighting.
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:22 AM on May 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

Join the French Girls app community if you can ( there may be similar rival apps or services on iPad or other platforms out there too, of course check them out too ) . Many or most are in the community just for fun and are not talented or even skilled artists. You clearly are very skilled and talented , so you could take commissions. But the main benefit is drawing other people creatively and getting the satisfaction of their feedback PLUS also offering yourself as a portrait subject to others in the social network for their positive creative interpretation
posted by Bwithh at 2:54 AM on May 11, 2016

Would you rather be making art? Is melancholy material the only stuff that leaps off the page for you? You can always try happier subjects, but why force yourself to do that right now, just on principle? Make what you want to make.
posted by teponaztli at 3:21 AM on May 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Here to agree that it's not true that sad art can make you sadder, and in fact you may be giving a precious gift to potential future consumers of your art. Feeling that someone else has felt the way you feel can be a powerful experience to someone in depression or trauma, and art is a window like nothing else into someone else's experience.
posted by greenish at 3:22 AM on May 11, 2016

Yes, making art that is representational of my sad / despairing feelings does tend to reinforce the feelings because I concebtrate on them and the nuances for hours at a time. I tend to work on representational art, partly because of this. My feeling art was very creative and innovative, but so communicative (back to me) that i was not worthwhile and life not worth living that i doubt i will ever do that sort of art again, because i get nothing good from it, not even catharsis. Just reinforcement. I am really that ugly and unloveable to other people (not accurate). Maybe my art won't ever have that visceral connection for others but, thinking about it, the times people have really engaged with about my art was never when i was overtly releasing my emotions. I have had people who otherwise wouldn't, rave about a painting of a boat or a flower. They say it's because of what i put in it, but i don't think it is.
Back on topic. Making good art takes my mind off of melancholy. Deliberately expressing melancholy feelings through art intensifues them for me.
posted by b33j at 5:07 AM on May 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm glad I didnt read other answers first - their eloquence would have changed what i said, though it is true for me.
posted by b33j at 5:10 AM on May 11, 2016

My art is very, very different from yours (I draw cartoon animals), but my philosophy when I was getting back int drawing after quitting for many years was that anything that came out of my pen, regardless of subject or quality, was good. Not necessarily good in an aesthetic sense, but good in that they contained ideas for future work, or were they were practice, or just in the sense that I actually sat down and put pen to paper and that mattered more than the drawing itself. What I see when I see your drawing is your hand and mind working together to figure out a way to grapple with your depression - it's the act of doing it, rather than the subject matter, that counts. I'd keep drawing whatever you seem to be able to draw.
posted by heurtebise at 5:25 AM on May 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

Mizu: "This is the depression. Making sad art isn't going to make your depression change any more than making happy art will. Making art whatsoever might be a great way to start finding an approach to treat your depression, though. "

Yuuuuuuuuuuup. Mizu's whole answer is excellent. Get some professional treatment for your depression and you will be able to feel better about creating even the most depressing art.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:35 AM on May 11, 2016

Try Doodle or Die. If you like it, pay the $16 or whatever to get a larger color palette and the ability to replay your drawings. The great thing about it is that it has an endless number of absurd subjects for you to draw, you can take as much or as little time as you like, the quality distinctly doesn't matter (not that you'd have any issues with quality, but it's nice to have no pressure), and it's just an excellent piano-tuning exercise, so to speak. That's where I go when I feel up to practicing. It's also always interesting to approach every subject on there with a signature style—so "crab on the beach" becomes "super sad melancholy crab on the rocky shore." I would love to see work like that, personally!
posted by limeonaire at 6:42 AM on May 11, 2016

When I was a fine artist/painter, the sadness/depression would turn into a downward spiral with painting. I painted darkly and would get drawn in to the subject matter. But the subject matter was already examining the dark inside of my mind, so it became an issue of the chicken or the egg. Ultimately, it was all a focus on the darkness. A darkness which I loved. When both the depression and the painting hooked me, it was like a drug, as being able to express the depression with art was validating my depression, which felt good on one hand, but would keep me hyper focused on it on the other.

When I addressed my depression, that art went away. And I miss it. I do. But the cost was just too high.

So my answer is yes, the art can suck you in to the sadness.
posted by Vaike at 7:17 AM on May 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

Art is my career and your work is gorgeous in a grabby-hands I-wish-I-could-do-that-style way. So for what that's worth... remember that drawing is like sandwich-making, and a lot of the time it's tastier when it's someone else's.

Could it be that sad work is cathartic work? Can it be that you're feeling and purging the emotions, vs. cultivating them? That might be a way not to 'solve' depression but let go of the accumulated emotional detritus that's cluttered up your interior attic.

It also might be like Vaike says, getting sucked into that dark mirror. Only you can say which.

The thing with making art is, we start out having fun, but as we progress we get really tied up with self-critique. Of course that serves a purpose, but you're trying to reclaim the pure joy and imagination-adventure you had when you were five and had brand new pencils/crayons and a pristine pad of paper.

It took me a couple years after school to clear away all the 'what I'm supposed to be doing' and find the 'why I do it in the first place' again.

Now I make it a regular practice of self-care to do creative stuff totally unrelated to the sort of thing I do for work. Stuff it's okay to suck at! I consider the distinction as making things, not pictures of things. I've got enough natural talent that it's generally rewarding to muck around with, but it's fun not work, so I can stay in the off-leash mindset without slipping into the work-critique mindset.

So for me, I play with color and texture, which opens me up to stuff like textile and fiber work, stained glass, lampwork, mosaic, sculpture of all sorts. No wacom! No photoshop! No realism! Just candy-rich colors you want to lick, textures your fingers can't resist, and surfaces that interact so irresistibly with light and shadow that it makes your imagination kindle and crackle again.

It's okay to play, you've got to play. It's soul nutrition. It sounds to me like you want to play but all you've got for toys is your job-tools. Even if art's not your job, you've still got a boss voice about it that's hectoring you. That voice is not your buddy right now.

Later on when you're feeling like you want to seek out challenges, find a life drawing session. It's absolutely the best way to strengthen your skills. And it makes you love what you see, and to me, that feeling makes my interior world much more inhospitable to depression.
posted by Fantods at 7:40 AM on May 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

I love that picture you linked. I think you should just do what you do and not hector yourself overmuch about what you're doing.

I also think you should read the relevant chapter of Huckleberry Finn, not that it has anything useful to say because I don't think Twain knew what he was talking about in re creative melancholy, but simply because it's a totally unfair and nevertheless hilarious caricature. Maybe you will be like me and want to defend Ermaline, or whatever her name was, from Huck/Twain and from Twain's illustrators, none of whom had any patience or any generosity. Emmeline Grangerford, right. Can you scare up any righteous anger for Emmeline? Then maybe you can get angry enough to defend yourself, who after all is making some awesome stuff that people really like, against yourself, who does not think it is good enough.

If you're still worried about it making you sadder, what if now and then you bust out a good thick fresh spotless sheet of luscious paper and make some big colorful slashes on it, just to wreck it and to clear your palate? Just make color go on paper. Don't try to make it do or be anything.
posted by Don Pepino at 8:59 AM on May 11, 2016

Honestly, yeah, drawing pictures of beautiful women from your imagination IS kind of boring. Why don't you take that subject-matter inclination and do things like draw some portraits from life, or play with different color palettes, or literally any other technical variation on the theme?

I'm thinking of a friend of mine that had a show fairly recently; most of the paintings were studies of a skull. Kind of boring and cliché, but when there were literally a hundred of them in all different colors completely covering a giant wall, it had a much better effect.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 10:09 AM on May 11, 2016

As you can see people have different takes on this. I am extremely annoyed by upbeat anything when I'm depressed, and it makes me feel worse. Melancholy things make me feel more level, it that makes sense.

I love the picture you posted. But that's not important. I don't see how forcing yourself to make art that feels inauthentic and you have no real feeling for does anyone any good. Right now you seem weighing whether it's better to make art that you don't think is perfect, or not make art at all.

Someone will always do something better than you do. And there is no subjective "better". It's not a contest, and you can't win. If you thought no one in the world did a particular thing better than you what would you even be aiming for? If you did think you were the best in world then it would be time to find something else to do.
posted by bongo_x at 12:42 PM on May 11, 2016

There is a substantial body of evidence suggesting that doing sad things makes you sadder, yes. Eg listening to sad music, writing sad thoughts etc. Sadness is contagious, as it were, and begets more sadness. Thinking about sadness makes you more sad. This research is decades old and not controversial.

A more useful question for you, though, I think is: "does this act of drawing make me sad? I am drawing sadness, yes, but is this activity itself a sad one?is it helping me, or hindering me?"

Do you feel it's a similar vibe to putting on a really sad album and just moping out? If so, maybe not a helpful activity for you. But it doesn't necessarily sound that way to me from what you've said.

The research is about doing things that make you sad, not about engaging with themes of sadness per se. It sounds like a fine distinction, but it's an important one, and may help you in your decision.

Best of luck.
posted by smoke at 4:35 PM on May 11, 2016 [4 favorites]

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