Artists, Athletes and Post-Painting Depression

On Pain and Struggle, Gaining Inner Strength and Depth as an Artist, plus the Benefits of Stepping Away to Rest

Many folks have a misguided impression on the artist's life. Some assume sitting in a chair and painting is easy to do. Others believe artists sit around all day, just waiting for some great creative inspiration to strike them, while the rest of society works hard to accomplish their projects.

Today I will share some of my struggles in becoming and being a visual artist with you.

Writing about PPD (post-painting depression) may be a great idea but I've found it hard to accomplish. When I am coming out of a long haul, painting extremely detailed works, I find I am too tired to focus on a detailed writing project.

And then when I'm more rested and feeling well, writing about this sort of subject is difficult to do, because I'm not feeling tired or depressed!

But since I've recently completed a small tight piece, and have time to write today, I'm going to give it another shot.

Here Goes

The Sports section was always my favorite newspaper section. Not the large team sports so much, but reading about the individual ones. 

I still like to learn about golf, tennis, swimming, skiing, biking, triathlon, Track and Field, among many others.

One of my early dreams as a child was to ride horses in the Olympics. I was a very active child - climbing trees, playing Cowboy and Indian with my sisters, exploring the woods or just running around took up a lot of my time.

Learning all kinds of physical activities, discovering what I could do with balance, staying active but also overcoming many serious injuries have consumed huge parts of my life.

How I have managed to become someone who now sits in a chair, keeping very, very still for long hours is a bit of a mystery...

My parents raised us without TV, but we would rent one for special occasions. One came around every four years – the Olympics. I learned much from watching and listening to Jim McKay's athlete biographies. I still love to hear how people overcome great challenges, to arrive at the top of their game.

The will to compete, to challenge myself, to become better, to do the best I can, to physically grow and change, to shift weight and experiment with my body – all apply in some way to what I do today, with paint and paper.

I have tried out at least twenty-eight sports in my life, for varying periods of time – and if you can really call Bowling and Croquet “sports”!

Since I like lists, here are all the sports I remember trying:

Tennis, Racquetball, Swimming, Diving, Horseback Riding, Running, Walking, Hiking, Badminton, Bowling, Golf, Biking, Rollerblading, Cross-County Skiing, Telemark Skiing, Downhill Skiing, Ice Skating, Baseball/Softball, Volleyball, Weight-lifting, Pilates, Snowshoeing, Soccer, Basketball, Rollerskating, Croquet, Martial Arts/Self-Defense, Rock-climbing.

Post-Painting Depression

Several years ago one of my many talented artist friends on Facebook, Cuong Nguyen mentioned he had “post-painting depression.” Another friend told him, “I don't understand.” So I explained it briefly. Cuong thanked me.

We Artists understand. 

Most people who have never started and completed a large representational painting probably do not get it.

Just to paint quality small works is often difficult.

Looking Bullish, 5x7 watercolor by Elise, March 2015

Painting highly detailed pieces requires a tremendous amount of concentration and energy output - physically, spiritually, mentally and emotionally. 

You are always measuring value, comparing shades of color, correcting edges, size of stroke or hue of tone... 

Then, after a work is completed, or even a hard day is over, a sort of emotional and physical let down occurs. Satisfaction, too, but I will often feel completely exhausted.

How Athletics correspond to an Artist's Challenge

Perhaps some artists have a higher tolerance for stress or are more mentally and physically fit who don't feel this way, but I liken painting especially large works to an athletic event.

When an athlete runs a full marathon, they don't go out the next day and repeat this feat. They need to let their body rest. If they are extreme or long distance runners, perhaps they will go even further than a 26.2 mile marathon; but after racing either the 26.2 or a 50 or 100-mile race, an athlete WILL need to let his body recover and rest.

The same applies to painting large works. The strain of focusing, making a multitude of decisions, fixing problems and striving emotionally, internally, to catch a likeness has a taxing effect on the body and brain.

Consistent quality work is not achieved when you are tired and it is really important to learn to become sensitive to what your body is saying and needing.

Very often, after working very hard, I step away from my desk with utterly spent, visually but also physically.

What Can Be Done to Rest and Recover

Sleep is a great help, especially for the brain. A new study has shown people getting less than seven hours each night do actual physical brain damage to themselves! I try to sleep at least nine hours a night, and longer when stressed.

Another thing which helps is taking long walks, or stacking wood. 

Movement activities require some energy, but are the opposite of holding still. They can be relaxing and mindlessly repetitive, releasing the stress of thinking “what color, where, when” constantly, holding arm and brush still.

I also eat copious amounts of grass-fed unsalted butter or nuts when I paint, because I find these high quality fats very good brain food.

Playing a musical instrument and/or singing are also great ways to de-stress and relax the brain.

Or I go to a favorite spot in Maine to quietly watch a sunset:

Overcoming Injury – How Pain can Change and Deepen our Lives

I was seven when my neck was severely injured, causing pinched nerves and a calcium deposit on my spinal column. My parents had no knowledge of the benefits of chiropractic care, so I went six years with an untreated sublexation. It was very painful. Due to many additional falls from the back of our ponies, I also developed severe low back problems.

By fourteen, I was partially paralyzed from the waist down for a short time, due to pinched nerves.

Then sprains to my ankles and knees were numerous and took their toll. On top of this, I healed VERY slowly.

While I waited for many lower-extremity injuries to heal I could still use my hand and arms, to paint.

Difficulty helped create an ability.

Pain became the “mother of invention” you might say, for my becoming an artist. My work distracted me from the pain. And while it was not as restful as sitting around, painting helped get me through many hard times in life.

Painting involves color and color is therapy!

 White Oak Tree, Leaf, Fruit (Acorns) by Elise
5x7 Pen & Ink with Watercolor, 2015

Learning to balance work and play in life is so important.
I am encouraging you, reader, to overcome your challenges. Become more sensitive to your body and learn to meet it's needs. Let yourself rest and take a break after working very hard on a large project or piece of artwork.

Sleep and rest are blessings given by God.

Thanks for reading and I wish you all a very fine weekend!

Your painting-friend,

 Common Peony by Elise, 5x7 Pen & Ink with Watercolor, 2015

I will both lay me down in peace and sleep: for thou, LORD, only makest me dwell in safety. ~ Psalm 4:8

It is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrows: for so He giveth His beloved sleep. ~ Psalm 127:2

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