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If You Want to be an Artist, Understand Loneliness

by John P. Weiss on 4/30/2016 9:39:55 AM

This post is by regular contributing writer, John P. Weiss. John is a landscape painter, cartoonist and writer living in Northern California. He studied painting extensively with Scott L. Christensen. He served as editorial cartoonist for various newspapers, and his cartoons appear in several volumes of Charles Brook’s “Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year.” John is also a police chief with 25 years of law enforcement experience.


“The happiest of all lives is a busy solitude”Voltaire


Author Kent Haruf wrote his novels in a prefabricated shed in the backyard of his home in Salida, Colorado - which seems fitting for this examination of art and loneliness.


Haruf’s last novel before his death was titled Our Souls at Night. This splendid, spare story is set in the plains of eastern Colorado in a small town. It tells the tale of Addie Moore (a widow) and Louis Waters (a widower). Living in a small town, both knew one another’s spouses before their deaths.


One day Addie shows up at Louis’s house and the following conversation ensues (Haruf conveyed conversation without the use of quotation marks).


I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me.


What? How do you mean?


I mean we're both alone. We've been by ourselves for too long. For years. I'm lonely. I think you might be too. I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me. And talk.


He stared at her, watching her, curious now, cautious.


You don't say anything. Have I taken your breath away? she said.


I guess you have.


I'm not talking about sex.


I wondered.


No, not sex. I'm not looking at it that way. I think I've lost any sexual impulse a long time ago. I'm talking about getting through the night. And lying warm in bed, companionably.


Wisdom from a Canadian artist


Canadian artist Robert Genn was famous for his twice weekly letters. He sent them, via email, to a legion of subscribers who enjoyed his insights and wisdom on creative issues, art and life in general.


Genn weighed in once on the topic of loneliness. He wrote, “The art of effective aloneness includes the understanding that solitude is necessary for the creative gain.” Genn quoted the self-improvement guru Bruce Barton, who said, “Most progress comes out of loneliness.”


Robert Genn noted that many art students are immersed in the collaborative energy of school and classroom interactions. Such students enjoy the social connectivity of art clubs and related activities. But then they graduate.


As Genn wisely notes: “Companionship, for many of us, takes the form of a spouse or significant other. Generational relationships are also particularly rewarding— father-son, grandmother-granddaughter, that sort of thing. Professional associations, occasional clubs, informal gatherings, crit groups and coffee klatches can further the illusion we are not doing this on our own. ‘We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone,” said Orson Welles, ‘Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion, for the moment, that we’re not alone.”


Robert Genn understood that if you wanted to be an artist, you better understand loneliness. Because like it or not, a good deal of painting, writing, sculpting, music and such comes down to independent effort.


Late nights of sustained creation. Early morning epiphanies. Private frustrations and repetitive rituals. Long stretches of weekends and canvas time where you are deep in the thick of it. Navigating the whispers of inspiration, personal expression and tortured execution. This is a big part of what it means to be an artist.


Loneliness is about connection, not proximity


Author Olivia Laing was on NPR awhile back to talk with host Terry Gross about her new novel The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. Olivia’s novel explores the lives of painter Edward Hopper, pop-artist Andy Warhol, photographer David Wojnarowicz and the “outsider” painter Henry Darger.


Olivia’s own journey includes moving to New York with a man she fell in love with, only to have the relationship fall apart and Olivia to find herself “alone” in a new city. It is here that she discovers one can be surrounded by people but still be alone. Loneliness is about connection, not proximity.


It is the painter Henry Darger who is perhaps the most fascinating loner in Olivia’s book. Darger worked for 54 years as a hospital janitor and rented a bedroom where each night he would paint. After his death over 300 paintings were discovered.


The paintings were not without controversy, as many portrayed violence towards children. Still, his work has been vigorously collected. Which begs the question. Is loneliness a prerequisite for great art?


From over-socialization to solitude


In my own life I am immersed in a constant onslaught of interaction and public exposure. My day job as a police chief requires regular communication with the public, co-workers, politicians, vendors and more. It’s challenging, rewarding and exhausting. Exhausting because at heart I am an introvert, most happy in the solitude of my home.


My best creative work seems to flow late at night or early in the morning. When no-one is around and I am free to access my deepest, artistic compulsions. For me, a degree of loneliness and solitude amplifies my creative juices and results in some of my best work. It seems I require abject quiet and no disruptions to tap into the deepest veins of creativity.


I suspect I’m not alone. I’ve met many a creative soul, from writers to painters. A good number of them seem to crave this same undisturbed serenity. Where they can be alone and conjure the best of their artful manifestations.


Yes, some enjoy the conviviality of plein air groups and art associations. But probe deeper and you’ll find that many long for those quiet times of independent work. When they can listen to their muse and produce authentic, original work.


Living simply and paying attention


At one point in Kent Haruf’s novel Our Souls at Night, Addie tells Louis, "I just want to live simply and pay attention to what's happening each day. And come sleep with you at night." And at another point: "I do love this physical world. I love this physical life with you. And the air and the country. The backyard, the gravel in the back alley. The grass. The cool nights. Lying in bed talking with you in the dark.”


In many ways I think Addie’s approach to life is a good prescription for artists. To live simply and pay attention to what’s happening each day. Also, a good deal of painters, photographers and writers can relate to the charms of this “physical world,” with its backyards, gravel, grass and cool nights. These are the places and things that inform many a creative work.


Like Addie and Louis, we all crave some degree of companionship and human interaction. But many artists also require a measure of solitude. Perhaps even loneliness. To harvest the deepest of our creative proclivities and innermost expressions.


Maybe that’s why artists like Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol and the reclusive Henry Darger lived the way they did. Whether existing in a sort of subterranean way or hiding in the plain sight of celebrity, they carried a kind of loneliness within them. And today’s aspirational artists should take note and consider whether they can tolerate this dance with loneliness.


Tell me what you think? Is loneliness a factor in your creative life?


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Topics: art and culture | art and psychology | art and society | FineArtViews | John Weiss 

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Gail Enenbach^)
I be leave some art should be done alone giving time for the inner artest to take over where the brush knows where to go,even if you do not.

Joseph Murray
Hi John !
Your article was well thought out and written . I could relate to all of your statements as a professional artist about loneliness . It can be a double edged sword--some days it is euphoric when painting and other days your emotions creep up on you and a quasi-depressive state creeps in . I can certainly understand "Abbie's" thought process . Best of luck in your careers !
Joseph Murray
Wayuga Art
Jefferson, Iowa
"Where serenity is a way of life"

Faith Shallis
This is a thoughtful and beautiful commentary on being alone and its effect on creativity.
I recently retired and a friend asked "But what will you do??" My response, "Anything I want." I didn't mean to be flippant, I simply love the ability to go quietly along with the natural pace of the day. I've tried Plein Aire and it's too distracting, and my worst work is at workshops, but I use those experiences from a students' perspective. This article validates my need for "alone time" and I thank the author.

James Barton
Totally agree! I need solitude to focus on what I'm doing and thinking. In class there is much conversation which I can't partake and paint at the same time, it's too distracting. Being in my own studio, moving around as I paint and listening to MY music makes my day. Conversation is wonderful as long as I'm not painting and I could talk all day about oil painting. Everyone should try painting, the world would be a lot calmer.

Sarah Yeoman
Very relevant post for me in my life right now. Thank you for
Putting it into words so eloquently.
Sarah Yeoman

Nora West
I crave aloneness and have never felt lonely by myself, I love that Voltaire quote. Perhaps someday I will be truly alone and will feel differently. Although I enjoy painting in a plein air group, when I'm alone is when I really connect.

Thanks for another great read. Nor

sandra bridges
This was truly an honest appeal to consider the life as an artist requiring sacrifice of your time....ha......time to be alone....It is not so much being lonely but solitude as a better description...It requires seeing beyond seeing to get at the spiritual substance of that thing you are relating...or should I say going deep, deeper to the deepest level you are attempting to express through ones artistic quest....It requires that alone time of silence...Yes....A man cannot meditate immersed in a sea of noise....This article hit the mark....the warmth of another's being is all that is required and you needn't lay with them to know it...It is a delight of pure love that sustains us as we do all else alone....Best

Sharon Weaver
The artists life is first, a solitary one. Working in the studio, alone with our thoughts, doubts and moments of enlightenment are essential to the creative process. That is one reason why I make the effort to be connected through teaching and art groups.

Jeffrey Leech
Yes John,

It is a dance with loneliness and social interaction. We have to sell!

By far my best work is done alone with my thoughts
and music. The music seems to take some of the lonely feeling away and it can inspire but that's
the subject for another blog.

Fred Emmert
Do artists seek approval/recognition ? or is satisfying ones self all that counts ?

Mark Brockman
Andrew Wyeth spoke about the fact that artists need to be alone, not lonely. There is a huge difference between solitude, aloneness and loneliness. It's nice to get together with other artists but I much prefer working alone, outside or in the studio. When alone I am free.

In my life as a whole and in my art life I am not lonely. I have a wonderful wife and family and friends, my life is not lonely. I have my paintings, my medium, all the wonders of nature when working. I may be alone, and it's wonderful, but I am not lonely.

I think people have forgotten how to be alone ( not lonely). When people jog, walk or bike they have noise via music or talking books to keep them company when they could enjoy their suroundings and doing something alone. In our houses and work places we have noise via our computers, TVs or ITunes. So even when there is no one around we are not alone. How sad. I often, when alone, enjoy sitting in my house, just listening to the quite.

Most art requires aloneness or solitude, aloneness and solitude are not loneliness.

Mark Brockman
I'm sorry I forgot my point, guess it was to quiet. :)

My point is I don't think one needs to understand loneliness to be an artist but one needs to learn how to be alone to be an artists.

Steven Long
I understand loneliness and when working, crave it. My best work comes when feeling alone.

Thanks for sharing, John.

Thank you John. You so beautifully described the relationship artists have with solitude and what I generally think of as "alone-ness" rather than loneliness. Most often I cherish the solitude of my painting time. And then get to a point when I know I need to be sociable. And it can be hard to re-enter that atmosphere gracefully! It's a delicate balance that shifts from time to time. Lately I've been teetering on the side of "lonely".

Yes, thank you for your post and its one I will store away and read again. Being an introvert I can totally relate. I enjoy my alone time but sometimes I do get caught up in thinking about being lonely. As one person commented about music...yes music is my friend in the studio and in workshops I usually have my earphones in.

Marsha McDonald
John, this is a good article. It is both though provoking and soothing. I've been pondering this subject so much lately? I mostly do commission work, so spend days at a time "alone" in my studio. I don't do much plein aire painting. Some of my best friends who are (were) artists are no longer painting. I find that most days I love the solitude, and get some of my best work done. Other days though, I long to go outside, among people, even if just for a very short while. When I do get with friends, it can be very hard to come back into the studio!! It also doesn't help when "friends" try and talk me into going out a lot more often. As though they feel sorry for me and the profession I've chosen - that it keeps me locked up in the studio. I guess creative people will always struggle with this because others don't understand us, or appreciate what we do?

Geri deGruy

Yes, I think aloneness is necessary for me to create. I don't even listen to music because it is a presence in my life and it distracts me from other expression. Occasionally I need the fellowship of others but as time has gone by, I prefer the spaciousness and quiet of aloneness where ideas can form and evolve.

Molly Cook
Solitude is simply being by one's self. Loneliness is a psychological state. I think it's important for creatives to know the difference. As both a writer and an artist, I need plenty of solitude, but I love being with family and the world, too.

For me, timing is everything.

Ruth Reid
I totally GET this article John.

Some of my friends think I'm reclusive yet others think I'm gregarious. The reality is that I'm both and happy about it too.

I love to have large chunks of alone time when I produce my best work day after day. During these times I like to put EVERYTHING ELSE aside.

In fact, this has made me decide to write my own blog on a similar topic.

Thanks John

Ruth Reid

Karen Burnette Garner
John, you have explained the loneliness of the creative very well. I often reflect on why I find myself living most of my life alone, sometimes surrounded by others, but isolated within my thoughts all the same. Wondering if I was just destined to be alone. But I have to think that, in following my art, it has led me to remain apart. I consider myself an introvert, and "public" events and situations drain me of energy and joy. But when I am sitting at the easel, my thoughtful music playing in the background, I find myself connecting with something beyond my loneliness, and that feeling of being filled with the art fills my heart as well. It's hard to explain to someone who isn't like me, but those whodo experience it understand. Jimmy Buffett has a song that says, "Be good and you will be lonesome, be lonesome and you will be free" sometimes it is like that. Thank you for your examination of this topic...good reflections will follow.

Victoria Bales
I totally agree with your article. I thought I was 'different'. I don't even have music or the TV on all day, and people look at me like that's strange. But I like the quiet to think.

Kevin Barry
Hi John
Yes I need undisturbed solitude in which to paint and I am at peace while doing it. Yet I also enjoy some social interaction related to painting. Most of the former and a sprinkling of the latter seems to be ideal for me.

You write well and behind your writing is solid thought and wisdom.

Best wishes


You have hit the nail on the head with this article. I feel this way. I use to work at the school, and there I was told I was a people person. My husband of 52 years, + the 4 years I dated him throughout high school, my best friend of 56 years. We were married a few months after my graduation, became officially engaged the evening of the graduation. He has been retired since 2001, and I am with him now 24/7 since 2001. We travel, and wherever we go, he always says of me, You never meet a stranger. because I love meeting new people and sharing with one another. He has an upstairs room and he stays there most of the day, and I am downstairs. He comes down throughout the day and sits with me, and I come up to him throughout the day to spend time with him. But I think we are two of a kind. We both need our time to be creative, I am a writer and artist. He has a big screen t.v., and I am not big on watching t.v. Each of us have our own laptops. Sometimes I bring my laptop up to him, to share with him something I am reading, and vice versa, he does me the same way. And we walk up and down this country road together, sometimes holding hands, sometimes he is deep in thought, and those times I spend the time in quiet silent prayer for whatever comes to mind. I enjoy our time together and our loneliness when he is upstairs and I downstairs. and I believe he does too. Here my best friend comes. I will sign off now. Thank you for this post. It was as if some of it describes our lives together.

nancy Loh
Hi John,
What you've said resonates with me, and it's such an enjoyable read too.

Occasionally, I attend workshops or paint with a group to learn new things, and mostly for the lovely camaraderie of like-minded people. Such an experience re-charges me, and a good guide keeps me from getting too complacent with how I paint.

But I work best alone as I'm able to concentrate and draw on my inner resources. Alone but not lonely! - Nancy

John P. Weiss
Based on all the interesting and insightful comments, it sounds like a lot of us artists need our solitude. A few of you mentioned the distinctions between loneliness, aloneness and solitude. Duly noted.

I'm thankful that my non-artist friends tolerate my need for solitude. I turn down many a Saturday wine party or event because I need creative time to recharge. And, I much prefer one on one time with a friend or couple, as opposed to group settings where conversation is more superficial.

Thanks for reading and all of your collective wisdom!

Diane Spears
Yes, for me it is not just the emotion of loneliness, but purposely carving out alone-time to think or write my own thoughts and feeling that "leading" to paint and draw. Thanks for all your encouraging blogs.

Sandy Talbert
John, I have been reading your posts for quite some time and I find them to be insightful and very enjoyable. I take a line or two or a quote and record it in my journal to reflect on later. I too feel most creative and comfortable when I'm alone in my small studio. It's a place where I can clear my mind and let things flow. Thank you for writing!

Hi John-
Thank you so much for your article! Loneliness is something I certainly struggle with every day. I love the solitude and time to create, but also crave the social interaction. My studio is in my house and I literally enjoy my coffee every day in my slippers and walk up to work. I recognize my need for interaction and try to plan for it within my day, whether is is meeting friends for a tennis game, a drink, or a walk with my dog. I look forward to reading "Our Souls at Night" after reading your article as well as more article by you. Thank you!

Mary Ann Warner
I always enjoy reading your articles.

I am also a plein air painter and it was not until I moved to Taos, NM that I began painting landscapes.

A year before coming to Taos I took a meditation and brainwave development workshop at Esalen in Big Sur, CA, lead by Anna Wise. There we learned to meditate with questions in mind to find solutions. I was feeling very lonely and in meditation learned that the solution was to be alone, to be in solitude. It also came to me that I would find great joy and fulfillment painting pictures of the Mother Earth. It was taking this class and Anna Wise's tapes that gave me the courage to move to Taos. It was here that I first took up plein air painting which has led to studio landscapes. I remember the first time I experienced the fullness of solitude; all the other painters had left and I was alone. In the fullness of this solitude, I realized I had connected to my source, The Mother Earth.

Betsy Kellum
Growing up, I never even considered that I would be content to be working, by myself, in a studio, at an easel, painting for hours. I always was a social being.... And connecting with others.
And now.... That's how I spend most of my time.... By myself... It's when I can produce my best work.
However, I need a balance in my life. So I teach art, but only a couple sessions a year. It helps me understand my own and is a chance to interact with my students. Additionally, I belong to a bridge group, and play a little golf.
Without the balance and diversion of other things and other people in my life, I would be a very dull person, and, surely, would become a lonely person. My art would suffer.

Sandy Askey-Adams
Hello John..

My goodness, so many comments. That tells me that we do need to stay connected to other artists in some way, and perhaps at the same time seek approval to be alone in our studios or with our own thoughts..

Sometimes there are comments stated.... "You are not alone." or, "It is good to know that I am not alone." Knowing that someone else understands where we are coming from can be a relief.

Is an artist being selfish when they pursue their art? When they want to be alone rather than partake in a family picnic or something else?

We enter art competitions. We join art organizations, We read blogs written by other artists. Why? We want to be accepted. We don't want to be left out in the cold... or, to not be a part of the art group, or the art competition. We want to know what is going on in the art world all around us.

I know that when there is an art reception coming up in a group art show, I get a bit nervous. There are those times I would rather not go because I know that I will feel awkward. There is a certain amount of fear there. That I will be misunderstood, and yet the other artists are my collegues or peers. If anyone would be on the same track so to say, or understand, it would be another artist. Right?

We need to live life and be out there with life to be a balanced and complete artist.

There is a difference between being alone, and being lonely.

Some years ago, I was in my studio working on a watercolor painting, and suddenly out of the blue, I had a severe Panic Attack. I DID NOT know at that time what was happening to me. I just know that horrible "Flight or Fight" feeling came over me.
I felt scared to death, and very much alone. I had to run out of the studio...and made it to the telephone....called my husband who I could not reach, and then called a friend who rushed over.
After that attack, I had many more, and went through some long therapy.
AND, Most of all, I was afraid to be alone. Having that panic attack planted a Fear of being alone inside my mind that lasted for a while.
I DO NOT ever want to go through that again. NEVER I say. That was years ago.

Yes, I still have times of anxiety which I think most creative people have from time to time, but it is not panic.

Today, in 2016, I don't mind being alone so I can work on my art...or take a walk by myself through the park enjoying the solitude of nature.

But I do mind that feeling of desperate loneliness.

Joseph Napolitano
I always appreciate your articles,
I enjoy very much the solitude of my studio while painting. What disturbs the most in when the phone rings.

John P. Weiss
I think what I'm getting from the added comments is that it's good for artists to relate with one another, as we have so much in common. And, that balance is very important. Even solitary souls benefit from interacting with others, if only for a bit. Again, thanks for all the comments and insights. Happy painting and creating!

Lisa Baechtle
i think "solitude" is a more apt word for the alone time spent as an artist. loneliness suggests a need to interact, a lack of interaction, a non-choice. on the other hand solitude reflects a choice. as a creative person, i seek solitude because the lack of words and outside stimulation allows me to connect with that wordless place without distraction so i can create an image. too many words in my life stops the flow of images or muse. i also choose to connect and interact with stimulation outside my studio for companionship and conversation, inspiration and growth. for me it is the balance of enough solitude and quiet with interaction. fortunately, i live alone and work alone, so i have quiet time to create. it is a choice to seek out the world when i want interaction.

Niki Simonson
Dear John, Boy did you hit the nail on the head with this one. If I'm around too many people and not painting for too long a time (just a day sometimes) then I become anxious and try and breakaway for some painting time. It usually doesn't work for me because there is the knowledge that I will be interacting too soon with people and the painting will stop and I find it difficult to enter that zone when the paint, the brushes and the canvas is my whole world.
Thanks for your insightful and helpful article.

For some, it is more than just having things in common, such as myself. I am learning from these blogs. Sometimes it is about art, the business side of art, and about writing. I also write blogs and articles. And then this last time, the article about loneliness or keeping oneself secluded at times, it helped me to understand myself and my husband of 52 years, + the 4 years we dated throughout my high school years, my best friend of 56 years. We each have our space inside our home, and your article assuredsured me this was healthy for our relationship. It is a need in each of our lives. It benefits our relationships. I felt so uplifted after I read your article. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us about our need to be alone at times throughout the day.

Are you sure you mean loneliness or aloneness? I'm all for aloneness cause I can gather my thoughts and ideas to get started on my art. Loneliness implies mental angst to me and I suppose that can be part of the process just not as pleasant.

John P. Weiss
Some painters and creators thrive in solitude. It's often a necessary ingredient to access their creativity. Others discover that hours of solitary, creative work can close in on them, leading to loneliness and isolation. Interestingly, the Internet has become a lifeline for some introverts and artistic hermits. They're able to connect with like minded artists and connect in a way that's comfortable for them. In the end, there are paths for both gregarious and shy artists to find that place where they can create, grow and thrive.

The creative process for me requires "aloneness" which is different than being lonely. As an artist, I believe it is important to be comfortable in your own company and have the quiet mental space to develop your ideas.

The most difficult thing is convincing your friends and family that you aren't lonely. Most people need the noise of the crowd.

John P. Weiss
Paula- Yes, a lot of people find comfort in the noise of the crowd. Even folks in coffee shops working on their computers, by themselves yet amongst the crowd. In this fast paced age of rapid communication and social media, solitude and quiet are uncomfortable for some.

You state it so well. Aloneness, rather than loneliness is a crucial part of personal well being. I share being an introvert and crave alone time, bringing me back to balance for creativity.

John P. Weiss
Natalie- Yep, I concur. Time with myself to create, think and write seems to restore my balance. Ah, a Saturday to go paint along the coast! A perfect day! Thanks for reading!

Thank you for your interesting and thought-provoking article!

Because the creative process is so individual it is by that very nature a solitary, not a lonely, endeavor. Lonely is a sad word, lonely for me was being being single and making dinner for one and really missing human companionship.

I am a very social and outgoing person and have found balance between a solitary and social existence, both very necessary to my personal happiness. I have even taken part-time work in the past just to maintiain that connection to society. I could never be happy as a recluse. I could never be happy painting all day every day. The social aspect of my life is energizing and inspiring.

I have never once felt lonely with my paintbrush in hand.

Absolutely loved your loneliness post and I agree and it is a good and productive thing I have hundreds of drawings in pen and ink and colored pencil and scratchboard that I have been able to do because I value and have taken use of my "lonely" time. Unfortunately this past year Inhavent had the luxury of that special time space and have really missed it.
Enjoy most all of your posts thanks. T

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John P. Weiss
Martha- Yes, others readers have also distinguished between aloneness and loneliness. Hopefully most of us find the right balance. Still, there are some who embark on an art career and underestimate the degree of alone time that can come with making art.

Claudette- Glad you enjoyed the article. Like you, I've had a lot of responsibilities and commitments that have reduced the amount of alone time I'd like to have for my art. But such is life. Thanks for reading.

Pamela Beer
I have to say that I appreciate the alone time very much. And I truly do enjoy my own company.

I have noticed that when I am surrounded by a lot of noise and activity for a while and then return to the studio, my inner muse has been at work while I was away.

I think being alone is good, but I think too much alone time can make us brood and spoil the work of our subconscious minds from the risk that is needed to make art that is different and compelling.

Too much time alone also seems to create intolerance for others. I agree with Martha, a balance is definately required.


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