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The Maker's High

by Clint Watson on 8/23/2010 10:04:16 AM

This article is by Clint Watson,  former art gallery owner/director/salesperson and founder of FineArtViews. You should follow Clint on Twitter here.

A few days ago, I saw one of those home improvement shows on television. [1]  The crew planned to remodel a room, so the host started by drawing a sketch of what the room would look like after the job was completed.  Part of the redesign included adding a skylight.  As the construction started, the workers cut a square hole in the roof and lowered the new skylight into place.  And, as it slipped into place, the host went absolutely crazy with glee.  For a second, I wondered, "why is he getting so excited?"  After all, he knew they were going to add the skylight, so it wasn't a surprise to him.  But, after a moment, I realized what was going on.  It had taken me a moment to realize that I often feel the same way.  I just didn't immediately recognized the reaction because I don't, personally, get too excited about construction.  But I do know why he was excited.

He was experiencing what I'm going to call The Maker's High.

By "maker" I'm referring to people like artists, writers, hackers [2], and musicians. And I think they all probably experience the Maker's High.  

Makers all have in common that they envision something in their mind's eye.  Something that, once envisioned, they then turn into a reality by working in some "medium".  They turn an idea into a real-world "thing."  

Now, when I say it like that, it all sounds so neat and organized.  I made it sound like you create things in a step by step fashion.  But in reality it's a lot more messy.....and fun.  You may start with a rough vision of the end, and then start working with the medium, which gives you some new ideas, so the vision changes a little, and then you discover something you can do with the medium that you never realized before, so the vision changes a bit more. And so it continues.  So in reality, it's actually both a process of bringing a vision to life and a process of discovery.  It's exhilarating and frustrating all at the same time.

Of course, this is just a hypothesis at this point.  I haven't actually talked to other artists about it, but I suspect that all makers experience a sort of "high" by seeing their creations "come to life."  It's this "coming to life" part that's the important bit.  After all, I don't think that I get an intrinsic high by typing things such as,"while (!$rs->EOF) {updateRecord($i); $i++; $rs->movenext();}" Those characters are just the medium.  But, when I flip over to the output screen of such code and actually see it do something I get a bit of a rush.  That rush can only be described as a "high."  Perhaps I'm an addict, because that rush pushes me to write some more code and experience that feeling again.  I can't help but think that painters must get the same "high" [3]

We humans must just be wired to experience the "maker's high."  In fact, deep down, I suspect that everyone has a creative drive.  In some it may be long-suppressed and dormant.  But, if you dig long enough and deep enough - it's there.  I seriously don't think I've ever met anyone who had absolutely no creative drive at all.  It's one of the things that sets us apart from animals.  Humans create great things.  Animals don't.  Chimpanzees don't create The David.  Animals are creatures, humans are creators.  

There's something very soul-satisfying, even spiritual about creating.  It actually doesn't matter what you believe spiritually for this to remain true.  It could be that humans simply evolved to be creators because that was how we were able to survive and thrive an inhospitable Darwinian environment.  Or, it could be that we really are created in the Creator's image.  After all, if HE gets a high and derives pleasure from His creation, it only makes sense that we would get a similar high from ours.

Artist Hazel Dooney recently wrote on her blog, "I've tried every drug except heroin. Every experience was a waste of time and energy." That makes sense to me.  She's an artist - so the high that drugs provide must seem but a cheap imitation of the "real" maker's high.  Being an artist, Hazel must experience the "maker's high" on a regular basis - what could a drug possibly offer one after experiencing the real thing?  [4][5]

Saying that a drug could provide the same high as the maker's high would be like saying porn is the same thing as love.

The maker's high is expensive.  It's hard to explain unless you've actually experienced it.  The act of creation is both draining and exhilarating simultaneously.  I'm never so exhausted as I am after a day of coding.  It's as if I poured part of my soul right into the computer.  But the high keeps me going.  We've all heard of hackers who've coded for 48 hours straight.  I understand how that happens.  Personally I've even done as much as 36 hours.  When true inspiration strikes artists should drop everything and follow it.  But what if the inspiration doesn't stop but just flows continuously?  When that happens you end up creating for hours and hours on end until it stops or until you finally stop from exhaustion, whichever happens first.  I'm very curious:  does this same phenomenon happen to painters?  Are there painters who sometimes paint for 36 hours straight?  

Hugh MacLeod calls this phenomenon the Hunger.  He says, "The Hunger will give you everything. And it will take from you, everything. It will cost you your life, and there's not a damn thing you can do about it."  

I don't think I can ever say it better than that.

Now, go change the world,

Clint Watson
Software Craftsman and Art Fanatic



[1]  I generally don't watch television anymore, not because of some moral stand against TV, but because there's rarely anything I find interesting on.  The only time I usually watch is while working out and it seems like the only programs that are on at that time besides ridiculous reality shows are home improvement shows.

[2] I use the term "Hackers" to mean someone who uses programming as a medium to create cool things, like interesting web applications. In other words, a "maker."  Not all programmers are "makers."  Your average Java programmer in a corporate setting who is creating functions to someone else's specs is not a "maker" in the sense of this article.  Such a programmer might be a maker on his/her own time, but not in the setting of implementing Java functions.  Incidently, the word "hacker" does not mean "someone who breaks into computers."  I use the word in the same sense that Paul Graham does.

[3] And I don't mean from the turpentine. 

[4] I guess a drug could offer something: perhaps a form of escape.  After a long, exhausting (but exhilarating) week of creating, I admit that I enjoy a nice wine buzz as much as the next guy.  The "high" that I get from wine is nothing compared to the maker's high.  But, in moderation, it does help me relax and recharge.  Everyone needs to recharge themselves in some way.  Even God rested on the seventh day.

[5]  I certainly don't want to put any words into Hazel's mouth here.  I'm giving you the reasons I suspect that drugs might not be of interest to a true maker.  She may have other reasons as to why drugs were a waste of time for her.

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Topics: FineArtViews | inspiration 

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Sarah Marie Lacy
I know exactly what you mean. I get "Maker's High" all the time.

For me, it's that moment when I let go, really get into the painting and then when I step back - somehow a thing of beauty has appeared before me. I can't explain it, I can't figure out how it happened or what the heck it had to do with me, but it's there.

It's definitely spiritual and it's definitely a high. No drug could ever compare.

Kyle V Thomas

I think another name for this maker's high is joy.

Great observation. I think you've hit upon something else here. What we get "high" from often times doesn't make sense to others. You were blessed to see why the installation of a skylight could bring such exuberant joy for someone. Others don't always see "what the big deal is."
I wonder if it's because they have settled for less than the real maker's high(joy)?

Clint Watson
Sarah, Kyle - thanks for giving me feedback from some real painters. I'm curious have you or anyone you've known done a 36 hour painting marathon?

George De Chiara
I like what you said about being exhausted after a day of coding. I feel the same way when I'm done with a painting. Even on days when I want to work on another painting because I still feel like I'm "in the groove", I've got to take a few hours break first.

The last time I painted for 36 hours straight was in school for a deadline. I almost always work better when I'm alert and fresh, after 8 or 9 hours I'm no longer either of those.

Fiona Purdy
My painting style is very detailed and controlled and it's very intense. On a normal day 5 hrs is about it, my eyes and back hurt after that and I get really irritated and start getting sloppy, my heart is not longer in it, so I call it a day for the painting and then move onto the marketing for a bit.

The longest I've ever painted was 10 hrs ( I was on a very tight deadline) - after that I was really exhausted.

Karen Steffano
What a brilliant post! I am an artist and a programmer and I do get a high from seeing both my programs and my art in final form. I have to say though that the art is giving me more highs at the moment. I also experienced great joy last week during the process of creating more than the final outcome, I was experimenting with new materials and a new style and forgot time while I was creating.
I was not hugely overjoyed with the results, but I got such a kick out of the process because I was discovering new things about myself and my abilities as an artist.
However, when I have completed a work I consider to be particularly good, I get a small high every time I look at it, until it gets surpassed by the next painting. so it's a drug that keeps on giving with no bad side effects.

Carole Rodrigue
Yes, I have experienced this, although I've never painted 36 hours straight. For me, the biggest part of the rush is once I've decided to call it finished and it turned out like I envisionned, or better. If I get better feedback than with most of my other works, that gives me the rush also. Knowing that something I created can affect someone is the biggest high for me.

Helen Horn Musser
Great post Clint!!! I especially liked the part you recalled our being made in God's image. He was the Great Creator and if we are made in His image we must have the same trait. An artist(can't recall who it was; please help me with this anyone) once said, "all children are artists" but, something may take them in a different direction as they mature. That is one of the reasons Our Child Within is so important to us as artists. Protect and nurture that Child with every day we live.

Lori Woodward
Clint, I've never done anything for 36 hours straight.

During the painting process, I need to step back (or sit) and contemplate "the next step" from afar. I get a bit myopic while painting and can't see the painting as a whole up close. Once every couple of hours, I'll evaluate whether I'm pleased with the results or not. If I cam pleased, I get the "high".

If I'm not happy with the painting, it's like having a bug that keeps it from running, and that must get fixed... and leads to more hours spent. When all the visual problems are solved, I get charged - the maker's high.

Sometimes the hard part is that you sort of fall in love with the paintings that go well, and then you sell it and never see it again. If you work with a gallery, chances are, you have no idea where it is or who owns it. You only have an image/memory on your PC.

Susan Koon
Hi Clint, I totally agree with the makers high theory. I got the high from just setting up my site. Before that it was building my new pochade box and breaking it in. Everytime I pick up a brush I am pulled into the zone and hours can pass with out realizing it. Everyone in my family knows not to break the zone when i'm in it. The last time they broke "the zone" it took two days for it to return. When I can finish without interuption I can pick it back up even after a pause to rest. This is my first post but will not be my last. Thanks for all you have done for your artistic "family." Susan Koon

Kaitlin Gray
Awesome post! As I was reading it I was thinking, 'YES YES YES!!! That's IT!' =D Especially when I got to the part about it being 'both a process of bringing a vision to life and a process of discovery.' I feel exactly the same thing, though I termed it a bit differently... your version sounds more sane. =) haha!

When I start a painting I generally try to finish it in one sitting, no matter how long it takes. I've found that if I stop in the middle I have to set it aside for a (very long) while, until I'm in the same sort of mind-set to finish.

I think around 15 hours is normal for me, working through the night generally, but I have been known to go up to 48 on rare occasions (extreme headaches are the quitting point). Same with coding (playing with website/blog designs).

Bill Werle
Hi Clint,

20 hrs was my longest stretch finishing up a painting in high school. About 16 hrs coding a custom intranet. Your spot on with this article. One of the big differences in my opinion between a makers high and a chemically induced one is the control factor. Chemically your not in control for the most part but the makers high you are.

It IS a spiritual experience. Like a supernatural occurrence when the painting all comes together as you had envisioned it. "This was created by own hands!" The euphoria washes over you and for me I ride that wave for hours. Unlike a chemical high the makers high is also intensely satisfying.

As Carol pointed out above, when your creation is appreciated by someone else the high returns or intensifies. Again, a very satisfying experience.

What a great post Clint! Thanks for writing this.

Carol Schmauder
I know that high you are talking about also. From the inception of the painting until the final brush stroke I am in a state of anticipation. When I can finally step away and see the finished work I get a sense of satisfaction, and yes, a high that is truly exhilarating.

Thanks for another great post.

Mara schasteen
I know with deep intimacy this "Maker's High." It is just as much of a blessing as it is a burden. It is a "paint or die" kind of life. It torments me and it fulfills me every day. The connection to the high is so intense, I am glad I have a family to keep me in reality ... doing the normal daily tasks of a normal woman. Otherwise, I'd be some crazy recluse bag lady with no social life and half a million rolled up linens in my studio.

Dianne Panarelli Miller
HI Clint,
I love your articles and my website!
I was schooled at R. H. Ives Gammells Atelier in Boston and one of the most important things they gave us was the discipline to paint all day. I get up and paint every day, usually till I go to bed. You are not high all day and sometimes I don't want to paint at all. But as long as I get going, I find my passion and continue and by the end of the day feel a fulfillment not many people feel. To have an idea and see it to fruition is definately a high!

The guys installing the skylight were experiencing only a temporary, premature maker's high--because the real maker's high in that situation is when the skylight doesn't leak after it rains ; ) (Can you tell my husband and I have installed a skylight before?) I do think we as modern Homo sapiens are hard wired to create, and it's something that Neanderthals really didn't appear to have, generating a much, much smaller number of items and doing them in the same way over and over throughout thousands of years. Modern humans really exploded with creativity compared to Neanderthals. Regarding animals, I always thought humans were exclusive in their creativity--until I saw a documentary on the courtship assemblages that bower birds make out of 'found' objects and then I really had to think again about whether animals have a creative capacity! But overall, yep, that maker's high is hard to beat!

Susan Meyer
I believe you are right on with many of your comments in this article. As an artist, I agree there is definately a "maker's high", a joy, that comes with conceiving an idea for a painting, working on it and then seeing the beauty of the completed piece. I find that high will often last on into the next project. That need to create as well as inspiration to create, I believe, does come from the One who has created us. I've never painted for 36 hours, but do often get so caught up in the work that I forget to eat. Thanks for this article.

Mary Beth Brath
Yes, this is so true. I fantasize about spending uninterrupted hours and days painting where there is nothing else but me, paint and the canvas. To be in the "zone" until everything I want to convey is out of my soul. However, for me, this would not be functional since I have 4 boys under the age of 13 and a wonderful husband.
This summer, I was juried into the Gettysburg Festival Artist Colony and studied under Master Artist Lisa Egeli. This was life changing and was as close as I will come to an extended period of immersion without my family starving and the laundry pouring out of the windows.

JT Harding
Great post. Seeing my ideas come to fruition is definately a high. I've never done anything in my life that was as exhausting and exhilarating at one time. Even when I put the brush down, I'm still feeling the effects of the high. When, I'm painting, I'm in the moment and totally lose track of time.

Teresa Tromp
I believe we receive a "maker's high" because "The Great Maker" gave us the desire to paint in the first place. If we are enthusiastic about our painting process, it's because we are doing what we are supposed to do.
I almost always reach a point, early in the painting, where I don't like it, and wish I could finish quickly, to start something else. That quickly fades, after the painting starts to come together and I work through that difficult phase. (Just like real life sometimes.)
Each painting seems to get better, and that makes it so exciting to start the next painting.
Thank you for the e-newsletter. It's very informative.


Karen Winters
36 hours of painting straight through? No, I haven't done that. I generally need to rest and refresh to keep my perspective clear. But I do feel a "maker's high" whenever I create and when the process is going well. When it's a struggle I don't get the same elation.

Terry Gay Puckett
It is the ability to create the "Maker's High" that keeps you going on, and helps recover from "Life's Lows." Viva Arte!

Helen Horn Musser
Terry, Salut'e, Cheers to visual arts

Jeanne Guerin-Daley
I am yet another artist who agrees that I get that "makers high" whenever I create art. It is my reward for paying attention to the drive that pulls me into the zone. I don't/can't usually create art for long stretches anymore (I did years ago: all-night painting sessions while at art college). Like Mary Beth, it is impossible when there are family duties that must be done. But I do find time whenever I can. Sometimes a painting will grab hold of me and next thing I know, it's very late at night. Makes for a little fatigue the next day, but it is SO WORTH IT! The feeling is hard t describe; it is part of why we do what we do. We must!

I immediately knew what this article was speaking about. I get into almost a trance when I'm deep in my work, and I find myself painting and drawing without much thought about technique even being needed. I let the emotions flow and it always comes out right. I get really excited when everything is finally done, and my feels so complete.


Mary Beth Brath
You said it Jeanne. We must. It is who we are.

Marsha Hamby Savage
Definitely have experienced the "maker's high!" I agree with someone above that said it is what keeps us going further when we have a few lows.

I also get another bit of that high when a see someone fall in love with the piece I created, or if I win an award for it. It brings back those feelings of being the maker and how wonderful it is someone saw what we meant to show!

I have probably only painted as long as 12 hours. And, that would be with mini-breaks along the way to come back with a fresh eye. The best though for me, is when I somehow seem to produce several paintings in a short time. It just seems that someone is guiding my hand and my thoughts and producing the work for me and through me.

Recently I painted three pastel paintings between about 8:30 AM and 12:00 noon. One was 16x20, one 14x11 and one 12x9. Amazingly they were all worthy of framing -- and the 16x20 won Best in Show! So, really I think I am still on that "maker's high."

Thanks for giving me that phrase to use! Love it.

Joanne Benson
Hi Clint,
So true about the high you get from creating whether it be painting or coding!(I am an X Cobol programmer from the 70's) I even get a high at my part time job when I figure out an easier way to do something or get a dredded project completed!

When I first started back to painting I would go for long stretches into the wee hours of the night but not so much now. Probably a function of being older and the eyes giving out and the body not cooperating. Now I try to do most of my painting in the daylight. Never more than 6-8 hours at a stretch though...I would love to be able to go for longer! Love that high is the ultimate conclusion to being in ...the zone!

Judy Mudd
I've never done anywhere near 20-36 hours, but I have experienced this feeling, completely losing yourself in time and place. Hours seem like minutes. It is a great feeling.

Marian Fortunati
You know, it is so good to hear other creators talk about this because for years I've realized that if I get caught up in a painting later on in the evening it won't matter whether I've "finished" the painting... (whatever THAT state of being means) or am still working on it when my time clock tells me I "should" be in bed.... I won't be able to sleep.

It's almost like an excitement that takes over my body... It's not a bad feeling but one of being totally alive and awake... even if I know that I'll not be able to get "enough" sleep. It's the creative tension... the creative excitement... ... the maker's high.

And the satisfaction when you've done something that no one else has done... be it a painting... or a helpful program ... Ahhhhhh there is nothing more blissful!!!

Jana Parkes
I agree, Clint, that it is soul-satisfying, and I love your observation that humans are creators.

The most I've painted is 5 hrs., and I was thorougly wiped out after that. Actually some of my best paintings have taken years as I finish them and then later they call to be added to, to what seems a state of even more completion.

It's fun to hear others process and experiences. As an abstract painter, the one thing I don't do is have a vision before I start. When I start I just sit down and ask for the highest good to come through. Then I ususally start in the lower right hand corner of the canvas and add color and texture in a clock-wise direction. I don't know why, but it works for me.

The high for me is usually upon completion, and like Karen Steffano I get a high every time I look at it, until the next painting surpasses it. Sometimes, I like to touch my paintings. Hmm...maybe it's because they touch me, in a deeper way.

blessings to all.

Beth Winfield
I recently had a full day of painting. I am a mom and artist and I rarely get a whole day to paint. I went out at 7:00 in the morning to do a plain air sketch. I really got into the scene and painted till about noon. I went and picked up a few taco's and went right back to painting. I had driven into the next town where they have several sessions of figure painting. I stayed till 10:00 at night, skipping dinner just to keep painting. If I get the chance and in the mode I don't want to stop. It was late at night and I could have kept painting but my eyes were tired. It was one of my favorite days. I 'm going to make every Thursday a marathon day.

Beth Winfield
Plein air sketch. My iPad changes words without my permission.

Charlotte Herczfeld
Clint, absolutely, it is part of why makers make. The high is both an instant reward, but it continues both internally and externally -- the maker feels a bit of the rush when seeing again what was made, and the heady high of actually having made something that is changing something for *other* people is also part of it.

No 36 hour stretches here. I obsess, and can spend every awake minute (nearly) doing a 'making', but I do sleep and eat, and take some 2 hours of relaxing before sleeping. The Making experience is so intense I can't keep it up without pauses, but they may be short.

Read somewhere that the opposite of Making isn't destroying, it is un-making. (Orson Scott Card, the Alvin Maker series of books.)

"The Makers High" - I absolutely, love that phrase, and I absolutely love that feeling. Just when you think you couldn't get any higher - you discover there is still more to the mountain that couldn't be seen before.

I don't personally work past 5-8hrs at a time. I pulled some all nighters but when your mind and body become tired your work becomes less than your potential.

I love all the comments that have followed this article. It is so nice to know that I am not alone in this euphoria. Those nearest me may think I am crazy, but to you all...this is normal!

T. Miller
Hi Clint! I've never painted 36 hours straight, but I have experienced the "Maker's High" and I know that when that happens everything just clicks and goes rather quickly. Even when I'm not precisely under the spell of a "maker's high" though, my sense of time is elusive; I work until I can no longer maintain quality control. I would like to get more accustomed to working a longer day. I need to schedule days where I can do nothing but paint.

Barb Stachow
I have disabilities which means I "must" limit my time at any one activity, however once I'm into painting...that "must" definitely gets stretched. Painting is one activity where a person can absolutely get lost in time, and must remember to come up for a breather!

Brian Sherwin
I'm not sure how I missed this one... BUT -- great read. The quote at the end is worth writing down.


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