Just serotonin?

Silver white light (42 cms x 59 cms charcoal and pastel on Hahnemuehle Nostalgie paper 2017)

Recently, during a difficult period, I took enormous comfort in drawing. In Peter Steinhart’s book, The Undressed Art, I found the following passage:

Artists frequently compare the way they feel when they’re drawing to the sense of heightened awareness reported by practitioners of meditation….Jim Smyth, who has taught drawing for twenty years, says, “I believe the drawing process produces serotonin and endorphins in certain individuals. I see people who are not aware of their arthritis pain when they’re drawing. When they stop drawing, it comes back. Smyth once let someone monitor his brain-wave activity while he drew. “When I was drawing I would get alpha waves,” he said.

Alpha waves are electrical impulses in the brain that are associated with calm and focussed attention, Steinhart reminds us. Similar studies of meditation practitioners have revealed increased alpha, theta (these are associated with imagination and creativity) and beta waves (highly focussed attention).

Smyth believes the chemically induced sensation of pleasure is what keeps many people drawing. “There must be some physical reward for some people,” he says. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t do it.”

Well, it might have been a need for serotonin that urged me to draw when I was feeling low – certainly lack of it can result in depression and insomnia – but I like to feel it’s more than just a neurotransmitter ‘fix’. Isn’t any creative act – whether making lines on paper or following notes on a musical stave – a way of imposing order on the world by creating another world where you are in control (however much it might sometimes feel that the line is controlling you!). The end result, a unique piece made by your own hand, is a bonus: something to remind you of that time when you had your hand on the wheel.

The above drawing is one of the ones I completed during this time. Based on a rough sketch of the excellent model in the life drawing class I attend, I drew the figure in charcoal and dissolved some of the edges into the pastel background. I’m trying to get away from enclosing everything in a black line and this approach, I think, worked well. The addition of white pastel produces – I hope – a mystical feel, as if the figure is conducting some sort of energy. And not just serotonin!



29 thoughts on “Just serotonin?

  1. Interesting post. I draw and I meditate. I find they are very complimentary. I also do Zentangle drawing and drawing meditations in my mandalas. I have some issues with my serotonin, but I don’t think that is the primary reason for all of these activities. That said, I’m sure it helps to forget about pain and sadness and play with color and line. This is a lovely piece and I really like the use of white.

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  2. I’ve always assumed it’s the concentrating that gives your mind break from the ‘other things’ for a while. I can’t say I always feel positive when I look at what I’ve actually produced. The only other thing that gives me the same respite is reading. I’ve kept a list of books I’ve read for some years and I can correlate the difficult times with the large number of books I’ve got through at that time. Your picture is very expressive.

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  3. I see energy.

    Whenever the hand and mind swipe, gesture and stroke together at paper the result always has energy, an always has a life of it’s own. Creative thugs, it would seem, will hot wire anything, take it for a ride, and return it looking much different then what it did before it was commandeered.

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  4. I’ve recently read a book called “Paint Yourself Calm” which describes almost mediating through painting, encouraging you not to paint a subject as such but just to experience the way the paint flows and use colour to lift your mood for example.

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  5. There’s definitely an arrested moment in your drawing. Creating does block out pain I find…doesn’t matter how or why. Thanks for sharing your insights into what we all experience, and I hope it passes soon. (K)


  6. I don’t know that I called it heightened awareness but I have slipped into that “one with the painting/drawing” feeling before. It’s a good feeling. 🙂 Love your piece; it’s very Picasso-esque to me.

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  7. A thoughtful post, Michael. I loved your line “a way of imposing order on the world by creating another world where you are in control.” I had never thought of drawing or painting or even writing in this way but it certainly illustrates what happens when engaged in a creative activity. Your drawing is quite lovely. I was intrigued by your idea of not enclosing everything within black lines. The white does express energy as well as the vibrant blue “aura” around the woman.


  8. This is exactly how I feel when I start drawing a few lines…getting into a meditative state. I could actually feel my mind shift as if a warm water is being pour into my soul.


  9. Yes! I always feel like I’m in some sort of a trance when I’m drawing. And I don’t get the feeling so intensely when I paint… as if having to dip my brush in paint every minute makes me loose that special transe-like focus. I don’t know, I have been pondering about that actually… This study you share here is very interesting indeed!


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