top of page

Does Art Need to be Dark and Tortured to Matter?

I'm not sure when or how it happened, but over time I developed the belief that art and artists needed to be filled with angst to create work that mattered. Writers were tortured alcoholics, at least the essential writers were. Musicians were and are often portrayed as overcoming great obstacles including abusive parents to find success. The idea that creative people are dark, mysterious souls putting their pain into their work permeates our culture. We often equate dark with serious or deep. As I've matured I've begone to notice that there are plenty of successful, interesting, deep people out there who aren't drenched in melancholy and that my beliefs around this are skewed. There are plenty of artists making an impact without fitting neatly into the stereotype of the "broken creative person."

An intuitive painting comprised mostly of blue and orange with flowers and dragonflies.
Choose Joy

People like Bob Ross, who seemed to focus on joy and the process of making art, were often thought of as a joke when I was growing up. I'm glad he is portrayed a little differently now and embraced for his approach to living. I've been thinking about this lately because I keep seeing a meme floating around the internet that says something like, "Your art is a reflection of your soul if you are brave enough to look at it." After looking at some of my paintings I wondered what they say about my soul. That I'm all sunshine and rainbows with flowers and colors exploding with joy? I certainly don't feel that way all the time, but what if that is who I am underneath this false belief that to matter, or to be important, you have to have this deep well of darkness bubbling under the surface? Is my belief about creative people preventing me from being my authentic self?

While contemplating this I remembered an essay I wrote back in high school. It was the one I planned to submit to the colleges I hoped to attend. I often cringe when thinking about it. Until this morning, the whole thing seemed so embarrassing and the opposite of dark, deep, or tortured. To sum up the essay, I said I wanted to make the world a more beautiful place. I think I may have even said I wanted to decorate it. It's one of those things I might think about at 3 am when I can't sleep, and my brain is serving up memories about things I'd rather not acknowledge about myself. I have often imagined the college admittance office scanning my essay and thinking, "There's just no there there." or, "This one has nothing important to say with her work, next.” My brain can be extremely mean to me sometimes! Except, maybe, it's just been trying to point out something about who I am.

This morning I received a comment under one of my paintings on social media. It had a profound impact on me because not only was it incredibly kind (even my husband teared up a little while reading it), but it was also like receiving an answer about my authentic self that was buried under some self-limiting beliefs. In the comment, my friend, Tara, wrote that she has been reading a book called, "You Don't Owe Anyone," and that the author has a phrase, "go where life is." I was intrigued already. What a great phrase! I want to live this way too. Then Tara said, "I love that phrase and it can be used in different settings and open to interpretation. I am choosing to use it with people who suck the life out of me. Your art reminded me of going where life is. I love the vibrant colors you work with and the uplifting subjects you choose to express. Thank you, Lillian, for sharing your work, passion, and joy." The little voice inside me said, "See, you don't have to be dark, tortured, or broken to matter or to have something to say." My inner child wanted to decorate the world and make it more beautiful. I think it's about time I let her do that without judgment


Thank you, Tara. You changed my perspective in one comment. I know that sounds over-blown or hyperbolic, but it isn't. You helped me get the mirror where it needed to be so I could see my soul and be brave enough to look at it. I don't have anything against dark, brooding creative people. They do amazing things. It's just not who I am, and it feels good to let go of the belief that I must be to make a difference in the world.

Here is a quick process video with me painting a shamrock. Have a happy St. Patrick's day!

21 views4 comments

Recent Posts

See All
Post: Blog2_Post
bottom of page