What happens to the mind during a process of creation? Even after several theories based on innumerable researches, this question remains an area to be explored by scientists, psychiatrists and artists. Artists are characterised with a never-ending thirst for creating and recreating something new every day, remaining unaffected by the limiting experiences and stimulations available around. Experimenting with ideas, materials and medium of art are common ways in which they express themselves. Artists, writers, musicians and cartoonists from the classical to contemporary age have been experimenting with different forms of drugs and alcohol to foster their imagination and bring more colour, spice and taste to their creative piece. Call it an attempt to escape from the sorrows around or a way to visualise things to see beyond what is seen at the surface; artists continue to try and develop new perspectives.
Consumption of drugs has a very strong impact on the way the artists see colours and shapes around them, it also impacts the strength of strokes. Admirers and critics of his works see the use of yellow and amber in the work of Vincent van Gogh as an influence of intoxication. He is famously remembered as one of the artists who also chose to deal with his problems using drugs. A documentary made on the life of maestro “Loving Vincent” shows different shades of his life. Van Gogh admitted his unhealthy rendezvous with substance in his letters to his brother where he wrote: "besides, it is a certain fact
that I have done better work than before since I stopped drinking, and that is so much gained.” Be it a punch of caffeine through that mug of black coffee, a strong puff of a cigarette at the beginning of the day or ingesting any other form of drug we are all always under the influence of some of the other form.
A documentary ‘Art of Darkness’ by David Parker features artist Bryan Lewis Saunder who decided to self-portrait every day under the influence of different types of drugs and talks about his experiences while creating this “drug series”. Saunder shares his experience on his website in his series of self-portraits under the influence of different types of drugs; he mentions the dosage of the drug along with the name. It is interesting to note the change in shapes and colours with a change in the type of drugs as shown in the illustrated works. One can see the huge difference each drug makes on Bryan. The art made under the influence is very symbolic of the reputation of the drug itself.
For e.g., under the influence of Adderall the artist makes a self-portrait of himself with a body of a snake, but his own face. The body of the snake is extremely detailed, Bryan also focuses on the shadow of the snake. The self-portrait under the influence of 1 bump of crystal meth shows firey red, yellow and orange tones. There are randomly scribbled “nothingness” on the top of the head, which could be representational of the euphoric and highly alert state of mind the drug is said to cause. Since the drugs were taken in such close intervals to one and other, there is a possibility of having the “trippy” effects from the previous intake. Bryan suffered from mild reversible brain damage but continues to experiment with these drugs with greater lapses in time between each.
“I don’t do drugs, I am drugs.” The famous quote of Spanish artist Salvador Dali (1904-1989) further affirms the fact that artists use drugs to recreate the magic in their artworks. In the first volume of his biography, A Life of Picasso John Richardson wrote, he (Pablo Picasso) smoked opium several times a week between 1904 and 1908. Opium was more of a means of escape—and a love-potion for him and Olivier—than a creative tool for Picasso. On the contrary Modigliani, also known as a ‘cursed artist’ depended largely on drugs for his creative genius. Artists don’t shy away in acknowledging their love towards drugs and have also shown strong discontent at changing anti-drug laws around the world. “Inasmuch as we shall never be able to identify and eliminate the causes of despair in humanity, we have no right to prevent a man from cleansing himself of sorrow....Anti-drug laws have only benefited the medical, journalistic, and literary pimps, who have built reputations of shit founded on righteous indignation levelled against this inoffensive sect of dope-fiends, this minority that’s damned by their minds, their souls, and their disease.”
Jackson Pollock, an artist famous for pioneering a new form of art in the American world of art 1940s. One can relate the degeneration of his creative genius from the widely acclaimed drip paintings, which was exemplary work of his time to the black, blotted, semi-figurative paintings that are usually seen as symptoms of his tragic decline. In his autobiographical book ‘The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater’, essayist Thomas De Quincy tears away that “decent drapery” and brings out his personal experiences of the encounter of his creative genius with his addiction to opium. He describes his addiction to the substance as “As furnishing a key to some parts of that tremendous scenery which afterwards peopled the dreams of the opium-eater.”
Influence of drugs, legal or illegal on the imagination, experience, perception, emotions and thoughts of an artist is hard to be negated. Art and drugs share a historical bond of narrative that have either culminated into a masterpiece or burnt the canvas and the contemporary don’t take much pain in hiding their use of hallucinogens. A twenty-four-year-old young artist Kimberly Quiriarte is unhesitant in sharing about her struggles with inherited struggles with mental health and the role of drugs in streamlining the creative process. “Under the influence of marijuana, I smoke to relieve anxiety and depression, so it's actually part of the process for myself’, says Kim. However this does not mean that all these artists are addicts and escapists, perhaps they just see these substances as a medium to liberate their imagination and a tool to help them explore the colours, forms and strokes in a novel way.