“These days, we’re taught that someone who is alone must be sad and lonely,” Korean sculptor Seo Young-Deok tells us. “But I believe it is important to know how to appreciate solitude. My job calls for much time alone. It is during this time that I feel my imagination open up and expand.”
As it happens, Young-Deok is backed by science. For a long time, all types of social withdrawal were considered harmful. But over the last couple of years, psychologists have started to research the positive effects of alone time. Some of these recent studies suggest that people who enjoy solitude tend to be more creative.
To clarify, this doesn’t mean that isolation is the answer; on the contrary, being avoidant or antisocial can have a negative effect on your creative output. For alone time to be beneficial, psychologists explain, there needs to be a balance. Solitude isn’t about cutting yourself off from the outside world or disconnecting from others; it’s about allowing yourself to take time for introspection and reflection.
When it comes to fostering artistic genius, a rich inner world is crucial. Research tells us that, when compared to the average population, artists are usually more comfortable with complex ideas and ambiguous feelings. For some creative people, alone time acts like a kind of mirror, bringing their experiences, memories, and goals into sharper focus. They are open and willing to delve into their own psyches in ways other people might not be.
As a self-taught artist, Barcelona-based oil painter August Vilella thrives on intuition and experimentation, and his studio is his playground and his laboratory. “When I start on a new artwork, I need to be completely alone,” he explains. “I’m very strict with myself in that sense. I want to give shape to my subconscious mind, and any distraction can cut off my inspiration and interrupt the process. I’m painting for myself first, and then for others.”
Here, Vilella makes an important point about the value of taking a break from the outside world. When they’re alone, artists don’t have to worry about how their work will be received by others. All those doubts and fears take a backseat, allowing those complex feelings and unconventional ideas to come to the fore. Self-consciousness, on the other hand, stops creative thinking in its tracks. It inhibits our ability to take risks and think outside the box.
Several of the artists we interviewed for this story told us that they appreciate occasional solitude because it gives them the opportunity to play, dabble, and explore. Sometimes that means testing out new materials, and other times it means journaling about dreams they’ve never shared with anyone.
Still, alone time is just as much about hard work and discipline as it is about freedom. It requires patience and structure. For centuries, artists have persisted in solitude when other people might have given up; in the early 19th century, the French Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix wrote extensively in his journal not only about the importance of working alone but also about the level of self-control it took to do so. Then in his twenties, he encouraged himself to spend time away from the society of others to pursue “uninterrupted work, and plenty of it.”
Solitude itself can be a challenge, especially in an age when we’re constantly surrounded by media and stimuli. A 2014 study revealed that a surprising number of people (two thirds of men and one quarter of women) would rather experience a mild electric shock than spend just six to fifteen minutes alone in an empty room. It can take some practice to get comfortable with turning off the phone or silencing those notifications.
But the time we spend alone gives us space to unpack our memories, perceptions, and feelings. For artists, this process of “making sense” of the world--and their place in it--is absolutely necessary. “I use my busiest times to absorb impressions and immerse myself in experiences, but I also need time to reflect, sort out, and process my ideas,” Austrian artist Anatol Knotek tells us.
Plus, a healthy level of solitude won’t just affect your creativity; it could also improve your focus. Multitasking can reduce our productivity by a whopping 40%, so while moving between emails, texts, and a blank canvas might seem doable and efficient, it’ll just slow you down. The human brain isn’t hardwired for it.
That’s one reason why writers and artists get more work done when they schedule retreats and residencies. But you don’t have to head to a faraway destination in order to reap the benefits of solitude. Alone time can take place anywhere and everywhere: inside a studio, down the street, or on the road. Fit it in where you can, and find what works well for you. Maybe it means going to a museum, heading outside for a walk in a park, or even taking advantage of a routine commute.
“I've found that it works best for me to make the most of the opportunities that present themselves,” illustrator and collage artist Alex Eckman-Lawn tells us. “For example, my therapist recently moved, and I now have to take a long train ride twice a month to get to their new office. I was worried about this at first, but it's become this amazing, productive brain vacation. I actually look forward to it now.”
A few of the artists we spoke with share a similar perspective: solitude can be more than just a means to an end. While it’s true that alone time can boost creativity and efficiency, it can also be a welcome refuge and respite from the demands of everyday life. Once they’ve tapped into their subconscious mind, untangled their thoughts, and put pen to paper, some artists are left with a rare and precious feeling of stillness and quietude.
“I encourage people to enjoy their solitude,” Young-Deok concludes. “In the midst of all the noise and talk of the outside world, try to recognize that solitude is not always sad or lonely. It can be a source of joy and happiness.”
Learn to channel your personal reflections into more emotionally resonant art with Mari Andrew’s Skillshare Original, Drawing as Self-Discovery: 5 Ways to Start, now on Skillshare!
Cover image: Seo Young-Deok. Meditation 1554 (Iron chain--rust--220x260x250cm, 510kg, 2019). Photo: Mogi Studio. For more information on Feature Shoot, click here.