“These days, we’re taught that someone who is alone must be sad and lonely,” Korean sculptor Seo Young-Deok says. “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 there may be an important relationship between solitude and creativity. 

To understand the importance of solitude, we spoke to several artists to get their insights. Below, we’ll explore the research behind solitude art, as well as individual perspectives on how to enjoy solitude and create great art alone.  

Why Do Artists Need Solitude?

Traditionally, to be in solitude means to be alone or separate from society. But for artists, solitude takes on a slightly different meaning. Solitude isn’t about completely cutting yourself off from the outside world or disconnecting from others; it’s about allowing yourself to take time for introspection and reflection. 

Several of the artists we interviewed 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, it can take hard work and discipline to learn how to enjoy solitude. It requires patience and structure. For centuries, solitude artists have persisted 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.” 

That’s why many writers and artists schedule deliberate creative retreats and residencies. But you don’t have to head to a faraway destination in order to reap the benefits of solitude and creativity. Alone art 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. 

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“ego, 2012” (exhibited at Town Hall Gallery in Melbourne in 2014) © Anatol Knotek
“ego, 2012” (exhibited at Town Hall Gallery in Melbourne in 2014) © Anatol Knotek

The Science of Art and Solitude

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. 

In that way, taking time to create art alone can help artists uncover ideas and creativity they may not otherwise be able to access. 

However, solitude 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.

Plus, a healthy level of solitude won’t just enhance 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.

What Working Artists Say About Solitude 

Solitude Can Mitigate Distractions and Self-Sabotage 

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 taking time for solitude painting. 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 artists’ ability to take risks and think outside the box. 

An example of solitude art: “The Philosopher” (oil on canvas, 100x81cm, 2017) © August Vilella
An example of solitude art: “The Philosopher” (oil on canvas, 100x81cm, 2017) © August Vilella

Solitude Can Help You Process Your Feelings 

The time you spend alone gives you space to unpack your 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 says.

“nothing lasts forever, 2009” (exhibited at Town Hall Gallery in Melbourne in 2014) © Anatol Knotek
“nothing lasts forever, 2009” (exhibited at Town Hall Gallery in Melbourne in 2014) © Anatol Knotek

Solitude Doesn’t Look the Same for Everyone

“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.”

Another example of solitude art: “Antiquity V” (cut paper/collage, 2019) © Alex Eckman-Lawn
Another example of solitude art: “Antiquity V” (cut paper/collage, 2019) © Alex Eckman-Lawn

Solitude can be more than just a means to an end. While it’s true that alone art 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—which can lead to extraordinary solitude artwork. 

“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.” 

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