Why Artists Need to Get Their ZZZs


Are you getting enough sleep? Sleeping enhances performance, helps generate “aha!” moments, and plays a role in your body’s overall health and wellbeing. If you are sacrificing sleep to spend long hours at the studio, you could be doing yourself more harm than good.

The majority of visual artists with their own art business have to manage many tasks — create, market and sell art — to earn a living. While the pressure to tackle those to-dos might cause artists to hole up in the studio or office until the wee hours of the morning, that isn’t the most productive solution, nor will it necessarily result in well-made, inspired works of art.

If you find yourself feeling sleepy these days, you are hardly alone. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 50 to 70 million Americans chronically suffer from a sleep disorder and wakefulness. Artists, in particular, should be concerned about getting the optimum seven to eight hours of restorative sleep because sleep enhances cognitive ability and can get those creative juices flowing. In addition, individuals who are sleep deprived risk physical injury as well as diminished health and well-being.

Sleep Enhances Performance

A person who is well-rested exhibits a much higher cognitive ability — mental processes that include judgment, perception, and memory — than someone who is fatigued. In fact, studies have shown that going 24 hours without sleep produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication, certainly not the ideal conditions for making important decisions or operating heavy or dangerous machines and equipment. Moreover, when sleep deprivation becomes regular, such as getting less than six hours of sleep a night for two to three weeks, reaction times and cognitive abilities are 10 times worse than staying up for 24 hours straight.

Sleep may be more than just a restorative, or “down time.” While we are busy sleeping, our brains are processing and consolidating information. When we “sleep on it,” we oftentimes awaken with a new perspective or a unique solution to what appeared to be a dilemma only the night before. That’s because sleeping stimulates divergent thinking — coming up with new approaches, particularly ones that differ from the “average” solution. For an artist, that might mean discovering an entirely new method for creating art or a breakthrough on how to approach a project.

Sleep Stimulates Creativity

REM sleep, the period of sleep during which dreams generally occur, has garnered attention in part because studies have shown that REM sleep enhances creative problem solving. While the connection between dreams and creativity is difficult to study in a systematic empirical fashion, anecdotal evidence supports that dreams have inspired innovation and creativity.

A notable example from the art world is the case of Jasper Johns. As Robert L. Van de Castle recounts in Our Dreaming Mind, Johns was working as a window dresser in New York in the mid-1950s when he dreamed about painting a U.S. flag. Johns’ first flag painting, Flag (1954–55), is still his best-known work. Moreover, the simplicity, familiarity and concreteness of Johns’ subject matter—maps, flags, targets—was revolutionary for a period marked by Abstract Existentialism and his work was influential in spurring Pop, Minimal and Conceptual Art movements.

Other famous creations and innovations that have been attributed to dreams include Robert Louis Stevenson’s conceiving the plot of Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; the melody for The Beatles’ hit “Yesterday” coming to Paul McCartney in a dream; Elias Howe’s invention of the sewing machine; and even Jack Nicklaus improving his golf game because he dreamed of a new way to hold his golf club.

One way to harness the creative power of dreams is to keep a dream journal. One that contains both verbal and visual notes can be especially helpful. To use the journal, place a notebook on your nightstand. When you awake after a dream, keep your eyes closed, lie still and try to recall the dream. Attempt to recreate the specific sequences of events or images by tracing your way backwards in the dream as far as you can. Then rehearse the dream in its actual structure. Once you have “recorded” the dream in your head, use one side of the notebook to write a description of dream as well as feelings and emotions that the dream evoked. On the other side of the notebook, sketch any compelling images or emotional qualities about the dream. Consider sketching with colored pencils to provide an enhanced visual picture.

You might not end up recreating your nocturnal visions in a series of compositions as Salvador Dali did, but examining your dream diary and considering the possible messages your dreams convey could stimulate ideas for subject matter or new techniques.

Become Sleep Smart

Just as society is waking up to the importance of regular exercise, we are recognizing that sleep is a component to overall heath. Untreated sleep disorders have been linked to numerous medical conditions including heart disease, diabetes, obesity, depression and anxiety.

If you want to improve your sleep “fitness,” try incorporating the following tips into your daily routine: stick to a consistent bedtime and wake time; exercise no closer than four hours before bedtime; avoid caffeine within several hours of bedtime and avoid alcohol at bedtime; eliminate pre-sleep activities that invoke hyper-arousal like working on a computer, playing video games, and even arguing; do not keep a TV in the bedroom; create an ideal sleep environment by reducing noise, darkened the room and lying on a comfortable bed; reserve the bed for sleep and sex only; and avoid excessive time in bed or napping.

It’s tempting to stay just one more hour at the easel or pottery wheel or to attend to a mountain of administrative tasks. But letting that keep you from healthy sleep, could end up becoming the worst nightmare for you and your business.

Dr. Joseph Ojile is the founder and CEO of Clayton Sleep Institute. Based in St. Louis, Missouri, Clayton Sleep Institute is a leading independent organization dedicated to all aspects of sleep medicine and healthy sleep. For more information, visit www.claytonsleepinstitute.com.