Artists and ADHD: Myths, Reality, True Stories, and Resources
By Thea Fiore-Bloom, PhD.
What if I told you Picasso, da Vinci, and van Gogh all shared 9 weird traits.
Would you be curious to see what the traits were?
Wouldn’t you want to know if you possessed them too?
But what if I went on to tell you the set of traits were those of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)?
Still got your hand up?
What is ADHD?
ADHD is a chronic condition that affects millions of children and often continues into adulthood.
It includes a combination of persistent problems, such as difficulty sustaining attention, hyperactivity and impulsive behavior.
ADD is the same condition minus the hyperactivity.
And it’s not just great artists like da Vinci, Picasso, and van Gogh who are thought to have had it.
Some of the world’s best writers like Hemingway and Hans Christian Anderson probably had ADHD too.
But we make a lot of incorrect assumptions about the condition.
So let’s look at the six biggest myths floating around about ADHD. And meet 3 modern day artists who thrive despite its challenges.
6 Biggest Myths About Artists with ADHD
1st Myth: ADHD is a Gift
Reality: ADHD is a Serious Stumbling Block for Artists
I began researching this story with the romantic notion that ADHD was some sort of misunderstood gift. A gift geniuses get that an artist or writer might not mind having.
But the therapists, artists, and experts I interviewed for this post promptly pushed me right out of my little ivory tower.
Just because a few of the most brilliant minds in history may have learned to harness a particular superpower of their ADHD, (which we’ll talk more of later) doesn’t mean the disorder is something to dance ’round a Maypole for.
Contrary to the current rumblings in the media, “ADHD is definitely not a ‘gift’ or a ‘blessing,’” said Rick Green, Canadian actor, writer, comedian and co-founder of totallyadd.com.
“Those of us with ADHD get fired more often than others on average,” said Green. “We also have more: car accidents, dropouts, more expulsions and higher divorce rates than the general population.”
Some Other Things Artists with ADHD Are Up Against
Green also notes: “We struggle with procrastination, perfectionism and overwhelm.
Are quick to say yes to everything
Have a sense of underachieving
Are quick to start new projects but struggle to finish them
Fight with poor self-esteem
Have difficulty managing details
Difficulty managing our finances and deadlines
Not to mention often having to deal with anxiety or depression.”
Artists with ADHD Also Seem To Spend A Lot of Time Looking For Things
Painter Vicky Knowles points out two other stumbling blocks she and many of her fellow ADD artists experience on a daily basis:
“I seem to waste a huge amount of time looking for things,” said Knowles.
When my environment is orderly I feel peaceful but for the life of me, I can’t maintain that.
Time management is also a big issue for me. I always underestimate how long it will take to find something, prepare for a show, or create in general.”
How many of us have no idea where a certain thing we really need this moment has actually disappeared to, within the bowels of our own studio?
But there is a world of difference between feeling slightly scattered, and being overwhelmed with despair around one’s inability to complete a task.
2nd Myth: All Artists Have ADHD To Some Extent
Reality: Um… No, All Artists Don’t
Many ADHD creatives know scads of other artists and actors with ADHD.
But that doesn’t mean we all have it.
“Because those with ADHD have highly creative or divergent thinking it’s logical that people have speculated that artists have a higher rate of ADHD than those in other fields,” said psychologist and author Ari Tuckman. “It’s possible, but no definitive data exists to prove that.”
“It’s true that people who have ADHD do tend to be more creative and divergent in their thinking than the general population, said Tuckman.
“But it’s not just artists who struggle with ADHD, said Tuckman. “I work with accountants who have it too.”
3rd Myth: If You’re an Artist with ADHD, You Know It
Reality: Mid Life Diagnosis is Common
Not everyone discovered they had ADHD as a kid.
Half the battle with adult ADHD is not knowing what’s the matter with you.
You might mistakenly believe you can’t finish things because you are not smart enough or you’re lazy or “flakey.”
I would think it takes guts to even go take the test for ADHD. (If you want to try an online version you can visit this Do I Have ADD? page.
“I suspected I might have ADHD,” said analog collage artist Shawn Marie Hardy.
“My situation was so bad I couldn’t finish high school with the rest of my class.” Hardy has since gone on to attend both college and art school despite ADHD.
“Originally I had heard such negative connotations about people with ADHD that I didn’t want to find out for sure if that’s what I had too.”
It wasn’t until fairly recently Hardy gathered the courage to take the test that proved conclusive for ADHD.
“The diagnosis gave me a concrete reason for why things had been so chaotic in my life and allowed me to work on addressing it in a more constructive way.”
4th Myth: There is Only One Right Way For Artists To Address ADHD
Reality: Artists with ADHD Do Best Creating Their Own Unique Tool Kit
One size fits all solutions don’t work with ADHD.
“Whether you’re an artist or not, whether you’ve got ADHD or not, you need to go with the particular strengths that you have and compensate for the particular weaknesses, so you can live the life you want to,” Dr. Tuckman said.
Rick Green agrees; “Everyone impacted by ADHD has their own issues and their own solutions.”
“Ideally you make your own holistic toolbox of structures and tricks,” said Green. “For me, it’s yoga, mindfulness meditation, a mostly vegan diet, medication when I need it, a coach, online planning tools, etc.”
Got Any Cappuccino In Your Toolbox?
I love that Shawn Marie Hardy’s personalized toolbox contains a lovely, aromatic go-to. Coffee.
“Coffee gives me a short burst of calm, euphoria and opens me up to intense chains of deep thought,” said Hardy. “I’ve learned to use coffee judiciously to create and enforce a kind of order in my day that I didn’t used to have.”
5th Myth. Artists with ADHD Are Isolated Loners
Reality: Many Artists with ADHD are Ten Times More Social Than Us
(OK, Ten Times More Social Than Me)
The ADHD creatives I’ve met struggle with feelings of isolation. However, they try to work with that and tend to interact with others to a degree that puts my loner-writer self to shame.
Knowles has found group interaction and group deadlines are a great tool to combat her ADD-influenced problem with prioritization and procrastination.
“Participating in online group events like 30 Paintings in 30 Days, Inktober, and Drwlloween,” Knowles said, “reinforces a consistent work habit for me.”
“The structure of reoccurring themed monthly contests like Nibblefest, which I used to run,” said Knowles, “make it easier for me to decide what to paint — as I can have a propensity to get overwhelmed when I have too many options.”
Knowles (a prolific painter) believes being accountable to a group or anyone other than just herself, always increases her chances of following through. Which brings us to our final myth.
Myth 6. An Artist with ADHD Can’t Succeed
Reality: Many Artists with ADHD Outproduce and Outsell Artists Without the Disorder
Yes, ADHD puts creatives behind the eight ball.
But despite this, ADHD artists who are aware of their disorder and work hard to manage it can cope and even flourish.
Many ADHD artists manage to produce gobs of art on a regular basis.
In fact, each artist I interviewed produced more work per week than I do in a month.
Knowles maintains a full-time practice as a professional painter and holds down a day job.
Even though Hardy is a perfectionist who can incorporate up to one hundred hand-cut images into a single collage, she often produces and posts one intricate work per week.
Collages in Hardy’s recent series devoted to dreamscapes have garnered more than 42,000 views this past June alone on Pinterest.
Do these ADHD artists have some sort of superpower or what?
The Silver Lining of ADHD: The Superpower Known as Hyper Focus
What’s Green’s, Hardy’s and Knowles’ secret?
It would be irresponsible to generalize. Every ADHD artist’s tale is unique. Hard work on themselves, their art and the way they structure their time seem to be major factors.
And you can’t ignore one other thing.
Green, Knowles, Hardy, da Vinci, van Gogh and Picasso share a superpower called hyper focus.
Hyper focus is the ability to concentrate for superhuman periods of time on a subject the ADHDer is passionate about.
Green lists it and four other ADHD traits in his article 5 Superpowers of ADHD.
Hyper Focus Helped Edison Invent the Lightbulb
It’s generally accepted that inventor Thomas Edison had ADHD and indulged in a bit of hyper focus himself.
“Before succeeding in inventing the light bulb, Edison failed 10,000 times,” writes Robert Genn. “When a reporter asked Edison if he wasn’t discouraged with his failures, he was said to have answered that he didn’t consider them failures. Rather, he had found 10,000 ways not to do it. This ultimately led to his success.”
“Despite its name, ADHD isn’t always a deficit of attention,” Green said.
Knowles agrees: “Hyperfocus has made it possible for me to frequently paint through the night and into the morning when I need to. The most positive aspect of ADHD for me,” Knowles said, “is my ability to hyper focus and work for extended periods.”
Hardy thinks while there is definitely a downside to hyperfocus (like not being able to stop looking for something) the upside is that when she is engrossed in her work there is little that can stop her from completing it.
Sorry guys, the superpower of hyperfocus can’t be acquired, but we can attempt to simulate the positive results it produces for ADHD artists by trying something you may already be smart enough to be doing.
What would that be?
Making wheelbarrows full of art, without letting the discouraging, shabby voices of our inner critics to slow us down.
What All Creatives Can Learn from Artists with ADHD
One reason I think hyper focus helps ADHD artists succeed is that it allows them to temporarily bypass their inner critic and make a whole lot of art.
But isn’t it quality not quantity, that’s key in art making?
Nope. Quantity gets artists to quality.
In the book, Art and Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, authors David Bayles and Ted Orland share a story about a ceramics class that will help you get my point about what we need to pick up from our colleagues who have ADHD.
“The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.
His procedure was simple: on the final day of class, he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on.
Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”.
Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity.
It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work- and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.”
Take Away for All Artists
If you have ADHD or not; producing (and possibly discarding) large amounts of work is not only liberating; it’s the quickest route to finding gold.
The gold that lies within your own monstrous mistake mound.
Which brings us back to where we began, talking about Picasso.
Despite probably having ADHD, and perhaps with the help of hyperfocus, Picasso produced a staggering 50,000 or so pieces of art in his lifetime.
Georgia O’Keeffe, a prolific painter herself, clocked in at only 2,229.
Sotheby’s Auction House may want you to think every scrap of paper; every print or sculpture in Picasso’s virtual art pile is a bonafide masterpiece.
But could each and every one of those 50,000 sketches and objects really be perfection itself?
The fact that Picasso made so much art in the first place, increases my respect for him as an artist.
Whether you have ADHD or not, forgiving your art for being imperfect and allowing yourself to persist in making piles of it anyway, can clear the path to recognize, strengthen and celebrate your unique genius.
Artists with ADHD or without, especially female artists, might benefit from a teaspoon of “Insanely-Confident-Essence-of-Picasso.”
After all, he’s the guy who said:
“Give me a museum and I’ll fill it.”—Pablo Picasso
What do you think?
Are you an artist who creates despite ADHD?
What is one thing in your toolkit? What do you use that helps? Coffee? Yoga? Bullet Journals?
Love to know in the Comments below. It might help other folks as well.
You might also like to read these Charmed Studio posts:
Resource Guide for Artists with ADHD
5 Excellent Online & Video Resources
Watch over 90 free videos on totallyadd.com. This site offers some of the best resources online for adults who think they may have ADHD.
Dr. Kirsten Milliken founded the “Your ADHD Life” website. Visit her blog youradhdlife.com/the-library/blogor give a listen to her weekly podcast youradhdlife.com/the-library/the-podcast.
Psychologist Ari Tuckman recommends America’s National ADHD Organization website, CHADD.Org.
ADD & Loving It?! A Documentary by Rick and Ava Green. Watch the ADD & Loving It?! trailer here:
The PBS sequel, ADD & Mastering It! with Patrick McKenna and Rick Green is an accessible, humorous resource full of experts’ tools and strategies to survive and thrive with ADHD. Watch the ADD & Mastering It trailer here.
5 Great Books for Artists with ADHD
A.D.D. and Creativity: Tapping Your Inner Muse by Lynn Weiss, PhD.
(Many artists I interviewed credited this book as the turning point in their journey as an artist with ADHD.)
The Adult ADHD Tool Kit by J. Russell Ramsay and Anthony Rostain
More Attention, Less Deficit: Success Strategies for Adults with ADHD by Ari Tuckman, PsyD.
PLAYDHD: Permission to Play, a Prescription for Adults with ADHD by Kirsten Milliken
ADD Stole My Car Keys by Rick Green
A version of this article was originally published in the final issue of Professional Artist Magazine in 2018.