Have you created any dark art, and are a bit confused because you don’t know where these spooky images are coming from?
Or is your loved one creating dark art and you’re worried about their mental health?
Either way, you’re in the right place. In this video I’ll help you make sense of dark, spooky, creepy, gory, and macabre art and explain why some people find it so appealing.
Listen to audio only:
Full transcript is included below!
Tools used in this drawing
- Canson Illustration 250g paper
- Kneaded eraser + regular eraser
- Faber-Castell 0.35mm Mechanical Pencil
- Cretacolor Nero Extrasoft pencil
- Faber-Castell Polychromos colored pencils
- Derwent Burnisher pencil
- Pebeo odorless mineral spirit
Click to see the larger image in my art gallery:
“The Shadow” by Nela Dunato
Colored pencils on Canson Illustration paper, 23×30.5cm
I’ve been creating dark art since high school. Because of that I’ve encountered a lot of judgment from family members, friends, and strangers. But I’ve also encountered a lot of support and understanding, which helped me become more confident in my art.
Way back in 2012 I wrote a blog article titled “Why are my artworks so dark and morbid?” which thousands of people have read. Since then I’ve gotten numerous emails, mostly from younger folks who feel self-conscious about their dark art because their parents or other adults in their life are judging it. They find my article looking for validation and permission to create the kind of art they’re called to do.
I want to revisit this topic from a more mature perspective. A lot has happened in the past 10 years:
- I have more life experience and a better understanding of myself.
- I’ve been in contact with many other artists who also create dark art.
- I’ve read many books relevant to this topic, especially on art therapy and symbolic imagery.
- I’ve also read and listened to tons of interviews with other artists.
All of this gave me a more complete understanding of this topic. I’m trying to be as objective as I can, but art is inherently subjective so I’m basing this on my own experience. But because of all the research I did, I know that it’s not just my experience—many, many other creatives have had the same experiences.
I will address questions that people might have about dark art, whether you yourself create dark or emotional art, or care about someone who does.
The first very common question that well-meaning people have is:
Does creating dark art mean a person is disturbed?
Let me ask you a counter question: does having a nightmare mean you’re a disturbed person? Would you think that you have to visit a therapist after waking up from a bad dream? Most people just shake it off and go about their day.
Our mind creates all sorts of imagery that may be influenced by many things we experience:
- Events of the day.
- Events from the past.
- Movies we’ve watched.
- Books we’ve read.
- The daily news.
- Other art we’ve seen.
All of these sources mix in our memory, and create a loose narrative while we’re sleeping or daydreaming. It may be personal, or it may just be something that had a big impact on us.
We may be upset about an earthquake in Haiti, or a woman in Poland who died because of medical malpractice, and then dream about it, or create artwork inspired by it. The content may be disturbing for viewers because reality often is, but it’s not the artist that is disturbed—in many cases we’re just the messengers.
Emotionally charged art can emerge from an emotional response that is often completely justified.
It’s natural to respond with strong emotions if we:
- Experienced any kind of injustice or harm.
- Grieve because we’ve lost someone or something.
- Feel anxious or hopeless about the future.
- Empathize with other people’s suffering.
The range of human emotion is wide and deep. Sadness, anger, fear, and pain are a natural part of life, and everything that is natural is bound to show up in art as well.
Can art be used to diagnose a mental illness?
It would be highly irresponsible for a mental health professional to diagnose a patient based on their art alone. A mental health assessment requires an interview, information about one’s medical history, and tests that reveal the symptom profile.
Art may be used in sessions with a licensed art therapist who is trained to work with symbolic content. Artworks can point an experienced art therapist who knows their client well towards emotional content that the client needs to work through, but it is still not a diagnostic tool in isolation.
I don’t recommend that you bring your art to psychiatrists, psychologists, or therapists who aren’t trained and experienced in interpreting symbolic dream imagery or visions. Medical professionals that lack specialized training can be biased against dark art and take it too literally just like any other person. Always ask your therapist what their education and experience with symbolic imagery is before you bring it up with them in your sessions.
Artists create their own personal symbolism, so even a trained professional should never interpret the meaning without speaking to the artist to learn more about the context of the artwork being analyzed. “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”
Not all dark artists require a mental health intervention, and not all people with mental illnesses create dark art.
Some people think challenging emotions should be avoided, not portrayed in art.
I know a few people who think that, and I will say that when these people get very angry, they let it all out onto people around them. That’s not better than expressing anger on a piece of paper. I would say it’s much, much worse. So it’s quite hypocritical to say that artists should not express difficult emotions nonverbally, yet allow yourself to express your own emotions verbally no matter how it impacts others.
Art is a healthy way to express challenging emotions without hurting anyone else.
It can be used to blow off steam in the heat of the moment, or as a step towards healing from emotional wounds of the past.
I talked about this in the previous episode on how art can improve our mental health and well-being.
Self-censorship is not healthy. Welcome whatever shows up on the page, because it’s a part of you that needs attention and care, not judgment.
Should you show your dark art to others?
It depends on your situation. Some audiences can hold space for our darker creations, and other audiences are not capable of it, so we need to carefully choose where we feel safe enough to publish our authentic work.
If you’re surrounded by people who judge your dark art, try to keep it private, or publish it somewhere they won’t run into it.
You might choose a pseudonym, or a private community to share your art with.
I don’t share all of the art I create. Some of it feels too tender to share, and some of it is just not that good so I don’t want to put it out there with my name. But I’m not ashamed of my art. It’s a tremendously important part of my life, and I don’t care if someone doesn’t like it.
Your safety and well-being is most important. Do whatever you need to do to keep your peace of mind. If you’re still living with your parents, someday you’ll move out and their opinion won’t matter anymore. Just be patient.
Does dark art negatively impact the viewers?
I’ve heard some people say that dark art is indoctrinating people towards darkness or Satan or whatever, and I think that’s complete bullshit. But you know, I’m obviously biased.
In all seriousness, we’d need to run a scientific study measuring how different groups of people feel before and after viewing dark emotional art in order to know the truth. I’m not aware that such a study exists, but there was a study of effects of metal music which showed that metal music increased positive emotion in fans of metal music who were previously feeling angry. But metal music usually agitates people who don’t like it.
Similarly, some people respond negatively to dark art—they find it frightening or repulsive. Others have an experience they describe as positive:
- They relate the artwork to their own experience, which makes them feel seen and understood, or
- They find the artwork aesthetically pleasing.
My conclusion is that what people receive from the artwork depends on their personal taste and their own emotional state.
People who are frightened or repulsed by any kind of dark media should avoid it. Why would you want to experience those emotions for no good reason? But that’s not a universal experience. Just because some people find a certain type of visual art, music, writing, or film repulsive, it doesn’t mean it’s bad for everyone. Some people actually enjoy it!
There is no evidence that dark media universally negatively affects all people in all situations.
We should consume media that we personally find meaningful, and let other people consume media that they enjoy.
(As long as it’s legal, of course. I don’t condone exploitative media or hate speech.)
Darkness is in the eye of the beholder.
Every viewer brings their own personal baggage to the artwork: their experiences, phobias, traumas, and aesthetic taste.
It’s possible for the viewer to get a completely different impression than the artist intended, and it doesn’t make either of them wrong. But what is questionable is labeling the artist and their work based on how you personally perceive it, because everyone’s perception is different. It’s up to the artist if they want to identify their art as “dark” or not.
I’m fascinated by nature and often draw insects, snakes, bats, and other animals which freak some people out, but that’s not my intention because I’m not afraid or repulsed seeing those animals, and other people’s phobias are not my problem.
Before you label an artist’s work as “dark” and “macabre”, check whether you’re bringing your own bias to their creation and giving it your personal meaning which they did not intend.
I see two types of motivation to produce “dark art”.
Some of us, especially those who were “goth”, or “punk”, or “metal” as teenagers are attracted to certain visual symbols:
- Spiders and other creepy-crawlies
- The color black and red
- Knives, swords, and other sharp objects
- The Moon
It’s a “scene” aesthetic so to speak. These symbols are very common on clothes and tattoos that people in these subcultures wear. When you’re an artist in this subculture your visual language adapts, and things that look creepy and scary to the general population are just normal to us. We’re immersed in the visual arts, music, film, and literature of this “macabre” aesthetic, and we associate it with positive emotions of belonging and mutual understanding.
Judging by the artist interviews I listened to, for many of them dark themes are an aesthetic choice, and these artists don’t associate all of their work with sadness, anger, grief, or other difficult emotions. They’re just having fun painting monsters or ghostly characters. It’s not a sign that they’re definitely experiencing hardship.
If someone is consistently creating dark-themed art for many years, it’s likely that aesthetics and enjoyment of said aesthetics plays a big role in it.
I talked about it a great deal earlier, so I won’t repeat myself. I noticed among artists who produce art with a wide range of moods, when they produce something dark, it’s usually personally meaningful, or a response to something upsetting that’s going on in the world.
You can see this a lot in classical artists who had different phases in their life, which was reflected in the phases of their art. Big personal losses are often followed by artwork which evokes the themes of loss and impermanence. Wars, famine, and natural disasters are also reflected in the works of artists who lived through these events.
Of course, it’s possible for motivation to come from both sources.
Some of my work I consider “purely aesthetic” with a more cerebral concept. At other times I feel like a part of my wounded psyche has become integrated into the artwork, and I used it to work through my own issues.
And the funny thing is that to someone who doesn’t know me or my work well, it would be difficult to tell which is which. In fact, most of the time I don’t even share artworks that are purely emotional, that I created instinctively for my own benefit. Usually they’re very rough and not “good artworks”, so I don’t see the point in sharing them.
There’s another thing I want to talk about before we wrap up:
The darker side of dark art
People can sometimes act like they know us because they think they’ve “decoded” our art, and that’s very patronizing, and often very incorrect.
Our audience of art enthusiasts can fall into the trap of parasocial relationships—having a feeling that they know someone from reading the artist’s social media and blog, watching their videos, and analyzing their art. They might get in contact and share an uncomfortable level of detail about their personal life, thinking that the artist “gets them”.
I’ve received lots of emails from people who are happy to finally find someone who understands what they’re experiencing. I’m thankful that I can provide that beacon of light and help artists realize they are not alone in their struggle.
But I’m sometimes asked to provide more support than I’m able to. I don’t have the bandwidth to be a stranger’s confidant. I always recommend getting in touch with an experienced therapist. If your art attracts people with mental health issues or interpersonal problems, I suggest that you do the same.
You as an artist are not responsible for a stranger’s well-being.
Drawing a boundary can feel mean and impolite, but we haven’t consented to act as therapists to just anyone who decides to message us. We have our own issues to deal with!
The kindest response to a message from a fellow bleeding-heart artist is to express empathy and gratitude, and to recommend that they use local resources to find help and community.
Offering specific advice to strangers can backfire, and I don’t think most of us are qualified to do that.
Dark art has always had a place in our culture.
It will have a place in our culture for as long as humans live in an imperfect world. Artists are sensitive people and we’re influenced by everything that surrounds us, whether we want it or not.
At the moment of this recording we’re collectively experiencing even more distress than typical. It’s normal for this anxiety and worry and hopelessness to show up in the arts. There will probably also be an increase in escapist art that is purposefully trying to draw us away from the discomfort of reality.
Some people are more drawn to create or consume raw emotional art, others are focused more on uplifting escapist art. Some people want both! Let’s respect each other’s personal needs and choices, instead of judging dark artists as being pessimists, or judging uplifting artists as being delusional.
Art has this beautiful, almost magical ability to give us emotional healing and to show us what is taking up our mind-space.
The solution is not to stop making dark art—that’s just denying our emotions a safe way out. But you can keep it private and nobody has to know what’s in your sketchbook.
If you feel like you need support, absolutely talk to a therapist, and talk to your friends. I know we don’t want to burden people with our own problems, but trust me: your friends would rather that you confide in them, then to later wonder “What happened? How come I never noticed there was anything wrong?” and to blame themselves for not being there for you when you needed them. Mental health is a serious matter. If your art is a cry for help, it’s better to be on the safe side.
And if you just like drawing monsters and skeletons, enjoy it! You’re in really good company.
Take great care of yourself, and I hope to see you again in the next episode of Nela’s Art Chat.
About Nela Dunato
Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.
On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...
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