Home Magazine The Ever-lasting Relationship Between Art & Substance

“Drugs are the time honored exit route away from ordinary consensual reality, from coffee to cocaine, from aspirin to ecstasy, drugs provide not one but numerous alternatives to external reality.”

Since the beginning of time, the arts and mind altering substances have had a long-lasting bond. Drugs, in many ways and forms have played a significant role in art making, whether it was plastic arts, music, literature, performance, etc. Our consciousness can be influenced by altered states, which might not necessarily be drug infused; meditation, mental illness play a role just as powerful as substance use. It is fascinating to observe throughout art history the body of work created under the influence, whether its Thomas de Quincy’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater or Charles Baudelaire’s Paradis Artificiels, the Beatles’s Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (LSD lies in the initials of the song) or the Psychedelic graphic era of the 1960s; whether its Cave painting or Picasso’s Rose Period; the list is endless. The more we learn about the intricate relationship between art and drugs, the more we lean towards questioning, how much creativity can be influenced by substancesRead more about genres and artistic phenomena in the magazine area ArtPills...


The oldest known figurative painting. Depiction of a bull, discovered in Lubang Jeriji Saléh. Over 40,000 years old.


Pablo Picasso, Family of Saltimbanques, 1905.


Creativity, a human ability that provides artistic, organizational, and scientific innovation, moves the world forward. One of the cornerstones of creativity has been described as divergent thinking, which is the power to think outside the box. The application of divergent thinking is a necessary step in sharing creativity outside of one’s own mind. Throughout history, drugs have been used to perhaps, take the creative individual out of their own head, to escape reality in order to possibly visualize and create an entirely new one. Interestingly enough, there is a possibility that it could have all begun with the first time a man felt the need to be creative or what we know as Cave Art.  

The undeniably surreal, otherworldly and psychedelic nature of early cave paintings has caused historians and scientists all over the world study and believe that cave paintings were caused by mind altering substances. It was first created deep inside caves which already makes us question, why did humans feel the need to go to the dark depths of caves to draw. Cave art is hypothesized to be part of greater ritual traditions. It is believed to be closely connected to shamanistic traditions of ritual drumming, dancing and possibly, ingestion of psyche tripping power plants. Cave art is unknown and mysterious. Nothing can truly be proven, yet anthropologists like Mircea Eliade, who in his essay Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy suggests that shamanism (an ancient healing practice that involves a practitioner, a shaman, reaching altered states of consciousness in order to perceive and interact with what they believe to be a spirit world and channel these transcendental energies into this world,) is a stage in the development of all human societies. It is a universal old earth religion, which doesn’t belong to one culture, but can be viewed as a ritual connection to earth. When we look at cave art, there are many images of animals, which could tell us that humans were very connected to other living creatures and the earth, their graphic representation could very much have a spiritual aspect to it. What if this was their way to connect with nature and all of creation?


Images of psychedelic posters. Pink Floyd Exhibition in Madrid. Psicodelia Exhibition in Madrid.


The deeper, the more entrancing it becomes. There are many non-figurative marks in caves, such as red dots, radiating spheres, which are believed by some ethnographers to be representative of visions from within or phosphenes - sensations of light, caused by the pressure on the eyelid. The connection is that these particular visuals are also reported by people experimenting with altered states of perception… When looking at cave art, there are many mysteries and speculations. Several people believe that psilocybin mushrooms maybe have been responsible for the first art ever made. Others truly believe that it was psyche tripping power plants that have kicked human consciousness in a certain direction.


John Martin, Belshazzar’s Feast, 1820.


Jumping forward in history, another substance that has affected an entire artistic movement, contributing to a discovery of a new visual universe, is Opium, a narcotic resin produced from opium poppies. Opium is directly related to Romanticism, a movement in the arts and literature, emphasizing the primacy, subjectivity and inner world of the individual, celebrating nature, beauty and imagination. Romanticism arose as a backlash response to enlightenment thinking, rejecting industrialisation, organised religion, rationalism and social convention. In this historical and cultural context, arose a desire for rebellion and experimentation. Drug use became extremely popular and as bizarre as it might seem today, opium was legal in the 19th century. Opioids are also associated with the discovery of the Orient, implying something mysterious, other; it formed part of the romantic style just like the oriental influences did in romantic paintings. 

A painting by a British artist John Martin called Belshazzar’s Feast, 1820 is one of the works that can visually describe an experience on opium. It is beautiful, complex and atmospheric, yet fuzzy, hazy and dreamy all at once. As the topic of substances and arts can still be viewed as a taboo topic in art history, considering this particular artwork there is no proof of the artist himself actually using opium, however this particular artwork contributed to a movement which influenced writers such as Keats and Quincy, who were openly using opioids to create.

The attraction of opium was all - consuming for the bohemian art circle in the 19th & 20th century. According to the art historian John Richardson, Pablo Picasso was too, enchanted with the drug, responsible for organising La nuit d’opium in his apartment in Paris, which was frequently visited by Modigliani, Juan Gris, Apollinaire and Max Jacob

Richardson and other historians agree that opium has had a significant effect on Picasso’s Rose Period and can be seen in the dreamy, drowsy mood and trancelike expressionless faces in the paintings. The Rose Period is soft, atmospheric and distant. One of works that really makes the viewer feel this influence would be the Family of Saltimbanques, 1905. Some even argue for the possibility that opium, induced oblivion, a given sense of having fallen out of time and space might have contributed to Picasso’s further exploration of time and spatial dimension in painting, which led him to Cubism. 

The overwhelming list of names goes on, as the surrealists come into the picture. Automatism, a free - from expression executed without conscious thought was one of the foundations of the new - born surrealist movement in the early 1920s. André Masson, a surrealist painter, was experimenting with automatic drawing, while discovering the effects of opioids. There are beliefs of Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Max Ernst, Man Ray and more exploring their creative depths too… Jean Cocteau, writer, filmmaker and artist, famously a user of the substance, once wrote, “with opium, euphoria leads the way to death, so beware.”


André Masson, Automatic Drawing, 1924.


Moving onto possibly the most historically known aspect of the special bond between drugs and art – LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide), the hallucinogenic drug and the psychedelic era of the 60s. Music, film, performance and painting went through an artistic explosion when hallucinogenic drugs became an important part of culture. 

There have been multiple studies done on LSD and creativity, dating all the way back to the 1940s, which suggested that there was a direct link between the two. The effect documented was an evident shift in the direction of enhanced ability to recognize patterns, to isolate and minimize visual distractions, to maintain visual memory in spite of confusing colour and spatial forms. Essentially, scientists conducting experiments, found that psychedelic drugs were actually allowing people to break out of their own minds, elevate perception, therefore there was an increase in being able to differentiate between alterations of figure and ground, alteration of boundaries, movement; perceiving a greater intensity of colour and light, oversimplification, symbolic depiction, abstraction, fragmentation and distortion. The studies suggested that LSD is a certain precursor to a higher creativity.


Fractal zoom. Benoit Mandelbrot.


Due to a variety of studies done on this matter, a whole universe of connections opens up between arts and substances. LSD is often associated with fractals – geometrical figures that have a broken dimension. In the 1970s, a mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot made an interesting geometrical discovery – if basic mathematical relationships are to be programmed into a computer to repeat over and over again, the results are these organic, naturally - looking images. These complicated structures can be developed from a very simple formula and if multiplied, added and repeated - you end up with these incredible organic structures. Fractal imagery is often thought of as representative of deeper universal truths, due to the fact that these fractal patterns can be found in nature. The idea of mathematics as representative of the universe, of existence. Fractals also have an interesting connection to decorative art in terms of pattern and repetition. An art historian Peter Fouler suggested that the traditional idea of the decorative is somehow deeply involved in humanity’s quest to understand and represent an ultimate reality. Exemplified in communal art, traditional societies, and for example, works by Matisse. Finally, the connection between fractals and LSD is that this drug creates similar visuals, as the person under the influence begins to see everything breaking up into pieces and fractals. 


Henri Matisse, Danseuse Creole, 1950.


One artist in particular, strongly associated with psychedelic experiences, be it DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine, a hallucinogenic tryptamine drug that occurs naturally in many plants and animals) or LSD, is an American visionary artist, sculptor, performer and author Alex Grey, best known for his paintings which portray multiple dimensions of reality, interweaving biological anatomy with psychic and spiritual energies. Alex Grey used to work at Harvard medical school, prepping cadavers and studying the human body, which becomes transparent when you look at his work. Grey’s large body of work is highly influenced by his experiences with psychedelic substances and is an intense fusion of geometric and yet heavily organic structures at once. An example of this would be his mind-blowing series Progress of the Soul, which consists of paintings representing the entire process of human existence. 


Alex Grey, Godself, 2012.


Another unmissable period of history when the correlation between drugs and creativity was undeniable was the psychedelic era of the 1960s. Think, groundbreaking music; remember, the Vietnam war and imagine, a collective idea on embracing escape and searching for an alternative reality. Throughout the 1960s, graphic art and music were incredibly intertwined and due to an explosion of new music genres, album cover and poster art, comic art and graphic design flourished. As psychedelics tend to intensify color, light, contrast; play with distortion and abstraction, many artists used these aspects in their visual work, for example Victor Moscoso, a Spanish - American graphic designer, who drew inspiration from Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Victorian images as well as hallucinogenic drugs. Moscoso created the concept of vibrating colors and sizzling typography, achieved by taking colors from opposite ends of the color wheel and intensifying them, thus representing what a possible trip on psychedelics could be visually. One of his most popular works evident of this influence is his poster for the Miller Blues music band, Neon Rose #2, 1967. The psychedelic era opened up a new artistic dialogue for graphic design and comic art, unleashing new fountains of creativity.  


Victor Moscoso, Neon Rose #2, 1967.


Whether its Psilocybin Mushrooms, Peyote, Opium, DMT or LSD, Absinth or Cocaine, there is a definite idea that drugs seem to affect creativity and have had an impact on the creation of some mind – blowing artworks; brought into this world, contributing to the evolution of the human’s creative mind. However, do drugs actually result in better art? Make no mistake, as mind altering substances might hold some responsibility for inspiration, their effect is powerless without the individual’s artistic essence. As Hemingway rightly states, “write drunk, edit sober…” Unfortunately, as we all know, with substance use eventually their dark side arrives, bringing addiction, self-harm and overdose into light. The relationship between art and drugs is intense, turbulent, both enlightening and destructive. It is a history of passion, revolution and angst, worth finding out about. 


1.    Hughes, James. Altered States: Creativity Under the Influence. The Ivy Press Limited, 1999.
2.    Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, 1964.
3.    //edition.cnn.com/style/article/art-and-drugs/index.html
4.    //www.arthistorybabes.com/the-podcast - Episode 68 Under the Influence.
5.    //www.alexgrey.com/ - Alex Grey’s official website.
6.    //www.youtube.com/watch?v=fwZqVqbkyLM – documentary on DMT – The Spirit Molecule.
7.    //www.pinkfloydexhibition.es/en/the-exhibition/ - The Pink Floyd Exhibition. Their Mortal Remains.
8.    //www.circulobellasartes.com/exposiciones/psicodelia-cultura-visual-era-beat-1962-1972/ - Psicodelia en la cultura visual de la era beat 1962-1972


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