How to Be an Artist, According to Edvard Munch, Master of “The Scream”
Edvard MunchSelf Portrait with Hat Outside the Winter Studio at Ekely, 1930. © Munchmuseet.
Norwegian artist Edvard Munch was something of a rebel. He was known to paint on the beach in nothing but a loincloth, or outside in the snow, in the dead of winter. More significantly, he rebuffed artistic trends. When a style became too popular (or he became too comfortable with it), he’d reinvent his approach. “All Programmes are destined to be abandoned,” he once wrote in his diary. “Just like all associations and alliances—They hang about one’s feet like heavy chains.”
Over the course of his life, from 1863 until 1944, Munch moved boldly from naturalism to Impressionism, and from Symbolism to his own unique brand of Expressionism. In the process, he abandoned depictions of the exterior world in favor of paintings that harnessed blistering emotional forces like anxiety, melancholy, and love.
These shifts are visible in his increasingly psychological paintings—most famously The Scream, first painted in 1893—but also in his diaries, which he kept for the majority of his career as a painter. Munch’s journals were an uninhibited “laboratory in which he recorded scenes, visions, stories, and meditations,” wrote historian J. Gill Holland. He suggested that the artist’s writing reveals a painter “on the prowl for the unmediated transmission of mind to page.”
Munch’s words can also be read as lessons for artists hoping to unlock avenues of creativity, or more powerfully channel their own impressions of the world into their work. Below, we spotlight some of Munch’s most potent advice on being an artist.
Lesson #1: Don’t be afraid to bare your soul
Munch believed that art “can come only from the interior of man,” as he wrote in his diary in 1907. Indeed, the painter drew inspiration for his strongest works from a deep well of personal memories and emotions.
The artist’s early years were plagued with illness and tragedy, including the deaths of his mother and sister from tuberculosis. These misfortunes stoked Munch’s on-and-off struggles with mental illness and alcoholism, as well as some of his most influential paintings. “Without fear and illness, my life would have been a boat without a rudder,” he later said, alluding to the integral role these forces played in his personal and artistic growth.
By his twenties, Munch began channelling the pain of past events directly into his art. In the paintings that resulted, he conveyed his psychological state in both subject matter and style. The Sick Child (1885–86), for example, depicts a small, ailing girl, not unlike his late sister. The content itself is melancholy, but it’s Munch’s rough, mottled brushwork and angry scoring that magnify the sense of emotional strife. The whole scene looks unfinished and hazy, as if viewed through tears.
The impressionistic quality of the painting scandalized the Oslo art establishment, which still glorified naturalistic work. Critics derided Munch’s “incoherent daubs of paint” and his fuzzy depiction of body parts: “Surely that can’t be a hand, can it? It looks like fish stew in lobster sauce,” shot one writer.
But Munch wasn’t discouraged by poor reviews. He knew exactly what he was doing: baring his soul through his brushwork. “In these images the painter gives what is most valuable to him—he gives his soul—his sorrow—his joy—he gives his own heart’s blood,” he later wrote, resolutely, in his journals.
“He presents the human being—not the object,” he continued. “These images will—must—move the spectator all the more powerfully—first a few—then many more, then everyone.”
Lesson #2: Paint what you saw, not what you see
By the late 1880s, Munch’s paintings became increasingly impressionistic as he continued exploring his psychological state on canvas. He wanted to convey feeling even more lucidly.
In the throes of depression induced by his father’s death in 1889, Munch wrote what’s become known as his “St. Cloud Manifesto.” In it, he formally—and forcefully—rejected realism. “The subjects of painting will no longer be interiors, with people reading and women knitting,” he wrote. “They will be living, breathing people who feel and love and suffer.”
The canvases that followed, like The Scream (1893) and Anxiety (1894), are both his most famous and most psychologically raw. (Munch created five versions of The Scream, between 1893 and 1910, including two paintings, two pastel drawings, and a lithograph.) They also laid the groundwork for Symbolism; with his subjects, Munch represented intense human emotions with swirls of vivid colors and mask-like faces, rather than their daily lives.
Around the same time, Munch summed up his shifting approach with a now-famous aphorism: “I do not paint what I see but what I saw.” With this statement, he gave himself—and other painters after him—permission to compose from memory and feeling, and to interpret reality through a personal lens.
“I painted picture upon picture in keeping with the impression made on my eye in a moment of heightened emotion,” he wrote. “By painting the colours and lines and shapes I had seen in an emotional state—I wished to recapture the quivering quality of the emotional atmosphere like a phonograph.”
Lesson #3: Color should be applied emotionally, not realistically
Munch’s approach to color was unorthodox. He could be known to paint a face green to hint at fear, or to render a sky in blood red to convey unease. These surrealistic choices helped the painter express atmosphere, emotion, and immediacy.
In a journal from 1891, he meditated on the power of color to transform perception or experience. “Go into a billiard hall,” he instructed. “After you have stared for some time at the intense green cloth, look up. How strangely red is everything around you.”
He goes on to explain that the only way to communicate the full experience—visual, mental, and physical—of being surrounded in such an environment is to depict the room as red, instead of its true black. “If one is going to paint the immediate impression of a moment, the atmosphere, that which is human—then this is what one must do,” he continued.
Munch regarded color as yet another material that he could manipulate as he wished, inverting it and intensifying it to drive home the effects of certain environments or experiences on the human mind.
Lesson #4: Don’t strive for perfection—it will only hinder your work
Munch believed in the power of messiness. To him, haphazard brushstrokes, distorted bodies, and unlovely colors conveyed authenticity—what he strived for when he painted. He even scratched some of his canvases with sharp tools and made many of his works outside, where the elements would coat their surfaces with a dirty, worn patina.
Munch celebrated imperfections, and believed that trying to adhere to standards or styles sucked the life and energy from art. “One good picture with ten holes in it is better than ten bad pictures with no holes,” he wrote in his diary.
“Many painters work so attentively and carefully with the grounding and the completion of a painting—in order that it last an eternity—and they lose their fire,” he continued. “Then it turns out that the picture has become so boring and bad that it disappears into the junk room.”
As a painter, Munch’s goal was never immortality, nor for his canvases to live forever. Instead, he hoped what he had expressed—a new, emotionally driven approach to painting—would have a lasting impact.
“Leonardo da Vinci’s best pictures are destroyed. But they do not die. An ingenious thought lives forever,” he noted. “Even if a bright expressionist picture loses its color with time, nevertheless it retains its soul and at least dies beautifully.”