These Famous Artists Proved That Staying up Late Can Lead to Great Ideas

Abigail Cain
Oct 22, 2018 8:37PM
Gilbert Garcin
267 - Nocturne (d'apres Paul Klee), 2004
Lisa Sette Gallery

Aristotle was right about a lot of things. After more than 2,000 years, many of the Greek philosopher’s contributions to logic and biology are still sound. But his declaration that “it is well to be up before daybreak, for such habits contribute to health, wealth, and wisdom” may not have aged quite as well.

That’s not to say that he completely missed the mark. For certain artists—Georgia O’Keeffe and Joan Miró among them—waking up early was a key part of their daily routine. But it’s by no means a universal path to creative success. Some people are “larks,” working better in the morning; others are “owls,” who thrive at night. These temporal preferences might be due to a delayed circadian rhythm, the internal clock that controls melatonin levels, body temperature, and sleep drive. For owls, peak productivity can hit in the evening, rather than during the typical 9-to-5 workday.

And, as some research has shown, it might actually boost creativity to work when we’re tired. Generally, while working, we’re dealing with two distinct types of problems: analytic and insight. Analytic problems require more systematic solutions, repeating the same process again and again until you get the right answer (think algebra). Insight problems, on the other hand, often try to trick the solver and require out-of-the-box thinking. We’re better at solving insight problems during non-peak hours, when our brain is less focused and more prone to distraction. These distractions help to trigger the “aha” moments necessary to move forward on creative or innovative projects.

Knowing this, it comes as little surprise to learn that there were a host of famous artists who worked into the wee hours of the night. Not all of them were by choice—some, like Louise Bourgeois and Lee Krasner were dealing with insomnia. But each of these artists found that night time was ripe for productivity, creativity, and artmaking.

Portrait of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Photo by Alfred Natanson, Apic/Getty Images.


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s first poster for the Moulin Rouge made him an overnight sensation. Some 3,000 copies were hung around the city in late 1891; almost immediately, intrigued Parisians began to flock to the cabaret. He went on to make a number of artistically groundbreaking (and commercially successful) lithographs for the Moulin Rouge and other similar establishments, as well as frank and empathetic depictions of Parisian nightlife.

To capture the acrobats, singers, and prostitutes who populated this gritty world, Toulouse-Lautrec spent most nights at brothels or cabarets with a sketchpad in hand or a canvas propped up on an easel. He was also very fond of alcohol, drinking more or less continuously each day (he was particularly obsessed with American cocktails, even inventing his own, “The Earthquake,” which was half absinthe, half cognac). And even after a long night of drawing and drinking, he still woke early to print lithographs. Minimal sleep and copious alcohol consumption eventually took its toll: Toulouse-Lautrec died young, at age 36, likely of syphilis and alcoholism.

Louise Bourgeois in her studio, 1995. Photo by Porter Gifford/Corbis/Getty Images.

“I’m an insomniac, so for me the state of being asleep is paradise,” Louise Bourgeois once said. “It is a paradise I can never reach. But I still try to conquer the insomnia, and to a large extent I have done it; it is conquerable.” She did so by drawing, spending many sleepless hours filling the pages of her “drawing-diary” with lines and loops and other repeated designs.

She described these works as “a kind of rocking or stroking, and an attempt at finding a kind of peace.” In 2003, the Whitney Museum displayed 220 of her doodles, drawings, and notes (which she dubbed her “Insomnia Drawings”) made between 1994 and 1995. Although a handful explicitly reference her sleeplessness—a 24-hour clock, for instance—many of them are playful, even funny. In one, she traces the hanging door signs from a hotel (“Do not disturb” and “May I come in”); another features a forest of lollipop trees.

Gjon Mili
Picasso, Space Drawing, 1949
Howard Greenberg Gallery

Pablo Picasso produced some 16,000 paintings and drawings throughout the course of his life—a massive output made possible, in part, by his late-night work habits. As a young man in Paris, he painted through the night while his poet roommate slept.

Later, as his fame grew, Picasso upgraded to a studio in the Montparnasse neighborhood. But his routine didn’t change: He would get to work around 2 p.m., breaking for dinner, and then, “at about 10 o’clock, he would often go straight back to his studio and work until four or five in the morning,” Picasso biographer John Richardson noted. “I would say that on average he made three objects a day, every day of his working life, which continued practically until the day of his death.” A 1973 article in Time magazine detailed the artist’s final day: After dinner with friends, he retired to the studio and painted until 3 a.m. The next morning, he was dead.

Dan Budnik, Philip Guston, 1964. Courtesy of Dan Budnik and Telluride Gallery of Fine Art.

Although Philip Guston first came to prominence as an Abstract Expressionist, his abrupt shift to figuration—featuring hooded Klu Klux Klansmen, rendered in a cartoonish style—eventually defined his legacy. Another motif in these later works is the character of the artist, often bathed in the harsh light of a bare bulb as he toils away in his studio. It was a fair reflection of the American painter’s own work habits, which typically involved working through the entire night and coming to bed only once the sun started to rise.

His daughter, Musa Mayer, recalls him waking up around the time that she came home from school. “I’d find him at the kitchen table, nursing a hangover with black coffee,” she remembered in her memoir of her father (titled, appropriately, Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston). When Guston finished a painting, it was often in the middle of the night, and in a burst of excitement, he’d wake up his wife to ask for her opinion. But if a work wasn’t going well, he would wander the New York City streets, often stopping in at the Cedar Bar or the Eighth Street Club in search of a friendly face.

Hans Namuth
Joseph Cornell at Home in New York, 1969
Catherine Couturier Gallery

At first, Joseph Cornell’s nocturnal artmaking was borne out of necessity. Throughout the 1920s and ’30s, the artist held a series of 9-to-5 jobs in Manhattan—first as a wool salesman, and later as a textile designer. He would return to his family home in Queens each evening, waiting until his mother and younger brother fell asleep to get to work.

Cornell was a voracious collector, storing his boxes of baubles and trinkets in the family basement. At night, he would spread these materials across the kitchen table, experimenting with various combinations in the wooden boxes that would become his signature artworks. In the morning, his mother would reprimand him for the mess. Even after quitting his job to focus on making art, Cornell still assembled his surreal collages late at night.

Duane Michals
Willem de Kooning, 1985
Pace/MacGill Gallery

After waking up around 10 or 11 a.m., Willem and Elaine de Kooning would spend all day in their shared Manhattan studio, breaking only for dinner or perhaps a movie in Times Square. Willem hated to stop painting, though, and would often soldier on while Elaine left to go to a party or a concert. “I remember very often walking by and seeing the lights on and going up,” said Marjorie Luyckx, Elaine’s sister. “In those studios, the heat used to go off after five o’clock because they were commercial buildings. Bill would be painting with his hat and coat on. Painting away, and whistling.” When he was stuck on a particular painting, he couldn’t sleep. Like Guston, he would spend the night walking the streets of Manhattan instead.

After her husband, Jackson Pollock, died in a car crash in 1956, Lee Krasner was faced with the overwhelming task of serving as heir and executor of his estate. Nervous and stressed, she increasingly had trouble sleeping. Eventually, “I got tired of fighting insomnia and tried to paint instead,” she once said.

Working in artificial light rather than natural, as she typically did, the colors in Krasner’s work shifted. This series became known as her “Umber Paintings,” made in shades of brown and white, in comparison to the fuschias and greens she’d been using in earlier paintings. They were filled with a sort of restless energy that reflected her chronic insomnia. The series is sometimes also called “Night Journeys,” and has been heralded by critics as a significant development in her artistic style.

Abigail Cain