High art

Psychoactive drugs have a history of influencing some of the world’s greatest writers, artists and musicians. Both the high and the art we create from this experience ARE unique to each person, and can be as much of a hindrance as a help.

Illustration by Alexis Lee

Illustration by Alexis Lee

Certain drugs have the capacity to alter one’s consciousness, or mental state. Drugs that affect the mind in this way are termed psychoactive, psychotropic, or psycho pharmaceuticals. Some of these drug types are perfectly legal, such as alcohol, caffeine and nicotine. Others require a prescription and are useful in treating neuropsychiatric disorders. Still, other types such as cocaine, MDMA, and marijuana are prohibited in many countries. Psychoactive drugs, while having obvious dangers, are used by some creatives to inspire works of art. The use of all kinds of drugs to influence creativity is a widely known, if kept quiet, aspect of our creative world. From the belief that Paleolithic stone art was created under the influence of natural hallucinogens and the interest in the effects of alcohol on a writer’s creative process, to the psychedelic 50s and 60s counterculture – drugs have been used to influence our creative licence for centuries.

Psychoactive drugs work by acting as chemical messengers that bind to receptors on brain cells. Brain cells communicate with each other by sending chemical messages. Taking a psychoactive drug modifies the messages sent between cells, causing changes in neural activity. Changing the brain’s cellular activity in this way gives rise to the alternate mental states experienced in a drug induced high. 

However, this high is distinctly different for each drug. Stimulants, such as MDMA, create an almost surreal, faster-running world and a heightened sense of connection and affection to those around you. Psychedelics like LSD can alter the user’s perception of time and place, often sparking a desire for deep discussion amidst the hallucinogenic effects of brighter colours, lights and patterns. Depressants such as alcohol and cannabis are known to create a slow, content association with the world around them, and opiates (heroin and methadone) can produce feelings of euphoria, invincibility and reality distortion. The nature of human individuality means that each person’s experience with each drug can be vastly different from one use to the next - and therefore, so can the art we produce.

Thomas Edison was also a reported fan of Mariani Wine, which contained cocaine, and he claimed it enabled him to study for longer periods than his colleagues.   Wikimedia Commons  (public domain)

Thomas Edison was also a reported fan of Mariani Wine, which contained cocaine, and he claimed it enabled him to study for longer periods than his colleagues. Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Throughout history, artists, musicians and writers have attributed many of their works to their experience with psychoactive drugs. Pablo Picasso’s cubism movement has been linked with his frequent, yet short-lived, opium smoking. Many musicians such as The Beatles, Keith Richards and Janis Joplin credit LSD, heroin and marijuana use with a large portion of their musical success. Ken Kesey authored One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest while volunteering for the US military’s MKULTRA program, and Hunter S Thompson (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hell’s Angels) became known for producing all of his writing while under the influence of psychoactive drugs.

Many creatives claimed that using these drugs was liberating, and provided inward insight that was otherwise restricted. Aldous Huxley, author of Doors of Perception, says that in using the drug as a reference for his writing he was able to have a stronger insight into the people around him, and into his own life. Hunter S Thompson is most famously quoted saying that while he wouldn’t like to advocate the use of drugs or alcohol to anyone, “they’ve always worked for me”. This isn’t the same for all, however. Melbourne-based artist Shane* told Lateral that while he admits to and is inspired by the enlightening properties of most psychoactives, “for the most part taking drugs is a hindrance to making art in the same way it would be to doing any other work, or driving”. Two other Melbourne-based artists and one writer also spoke to Lateral, detailing how the use of certain drugs have influenced, or hindered, their creative process.

Daniel*, Writer

“When I'm looking to ketamine or MDMA for creativity, they're a means to the same end. I'm a writer, so what I borrow from most are my experiences. When trying to reflect on either my own or my character's standing in any setting, culture or time, perching on the outside and peering in with a stripped ego is incredibly powerful. For me, ketamine and MDMA allow this. 

"A huge element of the writing process is exploring your perspective, and your experiences with other perspectives, whether they're ones you've lived or ones you've created. A massive part of this exploration is human connection and observation. MDMA takes away a lot of the difficulties people can face when empathising, and allows you to connect to the primal throb of human energy. Personally, it’s not just that I'm more loving, more positive, more sensitive through MDMA, it's that my ego — that is my self-belief of my own identity within the culture that I have been brought up in — is less important to me. I feel that if I am with others that also feel this way, then the interactions that we have tend to be more genuine and honest. You can discuss and unpack fears or existential threats without the same emotional, fight or flight chemical impulses as you would normally, inhibitions are down and the intricacies of nature really open up. These kinds of experiences can be instrumental in living and are such a nourishing addition to the pool of experiences that writers draw from to create."

‘Snainting Pails’, largely influenced by an LSD trip.  © "Shane" (used with permission)

‘Snainting Pails’, largely influenced by an LSD trip. © "Shane" (used with permission)


"Ketamine is a little different. With small amounts of ketamine, thinking outside-the-box is now your inside-the-box — and that box is a hypercube. Things like scale, size and imagination are no problem and that can only be good for creativity. When these things come with ease, unpacking big concepts or empathising with specific character's motivations is a much simpler process, because you are no longer restrained to just your body. You can close your eyes, transport yourself inside your imagination and play it out vividly. At higher dosages, though, keyboards, hands and the English language are none of your concern. Ketamine does all the ego-stripping that MDMA does, but at levels that can be completely shattering to your concept of reality. 

These are experiences that will make you live and act differently, let alone write and create.”

Alice*, Artist

“There are two polarising reactions I have creatively when smoking marijuana. The first is a total repression, an inability to gather the focus necessary for getting my art supplies together, let alone creating and perfecting a piece. These tend to annoy me a lot and I’ll lay off the drug altogether out of sheer frustration. The other is the complete opposite, where the drug enables me to release all of the distractions and stresses and form a single minded focus.

"Such successful interactions tend to only happen if I am in a state of high energy and mental activity to begin with, for example after an extremely stressful or emotional day I can settle myself in for an art session and use weed to unstick myself from the day and sink into that whirlwind of creative spirit that we all find sometimes. The result is my sinking into an almost meditative state, where I’ll remain for several hours and produce things that have been some of my best and most innovative. I once sat for almost six hours sculpting with polymer clay and created two pieces that I still have and love today. I also painted one of my most emotive pieces which I am still being asked to sell on a regular basis. Marijuana is not responsible for all of my best works, but definitely a proportion of them."

Clay sculpture created under the influence of marijuana.  © "Alice" (used with permission)

Clay sculpture created under the influence of marijuana. © "Alice" (used with permission)

"One of the never-ending restrictions on my ability to create is the pressure and stress I put myself under to create perfect, breathtaking pieces every time I sit down. It allows me to make mistakes and create things that are (there’s no better word for it) hideous, and not become frustrated or discouraged. It allows me to make pieces that I might think trite or simple when sober. It becomes this strange suspension of being, in which there is no real perception of time or space, just the floating state of pure creativity. I have experienced times where I have sculpted or painted for hours on end without realising how hungry, tired or uncomfortable I was. I have finished a piece and gone to stand up and fallen flat on my face because my legs were completely asleep. The total immersion in your creation is the most wonderful feeling in the world, and I am always so happy when it happens.

"So in interpreting the effect of marijuana on my art, I really think it is simply a way of removing my analytical and critical mind from the creative, and allowing it more free range during the creative process. The trance-like creative sessions that my best works have risen from do not require marijuana, and they happen often on their own. Marijuana is just a good way of helping me reach that stage when I am feeling particularly blocked by everyday life.

By using it, though, I have to accept the risk that it could go the other way and I’ll end up pinned to the bed watching Star Trek without a single thought in my head.”

James*, Artist

“Painting and creating artwork while under the influence of a mind altering substance can be a deep, emotional and meditative experience. It can help reduce hesitancy and doubt while painting (that worrying feeling of screwing up your work) and instead just going with the flow. It helps release a constant feeling of creativity, inspiration and curiosity. This allows me to make unstudied decisions of where colours are going, taking risks with only reward - in turn creating more unique and fascinating artworks. Its an amazing feeling to follow a brush around the canvas with no outside thoughts and distractions, only focusing on the present moment of creation."

Painting on paper, created during an LSD trip.  © "James" (used with permission)

Painting on paper, created during an LSD trip. © "James" (used with permission)


"My experience with acid and creating art was quite interesting. It felt as though I had been completely infatuated with the act of drawing. I noticed I was really drawn into small details and abstractions of the sketches, and spent a long time on finishing them. I also noticed the style of these sketches was completely different to something I would usually draw. It felt like I was simply just playing with the pen and making marks on the paper, not taking much interest in the aesthetics of the final drawing as a whole. Though the next day, when sober, they all looked weird.”



The history of illicit drugs is not always this open-minded and creative, however, and it can be an incredibly dangerous game. But when we stop to consider the calibre of works produced as a direct result of drug use, the influence of psychoactive drugs may allow some artists to achieve something raw and unique. 

*Names have been changed.

Edited by Nicola McCaskill and Jack Scanlan, and supported by Damo Camilleri.