Intrinsic Motivation

I’ll admit to having a few summer doldrums right now. We’re having a heat wave here in the midwest and between the high temperatures and the horrible humidity it’s actually dangerous to spend much time outside. I don’t recall weather reports and news broadcasts ever before warning people to STAY INSIDE!

My art studio is downstairs in our “semi-finished” basement. It’s cool and comfortable here. So cool, I actually have to wear a long-sleeved shirt or a light jacket while I’m working and playing here. Logically, you’d think I’d be spending more time here rather than less, but the reality is that it’s been difficult to motivate myself.

Many times I’ve referred to myself as a “perpetual student”, and my brain is definitely wired that way. I get excited at the end of May, spend a couple weeks playing something akin to “summer camp” and then, as we near the end of June my interest and attention flags. I need that feeling of “summer vacation”. All the while, I’m eagerly looking forward to September, to that first feeling of fall in the air, and to a new rush of excitement for all things academic. Including art. But for the moment, I just want to enjoy a little “unstructured time”.

Lately I’ve even been skipping out on my daily “Color Play” practice at Creative Bug. I’ve been doing some drawing exercises — my how-to-draw-animals book arrived yesterday, much earlier than I’d expected, so I am feeling a little excitement about that — but mostly I’ve been shrugging off art projects.

This morning I browsed around online a bit looking for ideas on creative motivation. I read through a lot of motivational quotes… you know, the ones that tell us to “just do it” and then to just “do it again.”

The quotes are helpful and encouraging, but not quite enough to pull me out of my summer doldrums. I went searching for a little more information about motivation and where to find it.

I learned that there are two very different types of motivational strategies: extrinsic and intrinsic. You can think of these as external or internal, if you prefer. The extrinsic factors are things like rewards or, at the other end of the spectrum, punishments. We’re motivated to perform a task in hopes of achieving something we want or through a desire to avoid a punishment or penalty. Essentially, we engage in activities not because they’re satisfying or enjoyable to us, but because they have consequences — good or bad — attached.

Intrinsic motivations are different. These are motivations that come from within ourselves. We engage in activities and behaviors that we find personally rewarding. Quite simply, the action itself is all the reward we seek.

Psychologists will say that both forms of motivation are useful and necessary. True enough. But when we’re looking specifically at creative pursuits, we’ll likely benefit most from intrinsic motivation. This is because we already have a strong interest in the activity. We don’t need to be cajoled or coerced. Also, setting “external” motivations — like promising ourselves a reward for completing a project — can make it all seem like a job to be done. External motivations can suck the fun right out of a creative pursuit. Better perhaps, to look for something internal or intrinsic. 

To be clear on the meaning of intrinsic motivation, here’s a definition from Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behavior With Concept Maps:

“Intrinsic motivation occurs when we act without any obvious external rewards. We simply enjoy an activity or see it as an opportunity to explore, learn, and actualize our potentials.”

So how do we get ourselves going using intrinsic motivation? What factors do we need to consider? More specifically — for me, right now — what can I do to re-ignite my passion for art and my desire to learn?


We need to feel that our creative pursuits are meaningful — not just to us, but in a larger sense, as well. Art is important. As an artist I’m not only seeking personal expression, but I’m also contributing to our community through the open studios and art shows I participate in, through promoting club activities, and by sharing my work at display sites.


Undoubtedly one of the best aspects of creative work is our ability to guide and direct our actions. I’m learning this more and more each day. Even when I’m following a demonstration or reading step-by-step directions, I’m discovering that it’s good to try different things, to choose my own media, to explore all those “Hmmm… what would happen if I did this?” ideas running through my brain. Being creative in art means we get to choose the colors we work with. We choose the medium. We draw or paint what we want. The more we step back and see the choices we have, the more fun art can be!


Here’s an important area, and it’s one I’ve struggled with. We need to feel a sense of competency, otherwise it might be difficult to motivate ourselves. When I’m worried about “performance” on a creative project, it’s easy to put it off. I’m afraid of making mistakes or ruining a project. I’m getting past that a bit now. I have begun to feel more competent — and confident — about my abilities in art. This is still a “shaky area” for me, though, so I will keep working on improving my skills, doing drawing practices and exercises. The more competent we feel, the easier it is for us to motivate ourselves.


Sometimes taking on a big task seems overwhelming. We might find our motivation lagging if we’re trying to do too much all at once. It’s helpful to break large projects down into smaller steps. This is especially true when it comes to cleaning my art studio! If I focus on a specific task — like cleaning one work table — I can get it done. If I look around and think about straightening everything up… well, instead of working on it, I’m more apt to shut off the lights and go upstairs.

Understanding these factors is helpful, I think. Each is a building block for intrinsic motivation. If we think about these factors — meaningfulness, making choices, competence, and progress — we can feel the excitement of creative activity.

There are other little “tricks” to keep in mind, too.

  • Make a list of things you like. Write down books you’d like to read, movies you’d like to see, places you’d like to go, activities you want to try. They don’t have to relate to any specific creative pursuit. The list is just a reflection of who you are.  Of course, you could make an art-related list, writing down places you’d like to go, galleries you’d like to visit, workshops you’d like to take and other art activities. Either way, this simple technique can be exciting and inspiring.
  • Take a break. Sometimes we need to get away from our art for a short time. If what we’re doing feels like a chore, we need to step away. It’s important for us to maintain balance. We need to get out now and then, visit with family and friends, do something besides our usual creative activities. A quick break can give us new insights when we return to our usual routine.
  • Reminisce on past success. It’s good to have reminders of our success. I keep my art ribbons hanging close by. I see them each morning as I come to the studio. I have lots of my favorite drawings and paintings in the studio, too. It is fun to look around and see all that I’ve accomplished in the last seven years! It’s fun, too, to look through old sketchbooks and see the progress I’ve made.
  • Participate in community events. This is a great intrinsic motivator. Art clubs help me see the importance of art in the community. I love working at student art shows or promoting other club events. It helps me feel more connected — to others, and to my own creative spirit.
  • Stay healthy. This is an area that’s often overlooked, I think. Obviously if we’re not feeling our best, we’re not going to be as creative as we’d like. Pay attention to the basic principles: Eat right. Get plenty of rest. Exercise daily. Get fresh air. Even during this heat wave, I do get outside in the early morning to enjoy a short walk.
  • Keep a journal. This can be an art journal, or a written journal — or a combination of both. Julia Cameron recommends writing 3 pages a day,  what she calls Morning Pages. I haven’t done this for a while, but it is a good practice. You can also journal in the evening, if you prefer.

And finally, there’s that familiar tip we all know. JUST DO IT.  Creativity feeds upon itself. Once we get started on a project, it generates its own excitement and spurs us on toward the finish. At least that’s how it usually happens. Once in a while, you might start something and still feel a lack of motivation. OK. That’s when it’s time to take a break.

I’m happy to say that just learning about intrinsic motivation and writing this blog post has made me excited about art again. I’ve got paintings to frame and prepare for upcoming shows. I  have a new drawing book to play with. And, as usual, I have a couple new art supplies on their way.

Yep. I’ve got a busy day ahead of me, so I’d better get started on it now!





  1. Oh, how hard it is to just get started! I’ve been struggling all month, but a tiny “Just stamp one thing” got me going last night and fired up the old inspiration, too 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Morning pages have helped unlock my creativity for some reason. Whenever I get my three pages in, I feel much looser to handle any other drafting I need to do for the day. Of course, my morning pages differ from my journal, in that I’m 100% honest there, so I destroy my pages once I’m done with them. Highly recommended. Anyway, thanks for this post!


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