Artist Draws 9 Portraits While on LSD: Inside the 1950s Experiments to Turn LSD into a “Creativity Pill”

LSD was first syn­the­sized in 1938 by chemist Albert Hoff­man in a Swiss lab­o­ra­to­ry but only attained infamy almost two decades lat­er, when it became part of a series of gov­ern­ment exper­i­ments. At the same time, a UC Irvine psy­chi­a­trist, Oscar Janiger (“Oz” to his friends), con­duct­ed his own stud­ies under very dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances. “Unlike most researchers, Janiger want­ed to cre­ate a ‘nat­ur­al’ set­ting,” writes Brandy Doyle for MAPS (the Mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary Asso­ci­a­tion for Psy­che­del­ic Stud­ies). He rea­soned that “there was noth­ing espe­cial­ly neu­tral about a lab­o­ra­to­ry or hos­pi­tal room,” so he “rent­ed a house out­side of LA, in which his sub­jects could have a rel­a­tive­ly non-direct­ed expe­ri­ence in a sup­port­ive envi­ron­ment.”

Janiger want­ed his sub­jects to make cre­ative dis­cov­er­ies in a state of height­ened con­scious­ness. The study sought, he wrote, to “illu­mi­nate the phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal nature of the LSD expe­ri­ence,” to see whether the drug could effec­tive­ly be turned into a cre­ativ­i­ty pill. He found, over a peri­od last­ing from 1954 to 1962 (when the exper­i­ments were ter­mi­nat­ed), that among his approx­i­mate­ly 900 sub­jects, those who were in ther­a­py “had a high rate of pos­i­tive response,” but those not in ther­a­py “found the expe­ri­ence much less pleas­ant.” Janiger’s find­ings have con­tributed to the research that orga­ni­za­tions like MAPS have done on psy­choac­tive drugs in ther­a­peu­tic set­tings. The exper­i­ments also pro­duced a body of art­work made by study par­tic­i­pants on acid.

Janiger invit­ed over 100 pro­fes­sion­al artists into the study and had them pro­duce over 250 paint­ings and draw­ings. The series of eight draw­ings you see here most like­ly came from one of those artists (though “the records of the iden­ti­ty of the prin­ci­ple researcher have been lost,” writes Live­Science). In the psych-rock-scored video at the top see the pro­gres­sion of increas­ing­ly abstract draw­ings the artist made over the course of his 8‑hour trip. He report­ed on his per­cep­tions and sen­sa­tions through­out the expe­ri­ence, not­ing, at what seems to be the drug’s peak moment at 2.5 and 3 hours in, “I feel that my con­scious­ness is sit­u­at­ed in the part of my body that’s active—my hand, my elbow, my tongue…. I am… every­thing is… changed… they’re call­ing… your face… inter­wo­ven… who is….”

Trip­py, but there’s much more to the exper­i­ment than its imme­di­ate effects on artists’ brains and sketch­es. As Janiger’s col­league Mar­lene Dobkin de Rios writes in her defin­i­tive book on his work, “all of the artists who par­tic­i­pat­ed in Janiger’s project said that LSD not only rad­i­cal­ly changed their style but also gave them new depths to under­stand the use of col­or, form, light, or the way these things are viewed in a frame of ref­er­ence. Their art, they claimed, changed its essen­tial char­ac­ter as a con­se­quence of their expe­ri­ences.” Psy­chol­o­gist Stan­ley Kripp­n­er made sim­i­lar dis­cov­er­ies, and “defined the term psy­che­del­ic artist” to describe those who, as in Janiger’s stud­ies “gained a far greater insight into the nature of art and the aes­thet­ic idea,” Dobkin de Rios writes.

Artis­tic productions—paintings, poems, sketch­es, and writ­ings that stemmed from the experience—often show a rad­i­cal depar­ture from the artist’s cus­tom­ary mode of expres­sion… the artists’ gen­er­al opin­ion was that their work became more expres­sion­is­tic and demon­strat­ed a vast­ly greater degree of free­dom and orig­i­nal­i­ty.

The work of the unknown artist here takes on an almost mys­ti­cal qual­i­ty after a while. The project began “serendip­i­tous­ly” when one of Janiger’s vol­un­teers in 1954 insist­ed on being able to draw dur­ing the dos­ing. “After his LSD expe­ri­ence,” writes Dobkin de Rios, “the artist was very emphat­ic that it would be most reveal­ing to allow oth­er artists to go through this process of per­cep­tu­al change.” Janiger was con­vinced, as were many of his more famous test sub­jects.

Janiger report­ed­ly intro­duced LSD to Cary Grant, Anais Nin, Jack Nichol­son, and Aldous Hux­ley dur­ing guid­ed ther­a­py ses­sions. Still, he is not near­ly as well-known as oth­er LSD pio­neers like Ken Kesey and Tim­o­thy Leary, in part because, writes the psy­choac­tive research site Erowid, “his data remained large­ly unpub­lished dur­ing his life­time,” and he was not him­self an artist or media per­son­al­i­ty (though he was a cousin of Allen Gins­berg).

Janiger not only changed the con­scious­ness of unnamed and famous artists with LSD, but also exper­i­ment­ed with DMT with Alan Watts and fel­low psy­chi­a­trist Humphry Osmond (who coined the word “psy­che­del­ic”), and con­duct­ed research on pey­ote with Dobkin de Rios. To a great degree, we have him to thank (or blame) for the explo­sion of psy­che­del­ic art and phi­los­o­phy that flowed out of the ear­ly six­ties and indeli­bly changed the cul­ture. At Live­Science, you can see a slideshow of these draw­ings with com­men­tary from Yale physi­cian Andrew Sewell on what might be hap­pen­ing in the trip­ping artist’s brain.

Note: IAI Acad­e­my has just released a short course called The Sci­ence of Psy­che­delics. You can enroll in it here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Rare Footage Shows US and British Sol­diers Get­ting Dosed with LSD in Gov­ern­ment-Spon­sored Tests (1958 + 1964)

Hofmann’s Potion: 2002 Doc­u­men­tary Revis­its His­to­ry of LSD

Ken Kesey Talks About the Mean­ing of the Acid Tests

Aldous Huxley’s Most Beau­ti­ful, LSD-Assist­ed Death: A Let­ter from His Wid­ow

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Douglas says:

    CORRECTION: Albert Hof­mann is his name not Albert Hoff­man.

  • Babyrazor says:

    LSD is a very ampli­fy­ing drug and the results depend a lot on the men­tal state of the indi­vid­ual using it.
    Let me relate a sto­ry to you.1970’s I drop a hit and go to see a friend. He’s out. So I go to the next door cou­ple who we knew and explain my sit­u­a­tion “Can I stay here until he returns?” they let me wait. We’re sit­ting at a table, my cig­a­rette is in the ash­tray. as I watch the smoke rise I repeat in my head “Stop Time” over and over. Well the smoke stops ris­ing, every­thing is frozen except me. I get up walk around, I even go to the record play­er and change the record (it’s frozen too). then I sit back in my chair and repeat “start time” in my head over and over. Time begins again and I short­ly notice a con­fused expres­sion on the cou­ples faces. they’ve real­ized a dif­fer­ent record is play­ing and they’re very puz­zled. So I explain what I did. That’s when they asked me to leave.
    Anoth­er tale.visiting anoth­er cou­ple, they’re straight and I’m trip­ping. In my state I’m
    con­cen­trat­ing on mak­ing my index fin­ger elon­gate. It grows to about 8″ when I stop con­cen­trat­ing and it reverts to it’s nor­mal size.I think this is an illu­sion until I look up and see them both star­ing at me. the male asks “how’d you do that?” “you saw that too? is my response. so we do an exper­i­ment. hold­ing my fist against the end of a bureau I attempt to once again try to elon­gate my index fin­ger try­ing to make it touch the knob in the mid­dle of the bureau with­out mov­ing my fist. once again my fin­ger elon­gates BUT the dis­tance from my fin­ger­tip to the knob remained con­stant. after we all wit­nessed this we dis­cussed what hap­pened and came to the con­clu­sion that what was actu­al­ly occur­ring was that the space between my fin­ger and the knob was warp­ing like an invis­i­ble sphere, a fin­ger on a bub­ble of real­i­ty
    Now I would­n’t sug­gest try­ing this because every­one men­tal make­up is dif­fer­ent. You may start out with the best inten­tions but because every­ones men­tal make up is dif­fer­ent, you may end up decid­ing to shit in a buck­et of green paint is a bet­ter idea, or worse.
    I once met a lad who took a hit and nev­er came back. He was per­ma­nent­ly trapped in the rab­bit hole. We met at a par­ty, I had dropped a hit, he was sit­ting at a table. As I sat down he said “Hi how ya doing” but it came out, to any­one else stand­ing by as “the fox runs fast”. So I replied to any­one stand­ing by “bears like ice cream” but he heard “pret­ty good how are you”. Well this sud­den look of sur­prise was on his face and he start­ed tear­ing up. It seems I was the only one he’d been able to com­mu­ni­cate with since he had dropped a hit like 2 weeks ago. so we chat­ted away in a lan­guage only the two us under­stood. To any out­sider it would seem we were talk­ing gib­ber­ish.
    Well understanding/experiencing “true real­i­ty” would be like that kid. trapped in a world where you could not dis­tin­guish the dif­fer­ence between any mate­r­i­al object for fun­da­men­tal­ly every­thing on an atom­ic lev­el would be very sim­i­lar. for­tu­nate­ly our sens­es abbre­vi­ate that world, and due to their lim­i­ta­tions we can dis­tin­guish between a dan­de­lion and a har­mon­i­ca. So be care­ful out there n be nice to liv­ing things!

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