5 ways to use art as a healing tool
If you know me quite well or have read some of My Story you'll know I've experience severe depression at times, and the act of creating things - whether drawings, paintings, or carving wooden spoons - has really helped me to direct my energy into something beautiful, useful or both!
Here's a list of just a few ways you can incorporate art into your life if you're experiencing a difficult period, or on a journey of healing. I recommend creative acts to anyone and everyone, but these exercises in particular are ones I've had success with to help channel difficult emotions and practice being mindful.
I should mention that I have no training in art therapy and these aren't substitutes for getting other help you might need, but they are free to relatively cheap to undertake and easily accessible so do give them a try!
1. Musical automatic drawing
Best for: processing strong emotions
Materials: A large piece of paper (ideally A3 or larger - I use newsprint) and a selection of drawing implements)
- Assemble your materials where you won't be disturbed and select 2-3 pieces of music that evoke very different feelings.
- Get comfortable, play your music - louder is better - and just draw. And what do you draw? Absolutely nothing in particular!
- Just feel the music itself and allow you hand and body to guide your movements, paying close attention to the tempo, instruments, pitch, vocals, energy... Make long, swooping strokes, fast choppy marks, big circles, dots, scribbles - whatever feels comfortable. You can draw images too if you wish - just stay present with the music
- When you've finished, have a look at your work. Don't judge! Allow yourself to observe your marks
- Continue with your selection of songs on a different sheet of paper for each
Do you notice any patterns emerging? How does the pressure with your strokes change? Can you see obvious differences in your mood and feelings for each piece? How do you feel now compared to before you started the exercise?
I find this particularly helpful if I'm feeling teary or angry as it allows me to transfer any negative energy onto the paper and then quietly observe.
Variation: Repeat the exercise with either watercolour or acrylic paint. Don't limit yourself to brushes - use your hands (or any other body part!) too. You can also try the same exercise with your non-dominant hand. A friend of mine likes to do a similar exercise and just scribble and will go back in later on to colour the various shapes depending on her mood.
If you have a membership to Skillshare (and if you don't, click here to get a 2 month free trial), you can see Shantell Martin drawing to music in her "Drawing on Everything: Discovering Your Creative Voice" class.
Below: Here's one of my sessions below - I like this piece for its contrasts and energy
Best for: clarity on long-term issues, safe place to express feelings and thoughts, help in getting through a difficult period such as illness or the loss of a loved one, boosting creativity. If your journal is very personal, make sure you keep it in a safe place where no one will access it.
Materials: A sketchbook with paper heavy enough to take mixed media - around 250gsm upwards, selection of art materials - try paint pens, Hodge Pods of equivalent, selection of old magazines and material for collage, scraps of fabric.
There really are no rules with this. How often you create pages in your journal is entirely up to you - some people do it daily, others just when they feel the need. You can also play with how you want to balance imagery vs. text.
Below: Mikka.does.art is just one person I follow who creates these beautiful and fun creative mixed-media pages. You can find more of her work here
And if you're in need of some prompts for inspiration, here's just a few ideas:
- Draw things from your childhood - your bedroom, your favourite outfit, a fond memory. When we draw things from when we were a child, it helps unlock other memories
- Draw your emotions - what colour, shape and texture do they have? You can even create a variation of a colour wheel and use it to create an "emotion" wheel
- Draw your dreams and nightmares
- Create imagery to represent your perfect day
- Create a collage based on "I am" to help better understand your identity
- Draw things that worry or frighten you
- Create a page to all the things you're grateful for
- Draw a visual roadmap of your life so far and where you'd like it to go
- Create several self-portraits for the past, present and future
Of course you don't need to journal just to express problems or difficulties - you can journal for any reason!
Below: My friend, Treava, creates not only beautiful journal pages but also her own books, willed with stunning handmade paper. You can find more of her work here - expect an assortment of travel, food and nature!
Sometimes it can be more helpful to journal about positive experiences and gratitude to remind us of brighter times. Or we can journal to record to record our perceptions about the world around us - travel journals, nature journals and daily journals are just a few examples.
Further info: there's a wealth of art journalling books and short courses available online (such as Cathy Johnson's Artist's Journal Workshop: Creating Your Life in Words and Pictures), or you can take a look at some prompt ideas here.
4. Inner Child work
Best for: past trauma, inner conflict resolution
There are so many variations on using inner child work and drawing. I first came across the concept in the book "Taming Your Outer Child: Overcoming Self Sabotage - The Aftermath of Abandonment".
Here the author, Susan Anderson, talks about the number of parts we have within us: the vulnerable child, the rebellious teenager, and the critic, and how to use imagery to give them visual traits and characters that we can get into discussion to stop internal blockages and move forward.
But you don't always need to use a book in conjunction with your drawing. You can start with something simple such as this 30 Day Challenge by Shelley Klammer:
Materials: crayons, colouring pencils or drawing tools you might have used as a child, paper. (I've found that if you have something from your childhood like a favourite book or toy, keeping this close to you can help you tap into their feelings)
- Sit comfortably where you won't be disturbed, relax and take a few deep breaths.
- Imagine a child near you and visualise or feel what they look like - the colour of their hair, what they're wearing...and notice how they're feeling. Accept this child no matter how they look or what they're feeling.
- Pick up one of your crayons or pencils with your non dominant hand (this uses a different part of your brain and will produce more child-like imagery) and draw your inner child.
- Ask the child if they want to play a game with you. Note that if they refuse, it might be better to try again another day as this could signal resistance and you might need to get the child's trust first - never try to force them to participate.
- If they're happy to go ahead, now write a list of questions you'd like to ask your inner child with your dominant hand at the top of the page. Ask questions such as "How old are you?" "How are you feeling?" "What can I do to make you feel better? - ensure you keep these very simple and friendly.
- Switch back to your non-dominant hand and ask the child to draw the answers for you.
- When finished, thank the child for playing the game.
A little bit of caution is needed with inner child work. It can be very powerful and consequently can bring up some strong emotions. Although generally safe, it's advisable to have the support of a loved one, or to work through these exercises with a healthcare professional, particularly if you're aware of some previous trauma or unresolved issues.
Further info: Check out Shirley Klammer's site where she also also offers a number of courses.
Below: A helpful short video by the Holistic Psychologist explaining the inner child
Best for: mindfulness, reducing anxiety
I first came across Zentangles in around 2016 but what exactly is a Zentangle? From the Zentangle website:
"The Zentangle Method is an easy-to-learn, relaxing, and fun way to create beautiful images by drawing structured patterns."
The main focus of Zentangles is the process, rather than the outcome, though I've seen people adapt Zentangles into all sorts of wonderful creations such as people, animals and plants with some really interesting designs. The great thing about Zentangles is that no two people will produce the same design - each are as unique as the creator.
Materials: piece of A4 or A5 paper, black pen, pencil, eraser
I'm not sure if this is the "official" way, but it's the way I do it!
- Draw a square on your paper in pen - about 10-15cm square is a good size. Divide into several more uneven, organic sections with light strokes of a pencil
- Take your black pen again and slowly start filling in each section with a Zentangle pattern of your choice. People are creating new patterns all the time but for now, start with something reasonable simple
- Take your time! This is a meditative exercise so you're focusing on each little shape to be completed one at a time
- When you've finished with one section, choose another pattern and move onto another blank section
- Keep going until all sections are complete. Erase your pencil guidelines
- You can either stop here and admire your creation, or you can lightly shade the different section edges with pencil to make the forms look more 3D
Left: Here's the very first Zentangle I ever did. I also started one on the wall of my camper van bathroom...it's still unfinished.
Warning...Zentangles are addictive! When you find yourself in a waiting room or perhaps on the train to work, instead of reaching for your phone, try a Zentangle instead.
Further info: The official Zentangle website. Also check out mandalas which give the same benefit.
3. Send a postcard
Best for: secret thoughts and feelings
I came across this wonderful book Post Secret by Frank Warren about 10 years ago. It's a collection of postcards sent in anonymously from people of all ages and from all over the world with a secret of some sort. Some are moving, some are shocking, and some are downright hilarious. Even if you don't do this exercise, I highly recommend getting a copy of one of the books.
Materials: A6 blank postcards, any art materials of your choice - experiment with markers, paints, collage
- Think of something you want to get off your chest - it can be something small or something you've been keeping to yourself all your life but don't make it too wordy
- Experiment with ways to portray it visually in a way that makes sense to you. You can handwrite your "secret", or cut out letters from a magazine, or turn the letters into drawings of their own. If you want some inspiration, have a look at the examples in the book.
- Add drawings, doodles, cut out pictures, bold strokes of colour - whatever you feel captures your Secret the most
- Mail it.
Variation: Don't stick to postcards. One postcard I saw had been created on the back of a Starbucks coffee cup...the confessor had been giving people decaf as revenge for being rude!
There has been some criticism about the supposed benefit of sharing secrets, but many people have found reading others' secrets inspirational, and sometimes getting something off your chest - even anonymously - can be a first step to either moving on or taking action.
Further info: PostSecret website
Also have a look at the link here for a huge selection of other art therapy ideas!