Art therapy is really all about feelings, and for me, as I explained in a recent post, it’s about getting comfortable. Maybe that means learning to live with certain thoughts, feelings, and experiences, or maybe it means moving beyond those feelings. Getting comfortable can come about it different ways.
But first, before we move on to today’s project, let’s quickly talk about comfort and its opposite: discomfort. Even while we look for ways to become more comfortable, we should consider the idea that discomfort is a necessary part of life. According to some motivational experts, we can’t grow without growing pains — another term for being uncomfortable.
Author and motivational speaker David Villa has this to say on the subject:
I believe that there is a certain strength that is borne from doing things that are difficult. When you accomplish something that takes a lot out of you, it gives you a resiliency that you just can’t duplicate. When you look back at that mountain and realize that you have climbed it, you become fully aware of your own capabilities. You realize that you are greater than the problems or circumstances that may unfold. We can’t control all of the things that happen to us; we can just control how we react to them.
He goes on to suggest that maybe we should deliberately make ourselves uncomfortable now and then. He asks, “When was the last time you felt uncomfortable?”
If you can’t answer this or don’t recall, then perhaps it is time to try something new again. Perhaps it is time for you to step out of your comfort zone and see just what you will become if you allow yourself, if only for a moment, to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
I include these thoughts because it may be that the very idea of art therapy makes you a bit uncomfortable. I know it did for me. I was fascinated by the concept, wanted to explore my thoughts and feelings through visual art, yet I was extremely uncomfortable at the thought of doing so. Personal art therapy was something new for me. I was concerned about the emotions I might uncover. Mostly, I think, I questioned whether or not art therapy — and the simple projects involved — could truly help me become a better person and/or a better artist. To put it quite simply, I was definitely uncomfortable.
Maybe that’s how you’re feeling if you’re thinking about following along with the “Art Therapy” exercises I’ll be sharing through the blog. Maybe you’re hesitant about jumping in and doing this first exercise today. I do know the feeling. I will say that I’m glad I pushed beyond my discomfort; I will say, too, that the process was not easy. Art therapy can bring up a lot of emotions, but the alternative is to leave those emotions where they are, allowing them to cause all sorts of discomforts. With all that said, I hope you’ll join in on this project, but if you choose not to, I’ll understand.
How Do You Feel Today?
This is a question most art therapists ask their clients to explore, either through an “in-person” session or through “homework”. It sounds simple enough, and it can be simple — or it can be a bit more complicated. Today, I’ll suggest keeping things as simple as possible.
Choose a medium that’s easy to work with. Watercolor is fun. Crayons are easy to work with. Soft pastels offer a variety of colors. If you’re more in a “black-and-white” mood, use charcoal or ink. Whatever you choose, choose something that feels comfortable for you. That’s our keyword in art therapy, remember.
Another option, of course, is working digitally, so if that’s more comfortable for you, visit FreeMix, or simply open up a graphics programs you can play with.
Now, to simplify the process even more, choose a single word to represent how you’re feeling. Perhaps it’s a good day and everything is going your way. You might call yourself “happy” or choose to express feelings of “contentment”. Or perhaps you’re in a bit of a down mood. Maybe you’re sad, unhappy, confused, or unsure. Whatever the feeling is, it’s all right. Choose a single word for a starting point, and let’s go from there.
We’ll be working with various elements of art:
Step by step, here’s a suggested outline for the project. It’s a guide, not a set of rules to follow.
- How are you feeling today? Select one word to represent your feelings.
- Choose a medium to work with.
- Assemble your supplies
- Using any single element or any combination of elements, play with colors, lines, shapes, and/or images as you think about your key word.
- Use techniques that feel right to you.
- Keep playing until you decide to stop.
Once you’re finished with your project, step back and think about what you’ve done. What did you feel as you were working? In what ways does your project express how you were feeling? Do you see any different emotions in the project? What thoughts came to mind as you completed the project?
Here is the abstract painting I completed, and a few thoughts about the process.
What emotion was I expressing? The colors might be a bit misleading, but art therapy calls up personal associations and individual symbolism. My keyword was hopeful. It was early morning when I did this project. The day was only beginning, and I faced it with a feeling of hope. Part of that was feeling hopeful that readers will enjoy this “art therapy” feature and will feel some benefit from the projects I share.
I chose to work with acrylic paint — not usually my first choice for any art project. Why choose them? Because this was a new set of Amsterdam Acrylics I’d just received in an art subscription box. They were sitting near my easel, and I wanted a chance to play with them. I then chose my inexpensive watercolor paper to work on. Again, it was close at hand. For me convenience often equates to comfort.
My initial thoughts were all about pink. I tend to think pink when I think of hope, and maybe I intended to mix red and white to create a delicate pink — I think that idea was initially in my head — but when I picked up the tube of acrylics, it just felt right to open the tube and start making dots of color on the page. Oh, wait! First, I used a spray bottle and wet down the surface.
I let the water and paint mix a bit. I tilted the page this way and that. In some places, I had thick globs of acrylic, so I took a brush and made a few lines. Sure, I was thinking a little about flowers here. Flowers always represent hope to me.
Already I knew I wanted to use yellow, too. That went along with the idea of something flowery and also felt right as an expression of hope. Light. Sun. Radiance. All very hopeful thoughts. So I dabbed yellow here and there, but then began to feel off-balance. I needed more red, so I dabbed a bit more at the bottom of the page.
I sprayed more water, tilted the page, let the red and yellow meld together to create lots of orange. I picked up a brush and dabbed at the page here and there, and it all felt right. I dried the page with a blow-dryer and called it good.
Now, here’s a funny thing I noticed after I’d completed the painting. Despite my original intention to use pink, I ended up using the reds, yellow, and goldenrod colors of our Kansas City Chiefs football team. The team is playing at 3:25 this afternoon, and I’m quite a football fan.
Watching the game is a highlight of the weekend for me, and yes, indeed, I’m HOPEFUL that the Chiefs will win. Not once did this thought enter my head as I was painting, but I think that idea was lurking in my subconscious.
Note: This post was written and the art work completed back on November 21. That afternoon the Chiefs met — and defeated — the Dallas Cowboys, 19-9.
The result for me is a feeling of comfort, and that’s what I wanted. I did express my thoughts — on several levels — and I enjoyed the process. It was a fun playtime.
But what happens when an art therapy project stirs up unwanted emotions? How do we deal with them? One method is to work with those emotions through a second art project, or through another creative form of therapy — journaling, meditation, movement and dance, or music. Sometimes just a bit of extra “self-care” is warranted. Bringing up painful emotions is painful indeed, but once we’re aware of them, we’re better able to deal with them.
Although this is a very simple exercise, it can also be a very powerful one. Some art therapists make this an ongoing, daily exercise, something a client can do at home each day. If the idea appeals to you, you might want to begin a “Feelings Journal”. I’d suggest dating each page, and maybe adding a note or two about your thoughts and feelings.
One additional suggestion: group therapy. Why not invite friends to join you in this “art adventure” and have fun drawing and painting together? This provides you with a chance to talk about your feelings in a comfortable setting, plus you might be helping someone else work through their emotions.
I do hope you’ve enjoyed this project and that you’ll be looking forward to additional “art therapy” posts. If you choose to share your project on your blog, please let me know so I can link to it. And please take a moment to share your thoughts!