Art Therapy: Losing Control

Doing my own “personal” form of art therapy earlier this year helped me deal with a lot of emotional pain and anxiety, all centered around my experiences with art, itself. Essentially I was dealing with feelings of inadequacy, those deeply-rooted beliefs that I would always be a failure at art. The process dredged up a lot of anger and resentment, but gradually, as I continued working on various “therapy projects”, I was able to acknowledge all the emotions and deal with them in more constructive ways. I learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot about art, too. Mostly, I learned how to make connections between me and my art. I guess what I’m saying is that I learned a lot about how to express myself through the creative process.

Of course, others turn to art therapy to deal with problems that have nothing to do with art itself. At its heart, art therapy is one more method for psychological awareness and understanding. As a form of creative therapy it can help us develop “coping mechanisms” as we also become more expressive. Individuals seek out art therapists for the same reasons they might look for any other form of counseling or guidance. It can be a means for dealing with grief, overcoming personal struggles, working through difficult family relationships, fighting addictions, and learning to live with challenges such as chronic pain or disease.

A disclaimer here. I am not a therapist, art or otherwise. If you’re experiencing severe depression or emotional distress, please take steps toward finding a certified professional who can work directly with you. The “art therapy” exercises I’m sharing in this blog are meant as helpful ways to maintain emotional health through the creative process. We can all benefit from self-expression exercises and creativity practices, but please see these “therapy sessions” in that light — not as a way to cure whatever ails you, but as a step toward greater self-awareness and as a path toward increased creativity.

That said, let me share a few thoughts about today’s art therapy exercise. Today, it’s all about losing control. That can be a frightening idea in many ways. As often as not, we want to feel that we are in control at all times — in control of our body, our minds, our relationships. Sometimes, though, a situation may be out of our control. Can we deal with the feelings we encounter?

I chose this exercise for several reasons.

  1. My current art studies are involving questions of control and spontaneityI’m trying to learn to be freer in my art, more willing to let go and to lose control.
  2. I’ve recently been looking back at abstract art — specifically at this post — to explore a lot of feelings about the creative process. How far can we go with “letting go”?
  3. I came to the studio this morning with a lot of bad feelings. I was tense, frustrated with a few things — nothing serious — and I needed a chance to release a lot of emotions.

As I begin an art therapy project, I like to think about what I’m getting ready to explore and why that might be helpful for me. With this project — Losing Control — I wanted to look closely at the feelings I experienced. I wanted to see my reactions to the project. I also hoped to feel some sense of relief by doing this project.

Additionally, I chose the project because it specifically calls for using acrylics. I happened to have my new set of Amsterdam Acrylics  sitting by my easel. Here, if you choose to follow along, is the complete supply list:

  • Fluid acrylics
  • Low-tooth (smooth) watercolor or Yupo paper
  • Protective cloths to cover workspace
  • Water
  • Application tools — brushes, toothbrushes, spray bottles, droppers, and other tools

Note: I was using “tube acrylics” rather than “fluid” acrylics. This did make a slight difference in how my finished work looked.

The project instructions are simple. Drop fluid acrylic onto wet paper. When we do this, we relinquish control, allowing the paint to do its own thing. We stand back and watch as the paint spreads, runs, and drips. If we’re using different colors, we’ll probably see them merging and blending. Whatever happens is more or less out of our control.

Ah… but there is that more or less aspect there. While we can’t control the paint, we can influence its actions in some ways. We can pick the paper up and tilt it. We can blow on the paint to move it in different directions. We can add more water or, if we feel we must, we can use a brush or a rag to remove excess paint and water.

If we do step in, we might find something interesting happening. More than likely we’ll realize that the more we attempt to control what’s happening on the page, the more muddled the artwork becomes. This is definitely a time where the more “hands off” we are, the better.

And this, I think, is the key lesson to learn here. Sometimes we do have to let go. Sometimes we do have to take a step back and watch a situation play out without interference from us.

Yet there’s another aspect of control to consider here. Even with a project like this, we do have a lot of definite choices and decisions to make. We choose the colors we’ll be using. We choose the tools we’ll be using to drop the paint onto the page. We choose, too, how large or small to make our painting. We also must choose if, when, and how we might influence the completed work by our manipulations. We’re really not passive bystanders here.

Again, it’s a lot about seeing the lines between being completely in control and completely losing control. That’s really an interesting emotional area to explore.

Here is the abstract acrylic I completed. I’ve called it “Losing Control”.

“Losing Control” Art Therapy Project

Even now — and maybe this is another interesting point to consider — I have choices to make. In a sense, I am now fully in control of this painting. I get to make all the decisions.

My first question: is this the right orientation for it? Or would it somehow be more meaningful or expressive if I turned it differently? How about this?

Does it really matter? Probably not, although I think I prefer the “landscape” orientation. But, point taken. Sometimes decisions are unnecessary so I don’t need to fret about things that really don’t make a difference

When I approach an art therapy project like this, I think first of color. I wanted to brighten up my mood, so I chose the bright yellow. And, you’ll see, as I go through the project, I’m asking myself a lot of questions, mostly questions about how I’m feeling or why I’m making a particular choice.

For starters, as I mentioned above, I began with tube acrylics, not fluid. I was, as usual, not really following the directions. I noted this and gave myself permission to explore this concept in my own way. But, here’s a thought. I knew that using tube acrylics would make it more difficult for the paint to take control. Hmmm… there’s a bit of insight there, too, don’t you think? Even when I profess to be “letting go”, I’m still trying to maintain some degree of control. 

Sure enough, when I attempted to “drop” paint onto the wet paper (I’d sprayed a sheet of watercolor paper with a good soaking of water), the paint just sat there. I stepped in, took charge, and made a few squiggly lines. Yep, I was still determined to be in control! I grabbed the spray bottle and put more water on the page. My paint did move a little, but not very much. Oh, well.

Next, I needed a second color. Blue just felt right. This is another part of art therapy. It’s good to trust our instincts to see where they take usThis time I carefully mixed a bit of blue paint with water in a small palette. I was then able to drop the paint onto the paper. It wasn’t mixed too well, though. It mostly came out in big clumps.

I sprayed more water, considered taking a brush to brush out the clumps of paint, but I shrugged and decided to let it be whatever it was. Was I starting to relinquish control? At least a bit?

I wanted a third color, but nothing felt right here. I finally decided to go with black. It did represent my mood a bit — the gloomy, irritated feelings I’d started with. I thinned my acrylic down — a lot — and just picked up the palette and poured it on!

Next, I used a small blow dryer to move the wet, watery paints around on the page. One thing I noticed. I didn’t like white places showing through. I had to make sure every bit of the paper was covered. Yes, I was still controlling the situation a bit, wasn’t I!

At that point, I stepped in to take a little more control. I used a brush to pick up some of the blue acrylic so that I could just “dab it” around the page. I liked the thick texture still present with the yellow acrylic, and I felt (from an artistic point of view) that the thick, blue dots would work well. I was looking at the overall project now as an opportunity for me to more thoroughly explore the concept of spontaneity versus deliberation, or call it planned versus unplanned, intentional versus random.

Overall, the take-away from a project like this isn’t really the end result. It’s much more about the process, about the way we literally process the ideas we’re working with. It’s all about self-dialogue, discovering different things about ourselves, and making note of all we’ve learned.

In the end, it didn’t matter what my painting looked like. I do find it interesting, and I know that each time I see it, I’ll be asking myself a lot of questions again. I’ve learned that I can be more controlling than I need to be at times.

Now, I’m asking more questions.

Why is it so difficult for me to let go? What am I afraid of? What would happen if I did let go?

I think I need to repeat this art therapy project, doing it with fluid acrylics, choosing colors at random, and resolving not to even touch the paper. I want to repeat this project with as little control as possible. That will be interesting.

How about you? If you do this art therapy project, I hope you’ll share a few thoughts about your process, too. Is it easy for you to let go? And, of course, if you share your artwork on your blog, please let me know so that I can include a link!

And on a related note, you might want to check out “The Art of Losing Control” by Jules Evans.




  1. i’ve only ever done stuff like this on very rare occasions- usually when i am trying unfamiliar mediums for the first time or a well known medium for the umpteenth time( just because i am bored). I am just one of those strange artists that almost never paint from “feelings”. I prefer working almost exclusively on technique. But what you describe is pretty awesome and def a way to get a therapy perspective. I mean i do agree all art is therapy in it’s own way, for me it’s sort of a discipline:)


    1. You’re right, it’s all a form of “creative therapy”. Even if we don’t approach art from that perspective, it still brings out a lot of self-awareness, I think. Doing “therapy exercises” really helped me earlier this year, and now doing occasional exercises is helping me develop more into my own style. This particular exercise about “control” (or losing control, actually) really made me look at how much I’m still trying to control art when I need to step back and let it happen on its own.


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