When thinking of relaxation techniques, painting is usually not the first that comes to mind to most people. Most of us know that meditation, being in nature, breath work, and taking a walk are all great ways to de-stress. I am an advocate for adding art-making to this list of ways to calm ourselves. Art-making is an affordable, enjoyable and approachable way to find calm in our lives.
Painting hasn’t been high on the list of relaxation techniques because art-making has been mystified in Western culture, and deemed as something that only a select few talented geniuses can do. Therefore, even the idea of making art produces a feeling of anxiety in some (being an art teacher for over 20 years, I have seen it happen too far too often).
I believe that if we shift the way in which we view the purpose of art-making, we can transform it into a practice that feels available to everyone, thus increasing the amount of people that can find peace and connection through this practice.
Art making is not always about the product: it’s about the process, too. If we get hung up on how “good” the piece is, then we can be subject to feeling frustration, anger, disappointment, and other destructive emotions. As an artist who sells her work, I have experienced this pressure because I produce paintings that are often hung on gallery walls and sold to clients.
However, with enough focus and conscious effort, anyone can overcome the pressure to think too much about the final product. I find focusing on process liberating because it allows me to take more risks in art-making.
Imagine yourself sitting at a table full of art supplies. You are by yourself in this room, and relaxing music of your choice is playing. Look at the materials in front of you, and you start to play, mix colors, add water & paint to your brush and watch them flow onto the paper. You take blue and yellow and mix them together, and then watch as they magically transform to a spring green color.
Apply paint on the paper, and then take the back of your brush and scratch away at the brush stroke. Pick up your pencil and start to scribble right through the paint. The only thing you are focused on are the colors and forms you are making, and you are lost in the wonder and joy of artful play.
How would your body and mind feel after doing this for 15 minutes? When I get lost in art-making, I start to feel my nervous system go into a state of relaxation. I feel calm, focused, inspired, and connected. Often I forget about time, problems, politics and anything else that may have been racing in my mind before I sat down.
This state of mind is often referred to as right-brain mode, a too-little used mode in our overwhelm culture. We use our right-brain mode when we do activities such as making music or art, and it’s an enjoyable state of mind. On the contrary, we use left-brain mode when we do things such as talk, write, debate, calculate, and so on. We switch back and forth between these modes depending on the task we are needing to complete.
Because we use our left-brain mode so often, it’s beneficial to give ourselves a break by doing activities such as art that require right-brain mode. Betty Edwards summarizes the experience of being immersed in a right-brained activity in her classic book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, “As a side benefit, this cognitive shift to a different-from-usual mode of thinking results in a marvelous state of being, a highly focused, singularly attentive, deeply engaging, wordless, timeless, productive, and mentally restorative state.”
Giving ourselves time each day to spend in our right brain mode is a true gift. Art is not the only way you can access this mode: playing music, dancing, dreaming, and singing are other ways to access the right brain mode. The point is to do something creative for no other purpose than to enjoy the creation process. Even something as simple as coloring books or doodling on a sticky note deliver benefits if you do the activity for a sustained period of time (I find 15 minutes or more works well). Regardless of what you choose, do something that you enjoy and will hold your interest.
You will need an art medium, such as pencil, watercolors, colored pencils, pastels, and/or ink. You will also need paper, such as computer or watercolor paper if you want to use wet media. Then, let yourself play and experiment with your art materials for at least 15 minutes. Focus on the marks you are making and the colors you are creating, and don’t worry if the art piece looks good or not. The goal is to enjoy and feel relaxed by the process.
Making art is a wonderful way to relax and feel connected, especially when we focus on the creation process. Art is one of many activities we can do to utilize our right-brain mode, allowing a break for our analytical left-brains. We can feel liberated when we suspend judgment about our art piece, and instead focus on enjoying the simplicity of creating something. I hope you add art-making to your collection of relaxation techniques.
I am an artist out of Santa Fe, New Mexico who has been painting for almost 30 years. I love to teach first-timers as well as experienced painters who need a creative reboot. My work has been displayed in several galleries around the country, and I have a Bachelor’s in Art History, a Master’s in Art Education, and had my work in a show juried by Judy Chicago. The idea of getting more people painting makes me light up as I want to inspire more people to express their creative selves and tap into a place of joy and calm.