The benefits of art for our mental health is often overlooked. I was reminded just how powerful it can be when my mood took a nosedive after nearly eighteen months of relative stability, having avoided the manic highs and desperate lows associated with my bipolar diagnosis.
My wife Jules had bought me some paints and I painted a picture called ‘Icarus and the Phoenix’ which illustrated the rise and falls of my mood. I was then coincidently commissioned to do a series of three paintings which took me ten days to complete. When I emerged from my studio at the end of this period I was back to my old self again, with a new sense of calm and positivity about me. I learnt a lot during those ten days about the healing power of art and I’m going to share ten tips with you now, one for each day.
1. Set aside a special place
Mine is a small summerhouse in the garden that I converted into a beach hut to remind me of the sea. This will be your haven from the pressures of the outside world, a safe place where tension can be soothed through the artistic process.
2. Take pictures
If you have a smartphone you will have a camera available most of the time. If not, compact cameras can be bought very cheaply now. There is nothing worse than staring at a blank canvas searching for inspiration. When you are out and about look for the extraordinary in the ordinary. It may be the sunlight filtering through the leaves of a tree, a perfectly made cappuccino in a coffee shop or raindrops on a window. These pictures can be used as inspiration for your art as well as for reference material. This will often unlock something inside of you, making you look at things in a different way, forming new intimate connections to the world.
3. Keep a pad and pencil with you
You never know when an artistic idea might strike, but like a dream, ideas can be soon forgotten if you don’t note them down. You may also want to make a little sketch of your idea. This is useful because it gets you used to practising art on a regular basis and helps develop you as an artist. It also relaxes the mind and forces you to take time out from the pressures of daily life. Think of it as ‘me’ time.
4. Drop the perfectionism
You don’t have to be a great artist to practise art. It is the process that is the most important, not the final result. Each brushstroke, pencil line or other artistic step you make releases something inside you. It is an extension of your inner self and as such can be used as an outlet to pour out what’s bottled up inside. Whenever you practise art make sure that bottle is uncorked and bit by bit negative energy will be drained away.
5. Practise mindfully
Use all five senses. What does the flow of your brush feel like? What does the texture of the paper or canvas feel like? What does the colour in the palette bring to mind? What do the patterns in the water remind you of when you wash your brush? What do the art materials smell like? Do they change their scents when applied to canvas or paper? What does the sound of a brushstroke or pencil line conjure up? By doing this you are not only connecting to your art and the world more completely, but you are staying in the present and not allowing troublesome thoughts about the past or the future weigh you down.
6. Immerse yourself
As you engage with your art mindfully, try to immerse yourself fully in it, putting all your attention into the piece you are creating. This may be hard at first, as anxieties and depression can be overwhelming, but if you find your mind wandering just bring it gently back to your artistic work and little by little your art will help you steer your focus away from your troubles.
7. Visit a gallery
Take time to appreciate art, admire the different styles of artists and see which types appeal to you most. If you cannot visit a gallery look at art in books or online. By admiring other people’s work you may gain inspiration or ideas for your own.
8. Set aside a time each day
Even if it is for just ten minutes. By practising art daily it will soon become second nature to you. It will also make large art projects less daunting, as just a little bit each day soon adds up to a completed piece.
9. Join a group
It is good to practise art at home, but it can be very rewarding to be part of a likeminded group. Artistically you learn from each other, but more importantly you share your passion for art and the benefits it brings. It can also be a great place to meet new friends and for some people prevent loneliness and isolation, positively improving your wellbeing.
10. Banish the inner critic
it is all too easy to find fault in your art or compare yourself to others who you think are better artists. Make sure you celebrate your art and appreciate it. After all, your art has been on a journey with you and is a unique piece of you.
By David Stocks