A seven-year-old asked her mother, “What do you do at work?” The mother replied, “I teach grown-ups to draw.” The child stared back, incredulous, and said, “You mean they forgot how?”
When I heard this story from art therapist Cathy A. Malchiodi, PhD, author of The Soul’s Palette: Drawing on Art’s Transformative Powers for Health and Well-Being, it resonated with me. I loved to color as a child, but now I seldom even doodle… and I not-quite-jokingly say to colleagues that all my creativity lies in the realm of words, not images.
Dr. Malchiodi told me that it is common to give up on art early in life and lose our natural connection with our inner artist. She explained, “Innate creativity often is stifled by a developmental shift that occurs around age 10, when we become more conscious of how we are perceived by others… and when others begin to judge us based on our ability to create realistic photolike images, which most people can’t do. Girls are particularly approval-oriented, so endeavors that aren’t supported — such as expressing ourselves from the heart — fade away.”
This is sad. We not only sacrifice the joy of creation, we also miss out on associated health benefits. Research shows: Artistic activities enhance brain function… alleviate depression… help us cope with pain, illness, loss and trauma… and reduce the stress that can negatively affect physical well-being, including cardiovascular health. So if you have lost touch with your inner artist, today’s the day to start the process of rediscovery.
Think back to childhood. Answering the following questions can help you identify the kind of art you want to bring into your life now. Consider: What artistic activities did you enjoy as a child — drawing, painting, knitting, crafts? What book, movie or natural environment inspired you? Did you prefer to do art alone in your room or backyard, in the kitchen with family members, in a classroom with other artists?
Look as if seeing for the first time. Go to a museum or a place in nature, and look around with fresh eyes. What do you see that you never noticed before? Notice the colors… the textures… the patterns.
Observe children as they draw, dance or play-act… feel their joy, curiosity and lack of inhibition.
Come up with a theme that interests you, such as “What I love,” “Life on another planet” or “Nature speaks.” Need inspiration? Reread a favorite poem or book.
Ignore critics — inner voices and other people who have told you, “Academics/careers matter more than art” or “Your talents lie elsewhere.” As Dr. Malchiodi pointed out, making art isn’t about replicating reality, honing technical skills or pleasing others — it’s about nourishing your soul through self-expression.
Gather materials. Visit an art-supply store and select whatever intrigues you — paper, paints, fabrics, wires, beads, clay, colored tape, etc. Save found objects (shells, twigs), discarded items with interesting shapes (egg cartons, old CDs) or whatever catches your eye — even if you don’t know what you might end up doing with them.
Choose a special place to store materials, create your art and display your efforts. To make it a sanctuary, Dr. Malchiodi suggested positioning appealing objects nearby — candles, flowers, prisms, memorabilia, artwork done by others that inspires you.
Set aside time in your busy weekly schedule to devote to art… or if you can, create whenever the spirit moves you.
Get going by experimenting with…
Collage. Dr. Malchiodi said, “Creating a collage is a forgiving first activity because you can keep rearranging things until you are satisfied. It doesn’t demand an immediate commitment the way a brushstroke on canvas does.” To make a collage: Tear or cut your materials, rearrange them on the surface of your choice until you find a composition you like, then glue them down… or cut photos, paintings or drawings into strips, then weave them together as you would a mat. You’re almost certain to see an interesting result.
Clay modeling. Use potter’s clay, Play-Doh or self-hardening clay to express yourself in three dimensions. Close your eyes and press, pull, flatten or mold until you find a shape emerging from the clay… then open your eyes and continue forming the clay until you create a satisfying object. It doesn’t look like the statue of David? Who cares?
Drawing. If you feel frustrated when drawings don’t turn out as you had hoped, Dr. Malchiodi suggested using the following techniques to “experience being nonjudgmental of yourself and to make authentic art, not what someone else wants or expects you to do.” Draw with your nondominant hand, letting the lines do as they will… or close your eyes and draw without looking at the paper, then see what image emerges… or draw with both hands at once to create mirror images or two completely different pictures. To “scribble-draw”: Tie a string to a stick, dip the string in paint and drag it around on paper until you see an image you like… then color that in. To “dance-draw”: Tape a large piece of craft paper to a wall, put on some music, take a felt-tip marker or chalk in hand and move to the music, transferring your movements to the paper with bold strokes. What you see is a reflection of who you are… and that’s art!