Hapless artist Kelly Bertrand takes a stab at art therapy – could it work for you too?
Let’s get this out of the way right now – Van Gogh, I am not.
While I might be good with a pen or a keyboard, my reserves of creativity firmly stop at the words stage. Art has always confused me – what is it supposed to beee? What are you supposed to dooooo?! And why are we doing it!?
Suffice to say I’ve never been one with a paintbrush – or patience, when it comes to it – so whipping out the box of crayons or the testpots of paint for enjoyment has never really occurred to me before.
Well, until I could feel the pangs anxiety that began to once again creep into the corners of my life, and I knew that I needed something to calm the hell down because 2023, amirite?!
Normally when I begin to feel anxiety encroaching I turn to the netball court – there’s truly nothing better than some forceful passing, a bit of sprinting and the all-powerful feeling of knowing you’ve outsmarted your opponent. But with two bung knees my first love isn’t an option right now.
So, this is how I found myself sprawled on the newspaper-covered floor of the kitchen on a Sunday afternoon surrounded by old bits of card, a few Resene testpots and the most minimal of clues as to what to do (ok fine there was also a glass of rosé) to try art therapy.
But after an hour or so of experimenting with colours, brushes, techniques and shapes, I was calm. More than calm. I was zen.
Art therapy – why it works
Of course, art as therapy is nothing new for most people, and studies have shown it can help with anxiety, depression and stress. Says Creative New Zealand, “The arts help us feel connected, see things from new perspectives, make sense of the world, feel good about where we live and find new inspiration.” But why does it work, even for the most non-arty folk amongst us?
A form of expression: It can be really hard to figure out why you’re feeling anxious or stressed sometimes – but this is where art can help. Being able to let go, free your mind and let the paintbrush or pencil do the work is a liberating feeling – and with no right or wrong way of expression, you might find you’re able to see how you truly feel reflected in your work. The art world is filled with metaphor and symbolism, but in a very personal and intimate way. Someone looking at your work probably won’t get what you really meant when you made that shape or picked that colour, but you do. The ‘no rules’ thing was especially quite fun – as a writer, you’re always bound by the rules of grammar, syntax and language which at times is a soothing thought, but not when you’re trying your best to get something out of your head that really doesn’t want to budge. A lot of people find therapy in writing and journaling, I am not one of them. While I adore writing, for me it’s work, not release. And as my paintbrush swirled over the piece of card in front of me I realised I was barely conscious of what it was doing; rather, my subconscious had taken over as my brain expressed what needed to be expressed.
Stress relief: As my brain did its thing I also realised that even in the first half an hour or so of painting, my stress levels had decreased and I was breathing a little deeper. I didn’t have space in my head for all the little worries or the never-ending to-do list; rather, I was purely focussed on the squiggles and patterns in front of me. It’s a kind of mindful creativity that doesn’t actually require thought, only instinct – a blessing if, like me, your brain is little busy right now. It was like giving my brain a mini-break and boy she was happy when I needed to re-engage her later on! I’d purposefully picked calming colours at the Resene ColorShop, and as I began my work I was drawn to the yellows, whites and neutrals – the colours of calm, optimism and happiness, a true reflection of what I was wanting to achieve.
Sense of achievement: Look, I’ll be the first person to tell you that the painting I created will never win any awards at an art show (although who the hell knows with those things right!?). But after 45 minutes or so of mucking around, painting over shapes and swirls that didn’t feel right and blending new shades of colours, I felt an immense sense of pride that I’d created something – kind of like when you bake a cake and it actually comes out like it’s supposed to. I could identify the parts that represented anxiety and the parts where I’d tried to represent solutions, optimism and joy which, when I looked at the full picture, gave me a renewed sense of happiness which REALLY helped when I realised I’d got splotches of yellow on the kitchen lino, but never mind (a drop cloth for next time, methinks!).
Did it work? Hell yeah, it worked. I felt like, for the first time in weeks, my brain had had a break. I felt lighter, happier and like I wanted to schedule in another art session soon. Trust me, I’m the last person who would have thought art would help a busy brain, but here we are!
Here’s the palette of new season colours I took inspiration from for my art therapy piece – I wanted to evoke feelings of happiness and positivity (yellows are the obvious choice!) but I’m usually such a sucker for a neutral, so I tempered some wild bright yellow swirls with Resene Light Fantastic with lots of splotches of Resene Athena and Resene Fluffy Duck. A shade of white – like Resene White Noise – is essential for chilling colours out, or for some white space if your artwork is looking a little busy.
Tips for you to try it too:
- As mentioned, invest in a drop cloth or something better than your local community newspaper for protection
- Head down to a Resene ColorShop and grab a few testpots to experiment with – my advice is to keep it simple and go with the colours you’re drawn to, or if you’re not sure, pick your favourite ones. A black and white is handy to darken or lighten shades, of if you’re a true Picasso, just grab them and the primary ones and do your own shades.
- Really romanticise your art time – grab your favourite beverage, put on your comfiest clothes and put on some music – Spotify has a few good ‘art therapy’ playlists, or just put on the music that matches the emotion you’re trying to convey.
- Don’t create for the sake of creating something ‘good’. The aim isn’t to make something that’ll look good framed, rather, create to feel. Trust me, my finished product isn’t on display on the fridge, but that wasn’t the point. Just go with it and see what you have at the end.
Colours to try: As mentioned, I have a limited knowledge of art but from my own personal experience, you should totally just go with the colours that feel the best for you, but if you’re wanting some guidance, here’s some colour theory to point you in the right direction:
This story is brought to you with the support of our pals at Resene