We asked some artists to share with us their incredible and inspirational stories to understand how art can help with mental health and well-being by not only focusing your mind on the ‘here and now’ but to give you that free, creative outlet allowing you to find some inner peace, if only for a few moments a day.
Below are some stories from different levels of artists, showing that anyone can use this media to express their feelings and help them through troubling times.
Family should come first in today’s materialistic world.
There is nothing more precious than those who live under the same roof, the blood and kin we know best.
As a married, middle-aged couple my wife and I were so relieved when after years of treatments and trying we were graced with a baby girl in 2012.
Now 7 and in the ‘20 questions a day’ phase she wants to know more about Dad’s side of the family and there-in lies the problem. I lost both my parents and all my grandparents by the time I was 25 (my mother having passed away when I was only 6 years old). This had the long-term effect of making me rather resilient and somewhat hardened towards longevity in many ways.
I used to occasionally become anxious when relatives met up or the ‘Wright family parties’ came along as I could only enthusiastically recite stories and memories I have of my own clan. She wasn’t therefore able to smell or feel the warmth of their hugs, laugh along with them or learn lots about these people from conversation. It was and still is sometimes raw and distressing for me.
Creativity in all its forms can build bridges over the chasms of self-consciousness we all may face and art possibly more than most provokes an immediate, truthful response from the onlooker.
My daughter and I discussed characteristics recalled from my childhood spent around these people with photos and letters, even some poetry they had left behind. To our great surprise it seems Dolly has nuances of theirs that have trickled down a couple of generations plus she also looks very much like my mother – who we named her after ‘Dolores’ (although we only found out later its translation in a Catholic context means Mary, Queen of Sorrows).
By drawing her from sneaky snaps or poses she puts on that show her persona I can attempt to convey these traits and passionately preserve that moment in time for her own kids maybe to see and share one day.
I actually feel a positive sense of accomplishment and wholeness with my wider family when I finish the pictures and Dolores loves showing these ‘quirky’ (as she calls them) portraits to her mates.
This particular drawing was undertaken with graphite powder, Derwent Graphic pencils and Natural Graphite sticks. It is called “The Shell-Dwellers Revenge”. We like to grow our own veg where possible in raised beds by my studio and so we charged Dolly when she was 4 with the task of removing anything that seemed to be eating them. This she performed with vigour most days and in the case of snails she took to despatching them in a number of gruesome ways. Dolores is always dishing out opinions, laughing and singing Katy Perry so loudly that her tonsils almost come into view, so this was my attempt to link the two as well as suspense and fun in the completed work.
P.S We did not ‘mash the mollusc’ in the drawing but simply transferred him to the front garden where he proceeded to eat our flowers instead.
5 Ways to Well Being Through Creativity
Urban Sketching on a busy location
Active – You are physically involved in the scene you are recording so you sometimes need to get up, move around and see things from different angles. Also you need toilet breaks and coffee breaks and even a cake break – so either way you are moving around. If it’s cold you need to jump around to keep warm and don’t forget to stretch off before you begin. You also need to get there. Fit.
Connect – You often go with other artists, either as part of an Urban Skecthing group, a workshop, a symposium or just a bunch of likeminded mates. You all draw and paint the world differently, but essentially you are doing exactly the same thing; carefully noticing what you see and recording it. This connects us to each other as it reinforces what we have in common. You then share sketches on social media so we can connect with others. What a wonderfully creative world we live in. Company.
Give Back – You are part of a very visual practise and have the opportunity to offer positive feedback all the time. You will also receive it. Everyone is at a different stage of their creative journey so there is no competition – we are all just trying to work our way to the back of the sketchbook and offering each other positive support, tips, hints and insights along the way. Reward.
Take Notice – Urban sketching offers the opportunity to really take notice of the world that surrounds us. So often we pass through with our heads buried in a screen. But with a pen and a piece of paper in your hand you can just stop, really slow down, and look and find the little details that really matter. A crack in a cobble or a satellite dish on a wall; something that takes time to be noticed, but when it does it feeds the soul. Discover.
Learn – You never stop learning. There’s always someone out there who can offer you advice and support. It moves you forward and gives a greater sense of achievement. You also learn from yourself by recognising internally the things you need to improve on – perspective, colour, tone, composition, whatever. Everyone needs to keep learning. You also learn about the location you are sketching in; the history, the culture and the people. Understanding.
“The powerful effects of art against mental health”
My name is Ivor Harrison, I run a review website where I test and demonstrate art supplies. I myself turned to art approximately three years ago, but I did so with the hope of finding something I very much needed.
I served in the British Army for 13 years, being a soldier was all I ever wanted to be, from a young boy in the 70’s, Action Man was my toy of choice. Aged 14, I signed up to join the Army when I turned 16 with my parents’ consent. I loved every single day I served in the Army; there were some really tough times, but the camaraderie within such a lifestyle always got us through.
Unfortunately I sustained a serious spinal injury, I crushed and shattered the base of my spine and as a result I was medically retired. I belonged to a front line combat elite Regiment and so I could no longer carry out my duties. The day I was told my fate, I started to fall into the deepest darkest hole known and was soon diagnosed with PTSD/Severe Clinical Depression. I knew that I would no longer be able to care and provide for my family, my beautiful wonderful wife married a fit and health soldier who could provide and protect her no matter what; all that was gone now and as far as I was concerned, the only way for my wife to move on and start over again, was for me to be gone. I unsuccessfully tried to take my life, which looking back now I am so happy it didn’t work, but at the time, it was most certainly not a cry for help.
Fast-forward to today, I can hand on my heart tell you that, besides my wonderful family and friends, art has saved my life. I appreciate that is a bold statement and I am sure some may wonder how a few coloured pencils and sketchpads can have such a profound effect on someone so desolate. I wish I could pin point why art and in particular for me, coloured pencils, had such a positive effect on me, but I can’t; all I can do is tell you what I think.
First of all, I want to make it clear, I am no mental health expert and if you feel you are suffering with this horrible and destructive condition, I would always advise to seek professional help first. After you have sought professional help, you can look at additional tools to help you deal with mental health, such as art.
The reason I personally think art has such an uplifting effect on people in general, but in particular those of us suffering with mental health issues is actually quite simple. A long time ago, I read an article that explained the aspects of addiction in gamblers, in particular slot machines in casinos and amusement arcades. They are designed with flashing colourful lights on purpose, the colour plays on the human endorphins, producing a high which makes people want to play and enjoy playing slot machines. Of course gambling has its own issues but I feel the same theory is why art has such a positive effect on the human brain. One of the happiest times in the day for me is when I am sat on my desk, get out my gorgeous sets of Derwent Lightfast, Artists, Procolour and Coloursoft pencils. When I am sat surrounded by all those gorgeous colours, I am fulfilled, euphoric, inspired and almost taken to a higher level of consciousness on the creative plain. One other aspect of art that has seriously helped me is the absolutely amazing and wonderful community.
Depression is such a horrible condition, no one is immune, depression does not discriminate – the powerful, the not so powerful, the rich, the poor, the famous, the average man or women on the street, depression can hit us all at any time. Perhaps most frightening, is the knowledge that more and more of our young teenagers are also suffering with depression, with so many of them taking their own lives. Depression is such a selfish destructive condition, not only does the person with depression suffer, but everyone who loves that person suffers; they watch their loved one change beyond recognition and mentally drop away from them.
I am so thankful to Derwent for bringing a spotlight onto this terrible condition and I feel so honoured that Derwent asked me to contribute to their campaign.
“My studio is my refuge, my place of relaxation and harmony. Here, at least, I have some measure of control”
Life can be difficult and, like everyone else, I have had my fair share of problems. Art helps me to cope. It gives me a sense of permanence and stability in the maelstrom of constant change. It anchors me to things that I like, aspects of the world that inspire me and give me pleasure, such as nature, travel, beautiful or meaningful objects and, above all, the glory of colour.
Whilst at work I am directed by others and in the wider world there is much threat, bleakness and disorder, which, at times, cause me to despair. My studio is my refuge, my place of relaxation and harmony. Here, at least, I have some measure of control. A stream of micro decisions flit through my consciousness. Should I move that over here? What colours do I need to mix together? I am focused; all the difficulties are temporarily suspended. I am in the moment. Making art is for me an act of mindfulness, especially when I am “in the groove”. At the very least it is a distraction from the anxieties that assail me. At best, there is a sense of achievement and satisfaction when the project is going well, and the encouragement of others nurtures my fragile self-esteem.
That said, I am largely dissatisfied with my results. I am challenged. I fail. I compare myself with others and know my inadequacies. And yet, I am driven to seek improvement. Even when there are inevitable frustrations, I will mull over how to resolve them. There is always tomorrow, the next time and, once again, I can experience the excitement of planning a new picture. There is such promise in the smell of paint or the feel of a pencil in the hand.
I have a sense of being on an intensely personal journey. I am developing as a human being and as an artist, connected to all the other people who are, or who have been, on the same kind of journey. If nothing else, creating a piece of art is, fundamentally, a lovely, positive thing to do; it can be a vehicle for looking at the world in a different way and a source of joy.
“It was complete therapy and allowed me to refocus my mind at a difficult time in my life”
Creating art means becoming lost in a world that is completely your own and one you can control. In such an instantaneous world, it feels very therapeutic to sit down, pick up the pencils and draw. This simple process allows our minds to slow down and observe our current surroundings.
Art was there for me at a time when I most needed it. After finding myself jobless with no plan for the first time in my life, I dusted off my pencils and began drawing to pass the time. I quickly realised that I am inspired the most by animals and the natural world so this subject began featuring in all the pieces I created. It was complete therapy and allowed me to refocus my mind at a difficult time in my life.
After enjoying myself so much and adapting to this new mental state of well-being through art, I decided there was nothing else I wanted to do more so made it into a career. Four years on and I feel more content and happy with my life than I have ever been.
It’s amazing what the simple act of picking up a few pencils can do.
“Art is a healthy escape!”
This may well be the most self indulgent thing you read today, but it is honest.
Remember when you were a kid, peering over into your neighbour’s garden? What wonders exist in those unchartered lands?? Out of bounds, but damn, so exciting! What did curiosity do to the cat?
As a creative you are forever tiptoeing on the fence, but on one side is reality and the other is unknown. In order to tap your imagination you have to rely on reality for your weigh points, or else you can get very lost. It’s not surprising that so many creative people struggle with mental health issues.
It is exciting though. Scaling fences and bringing back something new from beyond. When the storm clouds roll in I hot-foot it back to the other side and shelter beneath an umbrella of coping mechanisms I’ve foraged over the years. Most days the clouds part as quickly as they form, but sometimes they linger. During extended periods of darkness I can feel crippled with anxiety, actively avoiding people in public for fear of not being able to cope with a simple conversation. Even picking up the phone can feel like an impossible task.
…Art has always been an escape for me. A welcome escape. A healing one, even. I don’t think I was a prodigy of any sort…I just drew and painted more than anyone I knew and eventually got pretty good. What is unique to everyone, however, is a creative licence…
…I have rarely talked about my mental health struggles with friends, let alone in public… I don’t like to burden those close to me with added problems, rather it’s in my nature to want to help them instead…I know I am too sensitive and I am working on it. No matter what, you can’t please everyone, and that’s OK. The best thing you can do is be authentic. Really that should be the easiest path, but fear of judgment can very easily knock you off track. Instagram filters only help to mask those insecurities.
Everyone has mental heath, just like we have physical health. Happiness is cyclical, and what goes up must come down. Naturally we want to share the highlights on social, but the trouble is some people read that as an expectation to be happy all the time, which is not sustainable. I don’t get jealous when I see posts of others enjoying the beach or on safari. I celebrate it!
Social media doesn’t affect my mental health directly, but it takes a lot of time away from the therapy, which is drawing. One spends an awful lot of time speculating when you’re self employed. Sometimes it pays off, but a lot of the time it doesn’t…
Read more on Martin’s blog: https://avelingartworks.com/blogs/news/me-myself-and-mart
Facebook handle: @shaydacampbell
“Art had given me so much, it seemed silly and unfair that it was somehow ‘off limits’ to so many”
Art has always been a positive and grounding force in my life. As a child I loved to draw and paint, I could sit for hours with my crayons and the scrap computer paper that my dad brought home from his office. I suppose I showed a natural talent for the arts, so I was encouraged and applauded. By the time I was in highschool, an afternoon of drawing (pencil sketching was my favourite back then) was how I spent many weekends and evenings. When I felt confused or stressed in other areas of my life (hello, all of highschool!) I could turn to my drawing practice as a source of confidence and as a way to unwind. I would draw for hours, letting my thoughts wander and my body relax.
When I was in my twenties and living alone in a big city for the first time, art was a way to keep busy when I was lonely. I had a bachelor apartment with no tv, and this was in the days before Netflix, YouTube and most social media. It seems strange to think about now, but even with WiFi, I had no way of entertaining myself online. So I spent my extra hours over the course of one long winter drawing by my fireplace. Art didn’t make everything in my life better back then, but it was my solace when I was just getting my footing in the adult world.
By the time I was in my thirties, art and creativity had become a large part of my identity. I wasn’t working in a creative field, but at my serving job I was the person who ‘did the chalkboards’, I made all my greeting cards by hand (cards are just so expensive!), and I turned to painting and drawing as a way to relax and enjoy my alone time. I felt lucky to have this positive force in my life.
And that was when I started noticing that so many of the women in my life didn’t have a creative outlet of their own. Not only did they not have one, it seemed to me that they didn’t feel worthy of one. Drawing or even doodling wasn’t for them because they weren’t good at it (or had been told they weren’t good at it). Art had given me so much, it seemed silly and unfair that it was somehow ‘off limits’ to so many.
So when I started my YouTube channel and began making videos about watercolor painting, drawing and journaling, I wanted to be less of a teacher and more of an encourager. I can’t say I always had a clear concept behind the channel (in those first days I had no idea what I was doing and was just struggling to put out a video each week!) But as the brand identity crystallized over the first years, I knew that for me, the most important thing was simply to encourage other women towards creative pursuits. Because an afternoon of doodling can be mediation; journaling can be organization and inspiration; and painting can be wonderful freedom.
I was good at drawing so I was encouraged to stick with it, and luckily I did, because through the years art has been my daily moments of mindfulness, my solace, and so much more. And now my message and my brand is this: Creativity is play, anyone can do it!
“Floral Painting: Florals my go-to subject matter! I also love pressing and drying flowers; painting my ‘collections’ is a great way to stop, take a moment and enjoy the time of year or the changing season.”
“Being able to produce my art gives me a sense of enormous well-being as it fulfils who I am”
Art for me has been a very personal and rewarding journey. I guess this is the same for all artists each experiencing and exploring their own personal pathways.
For me whether it is a piece I am undertaking studying nature or one of my ‘Comedy Classic’ large group portraits, the time to stop and look for details, the satisfaction of putting pencil to paper and watching the image grow with every line and mark made. Stopping looking, appreciating colours, tones, details, shapes is immensely satisfying. The joy of ‘getting creative’ is so therapeutic and greatly enhances my well-being. It takes me away to a special place away from the hustle and bustle of city life.
The recent growth of collaborative arts and participation arts are found to bring out the best for each participant and contribute to good mental health and well-being. The joined up aspects can be supportive for those who have become isolated and can aid social interaction, the work they produce is enjoyed by the community and aids community cohesion. Equally, solitary art is aiding well-being, in recent years there has been a massive increase in people taking up arts and crafts, and the sales of colouring books for adults have seen a considerable increase in sales. With little prior art experience or skills, colouring books help people invest time and concentration, so providing a relief from life’s stresses and a respite from negative issues in their lives at that time.
So, for me my personal motivation is purely that art is embedded into me, as much part of me as the colour of my eyes, it’s just part of me, so being able to produce my art gives me a sense of enormous well-being as it fulfils who I am.
Research has found, ‘Even minimal creative activity boosts well-being*’. A study of 50,000 people found that regardless of skill level, taking part in activities like painting, pottery or music helps people manage their emotions, build confidence and explore solutions to problems. This is certainly something I subscribe to!“
*(Arts Professional (May 2010) ‘Even Minimal creative activity boost well-being’ research finds [online] Available from: https://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/news/even-minimal-creative-activity-boosts-wellbeing-research-finds [accessed 25th August 2019] )
“Relaxation through focus is the mindfulness element”
As a Certified Zentangle teacher, my most important point of instruction is the awareness of concentration in the activity of drawing repetitive patterns.
Relaxation through focus is the mindfulness element. I have lead classes where I‘ve had over 100 people in a room who were concentrating on a drawing pattern and it was so quiet you could literally hear a pin drop.
That is the sound of a class full of people finding that small bastion of clarity and quiet in their minds as they focus closely on the next stroke of the pen. It is a place of restoration and healing where minds can shed the stresses of daily life. This place can be found in different ways such as concentration on art making, focus on one’s immediate surroundings and thoughts, or meditation. This is mindfulness.
A big thank you to all the artists who shared their stories and tips on how they manage to deal with the stresses of daily life and mental health through art and creative outlets. We hope their words have inspired you to take even just 10 minutes out of your day to be creative, forget about the world outside and focus on the now.
To share your own story, please join our Facebook group – the Art of Wellness where you can connect with other artists sharing their stories and their work.
Please seek professional help from places such as Mind if you are struggling with your mental health.