Art therapy is a form of therapy that encourages creativity and self-expression as vehicles to reduce stress, improve self-esteem, increase awareness and help remedy trauma. While many other forms of therapy depend on verbal language to express feelings and overcome personal obstacles, art therapy allows for other, more abstract forms of communication. This tactic makes room for elements of the subconscious that perhaps are not yet ready or able to be verbalized come to the surface.
You do not have to be an artist to enjoy the benefits of art therapy. In fact, most of the exercises rely not on the final product you create but on the therapeutic, meditative ritual of the creative process. If you're intrigued by the process of relaxation through artistic imagination, we've compiled a starter kit to get you on your way.
The following 10 suggestions are simple ways to explore your inner creative voice while turning off the negative influences that so often get in the way. They may not all work for you, but hopefully one or more of the following techniques will serve as the artistic equivalent of a long, hot bath.
1. Design a postcard you don't intend to send
Whether it's a love note to someone you're not ready to confess your feelings to, or an angry rant you know is better left unsaid, sometimes enumerating all the details helps deflate the issue at hand. While writing the text can be therapeutic in its own right, designing the postcard gives even more value to the object. It also allows you to activate different portions of your brain while relaxing in a manner similar to coloring in a coloring book. Once you toss that signed and sealed letter in the trash (or tuck it away in a drawer), you'll find its message has lost some of its power.
2. Cut and paste a painting to create a collage
Create a painting on a material like paper or cardboard. When you're finished, cut or tear it up. Then use the pieces as building blocks for a new artwork -- a collage. See how your original artwork transforms into something new and exciting, something unpredictable. This exercise illuminates the close proximity between creation and destruction, encouraging us to take risks to push ourselves creatively and in other aspects of life.
3. Build an altar to a loved one
Take inspiration from folk art and create an altar honoring a unique relationship between you and another person, living or not. Decorate the shrine with photographs, letters and relics of memorable times spent together, as well as new art objects you've created in their honor. Anything can become artistic material, from gifts you've exchanged to a candy wrapper you know your subject would love. Building a totem to another person awakens memories and creates a physical manifestation of a relationship that can provide comfort in tough times.
4. Draw in total darkness
So much of the stress we experience when making art comes from the judgments and criticism that seem unavoidable every step of the way. Try creating artwork in total darkness to make art free from that inner art critic inside your head. (Think of it as a form of blind contour drawing.) You're suddenly freed up to create lines, shapes and patterns simply because you feel like you should. When you turn back on the lights, we suspect you'll be surprised by what you find.
5. Watercolor your bodily state
Lie down and close your eyes. Visualize your body as you breathe in and out. Try to imagine your breath as a particular color as it enters your body, another color as it exits. What do you see? Draw an outline of a body on a large sheet of paper, and inside, create a watercolor based on your bodily state. Think about what these colors mean to you, where they are densest, where they are most opaque. Think of this as the most relaxing self-portrait you'll ever create.
6. Create a Zentangle-inspired creation
Zentangle is a drawing method invented by Rick Roberts and Maria Thomas, designed to make drawing meditative and accessible to all. To learn the official method you must be taught by a Zentangle Teacher, but you can recreate the basic idea on your own. Use a piece of paper, cut into a 3.5" square piece, and draw a freehand border around the edge in light pencil. Then use your pencil to draw a curved line or squiggle within the border, called a "string."
Now switch to a pen and begin drawing a "tangle," a series of patterns and shapes around your "string" and voila! You got yourself a Zentangle. The process is designed to encourage deliberate, ritual creation and allow room for human error -- no erasing, that's against the rules. Traditional Zentangles are always black and white but we fully support experimenting with color. The entire process shouldn't take more than 15 minutes, and can be repeated whenever you feel the urge. Keep some 3.5" squares handy so you can always create when inspiration strikes.
7. Produce a permission slip
Think of the societal and self-imposed pressures you feel on a day-to-day basis, the personal traits you see as faults, the natural slips you see as errors. Choose one of these things and give yourself, in ornamental detail, permission to do just that. Turning one simple defeat into an accomplishment can minimize feelings of self-hatred, allowing you to achieve more of your important goals. Remember, it's an art project, so make it pretty.
8. 'Write' a found poem
Don't consider yourself a poet? Let someone else do the hard part of coming up with the words by grabbing your material from old books, magazines, newspapers or even letters. Cut out words that jump out at or inspire you. Collage your found materials just as you would a visual collage. You can have a topic or story in mind at the beginning, or just get started and see where your word collaging takes you.
9. Craft a mark-making tool unique to you
Instead of spending the majority of your time on an actual painting, why not focus a little of that attention on crafting an alternative paintbrush all your own? You can make a mark-making tool out of nearly anything, whether it's a row of toothpicks (glued to a cardboard base) and dipped in paint, or a DIY paintbrush made from pom-poms and yarn. When you finally get around to actually making a piece with your new tool, you will have relinquished some of your artistic control to your distinct artistic medium, which, of course, is a work of art in itself.
10. Make a forgiveness box
If there is a certain person -- including yourself -- you don't want to harbor negative emotions toward any longer, try making him or her a forgiveness box. Decorate a small box with soothing images and words that can be either specific to an individual or catered to your desired inner state. You can write the person's name on a slip of paper and include it in the box if preferred, and the name can be removed and exchanged if needed. The act of making the box will bring up happy memories of whomever the box is for, as well as help you physically work toward a place of forgiveness.
For more enjoyable art techniques for non-artists, check out our childhood art techniques that adults should definitely revisit.