Without Emotions, Art is Just a Picture

Art therapy is just art unless you are allowing yourself to truly integrate your emotions into your art. Hopefully, you have been reading this blog with the intent of exploring your emotions through art. Sometimes this can be complicated because you may have subconsciously created something that may be hard for you to comprehend. So you should always take time to reflect on what you have created.

Upon reflection, you may find that your creation has a pretty straight-forward meaning, dominated by one emotion. Or you may have found that you created something just to relax through the process of creating it. Some pieces may have a more complex meaning that you must discover.

This is the stage of art therapy that is most helpful to have assistance from an art therapist. However, you can deduce some things on your own. First, consider how you felt while creating the piece: was there a certain emotion or set of emotions that you felt while you worked on it?

Most art has symbolism built into it. Art created for a therapeutic value is no exception. If you look hard at your art, you may find that you have integrated symbols into the images and colors that you have chosen. These symbols are extremely important, but can be hard to see easily. Some symbols are universal, but others are difficult to interpret because only you can see what they mean. Creating a personal color wheel can be extremely helpful in this step! Instructions can be found here.

Some other questions to consider while looking at your art:

  • What did you like most about the picture?
  • Did something take up a disproportionate amount of space in the picture?
  • Is there one color that you used more than others? What does that color mean to you?
  • What do you feel when you look at your picture? Maybe you should take a day to consider this question after some time away from the piece.
  • Is there a part that you are most drawn to? Focus on the symbolism that this particular piece may have for you?

These suggestions are in no way a replacement for a certified art therapist, but they are a good starting point. If you have started thinking that you may want to consider working diligently with an art therapist, there are many places that utilize art therapy in your area. A quick Google search is sure to pull up some qualified therapists in your area. If you do not feel like putting out the money for individual art therapy, there are many groups as well.

If you do not feel comfortable working with an art therapist and you wish to continue working on your own, you should continue to diligently keep an art journal. Good luck my friends!


“What’s On Your Mind Today?”

Have you ever had a moment of perfect clarity? A moment that stops you in your tracks and makes you think that you might be either crazy or just stuck in a situation that isn’t good for you? Sadly, I had that moment tonight.

This semester I’ve pulled many all nighters. I can’t imagine my life without caffeine and I’ve officially saved the numbers of anywhere that will deliver food after midnight into my favorite contacts. None of this seemed horribly concerning until I stopped to think about what I’m doing to my body as I was working in my art journal. The realization of these things was probably aided by the fact that I was journaling at 4 o’clock in the morning as a break from studying.

I came across this great art therapy directive that takes a whole new spin on the general journal prompt “What’s on your mind today?” Instead of beginning with an intimidating blank space, start with a silhouette. I would have loved to use my own silhouette, but extra time is scarce in my life lately, so I copied one from the internet.


A Less Intimidating Canvas

With my question in mind I began to draw in my favorite colorful Sharpies. As I filled in the space, I began to recognize how I was feeling about everything I would put down. 


What’s On My Mind Today

It wouldn’t take an expert to tell you that I was overwhelmed, but seeing my concerns on paper made me realize the extent to which I was overwhelmed. I am concerned about my family, my grades, my own physical well being, and my faith in God. All of these concerns could be manageable, but together they leave my mind a jumbled mess. As I kept drawing, my picture of myself began to transform into a realization about what I need and what I am putting out into the world. I am so overloaded with stress that I have been pushing it onto those around me, which has been negatively affecting my relationships.

Seeing my own thoughts on paper made me realize that I can’t continue living as I am. I need to make a change. And I need sleep. Oh goodness gracious do I need sleep.

So what can you realize? Begin with a silhouette on a piece of paper. You can trace your own silhouette or copy one from the internet. Then sit in a calm, quiet place and begin to write and draw out how you are feeling. Let yourself freely draw and worry about interpreting it after you finish.

Once you finish, consider your own use of color, words, symbols, and repeating themes. Did you place things in a certain way that is important to you? Is there something that keeps coming up? How do the things you have drawn affect your life? Maybe you’ll have a moment of clarity like me and realize some changes that need to be made in your life. Good luck!


Zentangles are fun to create drawings that consist of simple, repetitive patterns that combine to create beautiful images. They are made using a single black ink pen so they are ideal for the beginner. They can be done as simply a fun project or they can be used as an art therapy directive.

Creating a zentangle is simple. You begin with a 3.5 in x 3.5 in square piece of paper and a black ink pen. Then you just begin to draw. Relax your mind and let yourself fill the page with simple designs that repeat over and over again to create an image. Try not to have a final image in mind when you begin drawing or you might alter your methods. Think of these small drawing as a process similar to the mandala creation.

You get the most therapeutic value out of it if you relax and let your subconscious guide your process. Many art therapists suggest meditating prior to beginning to draw, which I found extremely helpful, particularly in my second attempt. Refer back to the meditation methods mentioned in my Mandala article if you are having trouble silencing your conscious thoughts.


My First Zentangle!

My first attempt at a zentangle took my about 25 – 30 minutes. I kept getting stuck when I would try to think of patterns to include. My brain doesn’t think well in terms of geometric shapes, so this was hard for me. As most people may age tend to do, I turned to the internet for inspiration and advice. The internet prevailed yet again and I found these pattern quilts by The Lonely Maiden:

zentangle_pattern_quilt_1_by_thelonelymaiden-d65iuir zentangle_pattern_quilt_2_by_thelonelymaiden-d65iutb

Each little section of the quilt has a different unique pattern, which is pretty neat if you get stuck and can’t figure out a new design to use. I utilized some of these designs in my second attempt at this. Many people use the zentangle method to fill in different animals. This doesn’t quite match the original intention of freeing your mind and relaxing it, but it is very fun! 

I used this as an opportunity to consider what I would want my spirit animal to be by considering what traits I value most. Loyalty? Like the four-legged friend laying on my feet as I draw? Ferocity? Like the lion who stalks the land? Maybe cleverness? Like the stereotypical fox? After some internal debate, I settled on family values, like the elephants that have become my favorite animals, and now my spirit animals I suppose.


My Spirit Animal Zentangle

Elephants have intricate social groups, particularly among the females, who are often very close in the wild. These majestic creatures value their family groups so much that they even mourn the death of their loved ones by returning to the “burial site” (if you can call it that) and touching the bones of their fallen comrades in remembrance. I value my family more than anything in the world, so I think an elephant is a very fitting spirit animal for me.

I have had a particularly rough semester, so being able to include relaxing zentangles in my art journal is a great way to release some stress that seems to be continuously piling onto my shoulders. They are very therapeutic for me at this time in my life.

If you’re like me and you think that this is an awesome process, look into these websites and books for more information on creating really beautiful, unique zentangles!

  • Linda Farmer has a great how-to style page with sass.
  • The Ridgewood Centre Wellness Group has a great page that really talks about the therapeutic aspect.
  • Zentangle Basics is a short pdf book that covers the basics of creating common patterns.
  • If you have time and $15 or so bucks to spare, check out your local Barnes and Noble for books for beginners; they walk you through different processes, give you inspiration, and some have spaces for you to work on a regular basis. I recommend this since the internet can have overwhelming amounts of information.

Dreamcatchers to Absorb Negative Thoughts

Dream catchers have a long history in Native American tribes as devices that can capture the negative dreams that come at night. According to legend, the dream catcher would allow positive dreams to slip through the whole in the center and gently flow along the feathers to be caught by the mind of the sleeper below, but the negative dreams would get caught up in the web around the sides. The negative dreams would be stuck in the web until the morning sun came by to burn them up.

Dream catchers are not just used to prevent negative dreams. Creating them can be fun and beneficial to realizing one’s dreams. I love this blog post by Jas Milam, MAAT (Masters in Art and Art Therapy), because it describes the therapeutic value of dream catchers so well! It’s amazing what kinds of revelations can be made through the creation of a simple dream catcher.

So how would you go about making a dream catcher? Well, you will probably need to head over to your local crafts store for the following:

  • A metal hoop (any size you want)
  • Suede or leather string (some stores call it a buckskin thong)
  • A thinner string
  • Feathers and decorative beads (make sure the string you purchased will string through your beads)

Once you have all of those things, start by wrapping the hoop in the suede string in the following pattern. As you continue around your hoop, continue to add small amounts of glue to the side of the suede that will touch the hoop. I found it helpful to leave some string at the top of my dreamcatcher to create a loop so I can hang it easily.


How to Wrap the Hoop

Once you have a hoop covered in suede string, you can begin creating the web in the center. This is done using a length of thinner string wrapped around the suede covered hoop. Creating the web is simple. You just consistently repeat the same pattern. You loop the string around the outside of the hoop then tuck the string behind the original string. Then repeat this pattern all the way around the hoop. Do this very loosely! You will have a chance to tighten up the web later on.


How to Begin the Web

This pattern continues on to the inner loops to create a full web pattern. When I was making mine, I made the mistake of pulling the string too tight as I went and I ended up having to undo my web several times before I finally figured out how to create a good web. Don’t get frustrated if you pull too tightly or not enough, you can always try again! If you would like, you can add various beads inside of your web by simply stringing them over your string and continuing the pattern as shown below.


How to Add Beads to the Web

Once you have completed the web, you can add feathers to the bottom or the sides, wherever you would like. To add fathers, take a section of suede string and fold it into a U-shape. Place the U section of the string next to your hoop, then string the free ends around the hoop and through the U section and pull tight. Now you can add feathers and beads to the free ends to create a beautiful dream catcher.

Creating a dream catcher is a really entertaining process! It may take some time, but it is fun and can be very beneficial.  You might find the process as a metaphor for achieving your dreams: you may have to try several times and alter your methods before you create a dream catcher that you can be proud of. So don’t give up if you have a rough time of it at first. Keep at it until you’re proud of your beautiful creation!


My Own Dream Catchers

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things…

Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles with warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things

We all have things that make us happy. It may not be copper kettles, as it is for Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, but we all have something that makes us really happy. Sometimes just thinking about the things that make you happy is enough to lift your mood.

However, sometimes it’s hard to recall all of the things that make you happy when you’re having a particularly rough day.  On those days, it’s nice to have a reminder of the good things in life. This is where art can work as a reminder.

Lately, I have been working on a book of pictures, drawings, cut outs from magazines, and quotes. It’s a slow process because I haven’t had much time lately, but it has been a good experience. Whenever I have a rough day, I can just pull it out and focus on the things that make me happiest.

My book is similar to an art journal, but it only includes things that I love. I included pictures of my family, my friends, my pets, places that make me happy. Some pages are just catalogued memories that make me particularly happy, or quotes that mean something special to me.

If you are creating your own book, consider including…

  • Pictures of family and friends that you love
  • Pictures of places that have special significance to you
  • Quotes that mean something to you
  • Use colors that make you feel particularly happy or relaxed
  • Magazine cut outs (or prints from the internet) of things that make you smile
  • Pictures of vacations that you have taken where you really enjoyed yourself

Use this book as a way to explore different artistic mediums. Use different paints, pastels, photo transfers, anything you can think of. Definitely layer these elements to give your book a new layer of fun.

Piecing Together a Picture of Your Life

Sometimes the act of painting or drawing can be fun, but other times it can be a daunting task. Even I feel like I’m not “good enough” sometimes to draw what I am seeing in my mind, so I’ll get overwhelmed and frustrated. I know I can’t be the only one to doubt my art abilities and wish I could just borrow someone else’s abilities for a day.

Borrowing someone else’s work is the beauty of collage. Creating a collage can be fun and simple. A collage is a collection of words and images that creates a larger picture. This picture can express emotions, goals, personal perceptions, ideals, or tell a story about an event.

I found a blog post on Art Therapy Spot about creating collages that I particularly loved because it emphasizes the importance of free association when creating collages. Using free association really makes the experience fun and helpful.

One of my favorite ways to use collage in an art therapy sense is called a “vision board”. Vision boards are a collage (often on a poster board) that acts as a visual representation of what you envision for your future; including goals, dreams, things you want to work towards, and parts of life that you want to put more emphasis on in the future. Vision boards can represent any time frame. Some people create vision boards for the upcoming year, others create vision boards that represent the future as a whole.

I recently convinced my roommate to join me in creating vision boards and we had a really fun time of it! We had huge stacks of magazines scattered around the apartment, so we finally put them to good use.

Going through the magazines took forever! If you are planning on making collages a regular part of your art therapy routine, I would suggest keeping a collection of pre-cut images and phrases that can be used in a wide variety of ways. This would cut down on the exhausting amount of time spent cutting prior to creating a collage.

I have trouble planning too far into the future, so I chose to create a vision board for the next year. As I was beginning to glue down my images and phrases, there were two questions circling my mind: What do you want to achieve in the next year? Which of these goals is the most important to you?


My Vision Board for 2014-2015!

The process of creating a vision board was a fun experience, particularly because I was able to do it with my best friend. It was great to think about what I want to make happen in the next year. Creating a vision board allowed me to give myself permission to dream without considering every aspect of my achieving those dreams.

My roommate and I both hung the final products in our rooms as a nice reminder of what we want to accomplish in our lives. As an added bonus, it filled in some very empty space on our walls.

Colorful Creations

As human beings, we live in a world saturated with color. While we may have a limited range of vision according to then broad electromagnetic spectrum, we can still see a wide varieties of colors. We often choose to allow these colors saturate our lives. We paint our walls and our nails. We choose to have colorful cases for otherwise bland electronic devices. We paint with a wide variety of colorful paints.

But why do we do we choose the colors we do?

Think about the color of your bedroom: why did you choose it? Did it invoke any emotions or memories?

We tend to associate colors with meanings, whether we realize it or not. As we experience different things in life, we begin forming color connotations. These connotations definitely differ from person to person, even culture to culture. For example, black is associated with death and mourning in many Western cultures, but Chinese and Hindi cultures associate white with death.

Art therapy can really reflect different emotions through symbols that may be meaningful to only the individual. Color can be a huge symbol in this regard.

In order to effectively view our art as therapy, we have to understand the meanings that we put into it, intentionally or unintentionally. For example, my mandala had a large section that was colored various shades of pink. For most people, this symbolizes femininity or beauty, but I view pink as a shallow color that expresses incomplete happiness. This interpretation of color meant a lot to me in understanding my own artwork.

If you are attempting to do art therapy by yourself, you will need to think about what different colors mean to you. A great way to do this is by creating a Color Wheel of Emotions.

A color wheel is a simple idea that is used to educate children about how colors can be mixed. Think about using a color wheel of emotions to educate yourself about the emotional associations you have with color.

To begin, draw a circle and split it into 6 to 8 different parts. These parts can be equal or not, that’s entirely up to you!

Think really hard about what emotions different colors bring to you. Does red make you angry or happy? Does orange make you think of an event in your life that makes you peaceful? Fill in the sections of your wheel with the colors and include the emotions or memories you associate with that color. (This would be a particularly cool tool to include in your art journal!)

There are many fun variations of the color wheel of emotion. Carolyn Mehlomakulu’s article “Color Your Feelings: Art Therapy Intervention” has a great explanation of how-to create a good color wheel. She is a licensed therapist, so it is particularly helpful!

If you can’t think of any associations for a certain color, try this article. It includes a list of possible associations and even has some explanations of the colors in various cultures.

Starting an Art Journal

Journaling is a great way to express emotions that are too difficult or too personal to show the world. It’s also a way to keep track of your life: the daily events, the emotions that come and go with each day, the changes that occur as you grow. Life is a process worth remembering, but our brains can only hold so much at a time.

Journaling can go beyond just recording what needs to be recorded. Journaling can help you work through difficult emotions as well. Keeping an art journal can allow you to work through your emotions while creating something that can put your mind at ease.

So how do you start? You get yourself a beautiful journal! 

You can use anything as a journal; you can use a composition book, a sketchbook, an ornate journal, or you can even create your own journal.

This woman has done amazing things with a plain old ruled composition book! Go check out her page to get some great ideas for creating a journal out of a 99 cent composition book.

Creating an Art Journal from a Composition Book

Altering a book is another way that you can create your own art journal. You simply choose a book and create your own journal on top of the words written in the pages. Some journals even incorporate the author’s original words into their journaling through the use of blackout poems, a cool technique where you find words on the page and black out everything else, leaving a jumble of words that can be read together to make a poem or a story.

Your alterations can be very simplistic…


A Simplistic Altered Book Page

Or very extravagant…


A Very Ornate Example of an Altered Book

Altered books can be great ways to explore a more creative side of journaling.

So now you have a wonderful blank slate, but what do you fill it with?

Art journals are not solely used for therapeutic purposes. Some art journals are used to remember a vacation; others are used to remember the mundane things of daily life in a more exciting way. If you want to get the most therapeutic value from the art journal, you should push yourself to fill the pages with emotions, feelings you may or may not understand, and issues you cannot seem to process other ways. 

There are a lot of great prompts out there on the internet that can give you direction, but a general list always helps as starting point:

  • How are you feeling today? (I know this is general, but it’s usually a really good starting point!)
  • Imagine your inner critic as a monster. What does he or she look like?
  • Think of a few of your core beliefs and create pages for them.
  • Think back to a time when you were going through something very difficult and how you got through it.
  • Imagine the person you want to be and create a page about what makes that person unique.
  • Think about your favorite place. Why is it your favorite? What does it look like? How does it make you feel?
  • If you could give advice to your younger self, what advice would you give? And why?
  • Journal about a big change that occurred or is occurring in your life. Try to include your emotions about the change.
  • Pick one insecurity you have and journal about it.

Art journals can be created in any manner you would like, but mixed media journaling is the most common and the most fun! These websites have great ideas about how to layer multiple medias into one journal.

Now go get yourself a journal and start creating!

The Spiritual Circle

“Mandala” is the Sanskrit word for circle. Some translate it to “spiritual circle”. It is generally used to represent a spiritual wholeness or a representation of the universe. Mandalas are often circles filled with a repeating pattern.

Mandalas have had a long history. They have been used in many cultures to represent a spiritual wholeness. Tibetan monks used to create huge mandalas out of sand and precious stones. After taking days or weeks to complete them, the monks would sweep up the whole design and dump the pieces into the closest body of water as a representation of the circle of life. The Navajo Indians had a similar practice, despite the fact that they had never seen the mandalas that the monks created.

Mandalas have showed up all over the world in a variety of ways, but they all represent the same general concept: Mandalas are circles that represent the individual or group of individuals creating it, or the universe as seen by those individuals. 

Using this concept, mandalas can be very revealing when used for art therapy. The first step in creating a mandala is to meditate, clearing your mind of all things. Meditation seemed pretty far fetched to me when I decided to start my own mandala, but I found a great website that taught me how to meditate properly. This technique, called the Vairochana’s posture, helped me relax enough to clear my mind before starting to draw.

Before I began meditating, I drew a circle on a piece of paper. If you are anything like me at drawing circles, you will probably want a compass. Or else you will end up with something more reminiscent of an egg, or an alien head, than a circle. After I had a perfectly assisted circle, I split it up into 8 pieces because I had seen so many mandalas with repetitive patterns, usually in 6-8 generally sections.


Begin with a Circle Divided into 8 Sections

Clearing my mind completely took me half an hour in a dark room. It probably wouldn’t have taken so long if my adorable, and slightly needy, pup hadn’t been knocking her thick head against my door for the first 20 minutes.  Once I was completely cleared, drawing took over. Meditating lowered my heart rate significantly and drawing seemed to keep it down significantly.

My reduced heart rate didn’t seem to be enough to completely keep my mind clear through the process. All of the studying that I’ve been doing on the nervous system kept popping up in my head. Quite honestly, I’m surprised that I didn’t start drawing neuronal processes in the middle of my mandala.

When attempting your own mandala, I would recommend continuing to focus on only your breathing and the muscle movements in your hands as you draw. If you’re like me and you start wondering exactly which muscles you are using to move your hand, just stop! It ruins the meditation and then you have to start all over again, which is extraordinarily frustrating.

I personally like to begin drawing everything in pencil and then filling it in like a coloring book, but most people just go right in with color. If you are a dive into color type, feel free to just start with whatever paint, crayon, or marker you prefer! And more power to ya!


The Basic Outline of the Mandala

Once I finished my basic sketch, I began filling it all in with color. Color can be an important symbol, so make sure to let your mind run free and choose colors without thinking. You should still be in a relatively meditative place here, so just relax and do what feels right in the moment!


The Final Stage of Coloring

Completing your mandala should feel good! Look at what you created! Go you! Now you get to interpret it.


My Completed Mandala!

There is no book to tell you exactly what your mandala means because only you can look at your mandala and say what it means in your life. Each person interprets colors and symbols just a little bit differently. That’s what makes each person so unique and wonderful!

However, I did find a great site, called Creative Counseling 101, that gave me some great questions to ask while interpreting my mandala:

  1. Are there any repeating patterns in my mandala?
  2. Does anything represent my past or my future?
  3. Do I see anything that represents something about my life that needs attention?
  4. Do I see anything that represents something about my life that is competing for attention?
  5. Do I see anything negative? Is there anything I drew that I am blocking?
  6. Do I see anything that represents pain or trauma?
  7. Do I see any hopes or dreams?
  8. Do the colors I chose mean anything important to me?
  9. Are there any unique parts that stand out as important?
  10. Does my mandala tell a story?
  11. Is there an overall “big picture” feeling about the mandala?

With these questions in mind, I looked at my own mandala. The fact that I chose to use a lot of colors of pink immediately stood out to me. I view pink as a superficial color, so it’s odd that I would choose to use so much. Then I noticed the stormy clouds and dark skies on the outside edge. These darker areas are very separated from the rest of the circle, which looks very bright and natural. Overall, it looks like the center circle is a small protected area set away from the dark skies on the outside. This is pretty representative of my life. In the past few months I feel like I have carefully constructed my own little world by cutting out negative people and things out. My mandala is very representative of this stage of my life, not that I could’ve consciously thought about that when I was drawing. 

Art Therapy to Increase Self-Awareness

I came across this art therapy lesson plan the other day and found it to be fascinating! It discusses the generals of art therapy as a field and discusses various techniques. If you want a good general overview of art therapy, definitely look at this site!

The lesson plan also suggested some exercises that may be useful. The exercises are designed for art therapists to use with their clients, particularly in group settings, but the exercises can be used in a self-guided manner as well.

I decided to try my hand at the “Draw Yourself as an Animal” exercise.

I had a particularly challenging internship over the past summer where I helped care for several African elephants and white rhinos. They were amazing creatures, particularly the elephants. I absolutely adored their family structures. Elephants are extremely emotional, caring creatures who express love easily with other elephants in their social group.

I like to think of myself as a very caring person, so I chose an elephant to be my personality projection. In addition to the personality projection concept, I integrated the family sculpture technique that I came across in my research last week. This technique draws on how a person feels about his or her place in the family structure.


Watercolors and pen

I created the background of the image using watercolors on watercolor specific paper. Watercolors can be really fun to paint with. You can change the amount of water to change the hues, which makes them really great for sunsets (or sunrises if you’re a morning person, which I am definitely not! The only sunrises I see are when I’m staying up from the night before). Then I drew the elephants in with a Sharpie, which was trashed afterwards. I learned that watercolor paper is extremely rough on a Sharpie. RIP my dear drawing implement.

When I was painting this I definitely realized some things about how I was feeling about myself. I drew myself as a baby elephant, despite the fact that I am a legal adult. I keep trying to think of myself as an adult, but at the end of the day I still feel like a little girl trying to walk around in her mother’s heels.

I also look like I am falling behind my family, which is very fitting based on how I have been feeling lately. I adore my family, but lately I feel as if I am constantly running to catch up and stay connected while I’m attending college. This is an extremely upsetting for me, but I didn’t quite realize how disconnected I felt until I began trying to put my feelings into an image.

And that is the beauty of using art to work through emotions. I found out things I didn’t even realize about myself as I tried to draw myself on paper.