The Language of Art

by Amber Goodloe, LPC

Pablo Picasso said, “painting is just another way of keeping a diary” and I love this.  So often when we think of expressing our emotions, or “getting things off our chest” we think of using words – talking to a friend, writing in a journal, praying, etc.  But sometimes words fail us, or maybe we just aren’t good with words, and we need another way to process all that’s going on.  This is where “art” can be an incredible tool.  Now, how many of you see the word “art” and immediately cringe or are tempted tune out assuming that this doesn’t apply to you because you “aren’t artistic” or you “aren’t very good at art?”  If this is you I beg you to keep reading.  One of the greatest things I ever heard in an art therapy training was that “it doesn’t have to look like a something and you don’t have to know what it is.”  With these guidelines, every one of us is able to use art to express and process our emotions. 

So why art?  How can it be helpful? If you are familiar with the brain you may know about the amygdala which is responsible for regulating and processing strong emotions. Lisa Mitchell, an art therapist, said “Art speaks the amygdala’s language” and this struck me as to why art can be so powerfully healing.  Our emotional experiences are first interpreted in our minds visually, and then later “translated” into words, but we often get stuck when we don’t have the words for our feelings and therefore don’t know what to do with them.  Art allows us to get the feelings out even if we aren’t able to “describe” then.  Of course, this can easily be seen in children as they are developing language abilities, but for adults it is just as powerful, if not more so.

What does this look like?  If you watch children drawing or painting or coloring their emotions almost automatically come out in what they create.  If they are angry they will likely use dark colors and heavy pressure, if they’re sad they might show rain or even just a sad face, if they are happy they might draw sun and flowers.  As adults (or kids or teens), we can do the same thing. 

Watch the video exercise OR continue reading for step by step instructions.

If you are interested in exploring your emotions through art, one simple tool I often use in sessions that you can also do on your own is this:

– Get out a sheet of paper and either colored pencils, markers, crayons, or paint
– Take a few breaths and notice how you’re feeling – stressed, anxious, sad, frustrated, overwhelmed, etc. 
– Look at your supplies and ask:
  • What colors match this feeling?
  • What shapes / designs / drawings match this feeling?
  • Begin to put that color and shape on paper until you feel like it matches the emotion
– When you think you’re done step back and take one last look to see if it “feels” right – try to trust your intuition on this
– Look at what you created and choose 3-5 words that define it (chaotic, loud, bright, dull, etc) 
– Next ask yourself “what would make this picture feel better?”
  • Does it need brighter, “happier” colors?
  • Does it need something added or cut out?
  • Does it need to be folded into a new shape?
– Whatever your intuition says the picture / creation needs, add or change that directly on the paper
– Again, when you are finished, choose 3 words that define the new creation
– Check in with your emotion and see if something has changed / or shifted

The majority of the time when I do this on my own or have clients do it there is an almost immediate relief / decrease of the emotion.  But what happens if you get stuck?  Recently a client wanted to show a sense of chaos and picked up a black oil pastel. She wanted to “scribble” all over the page, but surprisingly found she was unable to force herself to do it (and ironically when I tried I had a similar discomfort and hesitation).  We sat there for several minutes seeking to identify what was happening: what feelings were present in her body, what was her mind saying, what emotion was coming up, and as we sat with this, she was eventually able to name her internal experience (stomach in knots, fear, etc) and then after that was able to put it on paper and instantly said “I feel so much better now.”  So – if you get stuck that’s ok, but try not to abandon the project. Rather pay attention to what is causing the block / fear / hesitation and then “draw” your way through it.

Other tools you can use are adult coloring books, painting, collage making, or anything creative and expressive.  You might feel silly at first, but I guarantee that in the end it will be worth it. 

A word of caution: While art can be incredibly helpful in processing through deep hurts and traumatic memories, it can also be very overwhelming and so is always best done with access to a therapist or a trusted friend.  Before attempting to process through these types of memories / emotions please ensure you have adequate support and care in the journey.  And as always, we at Olive Tree would be more than happy to be a resource for you in that journey. 

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