From our primordial origins to the present, one fundamental truth has held firm—where there are humans, there is art. Prehistoric toddlers fingerpainted in cave dwellings, countless cultures have decorated their bodies with pigment and jewelry, and many celebrated historical figures have been artists.
Beyond the fundamental question of why we create art, what are the benefits of doing so?
Art Therapy and Wellbeing
As defined by the American Art Therapy Association (AATA), art therapy is “an integrative mental health and human services profession that enriches the lives of individuals, families, and communities through active art-making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship.”
Making art calms the nervous system, encourages self-expression, and increases self-awareness. It also helps us get out of the whirlwind inside our minds by engaging our physical senses. This sensory input—according to AATA President Margaret Carlock Russo—can help people manage anxiety—interrupting rumination and refocusing our attention on something other than what’s causing our anxiety.
Instead, we become focused on colors, textures, and the act of creating a cohesive image or object. Art supplies, like paint, also have a particular smell that can put us in a calmer frame of mind, as it can be reminiscent of childhood art activities.
[Read: “The Spiritual Meaning of Visual Art.”]
Art Journaling as Self-Care
Keeping an art journal is a fantastic way to engage in art therapy at home. Art journals offer a small canvas, so your creations can be quick and simple. Art journaling also allows you to express yourself symbolically if you have trouble expressing yourself in words.
[Read: “4 Journaling Prompts for Anxiety.”]
3 Art Journaling Prompts
1. Abstract Self-Portrait
This exercise focuses on symbolism rather than realistic art. The point is to create a piece you feel portrays your personality or inner world rather than your physical appearance.
Gather art supplies featuring colors, textures, and symbols that have personal meaning to you. These don’t have to be traditional art supplies—feel free to use makeup, bits of jewelry, pressed flowers, candy wrappers, or whatever else feels good to you.
Use these materials to create a mixed-media art piece on the first page of your journal as an “about the author” page. To really challenge yourself, avoid using human imagery. Instead, visualize your inner world—is it a garden or forest? A castle or labyrinth of caves? A menagerie of mythological creatures? The choice is yours.
Note: If you do use something like eyeshadow or lipstick, spray with sealant to keep it from smudging.
2. In-Depth Doodling
This exercise is easy, fast, and great for helping you calm down if you’re pre-panic or just really overwhelmed.
Simply put pen to page and draw, swirling it around in a single looping and overlapping line. Next, examine the negative space on the page. Fill in the gaps in your doodle with geometric designs and patterns, using a new one for each gap.
[Read: “How Doodling Lights Up the Brain.”]
Once the page is full, consider coloring it in with markers, paint, or adding embellishments with glitter glue or even a gold-leafing pen. Think of the initial tangle as your initial thoughts, while the geometric forms and colors represent you reaching a calmer, more balanced state.
3. Emotional Awareness
This art journaling prompt is good for processing your emotions and developing self-awareness around them.
Gather up a bunch of paint colors that represent different emotions to you, and dab a nickel-sized circle of each color in rows on a journal page.
Once the paint dries, label each color along its edge with the emotion it represents and then draw a symbol or face inside the color that represents how you feel when that emotion is present.
You can use this to track your daily moods, or simply as a way to identify how you’re feeling when you don’t know what might be “off.”
Progress, Not Perfection
When beginning your art journaling practice, it’s important to remember that the point isn’t to make “good” art, it’s to help you self-regulate and relax. Creative self-expression is a fantastic way to let off steam and reduce anxiety
both in the present and long term.
While working in your art journal, try to let go of perfectionism and simply allow yourself to be present with the process. If you enjoy creating art and it feeds your wellbeing, then it’s good art simply because it exists.
Keep the creativity going! Discover how to start a meditative painting practice.