Creativity for mental health: Can you teach yourself to draw?

Many of us hold a belief that we cannot draw, or dance or paint or make music. How many times have you heard yourself or someone else say it? “I can’t!”. And yes, its true that most of us cannot create media to sell. But being a professional artist is not the same as engaging in the process of art. You may be tone deaf, you’re probably not going to win the X Factor, but unless you have a physical limitation you can sing. And if you can hold a pencil and put it to paper you can draw. We know that engaging with the arts can be good for our mental health. But our beliefs about our competency, and our confidence in our ability can get in the way. When you don’t feel that you can create anything worthwhile it can feel daunting to try. So can you teach yourself to draw?

Teaching ourselves to use the arts for our own enjoyment or mental health is absolutely possible. It’s really about losing expectations, learning to relax into the process, and then doing it regularly, little and often. Once you’re engaging in your chosen art form in this way your skills will build up over time. I’m not promising you a new career, but yes you can absolutely teach yourself to draw. In this article we’ll consider what steps you can take to start using the arts for mental health.

Reframe your thinking

If you believe you can’t do something, there’s usually a reason why. It might be based on something you’ve been told. Perhaps you were told as a child by a parent or teacher that your artwork was no good. When we’re told things at an early age, they can contribute to our understanding of ourselves and the world. These beliefs can become pretty fixed. So its not surprising that if you were told you can’t draw, you would believe you can’t draw. But if you are reading this as an adult, consider that things may have changed. You are not that child. And you are not in that situation now. Consider that there may be other ways of looking at this. Start afresh.

It may be that the critic of your ability comes from within yourself. If you are someone who likes things to look right, likes to do things well, learning to draw can be uncomfortable. Like any skill, it takes time and practice. It’s easy to label something as ‘bad’ or ‘good’ and if you have a strong inner critic then you may find yourself wanting to back out before you’ve really begun.

So first, work out where the ‘I can’t’ is coming from. Who’s voice is it? Notice is, acknowledge it, and park it. Remind yourself that this is simply about putting a pencil onto paper. And that; you can do. Start from there.

Process not product

One big pitfall of engaging in the arts is to focus too much on the end product. This is one reason why often we hear stories about artists who struggle to create something once they start working for other people. Suddenly there’s the pressure to create something beautiful, rather than the pleasure of the process. Most artists, though, became talented through their enjoyment of the process. That enjoyment leads to practice, which then increases skill.

So don’t hold in mind the picture you want to create. Part of this is about reframing your thinking again – this is about engaging in the activity rather than completing a task.

You can also help yourself practically to do this. Here are two suggestions:

Do some focused drawing of objects, but choose to draw a certain part of an object rather than the whole thing, for example, the corner of a book, a branch meeting a tree trunk or the wrinkles in a curved hand. By choosing shapes and details rather than whole recognisable objects you can lose the pressure of making it look like a copy of the real thing.

Another idea is to create something abstract by playing with colour. Don’t give yourself anything to copy. And don’t work with the intention of creating a finished piece. Instead, grab some colouring pencils, pastels or paint and just put different colours together on a page. Notice which colours you like together, any interesting colours you create, and what shapes are emerge.

Strive for imperfection

We live in a culture that often pushes us to strive for goodness or sometimes perfection. This can be helpful. Its pretty useful, for example, to do a good job at driving your car! And generally, creating a good piece of work can lead us to looking professional at work, or getting good grades at school. But this is not work. And this is not about creating something perfect. The idea really, is to elicit playfulness rather than perfectionist. Once you’re comfortable to play, and trust the process, then your skill will improve naturally.

So to help get into a playful mindset, strive for imperfection. Purposefully create art that you don’t rate. Draw imperfect portraits. Draw something fast, without worrying about the detail. Draw with only colours that you know don’t go well together. Try drawing with your non-dominant hand. Scribble, and see if a picture comes out of the motion. Play.

Start with what you know

A blank piece of paper can feel intimidating. And there’s no need to start from nothing. Think about what you’ve done before. Is there something you can start with that feels less scary? Perhaps you’ve done some mindful colouring, or maybe you’ve tried an activity like making cards. Maybe doodling with a biro feels easier than using a pencil. Colour might feel less familiar so start with just one. You might want to use a smaller notebook rather than a large blank sheet. Think about what will help you to feel most comfortable and free to enjoy the process. Start small and build on what you already know.

Little and often

As with lots of skills in life, the key is little and often. Most professional artists will spend hours working on pieces that are never intended to be sold. Working in this way increases your skill and ability. Plus, if we’re using art for mental health, this is really what it’s all about. It’s the process of creating. Engaging with the process regularly will mean you reap the benefits more often.

A good way to get into the habit is to get yourself a sketchbook. This could be a notebook that you already have, or you could buy one. Keep it handy, so you can use it regularly. Don’t put pressure on yourself to fill it up, but instead see it as a special place for you to play around with ideas, shapes, colours and techniques.

You may also want to think about how this fits with the rest of your life. When are you going to give time to it? Do you have a place where you can sit undisturbed? Do you need any supplies? Gather what you need and work out a plan. If you know you’ll be better with support or structure, you might want to join a local group or get a friend involved.

If you need more inspiration this article gives some practical ideas to get your creativity flowing. And of course, if you want more support in using art for mental health do get in touch as that is something we can provide at Imagine. There is more information about the benefits of the arts for mental health on our website here. I hope this has given you some ideas on how to get started with art for mental health. Ultimately its about getting pencil to paper. So grab your supplies and enjoy!

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