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Art Therapy - Express Yourself – Just Do It

Art Therapy - Express Yourself – Just Do It

  • Free your mind
  • Explore for fun or therapy
  • Unleash the power of your imagination
  • There is no freedom without discipline
  • Power is useless without control

How to's:


You need no artist experience or even think you are vaguely creative.

"If you hear a voice within you say,
'You cannot paint,'
then by all means paint,
and that voice will be silenced."
-Vincent van Gogh

Why paint?

The process of putting paint on paper is as simple as spreading your morning toast with a spread of your choice and some delicious topping. It is that simple. There is no need for thought or preconceived plans on where how much or with what. Neither is there a pretension of what it means or am I a ‘spreader’ or a ‘slider’. Am I doing it right? What if it’s not good enough? It will be good enough it can’t be anything else. You get the knife and you spread for the fun of eating your breakfast.

There is no need for the painting to look like anything, it is the process of doing it and how we get to where we get that is the aim. We are accessing and using the whole of our minds, conscious and unconscious. The unconscious can process approximately an astounding 11 million pieces of information per second, the conscious around 40 pieces per second. When we are presented with a blank piece of white pristine paper and we have to make a mark the questions of what we are about to do come tumbling into our heads.

  • What is it going to be?
  • Where do I start?
  • Will anyone like it?
  • Am I wearing the right shoes?

We are about to make some decisions. If it was toast and our favourite spread there would not be a problem because the objective we have in mind is to eat some toast not create a telling landscape of our inner thoughts or let out the angst over having ignored next door’s grandmother by mistake in the supermarket. We may well have created such a landscape in houmous and we just ate it, the evidence and the gem of an insight has been macerated and on its way to our stomach never to be seen again. Neither do we think that we are going to be judged on how and what we produced. ‘I make toast ok, that’s it’.

When our intention is altered to something more esotericist or perceived as meaningful then the set of questions and reasoning become greater, more complex and the whole of our system reacts and is engaged in ways we would not even contemplate if we were spreading jam.

The perception gives us a problem we have to wrestle to the ground and try and make sense because we like to make sense. To ourselves as much to other people. In doing this we bring into play who we are and who we think we are. These can often be two opposing views. We will also bring up things that we may not be entirely comfortable with. The question we ask, if we are honest with ourselves is - are authentic or genuine. We are not only making a mark suddenly we are making a statement. Every artist opens their heart and asks anyone to walk all over it. All this is rather alarming. Don’t worry, relax it is not a problem there is no panel going to sit and digest your inner soul and decide that you are not worth of holding a crayon. We are doing it all to ourselves, we sit as judge and jury on ourselves and as such we can just ignore it and spread the paint like houmous.

We have hardly made a mark and our whole world has been opened up. We had to quieten the conscious mind and let the unconscious just lead us. The conscious may ask questions and direct, however the unconscious will break out the answers for us. We could just go in spreading houmous on toast, however because there is no intention the insights that this may have shown us is lost.

What insights?

We may not be able to disseminate the insights immediately and neither do we need to consciously. In getting over that first ‘I’m afraid of white paper and I want to run away moment’ we have allowed our often overworked, underpaid and underappreciated unconscious to express itself physically in some way while we watched. If you just pretend that the paint is houmous and the paper is bread then off you go it has worked. The analogy is more accurate than you may think. Let’s strip it down a little.

  • The bread is a clearly defined border – no need spreading houmous on the work surface. It is a waste of valuable product and it tastes awful.
  • There is a good degree of control – How thick or thinly you wanted it spread. Where exactly did you want it go. Do you like it thinner or thicker by the crust. Is there a hole in the bread that you want to avoid?
  • Aesthetics, we eat with our eyes - Does it have an appetising look? Is there good coverage bearing in mind if the temperature of the toast.
  • How are you going to cut it afterwards and arrange it on a plate?

All questions and probably more that are going to pass through our minds when we apply paint to paper are there too. However please don’t eat it. Those questions highlight how we think as individuals and how we approach many things in life, both simple and complex. In doing so they also suggest how we may cope easier in some situations and how we might change our approach to get a different outcome. They can be as simple as how to move from the kitchen to the lounge without spilling the soup or dealing with childhood traumas.

The marks we make on the paper are a reflection of us and what we were experiencing at that given second. The point of execution. There is no turning back. Once you have made a mark it is there. You can try and rub it off or cover it up but it is still there even if no-one can see it. There is no undo button. That is just the first mark. We now have the dilemma of putting the next mark on. We could leave it but it probably doesn’t look finished and as our interpretation of a painting is generally to cover most of the paper with paint then we had better get on with it.

The second mark

At the beginning we may have had an idea of where the painting will go but now there is a pesky mark on the paper and what at the outset seemed like a plan has been brought into question. We think there is an intention to create something pleasing or at least fun and enjoyable so we don’t want to go messing it up. For the second time we have to engage the conscious and unconscious together, to forget that we have somehow managed to separate them out in our structured way so that they appear to be two separate entities, sometimes seemingly form two totally different creatures. The second mark on the paper is both easier in that we have already made a mark and harder because we have the interplay between the static mark, the boundaries of the edges of the paper and the mark we are about to make. Approaching this like a mind game helps to use all our extraordinary powers of perception and is mind bendingly good fun. Give yourself time to evaluate your options. We do those kind of snap analysis all the time without thinking about it. We made them about whether to miss the hole in the bread with the houmous. All we are doing is asking questions about how we would like the painting to turn out and are we going to be happy with the result. The urge to mess with it is overwhelming. Decisions of colour and shape and tone and anything else we want to bring into play have been made. The process goes on putting marks on the paper until we decide to stop.


There are some basic techniques. Here are a few.

  • Laying on flat colour
  • Making a graduated tint from one colour to another
  • Stippling
  • Scrumbling
  • Single movements with the trowel or painting knife
  • Scoring lines in paint you have laid down
  • Rolling the paint into each other to form strong definitive lines

When to stop?

It is a very good question and the simple smart answer is to say when it is finished. That point is up to you. Another scary and unsure moment, similar but different to the one before there was a mark anywhere to be seen. You can agonise over it or just stop when you feel it is right. If you go on and make another mark and you decide you don’t like that last stroke it is definitely time to stop unless you think you can pull it back with the addition of another mark. Giving yourself a time limit is a good idea sometimes as you have to just do it and walk away. Whatever you do the whole process will be related to something going on in your head or heart at the time or the way you think or a situation, could be anything. You make up the rules even if you can’t remember what they are right now.

What actually happened?

You made some marks on a piece of paper and had some fun doing it. It has to be fun in whatever way you take that to mean. What you also did was allow your mind to have its total freedom of expression for some or all of the time. You have created something of yourself that is reflected back at you even if you can’t see it immediately. There is no need to see it or brood over it, it is just there, a recursive action. That is you did an action that reflected back which then you project back and is again reflected. It works on itself. Each time the ability to flow with what you feel and the acceptance of what it may have highlighted increases. You hone your skill and learn things about yourself that only you know and only you can perceive. I have found that what is obvious is very often not the case. I have done paintings when I have been ill or unhappy and they would appear to bear no resemblance to those states of mind.

In doing the painting you free yourself in a controlled way to release energy and to express without having to think about expressing. I say controlled because in the manner I am advocating painting is to have control so that you can feel the point at which the conscious unconscious meet and are part of the same thought process. There is a place for throwing and dashing paint and it is fun, if rather alarming if you do it in the middle of the lounge with no regard for the awful mess you will make of the walls or perhaps the new carpet you will have to buy.

We started asking questions at the beginning when we started the painting. The simple ones of where to start and what to start with. The questions we ask internally may not be apparently anything to do with those initial ones however they may be the way we are feeling emotionally at that moment. They will be metaphorical if we want them to be. Everything is a metaphor for everything else. As humans we want to heal ourselves from the seemingly trivial to the huge and traumatic events that life presents us with. Given the opportunity we have the tools inside us to heal those events and to gain insight and be able to use them as a resource. We are all unique. How we all got to this moment in time is extraordinary and varied, no two peoples experience will ever be the same. However we all share a common incredible thing – our minds. Complex beyond understanding it carries on doing what it does without being asked.

Through my own journey as an artist and my work running workshops and therapy sessions I have seen how the process of painting unleashes tension and anxiety and how it can cause us to ask questions that only we could have thought to ask and of course only we can answer. In uncertain times and the mad world we live in we need to express ourselves in a safe way that can lead to a better understanding of who we are and how we react and act in our environment.

The therapy

The therapy is in the painting, the putting down of colour in many colours and textures. The transfer of thoughts, conscious or unconscious, into reality. Getting lost in the process and losing yourself in what you are doing just for the sake of doing it. It doesn’t matter what is turns out like it will always be great and it is all yours. You can keep them or give them away or throw them away, it is up to you. The gold is in doing them, in reflecting you back to yourself.


Signing your painting is not necessary however it is a whole practice in itself. We are used to having a signature that no-one can read. On a painting it is better to have something that is legible. Brushes have a lot less control that pens and pencils and getting the right paint consistency is important too. Sit down and practice on a sheet of paper with a fine brush. I prefer a No 1 rigger or outlining brush but any small brush will do. Sometimes it takes me longer to sign my name than it does to do the painting. Always date the back of the paper before you start as it is good to know when you did the paintings.

Where to now?

Paint, just paint. Do it as often as you can and with whatever you can. Creativity is innate in all of us and if we have a will there is a way to get there. In any form of self expression it is good to have an intention of what you want to do. This might be just to produce a painting. However it is good to set some parameters to force your mind to work. Time limits are very good for that because it stops us from sitting on the fence and thinking too much. Are you going to do one a week a month or perhaps this is the only one. Setting up to paint can be very simple. We are all great at adapting and making use of the materials we have available. If all you have at the moment is mayonnaise ketchup and mustard no problem. You could lay four pieces of bread together to make a ‘painting board’ and off you go. Lunchtime snack?


Art materials can be purchased cheaply and there is no need for fancy brushes or paints. I use acrylics as they have a good flow straight from the tube or tub, are odourless and dry relatively quickly. If used thinly they go off in minutes. If you use thick layers then it may take a while to go off completely but should be touch dry within 24 hours. Brushes and painting knives can be purchased cheaply. You can always raid the cutlery drawer for knives and the shed for a brush. I use builders trowels, large paint brushes and the occasional spade. A4 paper is perfect and is easily storable in binders if you are going to keep them. Ideally a weight of 250g/m2 but thinner can be used if wrinkling is not a problem for you. The thicker the paint the more wrinkles. I don’t add water to the paint, except for the signature paint as it needs to be a little more runny to flow correctly. Old cardboard is a great material to paint on and it is abundant. If you opt for that then ideally it will need priming but doesn’t have to be. This can be done with left over emulsion, any light colour works well. Interesting affects can be achieved with darker tones too. The whole thing is about making the marks and expressing rather that what you use so don’t let anything get in the way of freeing your mind.

Where to paint?

Anywhere can be turned into a place to paint. When I go away I take a plastic place mat with me which serves perfectly. As there is no throwing or flicking the process is relatively clean. The paper on which you are going to paint is best secured with tape. Clear sticky tape can be used. The technique is to make it into a loop with the sticky side outermost and stick it to itself before sticking it to the paper and then the mat or board. Old tea towels make great clothes to keep everything clean. A cup can be use for water for the signing ceremony. If you are using bigger trowels then a bucket is great to keep the mess out of the kitchen or bathroom sink.

What are you waiting for?

That is it. Whether you want to paint for fun or therapy just do it. Don’t wait for the right time or to feel in the mood. Painting for fun in an abstract way allows you to just paint and not worry about what it might look like. You will hone your eye and find what you like doing as time goes on. Approach it like your toast and houmous. There is no need to be in any way perceived as artistic or creative. We all create things all the time. Have fun.

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