My tips on how to use painting and creativity as a way to take care of yourself.
So perhaps you’ve already tried your hand at watercolours and found yourself intrigued by the process and the feeling of calmness that comes with it. This is exactly how I felt the first time I watched someone else paint and then again, when I tried it myself. It was a precarious time – I was grieving losing two family members, and had been diagnosed with a chronic disease that meant I had to make many changes in my lifestyle. I desperately needed something that gave me a sense of control, or so I thought I did. In reality, I needed to learn the opposite. I’m sharing this with you because I whole-heartedly believe that art heals; particularly the creation of art. It’s also no surprise that art has been proven to help with mental illness, as it allows us to utilize a part of our brain (the same one that is activated when we learn something new, or use our imagination) that shuts off the part that is activated by worry, anxiety or stress.
So why watercolour?
The truth is, professionally more than ¾ of my work is in oil painting. I love the softness and the time oil painting gives you to develop, build and layer a piece. However, watercolour painting has both the challenge and the charm that benefits the soul. It forces you to relinquish control, to let go and let it fall into place on the page. In fact, the more you go back in and touch it, the less natural and soft it will look. You need to work at a speed that is just slightly uncomfortable and in this way, with practice, teaches you to paint intuitively and to trust yourself. So when I need to, I always choose watercolour.
The curious thing about watercolours is that there is a limit once you place your brush, water, paint onto the page where you must stop. The paint and water begin to speak and together, absorb into the paper. What you start with is usually quite different from what dries and remains on the page. It’s this relinquishing of control that is therapeutic, particularly for personalities that struggle with letting go. Sometimes it’s chaotic, sometimes it’s soft, sometimes it’s very textural. All things that you have some, but not a lot of control over. When I sit down to paint, I am completely present. My physical space is very much part of this process. Here are the things that I do, which are simple and don’t require you to redesign your entire life, that will gift you the opportunity for focus, stillness and self-reflection. I’m extremely grateful to have painting as one of my methods for self-care, and I want to share this with you today.
Despite the fact that painting is my profession, and that 9 times out of 10 when I sit down to paint it’s to work, I treat each and every one of these sessions the same – with intention and without distractions. I have a dedicated space that I always paint at. It’s quiet, tidy and comfortable. I have small but meaningful things around me – collectables, family and travel photos, memorabilia that remind me of all the things that I love. They bring me feelings of nostalgia and happiness.
I also have small plants that need some tending to. They remind me that we all need to be taken care of. Similarly, I feel that taking care of something gives us a sense of need and purpose.
I also like to use some essential oils that stimulate my senses – usually some combination of bergamot, lavender and wild orange. I find these three narrow in my focus and relax my mind.
Note: I don’t have a studio that is separate from my home life. I have a small space within the home that is my dedicated space and it works just fine. You can create your little space at your dining table, or a little desk off you kitchen and it can be just as intentional as any other space.
I take a lot of time in choosing the materials that I use. I don’t have many but I have tools that I carefully select and care for. Quality over quantity. I use a select few brushes that are my favourite (Princeton Neptune, Catalyst and Heritage brushes) and a brand of paper (Canson Heritage Watercolor Paper) that I love the texture of. My paints (Winsor and Newton) are smooth, intense in hue and love to be blended, diluted and absorbed. These three things have a relationship with one another that I love to watch when I’m painting. The brush dutifully and happily carries water and paint to the paper, and the paper seems to accept the water and paint slowly and carefully. It’s this synergy that when you focus into, you fall in love with the craft. Take the time to select materials that bring you happiness to work on and touch. You’ll be rewarded with a practice that is very intentional and your artwork will show that.
Once you’re done painting, take the time to wash and dry your brushes, to reshape the tips so that they dry correctly. Place all your things neatly in their places and clean your surface. This will make each time you return to paint just as pleasant as the first.
The mood and pace.
Music. Lighting. Breathe.
All of these things are considerations. I like to listen to music that is more instrumental than lyrical, so that I’m not distracted by the words of the song when painting, but that’s just me.
Lighting is a big one. When I worked as an architect, I was trained to select lighting in spaces specific to the task being performed in that space. For me, nothing is quite as pleasing as natural light, so ideally, sit next to a window that offers lots of natural, indirect lighting. If you’re using artificial lighting, use soft, warm indirect lighting that is diffused. Light that is higher on the Kelvin colour temperature chart will be cooler and more blue. This light, when it hits your white watercolour paper will be harsh on your eyes. Aim for bulbs that are between 3000-4000 Kelvin. I typically don’t paint in the evenings for this reason. I don’t like painting below artificial light. It creates shadows and colour distortions that aren’t true to the piece.
If I’m in a bit of a distressed state and heading to my painting space to relax, I will take five minutes and do a breathing exercise to place myself in the present moment. I like to do simple box breathing before starting. To do this, breathe in counting to four slowly. Feel the air enter your lungs as you expand with the breathe. Hold for 4 seconds in complete stillness. Exhale through your mouth for 4 seconds. Repeat a few times or until you feel you’ve stilled your body and mind.
Interested in how to put all of this into practice?
I’ve been writing about this topic for a while, and it is the underlying theme in my upcoming online watercolour course. Stay tuned for more details but my ambition is to have this course available on my website sometime in September. If you have ideas, comments or specific topics you’d like me to cover, please let me know by emailing me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I would love any feedback from you!
Also, if you're curious to try painting and feel these calming benefits and want to try a virtual class to see how I set up my space, my materials and learn how to create soft, intuitive watercolour paintings, you can book a class here!